Why Marguerite Courtot?
Marguerite Courtot is yet another one of those 1910's stars who I know better from her still photograph than from actual moving images. I shoulder little blame on that count as it appears only two of Miss Courtot's films have ever even been officially released on video.
One of those, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), I watched earlier this week. It was a poor showcase for top-billed Courtot, though it was wonderful to finally see her in action. Any kind of action. The other, The Unbeliever (1918), is tucked away on Disc 4 of a rather expensive collection that I do not yet own.
An even more interesting, though merely coincidental, bit of trivia about those two movies is that they are the only commercially available videos to feature Marguerite Courtot and her leading man is the same in each title. He is Raymond McKee. They would marry April 23, 1923, not long after Down to the Sea in Ships. It and The Unbeliever are also the only two films that the couple would appear in together.
I did dig deep online seeking out The Vampire (1913), but apparently one must venture to George Eastman House in Rochester to see that one.
What is it about these forgotten stars of the silent cinema that makes me want to know more? I'd say I'm just a sucker for a pretty face, but there's more to it than that. A previous subject on this site, Earle Williams, was once considered the most popular film star in the world. Marguerite Courtot did not approach those heights but she was very well known in her time.
Spending nearly a week inside old newspaper and magazine files I found that she was especially popular between about 1915-1917. A caption on a newspaper photo published in 1915 refers to Courtot as "one of the best known leading women in the moving picture world" ("Makes a Big"). Her smile even sparkled from the colorful cover of the February 1916 edition of the popular Photoplay Magazine.
Kalem's top female attraction had already been in films three years by the time she appeared on the cover of Photoplay. And she was still just a teenager.
Marguerite Gabrielle Courtot was born in Summit, New Jersey on August 20, 1897. Her last name, somewhat exotic on the eyes, is pronounced Cor-toe according to one mention inside Motion Picture Story magazine. She was first generation American born. Marguerite's father, Gustave Courtot, was born in France in 1870; her mother, Charlotte, was ten years her husband's elder. Charlotte Courtot nee Kramer was born in Switzerland in 1860.
Census records show that Gustave had arrived in America in 1887 and Charlotte one year later. The couple were married in Manhattan, July 7, 1890 and Marguerite's sole sibling, Juliette, was born two and a half months later. Despite the nearly seven year difference in age the two sisters would remain close. They lived in the same home throughout Marguerite's years as a star and they would live in the same city after Marguerite married and retired.
By the time of the 1900 census the Courtot family was living in New York. Gustave disappeared from the census rolls between 1905 and 1910 and Marguerite herself said that he had died when she was nine years old. So that would be about 1906. Marguerite attended New York City public schools in her early years and would later be sent abroad to study in Europe.
Sometime after 1910 Charlotte Courtot and her daughters returned across the river to New Jersey, eventually settling in Weehawken. Marguerite lived there with her mother and sister throughout most of her film career. About 1911 she posed for Fifth Avenue photographers Davis & Sanford, the latter being a friend of the family who would also introduce beautiful 14-year-old Marguerite to the Kalem Company shortly thereafter.
Marguerite's exposure to the world before her film career can only be tracked to later publicity pieces. There is a repeated assertion that at age four Marguerite first came to prominence in the New York Journal, where she won a $100 prize as the prettiest American born baby. It seems to have been a rather biased contest proclaiming American children more beautiful than their European counterparts.
"I love to dance. I guess that's my hobby, if I have one. Dancing and playing tennis--I like both so well," Courtot told Roberta Courtlandt in 1915. Multiple newspaper articles from this period say that she originally gained some attention for a sprite dance performed as a two-year-old.
There is no doubt that Marguerite posed for famed illustrator Harrison Fisher. I believe she first posed for Fisher some time after Sanford's portraits but before Marguerite's going to work for Kalem. Marguerite was pictured in a March 1913 newspaper feature about Harrison Fisher's girls and appeared on at least one cover of Cosmopolitan magazine as illustrated by Fisher around the same time.
