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
News
Brand said he
people
Sport
Adam Lallana, Juan Cala, Andy Carroll and Cameron Jerome
sportThe latest news and scores
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
Life & Style
Sampling wine in Turin
food + drink...and abstaining may be worse than drinking too much, says scientist
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Arts & Entertainment
The monster rears its head as it roars into the sky
film
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit