"I turned it off," Zoe Rae said of her career in silent films. "I never talked about it."
At ninety-five, the former child star had held to this self-imposed gag order for decades. Only in the last year of her long life did she finally make herself available to film historians. My wife Debra and I were permitted to interview this delightfully unpretentious lady at her home in Newberg, Oregon, on May 8, 2006, a mere twelve days before she passed away.
She was born Zoë Rae Bech in Chicago, Illinois, on July 13, 1910. Her father, George, worked as a typesetter and her mother, also named Zoë, was a greeter for the Edgewater Beach Hotel. Despite being a two-income family, the Beches were of humble means. They occupied a one-bedroom apartment above a grocery store, which sat opposite a coal yard. Baby Zoë's radiant smile brought life to these dreary surroundings.
Mrs. Bech left her position at the hotel to spend all of her time doting on her only child. As a baby, Zoë had rickets/ Her mother would spend hours each day exercising the little girl's legs so that they would develop properly. Almost from the time that Zoë was old enough to walk, Mrs. Bech was determined to capitalize on her daughter's winning personality by putting her into moving pictures. Conveniently located near their home was the Selig Polyscope Company.
"Remember," Mrs. Bech said as they entered a studio for the first time, "the director is going to tell you to do things and you do them! Mamma says so."
The director on Zoë's initial shoot instructed her to open a closet door and a dead man would fall out. "React to it," he said simply. The obedient Zoë gave it all she had. When the "corpse" fell, she screamed bloody murder and collapsed in a faint. Everyone from the director to the cameraman to the grips laughed uproariously at this amateurish display of histrionics.
When the laughter subsided, the director placed Zoë on his knee. "Honey," he said gently, "that was just fine, but that's the way a grown-up lady would react. Would you mind trying it again?"
She did. For the second take, her reaction was dramatic, yet believable. The director nodded his approval.
"Cut! Print!" he yelled.
By 1915 Los Angeles was the place to be if you were in movies. The film industry was rapidly taking flight and jobs were to be had by writers, carpenters, electricians, stuntmen, cameramen -- and actors. Hoping for advancement, Mrs. Bech convinced her husband to stay in Chicago and continue to earn a living while she and Zoë chased after fame and fortune.
They rented a room with kitchen facilities and a private bath in a boarding house on Pico Avenue. This was in close proximity to the American Biograph Company, for whom Zoë was to make at least a dozen short pictures. Biograph's best days were behind them since D.W. Griffith's recent departure, and the studio would soon close its doors. Fortunately, Mrs. Bech received an offer from the newly opened Universal City Studios, located on 230 acres in the San Fernando Valley. This motion picture empire was presided over by its founder, a German immigrant named Carl Laemmle. In 1916 he signed Zoë to a five-year contract for the then-fabulous sum of $100 per week. Substituting her middle name for her last and dropping the umlaut from Zoë, the rising child star would soon be known as Little Zoe Rae, "the Universal Baby."
Much ballyhoo surrounded the studio's latest acquisition, at least in the trade papers. One item states that the five-year-old was already a screen veteran with a hundred photoplays to her credit. So enamored of acting was Miss Rae, the article continues, that she even performed in her off hours, putting on skits with the help of her parents, her servants - even her pets.
"That," Zoe said of the ninety-year-old publicity release, "is a lot of crap!"
The fact of the matter was that, while playing "dress-up" before the cameras may have been fun at times, it was also hard work, particularly for one so young. There were many long hours spent beneath the glare of the blazing Klieg lights. Because the films were silent, several companies worked side by side, and the noise emanating from each set made concentration difficult at best. Above that din would boom the all-powerful voice of the director: "Look happy/look sad (not that sad)/Stay in the frame/Say the lines that go with the action/Don't upstage your fellow actors/Never, never look directly at the camera/And get it right the first time -- film is expensive!"