Kalem tried to sign Marguerite to work for their Florida outfit but Charlotte insisted her daughter stay in school. She did finally relent and allow Marguerite to do some work for Kalem but at their more local New York address. According to Marguerite, she would formally join the Kalem Company in October 1912, just past her fifteenth birthday.
Working for Kalem Company
Two separate references mention her as having appeared in Rube Marquard Wins (1912) featuring the star baseball pitcher of the title with another of Harrison Fisher's subjects, Alice Joyce. The latter reference (from 1920) says Marguerite was but one of thousands of spectators cheering Rube on and that she "admits" it was her first appearance on film. She would soon gain more substantial baseball film credits with Kalem.
Her first leading role "was in The War Correspondent, and I was so embarrassed at the first love-scene I had ever played. I wasn't quite sixteen, and it was a little confusing" (Courtlandt). The War Correspondent released in March 1913.
In The War Correspondent Harry F. Millarde plays the young reporter in love with Marguerite. Robert Vignola, who also directed the Kalem film, gets the Millarde character fired and Millarde heads to Central America as the war correspondent of the title. Vignola, playing a star reporter, follows to Central America, drinks too much and manages to get himself in a heap of trouble. Marguerite seems to be the girl between these two men.
That summer she was leading, and perhaps only, lady in Breaking Into the Big League (1913) starring, once again, Harry Millarde, but more famously featuring legendary New York Giants manager John J. McGraw and star pitcher Christy Mathewson.
Millarde plays Mountjoy Jones, a minor league baseball player who brings disgrace upon himself when he muffs a play in a big game. Even Marguerite snubs him and she's his sweetheart! Millarde's Mountjoy goes to sleep and there in dreamworld comes his big chance with the Giants. Pleasant dreams as Mountjoy makes good and Marguerite and her father (Henry Hallam) even come back to watch him turn a triple play with Mathewson's aid. When Mountjoy wakes up he finds a note being pushed under his door from sweetheart Courtot who says she'll take him back but her father demands that he never mentions baseball again.
What wasn't clear from The Moving Picture World's extensive review of Breaking Into the Big League was if Marguerite ever actually had any interaction with the real ballplayers. By the descriptions of the scenes Millarde had to have, but I'm not so sure about Marguerite.
Next came The Vampire (1913) where she was again Harry Millarde's love interest. The vamping of the title is done by Alice Hollister, but reviews from the period to present day say that the Robert G. Vignola film is stolen by Alice Eis and Bert French who perform their famous Vampire Dance that the film takes its title from.
Late in 1913 Marguerite would begin receiving her first substantial positive notices for playing Zoe, the Octoroon, in a film of the same title, The Octoroon. Based on a popular play of the period by Dion Boucicault, the film takes place in the pre-civil war South where Zoe discovers that she is in fact one-eighth African American, giving the film its title. From the reviews I read it sounds very similar to the 1957 film Band of Angels starring Clark Gable with Yvonne De Carlo playing a part that near exactly fits the description of Courtot's Zoe.Many Kalem regulars appeared in the highly praised three reel film including Guy Coombes, both Vignola and Millarde, and Miriam Cooper. The film was alternatively titled The White Slave.
I should make clear at this point that I'm only hitting on some of the high spots of Marguerite Courtot's film career. These are the titles that come up again and again, often in later articles and interviews looking back on Courtot's career. By later I mean late-teens to early-twenties. So that by the time we get to the next title, another baseball film, it will be sixteen year old Courtot's twentieth film, all for the Kalem company.
In Home Run Baker's Double there can be no doubt that Marguerite Courtot gets to play scenes with a future baseball Hall of Famer. Baker himself saves the life of Marguerite Johnson (guess who), a millionaire's daughter. This puts Baker in good with Marguerite but a criminal named Wallace (Benjamin Ross) picks up on the incident and gets a hold of his pal, Chick Day. Day is a Home Run Baker lookalike played by Baker in a dual role. Wallace has Day ask Marguerite for a loan, but the real Home Run Baker learns of what's going on and takes off to save the day fresh from his heroics at the ball park.
In late 1914 Marguerite received strong notices for her starring turn in The Barefoot Boy (1914), a title she was naming as her favorite of her own films over the next year or so.She plays a girl deserted by her mother as a baby and raised as a boy by her father in the woods. A tree falls on her father and Marguerite's now orphaned Frances is adopted by a surveyor who moves her to the big city. In the city she meets an artist played by Tom Moore, who falls in love with Frances but does not know she is the daughter of the woman whom he has been involved with for several years. Moving Picture World said that "Miss Courtot is charmingly naive in her characterization of the child of the woods and as the girl of the city."
In the Kalem drama The Black Sheep Courtot is starred with one of her favorite leading men, Tom Moore, and Robert Ellis, who plays Moore's brother. Marguerite is once again the girl who comes between the two fellows. Notable as one of a half dozen or so movies that Marguerite's mother, Charlotte Courtot, appears in. Appropriately she plays Marguerite's mother in The Black Sheep.
Courtot remembered Moore fondly telling Agnes Smith in a 1920 Photoplay Magazine interview that "I played in pictures with Tom Moore. I am glad that he has done so well. I love to see the real screen players make good."
A Real Film Star
Marguerite reveled in the fact that she had no stage experience. She considered herself a film star and by the time of that 1920 interview she resented Broadway players of note coming to film and commanding hefty salaries based on what she considered irrelevant experience. Continuing that discussion with Smith, Courtot said:
"To me it seems that the stage players caused all this fever for high salaries, with limousines and bungalows thrown in. Producers engage 'Broadway' leading men at high salaries when they ought to develop the talent in their own studios. 'Broadway' names don't mean much in the small towns. The small town people are better acquainted with the regular movie actors. And let me tell you, small town popularity is the success that counts."
Five years earlier Marguerite expressed the same sentiment, though for different reasons, in an interview with Roberta Courtlandt of Motion Picture magazine. When asked in that late 1915 interview if she had every had any stage experience Marguerite said she did not and explained:
"And I can't say that I have any desire to try stage work. I prefer photoplay, for the outdoor work, the being at home with my mother and Juliette, my sister. And if I were on the stage, perhaps I might have to go away and leave them for one whole season at a time. And then, work with Kalem is so pleasant at all times, and the people are lovely to work with."
Marguerite Courtot was a major film star by this time and was rewarded with her own serial The Ventures of Marguerite. Actually the seventeen part production is more accurately a series with Marguerite's character recurring episode to episode in ventures which weren't directly linked to one another.
Marguerite's character in the series was a typical all-American girl who was left a fortune but sets out to earn her wealth by "alleviating misery and suffering wherever she can find it in places not commonly uncovered by the agents of organized charity."
The Ventures of Marguerite seemed to share the bill with the better known Kalem serial The Hazards of Helen (1914) starring Helen Holmes. The pair were often mentioned together in advertisements for local movie theaters at this time.
Up until this time Marguerite Courtot had still only worked for the Kalem Company. The February 1916 edition of Photoplay reports, without explanation, that she has left Kalem for the Gaumont Company in Jacksonville, Florida. She appeared in The Dead Alive and Feathertop (both 1916) for Gaumont before signing with the Famous Players Film Company to star with Mary Pickford's husband, Owen Moore, in Edgar Selwyn's Rolling Stones (1916).In Rolling Stones Marguerite's Norma is the soothing influence for Moore's character, described in the publicity as not a bad guy but "only a rolling stone in the sense that he has not yet found himself."
Courtot was paired with Moore again in The Kiss (1916) which despite any connotations its title may bring was actually an action-packed comedy. The Kiss was notable for aviation scenes filmed at the then new airfield at Amityville on Long Island. There is a "theft and conspiracy to hold out interest and the kissing escapade to furnish amusement" in what's referred to as a "distinctly unusual production" ("The Faurot's") that included "Among other thrilling scenes ... the rescue of Miss Courtot by Mr. Moore in a hydro-aeroplane, after she has jumped from a ferry boat" ("At Starland").
