Marshall Neilan

Active - 1913 - 1957  |   Born - Apr 11, 1891   |   Died - Oct 26, 1958   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy, Crime

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Biography by Hal Erickson

American director Marshall "Mickey" Neilan was the General Billy Mitchell of movies; he was undeniably brilliant, but alienated too many important people by reminding them of his brilliance. Neilan dropped out of school at age 11 when his father died, helping to support his mother with a variety of odd jobs. Intrigued by the theatre, the teenaged Neilan appeared often as a stock company juvenile. In 1911 he became the chauffeur to Biograph director D. W. Griffith, who cast the dashingly handsome Neilan in small roles. Directing his first picture at the American Film Company in 1913, Neilan continued fluctuating between acting and directing until the late teens; one of his most frequent leading ladies was Mary Pickford, who was both costarred with and directed by Neilan. After his marriage to film star Blanche Sweet, Neilan concentrated totally on directing, gaining critical adulation for such artistic triumphs as Bits of Life (1921) (a multipart drama in which ethnic stereotypes were treated with rare dignity) and The Lotus Eater (1921). He directed his wife in a number of films, the best of which was Tess of the D'Ubervilles (1924), for which Neilan filmed two endings: one tragic (as in the Thomas Hardy novel) and one artificially happy, so that distributors could choose which one they preferred. Though Neilan made a successful transition to sound with Pathe's The Awful Truth (1929), too many of his early talkies were box-office bombs (the Rudy Vallee vehicle Vagabond Lover [1929] being a particularly noxious example). Any other director might have been allowed to regain his lost footing, but Neilan's enemies were legion by the early '30s, and they had long been waiting for an opportunity to slap him down. At best, Neilan's talkies were programmers that any competent director could have handled, such as The Lemon Drop Kid (1934); at worst, they were poverty-row products like the Pinky Tomlin musicals Sing While You're Able (1936) and Swing It Professor (1937). By 1937, the former boy wonder was a 46-year-old hasbeen. Some took pity on this Neilan by giving him small jobs with outsized salaries. One such assignment was drenched with irony: playing an uncredited Santa Anita spectator in A Star is Born, Neilan could be seen snubbing Fredric March, who was playing a once-great star who'd drunk himself into oblivion. In 1957, one year before his death, Marshall Neilan played his last minor role in Elia Kazan's aptly titled A Face in the Crowd (1957).

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