Obituiary: Ruth Clifford

THE SAD thing about a career like Ruth Clifford's, which began at the dawn of the feature film, is that most of the films that made her reputation have been lost.

She was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, in 1900. As a child, she loved the early movies and she and her brother - allowed to go on Saturdays - would sit through the programmes twice. She was particularly impressed by the Biograph films, directed by D.W. Griffith. "In those days," she told a researcher, Susan McConachy, "they didn't have names for the people - Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish - but we made up names for them. Later on, I had the privilege of working with Mae Marsh and we became very close friends."

Her mother died when Ruth was 11, and she and her sister were placed in St Mary's Seminary on Narragansett Bay. At 15, Ruth and her sister moved to California to live with an aunt who had been a stage actress. She made her debut at the old Edison company, as an extra. She visited the Universal company, was quickly hired by Henry MacRae and by 1917 had risen to become one of their most valuable leading ladies, playing opposite some of the most popular leading men of the time.

The studio survived on its westerns; it employed authentic cowboys who found pictures paid better than ranching. Clifford was taught riding and shooting by these men - experiences which came in useful years later when she worked with John Ford on films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Wagonmaster and The Searchers. (Ford liked her because she played bridge.)

At Universal, she became the favourite actress of the director Rupert Julian - who later directed the Lon Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925). "I worked with him for two years. He wouldn't let me work with any other director, which was considered a privilege." Julian - real name Percival Hayes - came from New Zealand. "He was very dignified and looked extremely severe. He wore a stunning little moustache, and was always beautifully groomed."

Oddly enough, he prided himself on his resemblance to the Kaiser. Julian directed Clifford in her most notorious film, The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918), with himself in the lead. Audiences became so worked up they threw things at the screen and when a German soldier - about to rape Clifford - is strangled, huge cheers went up. The picture's success brought Universal back from the brink of bankruptcy.

In 1919, while most of the East Coast studios were packing up and moving west, Clifford went in the opposite direction, and made pictures in New York for Charles Frohman and for David O. Selznick's father Lewis. Locations for The Peak of Gold were shot in Puerto Rico.

In 1923, she played in a Graustark story, Jerome Storm's Truxton King, opposite John Gilbert, soon to be the most romantic star of his generation. "My favourite leading man," she said. "We were working together and playing love scenes. I enjoyed kissing him but when he took me out I wouldn't let him kiss me goodnight! Isn't that silly? I guess I was a strange kid . . ."

One of her finest roles fortunately still survives - albeit in only one American archive. Clarence Brown, later responsible for some of Garbo's best pictures like Flesh and the Devil (1926) and Anna Karenina (1935), directed Butterfly in 1924. Clifford played Hilary Collier, who sacrifices her own career for the musical education of her talented young sister (Laura la Plante).

Silent film actresses have an unfair reputation for overacting in emotional scenes; Brown taught her never to go too far. "Do not cry," he advised her. "The audience will think it's self-pity. Keep a stone in your throat - swallow hard - but don't shed a tear." Hilary is deeply in love with an older man. When her sister bursts into the kitchen to tell her that he has proposed to her, Ruth Clifford responds with great stillness - and the scene is profoundly moving.

At the opening-night party, Brown confessed to her that he had tried hard to cast the role with a more famous star, but was glad he hadn't. "Then it was my turn to cry!" she said. "When you're young and haven't had experience in life, you depend on a good director - and an inspiration like that."

A more celebrated production came out the same year - Abraham Lincoln, Clifford's favourite of all her films. It was the pipe-dream of two youngsters who wanted to break into pictures with a bang. Al and Ray Rockett hired the great Frances Marion to write the script and Phil Rosen to direct. Alas, only two reels survive, and while the picture looks impressive, Clifford's role of Ann Rutledge is cut to the bone. The film won critical plaudits, but like so many high-minded Hollywood productions it was a financial flop.

In 1924, Clifford married James Cornelius, a real-estate agent who would develop much of Beverly Hills. They took a cruise to Hawaii for their honeymoon.

"Fortunately, marriage has proved beneficial to my career," Ruth told a journalist in 1925, "though, if it hadn't, the career could go hang itself." She turned down an offer to do a picture with Valentino because she and her husband had planned a fishing trip to their second home at June Lake. "I took my work too seriously, because I had so little else. I never had any fun. I didn't know how." Her marriage, she said, changed all that. And to her surprise, her fan mail increased. She and Cornelius had one son, James Cornelius Jnr.

Although her mother came from Manchester, Ruth Clifford was proud of her Irish background and, when an Abbey Players tour reached Los Angeles, she became a member of the company. Her career continued into television - she played in many episodes of Highway Patrol in the 1950s. On the screen, she worked with Spencer Tracy in Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958), with Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom (1944) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956).

In the Seventies she was appearing in commercials - some for British television. In the late 1980s, she appeared in a documentary on Irish cinema and Irish stars for Ulster TV, A Seat among the Stars. She lived in Sherman Oaks outside Los Angeles until 1987, when she moved to the Motion Picture Home in Woodland Hills where she died.

"She was a remarkable person," said her friend the film historian Anthony Slide. "She disliked being interviewed. Sit her at dinner and she would regale you with stories, but put a tape recorder in front of her and she would clam up. Yet she enjoyed life so much - and was never stuck in the past. She was very well off and even in her nineties she loved to go on cruises to places like Hawaii, dancing into the small hours."

Ruth Clifford, actress: born Pawtucket, Rhode Island 17 February 1900; married 1924 James Cornelius (one son deceased); died Woodland Hills, California 30 November 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?