05 June 2013

Mary Gets a Bob

Everyone knows I’m a fan of the bobbed haircut (I sport one myself). So I was of course intrigued when I came across this image of silent screen star Mary Thurman. Especially when I discovered that she was a Sennett bathing beauty who normally wore curls.

She was born Mary Mervonian Christiansen (nickname Von) on April 27, 1893 in Richfield, Utah. College educated (a rarity for actresses), she received a degree from the University of Utah and became a schoolteacher. She also became a wife, marrying Victor Thurman, the son of Utah Supreme Court Justice S. R. Thurman (they would later divorce in 1919). 

A trip to California in 1915 changed her career and life when her good looks got her the attention of a talent scout. She had two uncredited parts in the Douglas Fairbanks vehicles The Lamb and Double Trouble but it was the approval of Mack Sennett that was her real break.

Mary became one of Sennett’s famed bathing beauties, primping for the camera along side other lovelies usually at the seaside. For the next three years she also stared in a series of Sennett produced comedy shorts, often with Sennett stalwart Charles Murray.

In 1919 she moved up to features, starring in the unfortunately titled The Poor Boob for Famous Players-Lasky. She would go on to make 35 more films and work with the likes of Mae Murray, Gloria Swanson, Betty Compson, Richard Barthelmess, Tyrone Power Sr., and Harrison Ford.

One of her better films was Sand (1920) with legendary cowboy William S. Hart who chose the script personally. In it Mary plays the love interest of Hart, a railroad station agent who after being falsely fired by his rival for her affection must capture a gang of bandits to redeem himself. The film is pretty good including some strong performances and great on-location shots. You can watch the entire film here.

Another important film of Mary's was one that her fans at the time never saw. Leap Year (1921) stared the popular comedian Fatty Arbuckle who plays the heir to a large fortune, which draws the attention of attractive women who distract him from the woman he’s in love with, his uncle's nurse played by Thurman. Unfortunately, filming finished right before Arbuckle’s infamous trip to San Francisco that resulted in the comedian being charged with the rape and murder of actress Virginia Rappe (he was later acquitted). Leap Year was subsequently banned and didn't see a release until 1981.

One of the other noteworthy tidbits about this film is that Mary appears in it with a sleek, straight bob, a look normally associated with Louise Brooks. In an interview with Adela Rogers St. Johns, Mary explained her new look saying that she had gotten her hair wet at the beach, which flattening her curls, and that her friends had told her it looked good and she should wear it that way. Normally pictured with a head of chestnut curls the new hairstyle, which Mary added bangs to, altered her appearance (her face even looks different) and gave her a classic flapper look.

The hairstyle made a big impact. One illustrator was inspired to capture the new look with a result that screams 1920s, right down to the bee-stung lips, while famed photographer Alfred Cheney Johnson saw her as the French Dauphin (or maybe he had Joan of Arc on the mind). 

Mary continued to work steadily, proving to be at home in both comedies and dramas. In 1925 she travelled to Florida to film Down Upon the Suwanee River. In it she plays a young woman who faces condemnation for giving birth out of wedlock although she really is married to a man who has been run out of town for espousing Atheism. All is well though when he finds God and returns home to wife and baby.

But all was not well for Mary. During filming she contracted malaria. She became deathly ill and retreated to New York where her friend and former Sennett Bathing Beauty, Juanita Hansen, took care of her. Mary never recovered though and after contracting pneumonia died on December 22, 1925. She is buried in Utah.

I'd like to find out more about Mary and watch some of her other films like Leap Year. And all because of a picture of a woman with a bob that caught my attention.

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