Mary Miles Minter

Active - 1915 - 1923  |   Born - Apr 1, 1902   |   Died - Aug 4, 1984   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy

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Biography by Hans J. Wollstein

The Louisiana-born offspring of one of film history's most vicious stage mothers, "Little" Juliet Shelby (née Reilly) was pushed into the limelight, against her will, she later stated, in a touring company of Cameo Kirby. The seven-year-old blonde charmer quickly caught the attention of Broadway impresario Charles Frohman and made her New York debut playing the daughter opposite Katherine Kaelred's vamp in a 1909 production of A Fool There Was. Major success, however, came two years later when she appeared opposite Dustin Farnum in The Littlest Rebel, a Civil War play that eventually toured for three years.

Juliet's aggressive mother, Charlotte Shelby, convinced film producer P.A. Powers to cast her young daughter in an important part in The Nurse (1912), a melodrama of mother love vaguely based on the ever-popular barnstormer East Lynne. It was an auspicious screen debut for "Little Juliet Shelby" but when she returned to films after The Littlest Rebel had ended its run in 1915, it was under the new moniker of Mary Miles Minter. Apparently, Juliet Shelby had run into problems with the so-called "Gerry Society," a watchdog organization that policed the stage appearances of juveniles under the age of 16, and Mrs. Shelby simply "appropriated" the name of an older, dead relative. As Mary Miles Minter, the now veteran stage performer signed a lucrative contract with Metro, who embarked on a lavish promotional campaign and cast the youngster in a series of romantic melodramas that usually depicted her as a beautiful child growing into an even more beautiful young woman. The titles changed -- Always in the Way (1915), Emmy of Stork's Nest (1915), Dimples (1916) -- but the plot remained basically the same. She co-starred with stage veteran Mrs. Thomas Whiffen and Anna Q. Nilsson in Barbara Frietchie, each actress playing the Civil War heroine at a different age, and the drama proved Minter's biggest box-office success to date. So popular was the film that the indefatigable Mrs. Shelby searched for and found a loophole in her daughter's contract that allowed "Mary" to sign an even more lucrative deal with the American Flying-A company. Re-locating to Southern California, Mary Miles Minter was set on a collision course with the man that would eventually change her life, debonair director William Desmond Taylor. After starring in 26 popular films for American, of which apparently only Youth's Melting Pot (1916), The Eyes of Julia Deep, and The Ghost of Rosy Taylor (1918) seem to have survived, Mary Miles Minter signed with industry-leader Paramount, who obviously saw in her another Mary Pickford. Even Miss Pickford herself noticed the similarity. "She's younger than me," Pickford is said to have admitted, "but I think she looks like me." Minter's initial film for Paramount was most certainly in the Pickford vein: a screen version of the endurable Anne of Green Gables (1919), penned by "America's Sweetheart" favorite screenwriter, Frances Marion, and directed by William Desmond Taylor, who had guided Pickford through three popular melodramas. The dashing Taylor went on to direct Mary Miles Minter in her next three films, including the still extant Nurse Marjorie (1920). There is no doubt that the teenage Minter developed a crush on her much older director but Taylor was according to most reports a less than closeted homosexual and attempted to let her down gently.

Although never quite rivaling Mary Pickford at the box office, Mary Miles Minter was a star to be reckoned with when her career suddenly ended. The occasion was the still unsolved murder of Taylor on February 1, 1922, a cause célèbre that also brought down the career of Taylor's vivacious friend Mabel Normand. All sorts of rumors of studio cover-ups haunted the investigation and Taylor's secretive past uncovered a mass of potential suspects. Modern research, however, points to two possible killers: a Los Angeles drug dealer with a grudge against the director, whose anti-dope stand was well known, and Mary Miles Minter's mother, Charlotte Shelby. The latter, who may or may not have been infatuated with Taylor herself or may have attempted to prevent a possible scandal, is perhaps the most likely candidate and would reportedly go on to bribe three consecutive Los Angeles district attorneys.

Whoever the murderer was, the killing and the ensuing speculations terminated Mary Miles Minter's screen career. She left Hollywood in favor of Paris, France, apparently with little or no regret, put on considerable weight and later dabbled in real estate. A marriage to a real estate broker proved long-lasting, but tragedy and mystery continued to surround the former actress, who till the end refused to discuss the Taylor case. Estrangement and subsequent reconciliation with Mrs. Shelby kept her name (and the murder) in the press for decades and in 1981 the octogenarian Minter was brutally beaten and robbed by an intruder in her Santa Monica home. After her death from a stroke in 1984, a neighbor claimed to be Minter's illegitimate daughter and sued the estate. The case was finally dismissed in the early '90s. Judging from her few surviving films, Mary Miles Minter was no Mary Pickford but she was also not the pale imitation of legend. There is definite strength to her portrayals of young womanhood and she seems to have blossomed under the guidance of William Desmond Taylor, a fine director who deserves more recognition for his work than has so far been awarded.