At times, makeup itself presented a challenge. In A Kentucky Cinderella, a 1917 film directed by Rupert Julian, Zoe was required to "black-up" in the Minstrel show tradition. To achieve this, a bright-red powder was dissolved in warm water and applied to her face, arms and legs. (On the orthochromatic film stock, red photographed as black.) Add to this an uncomfortably itchy woolen wig and a tattered dress, and Little Zoe was one unhappy girl during the making of the five-reel picture. "It took my father an hour at night to wash that awful red stuff off me," she recalled. "Then it took my mother another hour to get the red out of the tub." Despite these rather sour memories, A Kentucky Cinderella remained one of Zoe's personal favorites among her films.
Universal was famous for its westerns, and Zoe eventually found herself togged out in the garb of the Old West. This was for her supporting role in The Ace of the Saddle (1919), directed by the legendary John Ford. Containing scenes shot along the Rio Grande, this Harry Carey oater featured an appearance by King Fisher Jones, the real-life cowboy who led American cattlemen against sheepherders in the Johnson County War. But then, there were plenty of cowboys (both real and unreal) on the Universal lot during the teens. It was a rustic time in the studio's history. There was even a chicken ranch on the lot, containing the white leghorns so prized by Carl Laemmle. Zoe remembered him not as the kindly"Uncle Carl" of show business legend, but as a cold businessman, determined to get as much as possible out of every employee.\
She had much fonder memories of another contract player who was working his way up the ranks - Lon Chaney. This brilliant actor caught the eye of every casting director on the lot by using his skill with makeup to transform himself into a wide variety of characters. From his trusty makeup case would emerge all manner of cheeks, noses and ears. Small wonder that he later earned the title "Man of a Thousand Faces." On more than one occasion, Zoe had a front-row seat for Chaney's unique artistry. He would call her over when they were each between takes and show her his latest creation.
"I was just fascinated by him," Zoe said with a smile. "He was a very pleasant gentleman, in my eyes, and very dedicated."
Lon Chaney co-starred with Zoe in The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin, a propaganda film made at the height of World War I in 1918. Newspaper advertisements of the time trumpeted its merits: "A sensational exposé of the private life of the Kaiser. It's the photo-dramatic sensation of all time - thrilling beyond words!" Whether or not this seven-reeler warranted such hyperbole is a matter of speculation: no print is known to exist. That it was an important film is apparent since it remains on the American Film Institute's Top Ten Most Wanted list.
The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin is also noteworthy for the contributions of its director and star, New Zealand-born Rupert Julian. A tall man with a military bearing and a stiffly waxed moustache, he bore an uncanny resemblance to Kaiser Wilhelm. Essaying the titular role of the Kaiser apparently had a profound influence on Julian, as he was to grow increasingly imperious with his actors and technicians. Cameraman Charles Van Enger once described Julian as "screwy as hell," and routinely ignored his instructions. Lon Chaney also chafed at the director's dictatorial approach during the making of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Julian appears to have been more successful with women. Actress Ruth Clifford remembered him as being "a very wonderful man" and "a very good actor." Zoe also had nothing but praise for the man she described as a benign father figure.
Another director Zoe recalled pleasantly was Madeline Brandeis. Born Madeline Frank in San Francisco in 1897, Brandeis is an interesting yet obscure figure among pioneering female directors. Her specialty involved making independent films geared for children. In 1918 she prevailed upon her wealthy husband to provide the necessary financing for her dream production of The Star Prince. The scenario of this highly imaginative film involves a little boy who believes he had been brought to earth by a falling star, thus elevating him to princely status. The five-reel fantasy was filmed under the banner of the Chicago Little Players' Company and featured an all-child cast. Heading the cast was Zoe Rae, on loan from Universal. And in the gender-bending tradition of the silent era, she played the role of the boy.
"They seemed to like me more as a boy than as a girl," Zoe said with a shrug.
Making this film was perhaps the most carefree experience of Zoe's career. She loved the woodsy outdoor settings, the animals and her regal prince's costume. She enjoyed the company of her equally youthful co-stars, especially Dorphia Brown, who played the princess. Most of all, she adored her director, and the feeling was mutual.
When Madeline Brandeis divorced her husband in 1921 she claimed to be "the first woman in history to receive a million dollars in alimony." She would invest a good portion of that money in her own productions, none of which have survived the passage of time. It is particularly fortunate, therefore, that a copy of The Star Prince is available for reappraisal. A charming little film, it offers a vivacious performance by Zoe and an innovative use of stop-motion photography in scenes involving forest animals.
