Barbara Kent, a minor leading lady during the transition from silent to sound films, died October 13 in Palm Desert, in Southern California. A resident of the local Marrakesh Country Club, Kent was either 103 or 104. No cause of death was given.
Barbara Kent was never a star. Not even close. In fact, most of her 35 movies were probably forgotten the week after their release. Paradoxically, Kent has become one of the most important performers of the silent era. No, not because she was Harold Lloyd's leading lady in his first talkie, Welcome Danger (1929). Or because of her career highlight: romancing Glen Tryon in Paul Fejos' naturalistic drama Lonesome (1928), frequently compared to F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.
Barbara Kent has taken an importance incommensurate to her actual movie career because she was the very last individual to have had notable adult leads in American silent films. Everybody else, from Lillian Gish to Joan Crawford, from Norma Talmadge to Loretta Young, from Thomas Meighan to Ramon Novarro, from Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle to William Haines, is gone. The vast majority has been long gone. Kent's death truly marks the end of an era.
Born Barbara Cloutman in Gadsby, Canada, on Dec. 16, 1906 (or 1907), Barbara Kent began her career as a Universal contract player after winning the 1925 Miss Hollywood beauty pageant.
She was almost immediately loaned to MGM, where she landed the second female lead role in Clarence Brown's Flesh and the Devil (1926), a gigantic international hit starring John Gilbert and recent import Greta Garbo. In the film, Kent plays a young woman enamored of John Gilbert, who falls passionately in lust with Greta Garbo's ruthless vamp – only to discover at the end that his true love is Lars Hanson.
If Universal's Carl Laemmle was impressed by Kent's losing Gilbert first to Garbo and then to Hanson, he didn't show. At the studio, Kent remained stuck in minor B fare. The two exceptions were her getting cast opposite popular light comedian Reginald Denny in That's My Daddy (1927), and, more importantly, the aforementioned Lonesome. However, as a low-budget drama featuring no stars, Lonesome was hardly a box office sensation. The film's prestige among critics and film historians would mostly come about in later decades.
Kent's other noteworthy silent era movies were The Drop Kick (1927) at First National, with top star Richard Barthelmess as a college football player, and a supporting role in Modern Mothers (1928) at Columbia, with Helene Chadwick and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Kent's “nude” swimming scene in No Man's Law (1927), a Western in which she plays second banana to Rex the Wonder Horse, purportedly caused a minor sensation at the time. (Personally, I have my doubts about the story, as bare bodies were hardly a scandalous novelty in silent films – as anyone who has watched Fred Niblo's blockbuster Ben-Hur can verify.)
Following her appearance in William Wyler's The Shakedown (1929), a hybrid silent/talkie made years before Wyler became one of the most important directors in the business, Barbara Kent was cast as Harold Lloyd's leading lady in Welcome Danger. The following year, she was back with Lloyd in Feet First (photo).
Yet, as was almost invariably the case with the female actresses paired with silent film comedians – Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Charles Chaplin, etc. – Kent's roles in both Welcome Danger and Feet First were merely decorative and totally subordinate to that of the leading man. As a result, her appearances in the two Harold Lloyd movies failed to advance her career. In fact, even though Kent made many more sound than silent films, her talkie career was even less distinguished than her silent one.
Roles included a minor lead in John S. Robertson's Night Ride (1930), featuring Joseph Schildkraut as her husband and Edward G. Robinson as a criminal; and supporting parts in Indiscreet (1931), starring Gloria Swanson; far down the cast list in the highly popular Marie Dressler vehicle Emma (1932); and Vanity Fair (1932), a now all-but-forgotten grade Z film version of W. M. Thackeray's novel, with Myrna Loy as Becky Sharp.
Kent's movie career came to a close with three minor 1935 releases: Swellhead, with Wallace Ford; Old Man Rhythm, with Charles 'Buddy' Rogers, who himself had seen better days; and a small role in Guard That Girl, with Robert Allen and Florence Rice.
Kent married agent Harry Edington, described in Photoplay as “a shrewd trader with studios,” in 1934. Edington, in fact, managed John Gilbert's affairs and was instrumental in getting MGM to grant a recalcitrant Greta Garbo a significant salary increase. Later on, Edington was credited (as Harry E. Edington) as executive producer of several RKO movies of the early '40s (e.g., Kitty Foyle, They Knew What They Wanted, Too Many Girls). He died in 1949.
In the '50s, Kent married Lockheed engineer Jack Monroe; he died in 1998. In later years, she turned to golfing and flying planes. Much to the chagrin of film historians, the former actress disliked discussing her film career, and rarely consented to being interviewed.
In the last few years, preceding Barbara Kent in death were the following performers who had adult roles in silent films: Miriam Seegar, Dorothy Janis, Anita Page, and Eva von Berne (who, strangely, had been reported dead back in 1930). Screenwriter Frederica Sagor Maas, 111, who reportedly contributed to the screenplay for Flesh and the Devil (Benjamin Glazer received credit for it), is still alive; and so are a handful of silent era child actors such as Mickey Rooney, 91, and Baby Peggy (a.k.a. Diana Serra Cary), who'll turn 93 next October 29.
For more information on Barbara Kent, make sure to check out Michael G. Ankerich's The Sound of Silence. In the last several decades, Michael was one of the few who got to chat with Kent about her film career.
Feet First photo via TCM.