It’s a new month and January’s featured star, Wallace Reid, will pass the crown to a new performer. This month’s star is pretty universally forgotten despite her role in the biggest blockbuster of the era.
The featured star is…
May McAvoy (1899-1984)
May McAvoy got her start in films as a teenager with bit parts in tasteful classics like To Hell with the Kaiser. She ended up at Lasky, winning a supporting role in the Marguerite Clark vehicle Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch. She steadily rose through the ranks but the film that is generally considered to be her best (Alfred Hitchcock listed it has one of his all-time favorites) is called Sentimental Tommy. How is it? I can’t tell you and I don’t think anyone alive can either. It’s missing and presumed lost.
McAvoy ran afoul of the Lasky brass when she objected to the costumes she was to wear in Cecil B. DeMille’s marital comedy, Adam’s Rib. The film included a caveman sequence (don’t ask) and the costume in question was a leopard pelt. Somehow, people have gotten it in their heads that McAvoy was being asked to do a nude or semi-nude scene. Um, no. Here’s the costume, as worn by McAvoy’s replacement, Pauline Garon:
McAvoy was suspended and so she cut the Lasky ties and went freelance, one of a few stars to successfully do so. She starred with Richard Barthelmess in The Enchanted Cottage and then landed the plum role of Esther in Ben-Hur, replacing Gertrude Olmstead. Olmstead claims she was fired because at five foot two (eyes of blue?) she was too tall for star Ramon Novarro. McAvoy shot back that she was delayed in joining the crew in Italy because MGM had to make all new costumes. Olmstead’s were just too huge for her. (Gertrude was well and truly burned, methinks.)
McAvoy finally signed on with Fox but got annoyed and retired for a while to raise her family. She maintained contacts and a good relationship with MGM and eventually returned to play bit parts for fun once her kids reached school age. Her final screen role was as an extra in the 1959 remake of Ben-Hur. (Oh, and she was also in The Jazz Singer but we don’t want to talk about that movie, do we?)
Why you should love her:
Most of McAvoy’s performances are unavailable to the general public but the ones I have seen show a fine actress with a talent for making the sentimental palatable to general audiences.
Let’s face it, though, McAvoy’s real appeal lies in her reputation as a barracuda. (The only person she mentions liking is Louis B. Mayer.) She didn’t take nothing from nobody and still managed to carve out a successful career for herself. That’s hard enough for a woman today, let alone in the 1920s.
Where you can see her
I have reviewed two films with May McAvoy in the lead and they’re both classics.
The Enchanted Cottage (1924): McAvoy stars opposite Richard Barthelmess as a homely woman who marries a disabled (and disfigured) war veteran out of pity. The pair soon discovers that their cottage has the power to transform them into healthy, beautiful people. Or does it? Famously remade during the Second World War, the original is still the best.
Ben-Hur (1925): McAvoy didn’t think much of her simpering role in this film but she knew it would help her career. She has a point. Esther saves the day in the end but for most of the film, she just stands around in a silly blonde wig and kisses birds. (You know a heroine will be simpering if she immediately starts smooching birds. They had a thing in the silent era. I don’t understand it either.)
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