In early 1917 she played Sonia in Arrow Film's adpatation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Later that year she appeared in The Natural Law (1917) for France Films. The she appeared in her biggest feature until that time, opposite future husband Raymond McKee in The Unbeliever (1918) also starring Erich von Stroheim. It the Edison Company's final feature film release.
The Great War
The Unbeliever was a World War I propaganda film featuring Marguerite in the part of a little Belgian martyr, "a part that represents the noble spirit of Belgium surviving the devastation wrought in the wake of the Hun" ("Broadway"). The film was directed by Alan Crosland, later director of The Jazz Singer (1927), and much of it filmed at United States Marine bases in Quantico, Virginia. Publicity called it "the greatest war film since The Birth of a Nation."
The Unbeliever released in February 1918. Marguerite's next film, The Perfect Lover starring Eugene O'Brien, did not come out until September 1919. The real war kept Marguerite off the screen. As she told Agnes Smith:
"You see, over in Weehawken there was a recruiting office for the marines. I used to help them out. Finally the sergeant who did the desk work was ordered to France. They needed someone to take his place and I volunteered. It took all my time so I had to drop my studio work. Then I made tours and sold war savings stamps. And I met some boys from the middle west so I adopted them and wrote to them all once a week while they were abroad. Altogether I was away from the screen for a year. So it's very necessary that I catch up now."
Over the next few years she appeared in five films for George B. Seitz Productions. Seitz, who finished out his Hollywood career directing Andy Hardy entries for MGM, produced a dozen films through his own company between 1919 and 1923 with his final entry, the serial Plunder starring Pearl White, the best remembered of the bunch. All but one of the Seitz productions Marguerite worked in were also directed by Seitz and starring Seitz. Seitz even wrote the story and screenplay for 1920's Rogues and Romance!
In 1919 she appeared in The Teeth of the Tiger (1920) an Arsene Lupin film, starring David Powell as the gentleman burgler, for Famous Players-Lasky. Her part seemed smaller in The Undercurrent (1919) an anti-Communist film written by, produced by and starring Guy Empey. She had the lead in Bound and Gagged (1919), another serial and one of the Seitz productions, which were all distributed through Pathe. More of the Seitz entries followed as did an adaptation of George Eliot's Silas Marner (1922) for Associated Exhibitors.
Down to the Sea in Ships
Then came Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), an excellent whaling adventure film featuring a breakout performance by a young Clara Bow and a strong starring performance by Marguerite's co-star from The Unbeliever, Raymond McKee. But an underwhelming part for Marguerite Courtot. She made such a minor impression that I decided to write about the film separately, here.
Marguerite appeared in only four more films after Down to the Sea in Ships. All of those titles were from little known production companies such as Pine Tree Pictures, John Brunton Productions, Lester Park Productions and Distinctive Pictures. She does not seem to have gone out on top. She appears to have been at her peak when she left the screen for war work, though perhaps as early as the time she left Kalem.
It didn't seem to matter though because Marguerite had fallen in love with her leading man during Down to the Sea in Ships. She and Raymond McKee were married on April 23, 1923. Marguerite seems to have made good on a personal wish about never appearing in films made out West. She would leave the screen for good after the birth of their only child, Raymond Courtot McKee on June 25, 1926. Raymond, Jr. was born in Los Angeles. Mother Charlotte and sister Juliette also relocated West with Marguerite Courtot McKee.
Husband Raymond McKee remained active on the screen for a few years after Marguerite. Born Eldon Raymond McKee on December 7, 1892 in Keokuk, Iowa, McKee's parents, Albert M. and Alice McKee nee Yetter, both had American roots running at least two generations deep. Raymond was the middle child with his brother Earle two years his elder and sister Helen born three years after Raymond.
Raymond McKee had an interesting career which actually appears to be at its peak during the stretch that saw him appear in both of those films with his future wife.
