Bruce Guerin: Child actor who became a star thanks to his work with Josef von Sternberg


Child actors are seldom remembered beyond their childhood, let alone 90 years later. From the silent era, one can think of Jackie Coogan and his heartbreaking performance in Chaplin's The Kid (1921) And anybody who sees Josef von Sternberg's Salvation Hunters (1925) will find it hard to forget the wistful child played by Bruce Guerin.

Guerin was born in Los Angeles in 1919. His mother had been a vaudeville dancer and his father, Paul Guerin, was in charge of electrical effects at Mack Sennett ,becoming a sound engineer when talkies arrived and an executive at Republic. (A street in Studio City is named after him.) Bruce entered pictures as "Baby Bruce Guerin" in 1922, thanks to his sister Marjorie, who had played for DW Griffith. His woebegone look registers well in his 1925 Standard Casting Directory photograph. The historian Janet Bergstrom described him as 'thoughtful, sombre and introspective."

He played in pictures for Warner Bros, Universal, United Artists and MGM. Drifting (1923), with Priscilla Dean and Anna May Wong, was a film about opium trafficking made by Tod Browning, celebrated director of the bizarre. A Warner Bros programmer, Country Kid (1923), as charming as the other wasn't, was directed by William Beaudine and starred a more famous child actor, Wesley Barry. The Woman He Loved was about a Jewish family from Russia emigrating to the United States, where poverty forces them to relinquish their child (Bruce) for adoption. It was directed by Edward Sloman, himself an emigrant from Whitechapel.

The Parasite (1925) had Bertie (Bruce) falling ill, and his father hiring Joan Laird (Madge Bellamy) to look after him. Society misunderstands and Joan is branded a parasite. The divorced wife, Laura, kidnaps the boy, and Joan gives chase. Laura is killed when her car goes over a cliff. The boy survives but he and Joan become lost in the mountains and to prevent him dying of hunger, she cuts her arm and forces the boy to drink her blood. (And this was produced nearly a century ago!)

The fan magazine Picture Play wrote in 1924: "Of the new crop of little kids stands out Bruce Guerin, who has been signed on a long-term contract by Warner Bros. They are grooming him with the hope that he will step into the roles that Wes Barry filled so capably, until he reached the awkward age. I doubt if Bruce is a logical successor to the particular type of Wes' characterization. For that matter, I don't like that term 'successor' anyway; imitators invariably fail. Bruce is individually himself; his talent is a sort of cross between Wes Barry's boyishness and Jackie Coogan's pathos. His work is that of a youngster gifted beyond the ordinary but, above all, of an absolute naturalness."

At the age of five, the piano became the central feature of his life. He began lessons at his own insistence. "As you passed each house on Stanley Avenue around 3pm you could hear a piano or violin," he recalled. "I had to do an hour on the piano before I was allowed to play with the neighbourhood kids. This went on until I graduated from North Hollywood High." He won a degree from the music school at UCLA

He was drafted in January 1942 and was selected for a new unit in Special Services. He had no military duties; his company commander was the outstanding Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans and his comrades were skilled instrumentalists, The 18 Pipers.

Piano players were highly valued, and Guerin served throughout the war playing for the soldiers on Oahu. Because Hawaii was under martial law, subjected to a black-out and a suspension of civil rights, he didn't get off Oahu until 1945. "Believe me," he said, "in wartime there's one thing you never get away from – it's the cocktail parties." Some of the key decisions about the war in the Pacific were made by the top brass – General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Chester Nimitz, General George Marshall – while Private Guerin played in the background. He played with stars such as Bob Hope, the Andrews Sisters and Ray Bolger and the shows were broadcast throughout the Pacific. After the war, he embarked on tours of the US before becoming a 14-year fixture at the Fog Cutter Restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard.

He returned to Hawaii in 1969 with his wife Lucille, performing six nights a week at the Gangplank Lounge of the New Surfrider Hotel at Waikiki. They later moved to Maui, where he played at the Royal Lahaina Resort and then the Swan Court at the Hyatt Regency, continuing as pianist and raconteur. Visitors enjoyed challenging him to a game called Stump the Pianist in which they tried to think of a song he couldn't play. "They ask," said Lucille, "and he spins around on his bench and plays it. It shocks them."

Dr Janet Bergstrom, studying the work of Josef von Sternberg, discovered Guerin playing the piano in supper clubs on Maui in 2006. She began a long-distance friendship with he and Lucille; Guerin was amused to learn that Salvation Hunters was now regarded as a classic. "Some of the critics of the day wrote that it may be the WORST MOVIE ever made!!!" he recalled. Guerin retired in 1996.

A silent film called Kindred of the Dust, made 90 years ago by Raoul Walsh and featuring Miriam Cooper, Ralph Graves and Guerin, was being screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna on the day he died.

Bruce Guerin, actor and musician: born Los Angeles 18 January 1919; married Lucille (three sons, one daughter); died Wailuku, Hawaii 27 June 2012.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
New Articles
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all