In 1937 Madeline Brandeis was the victim of an automobile accident in Gallup, New Mexico. Two weeks later she died of her injuries. She was thirty-nine years old.
Zoe Rae's filmography would come to include fifty documented titles, ranging from stark melodramas to breezy comedies, from one-reelers to feature-length productions. Her performances in these films inspired adoration from moviegoers around the world. A testament to that popularity can be found in the following excerpts from her carefully preserved fan mail:
"Dear Zoe," begins a letter postmarked Lancashire, England, "Will you send me a photograph as you are lovely, such a dear little girl."
"Please excuse me, an utter stranger writing to you," another admirer tentatively begins, "I am taking this liberty because your name is famous and much talked about among our students here in Tokyo."
"I am sorry to be here in Denmark," laments this writer, "there are no girls as pretty as you in my country."
And this touching missive: "Dear Baby: When I saw you representing sympathy, I was anxious to write to you. Will you be a correspondent with me? I live in Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico."
Finally, this unusual request from a citizen of Hoboken, New Jersey: "Please be a friend and answer this letter with a lock of your beautiful hair."
The year of 1921 proved to be a pivotal one for Zoe. Her five-year contract with Universal was up for renewal and her mother was engaged in heated negotiations with Carl Laemmle. Then, suddenly, everything stopped. According to Zoe, it was her father who pulled the plug on her career. In a rare display of assertiveness, George Bech declared that acting for the movies was hardly a substitute for a proper education. It was, he said, time for Zoe to leave the film industry.
Zoe could not recall feeling even the slightest bit of disappointment over this decision. From the beginning her parents had made it clear to her that she was nothing special -- just an ordinary person. To reinforce this, she had not been allowed to watch herself on the silver screen, nor was she shown the fan magazine articles that referred glowingly to her as "The Child Bernhardt." This strict upbringing apparently worked: Zoe blended in well with the other boys and girls in public school and earned good marks from her teachers.
By the time she finished college, she had matured into a strikingly beautiful young woman.
"I had always planned on returning to acting, so I didn't prepare for anything else," Zoe explained. "But the first time a casting director chased me around a desk, I was through. I said, 'I don't play that way.' I knew instinctively that was the only way I was going to get anyplace, so I told my mother, 'They can have their damned movies.'"
This represented a bold stand on Zoe's part, since she had always done what her domineering mother wanted her to do. But she had simply had enough. All thoughts of an acting career fell by the wayside.
Zoe dabbled in screenwriting and singing before opening her own dance stuio in Hollywood. This led to a life-changing meeting with a fellow dance enthusiast by the name of Ronald Foster Barlow. The two married in 1934 and would remain so until Ronald's death, sixty-five years later. They had two children, a boy and a girl, and knew the joys and heartaches of raising a family. Ronald was the breadwinner, plying his trade as a salesman; Zoe was a housewife, but hardly of the stay-at-home variety. Highly civic minded, she served as the president of the Newport Beach school board. In their later years Zoe and Ronald moved to a Las Vegas retirement community, where they spent their days playing bridge and their evenings dancing. It was, by all accounts, a good life.
The one thing Zoe did not do was wax nostalgic about her early days as a child star. Even her closest friends had no idea that she had once been in motion pictures. This changed in 2005 when a website dedicated to the silent screen mentioned that the one-time "Universal Baby" was still alive.
"Mom!" Zoe's astonished granddaughter said, "Grandma's on the Internet!"
Perhaps because she was virtually the only survivor of her era, collectors began inundating her with e-mail requests for signed photographs. Although she graciously responded, Zoe failed to see what all the fuss was about. She never did consider herself much of an actress. This was confirmed to her when she was shown a video of The Star Prince. While it was being screened, Zoe laughingly summed up her performance with three words: "What a ham!"
copyright 2010 by Lon Davis. All rights reserved.
Mr. Davis is the author of "Silent Lives: 100 Biographies of the Silent Era" For more information, click here.
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