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Western Actress’ Career Derailed After MGM Musical Flop

Western actress Marion ShillingWestern actress Marion Shilling remembered: Mostly cast in oaters opposite the likes of Tom Keene, Hoot Gibson, Tim McCoy, and other B-movie cowpokes, Shilling was seen in about 40 features, most notably the MGM musical flop Lord Byron of Broadway.
  • B Western actress Marion Shilling had one notable big-screen credit: The 1930 MGM musical Lord Byron of Broadway, a box office flop that helped to derail her Hollywood career.
  • In her many 1930s Westerns, Marion Shilling was featured opposite B cowboy stars Tom Keene, Tim McCoy, Rex Lease, Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson, Rex Bell, and Guinn Williams.

Busy B Western actress Marion Shilling had her big chance in early MGM musical flop

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

In early December 2004, it was made public that Marion Shilling, a B Western actress of the early 1930s, had died of “natural causes” at age 93 on Nov. 6 at a Los Angeles County hospital.

Initially a stage performer – she had a supporting role in the Los Angeles production of Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi – Marion Shilling (born Marion Helen Schilling on Dec. 3, 1910, in Denver, Colorado) began appearing in movies right at the dawn of the sound era.

Her film debut took place in E. Mason Hopper’s 1929 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer comedy Wise Girls, adapted by minor leading man and future director Elliott Nugent (The Male Animal, the 1949 The Great Gatsby) and his father, Broadway actor-playwright J.C. Nugent, from their own 1922 play, Kempy.[1]

In Wise Girls, the older Nugent reprised his stage role as the irascible father of a couple of young, unmarried women: The artistically ambitious Norma Lee (Elliott Nugent’s wife in real life) and her angelic-looking, wrench-washing sister (18-year-old Marion Shilling) – who gets the folksy architect-plumber boy (the younger Nugent) at the end. Partly thanks to its low cost ($100,000), Wise Girls was modestly profitable.

Lord Byron of Broadway

Marion Shilling got her would-be break in her next MGM movie: William Nigh (who was replaced halfway during the shoot) and Harry Beaumont’s 1930 backstage musical Lord Byron of Broadway, which came out the year after Beaumont’s wildly successful The Broadway Melody, the first talkie to win the Best Picture Academy Award.

As the romantic interest of the male lead, Broadway juvenile Charles Kaley, Shilling had what amounted to a nondescript secondary part; even so, that would have been a professional step up had the film – which cost nearly four times as much as Wise Girls – not been a money-loser that ended her association with the studio.[2]

Today, Lord Byron of Broadway is worth a look for one reason: the fantastic two-color musical number “The Woman in the Shoe,” featuring Broadway’s Rio Rita star Ethelind Terry, and music and lyrics by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed – whose collaborations during that period also included “You Are My Lucky Star” from The Broadway Melody and “Singin’ in the Rain” from The Hollywood Revue of 1929.[3]

More Marion Shilling movies

Following the sudden death of her trusted agent not long after she had signed a one-year deal with Pathé (which was then absorbed by RKO), Marion Shilling found herself, as quoted in Boyd Magers and Michael G. Fitzgerald’s Westerns Women, “rudderless, adrift. I was so young, dependent.”

As it turned out, she would never get the chance to appear in a more elaborate A-grade production like Lord Byron of Broadway. The young actress’ other non-Western movies at that time were almost invariably B flicks, plus the occasional mid-level “programmer.”

Examples in the latter category include:

  • Louis J. Gasnier’s crime drama Shadow of the Law (1930), in which good girl Shilling and greedy villainess Natalie Moorhead vie for the attention of a pre-stardom William Powell.
  • Fred Niblo’s anti-drugs drama Young Donovan’s Kid (1931), opposite The Champ child star Jackie Cooper and silent era veteran Richard Dix, who that same year was seen in Wesley Ruggles’ Academy Award-winning blockbuster Cimarron. “When [Dix] made his entrance on the sound stage each morning was an event,” Shilling would recall decades later in Westerns Women. “Following him was a parade: stand-in, valet, secretary and several musicians, along with a big ego.”

One – relatively speaking – more prestigious production was the Paris-set, Pre-Code romantic melodrama The Common Law (1931), starring top RKO star Constance Bennett as a nude model who falls for handsome American painter Joel McCrea. But here Marion Shilling is seen only briefly in a supporting role.

Marion ShillingWestern actress Marion Shilling in City Girl garb. The Hollywood career of this little-remembered performer might have trotted down a different path had William Nigh and Harry Beaumont’s Lord Byron of Broadway not been a money-loser.

