Barbara Kent: Silent-film actress who worked with Greta Garbo and Harold Lloyd

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We called her "the one that got away". David Gill and I were making a documentary on the great comedian Harold Lloyd in California in 1989 and having the usual difficulties finding people who knew him.

Someone told us that Barbara Kent, Lloyd's leading lady in Welcome Danger (1929) and Feet First (1930), was still alive. The only drawback was that we were booked to leave and nobody knew where she lived.

Laurence Butler, a friend who lived in California, took up the pursuit. He tried the obvious places – the Screen Actors Guild and the Motion Picture Hospital – and drew a blank. The Academy Library had a small file on her, mostly concerning her husband. But that fact in itself was remarkable. Barbara Kent was married to Harry Edington, agent for Greta Garbo, the most famous star in Hollywood, and for John Gilbert, Marlene Dietrich, Claudette Colbert and Cary Grant. She suddenly shot up in importance. Edington's obituary included a home address, so Butler drove over, hoping a neighbour might have her current whereabouts. No luck.

Studio biographies gave her birthplace as Gadsby, Alberta, but a phone call to Canada revealed no one with her family name – Cloutman. He contacted Forest Lawn Memorial Park, and they had a Barbara Kent buried there, but she was two months old. Posing as a relative, he visited Edington's interment site and discovered that Kent had reserved a site for herself. Good, he thought, she's still alive. More clues came from addresses on the death certificates of in-laws. This resulted in a mysterious telephone call to a relative, who wouldn't reveal his whereabouts, but acknowledged that Barbara Kent had married his uncle. The family had not heard from her for 30 years, so he was sure she was dead.

Butler placed an ad in a personal column and one respondent urged him to contact a bag lady rumoured to have been a silent film star who lived on the streets of Santa Monica. He tracked her down, but she maintained a defiant silence. Butler was so determined to solve the problem that I was sorry to spoil it all. I had telephoned Leatrice Fountain, daughter of John Gilbert, on another matter entirely. "How was the Californian trip?" she asked.

"Fine – but no Barbara Kent."

"Oh, I can give you her number."

I dialled in great excitement and spoke to her husband, Jack Monroe. He sounded charming, but his wife was out, playing golf. When I finally spoke to her, she replied, coldly but politely, that she remembered nothing. I assured her that thanks to her starring part in Paul Fejos's Lonesome, and William Wyler's The Shakedown, not to mention her important role with Garbo, she was of enormous importance to film history. But she was immovable.

American historian Michael Ankerich was more successful. He talked to her when she was nearly 90. She told him that she had blocked the Hollywood years from her thoughts and even close friends had no idea she had been in pictures. Yes, she had won the title Miss Hollywood, l925. She was approached by casting director Paul Kohner who told her to change her name and placed her under a five-year contract. Playing in a minor Western, she caught the eye of director Clarence Brown. He cast her with Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (1926). She thought it the best role of her career, but the experience was overwhelming. "I was still very young and not very sophisticated. The picture business, especially this film, amazed me." The Garbo-Gilbert love affair was being enacted right before the cameras, so her reaction is hardly surprising.

In a fraudulent autobiography written "in Garbo's words", Antoni Gronowicz declared that Barbara had had a relationship with Garbo, which she told Ankerich was entirely untrue.

Her most interesting role was for director Paul Fejos in Lonesome (1928), a silent filmed with an extravagantly moving camera and given a handful of talking sequences. She made an even better film in 1928 for William Wyler: The Shakedown. (Both pictures exist at George Eastman House, New York.) She made the transition to sound with Harold Lloyd in Welcome Danger (1929) and played again for him in Feet First (1930), but then became ensnared in a large number of lacklustre pictures. She didn't like working with Gloria Swanson – "too much the star" – in Indiscreet (1932) and was glad to bow out by marrying Harry Edington on her 25th birthday. She made only a handful of pictures thereafter, her last role coming in 1941.

Edington died in 1949 and she lost touch with Hollywood. She married a Lockheed engineer, learned to fly, played golf three times a week and went fishing. During the war, she worked with Hitchcock as part of the British colony in war-support activities. When she returned to Canada, she was welcomed as a celebrity.

"I really don't talk about those days I was in films," she said. "Being terribly shy, I didn't have the right personality to be an actress. I've always thought one had to be an exhibitionist to be in pictures. That wasn't me."

Barbara Kent (Barbara Cloutman), actress: born Alberta, Canada 16 December 1907; married 1932 Harry Edington (died 1949); mid-1950s Jack Monroe (died 1998); died Palm Desert, California 20 October 2011.


On the day she was born...

By order of President Theodore Roosevelt, in a show of America's military power, the Great White Fleet of 16 US warships set off from Virginia on a circumnavigation of the globe.