McKee first worked on the stage in Chicago, where his family had moved, for the Alhambra Stock Company. He later played leading roles in the Chicago company stage production of A Fool There Was and The Golden Girl before coming to the screen with the Lubin Manufacturing Company.
He worked for Lubin from 1912 until the company folded in 1916. Most notable about his time there was that he appeared in 38 shorts with a young Oliver "Babe" Hardy, just starting out on screen himself. After Lubin he worked his way up the bill on films for Edison Company where he was eventually cast as David Balfour, the lead in Kidnapped (1917) and then starred opposite Courtot in The Unbeliver the following year. Then Edison folded and real life intervened with the War.
During the war he did some shorts for the War Department and seems to have freelanced a bit after the fighting was over. He moved to Fox Film Corporation and played love interest to Theda Bara in Kathleen Mavourneen (1919), the first of Bara's unsuccessful attempts to escape those vamp roles that had made her so famous. While at Fox McKee would work in an additional eight films with Shirley Mason, whom he had previously co-starred with four times while at Edison. He was great as the action hero in Down to the Sea in Ships which was a springboard to his real life marriage to co-star Courtot.
Earlier in 1922 there were rumors that McKee was about to marry somewhat notorious musical comedy star Frances White after the pair had been spotted together in Los Angeles. White had already been married three times including to her vaudeville partner, William Rock, and just previously to Frank Fay. But not only did such a union not take place, it was vehemently denied in the press by McKee.
After his successful turn in Down to the Sea in Ships McKee found work playing second leads and even a few leading roles at MGM, where he seems to have failed to caught on in the long run. In 1925 he began working for Mack Sennett in a few movies with Alice Day and then was cast as head of Sennett's Smith Family in a series of over thirty shorts released between 1926 and 1929.
McKee was Jimmy Smith, head of a family that regularly featured Ruth Hiatt as his wife and Mary Ann Jackson as his daughter, Bubbles. There a great example of the Smith Family films available for free viewing at the Internet Archive with the late entry The Rodeo (1929). There's a fantastic article about The Smith Family Series online that was excerpted from Brent E. Walker's book Mack Sennett's Fun Factory.
Apparently the shorts were filmed well in advance of their release and you can see by the release dates that Mary Ann Jackson had already appeared in several of Hal Roach's Our Gang shorts by the time of the final few Smith Family releases.
After his run as Jimmy Smith McKee appeared in some Educational Film Exchange shorts for Jack White and then in Frozen River (1929), a Rin Tin Tin film from Warner Brothers.
After the Movies
The McKees still wound up making a good living despite Marguerite's having retired and Raymond's own career winding down in the late 1920's. Raymond was owner of a very successful restaurant on Ventura Boulevard in Culver City called The Zulu Hut.
As described by Russell J. Birdwell in a 1926 newspaper article at the Zulu Hut, "you are greeted by a Zulu negro speaking French and invited to eat in a circular straw-thatched hut." Once inside, "The only eating utensils are your fingers, and the only light that of candles oozing their wax over the bottles that contain them. The place is packed every night and nets his owner two thousand a month."
McKee sold the Zulu Hut, likely around the time his movie career was ending, to a Flora Johnson. Soon after that transaction, in March 1931, the Zulu Hut was destroyed by a fire of unknown origin which broke out during business hours: "Leaping to the wall and ceiling with lightning rapidity, the flames drove guests and employees in the street and quickly enveloped the building" ("Mystery Blaze").
Raymond McKee and Marguerite Courtot must have managed their money well. After the Zulu Hut they're said to have spent the remainder of their days dividing time between homes in Honolulu, Hawaii and Long Beach, California. Marguerite's mother, Charlotte Courtot, died in July 1933, approximately 73 years old. Her sister, Juliette Courtot, married a William Mead and passed on in mid-1958, age 68.
Marguerite Courtot and Raymond McKee remained married through the remainder of their years. Raymond died October 3, 1984, age 91. His Margo, as he called her, followed on May 28, 1986 at age 88. Both of them died in Long Beach and the couple are buried side by side at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, CA.
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