B Western actress period

Marion Shilling’s debut as a decorative B Western actress took place in 1931, playing opposite Tom Keene in Sundown Trail. Among her other buckaroo leading men during that period were:

  • Hoot Gibson in A Man’s Land (1932) and Cavalcade of the West (1936), the latter also featuring B cowboy star Rex Lease. In Westerns Women, Shilling recalled Gibson as “a really ‘nice guy.’ A true professional, always on time, always knew his lines.”
  • Buck Jones, in the serial The Red Rider (1934) and the feature Stone of Silver Creek (1935). As found in Westerns Women, Jones was Shilling’s favorite actor.
  • Guinn Williams (a.k.a. Guinn ‘Big Boy’ Williams) in Thunder Over Texas (1934) and Gun Play (1935), in addition to the low-budget comedy Society Fever (1935).
  • Tim McCoy in The Westerner (1934; no connection to the 1940 A-grade Gary Cooper star vehicle of the same name). McCoy and Shilling also saw each other off screen, but she recalled things going south after she was invited to a Palm Springs weekend where he would “teach me all about life.”
  • Rex Bell in Idaho Kid (1936). Also known as Clara Bow’s real-life husband, Bell had previously been Shilling’s leading man in Richard Thorpe’s low-budget, Hollywood-set 1931 drama Forgotten Women.

Western actress does Shakespeare + finds husband

In late 1934, Marion Shilling, by then wholly identified as a B Western actress, saw her professional prospects brighten after being cast as Helena in the national company of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a lavish production directed by Austrian import Max Reinhardt, and with Olivia de Havilland, Mickey Rooney, and Leif Erickson in its extensive cast.

However, when Warner Bros. transferred A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the screen in 1935, Shilling was replaced by contract player Jean Muir. Oaters were to keep her busy for another year or so.

Hollywood lost this minor but indefatigable leading lady in 1936, when Shilling – 25 years old and by then with about 30 horse operas to her credit – decided to call it quits.

The year after her retirement, she married Philadelphia real estate mogul Edward Cook. Their marriage would last until his death in 1998.

“Western Actress’ Career” notes

Marion Shilling & E. Mason Hopper collaborations

[1] Wise Girls’ Marion Shilling and the now largely forgotten E. Mason Hopper (no connection to minor actress/major gossiper Hedda Hopper) would work together again on two other low-grade efforts:

  • The B Pre-Coder Shop Angel (1932), with Holmes Herbert, Anthony Bushell, and Walter Byron.
  • The B murder mystery Curtain at Eight (1933), with Shilling supporting former silent era leading lady Dorothy Mackaill, C. Aubrey Smith, and Paul Cavanagh.

Shilling remembered Hopper fondly, telling author Michael G. Ankerich in The Sound of Silence:

“I can still remember vividly some of his early suggestions. ‘Keep your head above the tide.’ ‘Be on your toes.’ ‘Hold your head high.’ ‘Act like the queen of the studio.’ Those were wonderful words to a new, green girl numbed by all that was suddenly happening to her.”

As an aside, Wise Girls’ Elliott Nugent is not to be confused with another minor – and unrelated – MGM leading man/second lead of that period, Eddie Nugent.

All singing! All dancing! All flopping!

[2] Following a barrage of Hollywood musicals in early-to-mid-1929 – e.g., MGM’s The Broadway Melody, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Devil-May-Care; Warner Bros.’ The Show of Shows; the Fox Film Corporation’s Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 and Sunnyside Up – the seemingly oversaturated genre became, with few exceptions, box office poison.

At MGM alone, besides Lord Byron of Broadway, musical underperformers or downright flops in late 1929 and 1930 included the costly Lawrence Tibbett star vehicle The Rogue Song; King Vidor’s all-black Hallelujah; the Rosetta and Vivian Duncan showcase It’s a Great Life; and The Girl in the Show and Chasing Rainbows, both headlining The Broadway Melody leading lady Bessie Love.

Note: Also at MGM, Marion Shilling is supposed to have an uncredited bit role in the 1930 Buster Keaton musical comedy Free and Easy. Online sources list her as Keaton’s partner in a humorous dance number, but that appears to be instead minor actress Doris McMahon.

Arthur Freed

[3] “The Woman in the Shoe” co-composer Arthur Freed would later become the producer of a series of prestigious MGM musicals, among them Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, An American in Paris, Show Boat, The Band Wagon, and Gigi.

“Western Actress” endnotes

Wise Girls and Lord Byron of Broadway budget and box office information via the Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.

The full title of Michael Ankerich’s book is The Sound of Silence: Conversations with 16 Film and Stage Personalities Who Bridged the Gap Between Silents and Talkies.

Westerns Women full title is Westerns Women: Interviews with 50 Leading Ladies of Movie and Television Westerns from the 1930s to the 1960s. Among the book’s other Western actress interviewees – many of whom are remembered for their movies in other genres – are:

Joan Leslie. Maureen O’Hara. Debra Paget. Marsha Hunt. Paula Raymond. Audrey Totter. Julie Adams. Faith Domergue. Anne Gwynne. Jacqueline White. Merry Anders.

Pamela Blake. Adrian Booth. Mara Corday. Coleen Gray. Elena Verdugo. Dale Evans. Anna Lee. Nan Leslie. Virginia Vale. Peggy Moran. Jean Porter. Gale Storm.

Images of early Western actress Marion Shilling: Publicity shots ca. 1930.

“Western Actress’ Career Derailed After MGM Musical Flop” last updated in July 2021.

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