Sally O'Neil

Active - 1925 - 1938  |   Born - Oct 23, 1908   |   Died - Jun 18, 1968   |   Genres - Drama, Comedy, Romance, Musical

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Biography by Hans J. Wollstein

Known in vaudeville under the delightful moniker Chotsie Noonan, saucy silent screen comedienne Sally O'Neil (born Virginia Louise Concepta Noonan) became a major star in her second film, Sally, Irene and Mary (1925). Constance Bennett and Joan Crawford filled out the title trio but it was O'Neil's naïve chorus girl who ran away with the notices. Pronounced MGM's answer to Paramount's Clara Bow, O'Neil was voted a 1926 WAMPAS Baby Star but soon found herself mired in tasteless ethnic comedies such as The Callahans and the Murphys (1927) and Frisco Sally Levy (1927), the latter, according to one reviewer, proving as subtle "as a policeman's nightstick." In addition to her shaky screen vehicles, O'Neil suffered a severe case of stage fright. "So much depended on me doing well," she later explained. Her panic, however, was construed as temper tantrums and MGM dropped her option. She was rescued, most surprisingly, by D.W. Griffith, who cast her as a flapper in his one attempt at Lubitschian piquancy, The Battle of the Sexes (1928). The light touch was never a Griffith trademark, unfortunately, and the film was a distinct failure. Sound only tended to amplify O'Neil's nasal New Jersey accent and although well cast as Dion Boucicault's wistful Irish colleen Kathleen Mavourneen (1930), she was really more Bayonne than County Cork. John Ford awarded her the leading role as the street urchin in The Brat (1931), a remake of the 1916 Alla Nazimova melodrama, which O'Neill herself had done on stage the previous year. Although the film wasn't much liked, she emerged with fine personal reviews and a new contract with Fox. Nothing much came out of that, and she quit in disgust after six idle months in favor a return to the stage. In 1937, she turned up in the Irish-made Kathleen, a remake of her 1930 Kathleen Mavourneen, but Hollywood wags named the film "Cinderella Auld Sod" and O'Neil's screen career was over. In her later years, O'Neil appeared in summer stock, toured army hospitals with the USO and starred in a very successful 1951 Pasadena Playhouse production of Edith Wharton's The Bunner Sisters. Retired to the small town of Galesburg, IL, the erstwhile flapper became a locally noted painter who enjoyed several gallery showings. She was the sister of film actress Molly O'Day.

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