Remembering early talkie & B Western actress Marion Shilling
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.
As found on the IMDb, her film debut took place in E. Mason Hopper’s 1929 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer comedy Wise Girls, toplining minor leading man and future director Elliott Nugent (The Male Animal, the 1949 The Great Gatsby) – who, along with his father, Broadway actor-playwright J.C. Nugent, had written and starred in the 1922 play, Kempy, on which the film was based.
In Wise Girls, the older Nugent reprised his stage role as the irascible father of two young women: schemer Norma Lee (Elliott Nugent’s wife in real life) and her younger, nicer sister, played by newcomer Shilling – who gets the 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: Harry Beaumont and William Nigh’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, the 19-year-old actress had what amounted to a nondescript secondary part; even so, that would have been a professional step forward had the film itself – which cost nearly four times as much as Wise Girls – not been a flop that ended her association with the studio.
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 also include The Hollywood Revue of 1929’s “Singin’ in the Rain” and The Broadway Melody’s “You Are My Lucky Star.” (Freed would later become the producer of prestigious MGM musicals, among them Easter Parade, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, and Gigi.)
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 production like Lord Byron of Broadway. The young actress’ other non-Western movies of the period were almost invariably B flicks or minor programmers. Examples 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 exception to the B-movie rule was Paul L. Stein’s Paris-set, Pre-Code romantic melodrama The Common Law (1931), starring Constance Bennett as a nude model who falls for American painter Joel McCrea. But here Marion Shilling is seen only briefly in a supporting role.
B Western actress
Marion Shilling’s debut as a B Western actress took place in 1931, playing opposite Tom Keene in Robert F. Hill’s 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). 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 ‘Big Boy’ Williams in Thunder Over Texas (1934) and Gun Play (1935) – in addition to the low-budget comedy Society Fever (1935), toplining Lois Wilson and Lloyd Hughes, both of whom had enjoyed successful careers during the silent era.
- 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 according to her things went 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.
Hollywood lost one of its busy B Western actresses in 1936, when the 25-year-old Marion Shilling – by then with about 30 oaters 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.
Marion Shilling & E. Mason Hopper collaborations
 Marion Shilling and E. Mason Hopper (no connection to minor actress/major gossiper Hedda Hopper) would work together again on two more minor 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 silent era leading lady Dorothy Mackaill, C. Aubrey Smith, and Paul Cavanagh.
By the way, 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!
 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 money-losers or disappointments in late 1929 and 1930 included the costly Lawrence Tibbett star vehicle The Rogue Song; King Vidor’s all-black Hallelujah; Rosetta and Vivian Duncan’s showcase It’s a Great Life; and The Girl in the Show and Chasing Rainbows, both toplining The Broadway Melody leading lady Bessie Love.
‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ producer René Cleitman
Following early 1930s Western actress Marion Shilling, here’s another brief obit: producer René Cleitman, whose credits include the Jean-Paul Rappeneau-directed Cyrano de Bergerac, died at age 64 on Dec. 14 at a Paris hospital.
Cleitman produced more than 20 features, but in terms of international popularity the 1990 version of Cyrano de Bergerac was his most notable effort. The period piece based on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play stars Best Actor Academy Award nominee Gérard Depardieu in the title role, plus Anne Brochet and Vincent Perez.
Other René Cleitman film credits in various producing capacities include the following:
- Patrice Leconte’s well-regarded crime drama Monsieur Hire (1989), based on Georges Simenon’s Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, and toplining Michel Blanc and Sandrine Bonnaire. (Julien Duvivier had directed a previous adaptation, Panique; the 1946 drama starred Michel Simon and Viviane Romance.)
- Nikita Mikhalkov’s Close to Eden / Urga (1992), about the friendship between a stranded Russian truck driver (Vladimir Gostyukhin) and a Mongolian shepherd (Bayaertu) in China’s Inner Mongolia region. Close to Eden was the European Film Award and Venice Film Festival Golden Lion winner, in addition to having been shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
- The old-fashionably romantic The Horseman on the Roof / Le Hussard sur le toit (1995), a Prix César nominee starring Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez as the dashing title character.
Additionally, René Cleitman appeared as himself in Terry Gilliam’s documentary Lost in La Mancha, about Gilliam’s failed attempt to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” with a cast that might – or might not – have included Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, and Miranda Richardson.
Cleitman’s last film, Jérôme Bonnell’s Les yeux clairs (“Light Eyes”), featuring Nathalie Boutefeu, Marc Citti, and veteran Paulette Dubost (Hôtel du Nord, The Rules of the Game), is scheduled for a March 2005 release.
Wise Girls and Lord Byron of Broadway (and other MGM movies) budget and box office information via the Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.
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:
Images of early Western actress Marion Shilling: Publicity shots ca. 1930.
Image of Juliette Binoche and Olivier Martinez in the René Cleitman-produced The Horseman on the Roof: AFMD / Miramax Films.
“Western Actress Seen in MGM Musical Flop + Cyrano de Bergerac Producer Remembered” last updated in May 2019.