Obituary: Molly O'Day

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the first film actresses to be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Molly O'Day won great praise for her first major role, as leading lady to Richard Barthelmess in the silent film The Patent Leather Kid (1927), and was a leading Hollywood player until her love of eating, and the desperate measures she took to contain her spreading figure, cut short her career as a leading lady.

As her one-time lover George Raft later told his biographer Lewis Yablonsky:

She was doing pretty well in films but she loved to overeat and that weight proved to be her downfall. She tried some weird plastic surgery, where she paid quack doctors a fortune for an operation in which they tried to cut the fat off her body. When they sewed her up she had seam scars running up the sides of her formerly beautiful body. The operation ruined her health, her career, and damn near killed her.

The youngest of 11 children, she was born Suzanne Noonan in 1909 in Bayonne, New Jersey, the daughter of a judge and a Metropolitan Opera singer, Hannah Kelly. After the judge's death, her mother took her three youngest children to Hollywood, where Molly's sister Sally O'Neil became an "overnight star" with her role in Sally, Irene and Mary (1925). Molly, still a schoolgirl, was spotted by the producer Hal Roach and played unbilled roles in several of his popular "Our Gang" comedy shorts. She also appeared in shorts with Buster Keaton ("a delightful man") and Laurel and Hardy before getting her big break (after auditioning with over a hundred other girls) in The Patent Leather Kid, as the girl-friend of Barthelmess, a prize-fighter who is tough in the ring but initially cowardly when sent to war.

The New York Times wrote:

Miss O'Day, who has only been seen in two-reelers, is the sister of Sally O'Neil. Her acting in this tale rivals that of Mr Barthelmess. She is sincere and earnest . . . she has beautiful large eyes and a retrousse nose, which serve her well before the camera . . . she is most competent in a part that demands a great deal.

The same critic wrote of her following film Hard-Boiled Haggerty (1927), "The little brunette with the bright eyes and white teeth, Molly O'Day, does very well." O'Day then co-starred with her sister Sally in The Lovelorn (1927), the pair playing sisters who seek the advice of a famed agony-aunt columnist, Beatrice Fairfax.

She was the heroine of a 1928 version of the rural novel Shepherd of the Hills (by Harold Bell Wright), then co-starred with Barthelmess again in Kentucky Courage (1928), based on John Fox Jnr's Civil War novel The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, though it was less well received than the team's previous pairing.

Warner's all-star early talkie Show of Shows (1929) included a production number, "Meet My Sister", in which nine pairs of movie actresses who were real-life sisters were teamed in a salute to the countries of the world. Molly and Sally had a chorus celebrating Ireland, though compared to her sister it was evident that Molly was a lot heavier.

The previous year she had met George Raft, still a fledgling actor trying to live down his mob-related past, at a party given by Texas Guinan. "There was gorgeous dames all over the place," said Raft. "One in particular was Molly O'Day, who I began to date. She was a gorgeous girl, and one of the sweetest, most gentle women I've ever met."

Some months later, after her affair had ended, O'Day's apartment in the famed Garden of Allah was broken into and her jewels and money stolen. Raft was arrested as a suspect, but convinced the police that he was a reformed character, and shortly afterwards found film fame himself when cast in Scarface.

O'Day, having had the disastrous operation to reduce her weight while still in her teens (she later stated that her studio had threatened to cancel her contract unless she could fit into a specified dress size), found the importance of her roles diminishing. She starred with sister Sally (whose career was also fading) in the low-budget Sisters (1930), and in Sob Sister (1931) she was billed sixth and had only a supporting role.

Gigolette of Paris (1933) and Hired Wife (1934) were low-budget independent productions in which she played "best friend" roles, and Law of the 45s (1935) was the first of the long-running Three Mes-quiteers western series which would later feature the young John Wayne. Her last films were Skull and Crown (1935) which starred Rin Tin Tin Jnr, son of the famous canine star, and a low-grade western featuring Bill Cody, Lawless Borders.

In 1935 O'Day married Jack Durant, a vaudeville comedian and half of the team Mitchell and Durant; they had four children before their divorce in 1951. She married James McGregor, an oilman, the following year, but that union lasted only four years. The actress had abandoned her acting career completely, and eventually became a successful real estate agent in California. She was active with the Old Mission Parish in her home town, San Obisco County, and worked with the homeless.

Suzanne Noonan (Molly O'Day), actress: born Bayonne, New Jersey 16 October 1909; married 1935 Jack Durant (one son, three daughters; marriage dissolved 1951), 1952 James McGregor (marriage dissolved 1956); died Arroyo Grande, California 15 October 1998.