Marcia Mae Jones

Prolific child actress of the 1930s


Marcia Mae Jones, actress: born Los Angeles 1 August 1924; married first Robert Chic (two sons; marriage dissolved 1951), second 1956 Bill Davenport (marriage dissolved 1963) died Los Angeles 2 September 2007.

Marcia Mae Jones was one of Hollywood's most prolific child actors of the Thirties, and she gave several memorable performances of the era, though she was not a major star comparable to Shirley Temple or Jane Withers. She supported Temple in both Heidi and The Little Princess, giving a warmth in the former to a role that could have been cloying. She will perhaps best be remembered for her part in William Wyler's splendid These Three (1937) in which, as a child who is terrorised into telling a terrible lie, she gave one of the most convincing screen displays of pre-pubescent hysteria.

The youngest of four children, Marcia Mae Jones was born in Los Angeles in 1924, and made her screen début at the age of six months, playing Dolores Costello as a baby in Mannequin (released in 1926). Her mother, Freda, an actress, was determined that all her children should be in pictures. "She was definitely a motion-picture mother," said Marcia. Freda was about to take Marcia's three siblings to the studio one day when her babysitter failed to arrive, so she took Marcia to the set in her pram. The director James Cruze allegedly walked past, saw Marcia, and immediately said, "That's the baby!" Many unbilled film parts as a toddler followed, including the early musical King of Jazz (1930).

In 1931 she received billing for the first time, playing Jackie Cooper's playmate in King Vidor's The Champ, and she was a sick child whom gangsters are trying to murder in Night Nurse (1931). In Bombshell (1933), she was a flower girl at the wedding of Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone. "I've never forgotten Jean Harlow," Jones said. "She was all in white furs, her hair was white, and I was supposed to be throwing flowers, but she was so beautiful that all I could do was stare at her, and they were getting mad at me."

In The Garden of Allah (1936), she was a convent girl who observes the romance between a monk, Charles Boyer, and an adventuress, Marlene Dietrich. Later the same year she was given the role that was to make her name familiar. These Three was adapted by Lillian Hellman from her play The Children's Hour, a big hit on Broadway (it was still running when the film was released), but its story of a false accusation of lesbianism between two teachers had to be altered because of the era's strict censorship.

Since, as the director William Wyler pointed out, the crux of the story is the power of a lie to wreck lives, it was still a powerful piece, and though Bonita Granville, as the wicked girl who initially tells the lie, won an Oscar nomination, Jones was equally effective as Rosalie, the sensitive pupil who is blackmailed by Granville into telling lies to back up her story. Jones made Rosalie a pitiable character, and her scenes of terrified hysteria were mesmerising. She told the historian Michael Gartside,

I would have given anything to work with William Wyler as an adult. However, he scared me as a child because he would just sit and look at you, and you would know you didn't do it right. And you'd have to do it over and over again.

She spoke highly of Paul Muni, who starred in The Life of Emile Zola (1937), relating that she was so nervous doing a scene with him that the tray she was carrying can be heard rattling. He put her at her ease by fluffing his first line.

Jones's siblings did not sustain acting careers, which caused some family friction. "My mother loved me way too much and it caused trouble and jealousy with my brother and sisters. It was always 'Marcia Mae has to go to work' and 'Marcia Mae is the one who makes the money'." She had spells under contract to Sam Goldwyn, David O. Selznick, 20th Century-Fox and Warners, so her education was erratic. "I graduated when I was about 17, and I knew absolutely nothing."

Michael Curtiz's Mountain Justice (1937) was one of the "crusading" films for which the Warner studio became known. Based on a true incident, it was an uncompromising melodrama in which a teacher in a backwoods town accidentally kills her brutal father and is nearly lynched by the townsfolk. Jones touchingly played the teacher's little sister, who runs away from home to escape being sold as a child bride.

The same year she played the crippled girl befriended by Shirley Temple in Heidi. Skilfully avoiding the sentimental pitfalls of the role, her performance perfectly complemented that of the star. "Shirley and I got along well and laughed a lot, though she was rather protected because they didn't want her injured at all." Jones was originally set to play Becky in Selznick's production of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), but she grew so quickly that before shooting started she was replaced by Ann Gillis and given the role of Tom's sister, Mary.

Mad About Music (1938) was the first of three films in which Jones appeared with the singing star Deanna Durbin. "Deanna was lovely and I liked working on those films, but she was treated very badly. The studio broke up her first love affair because they didn't want her to be married." In The Little Princess (1939), Jones had a rare mean role as the prissy rich girl who torments Shirley Temple. She was a schoolgirl in the delightful Durbin vehicle First Love (1939), and she was mean again (this time to Anne Shirley) in Anne of Windy Poplars (1940), but her career began to decline as the decade ended – her role in Durbin's Nice Girl? (1941) was minute – and she moved to the "poverty row" studios PRC and Monogram.

She was Frankie Darro's sweetheart – and even sang a song – in Let's Go Collegiate (1941), but in Secrets of a Co-Ed (1942) she had sixth billing. Making the musical Top Man (1943) at Universal, Jones became good friends with the film's star, Donald O'Connor. "I had very strict parents. No romance at all."

She had a good role in PRC's Lady in the Deathhouse (1944), saving her sister (Jean Parker) from the gas chamber. But as a screen ingénue, Jones made little impact – in the lively musical The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady (1950), she is one of the three O'Grady daughters, the others being played by June Haver and Debbie Reynolds, and, tellingly, Jones is the one who is generally forgotten. "It was a crazy set," Jones recalled. "Debbie drove us all crazy selling Girl Scout cookies. I was in the midst of a divorce. The doctor that June was going with was dying. Gordon [MacRae] was in love with some actress." Jones had married some years earlier: "I deliberately married to get away from home."

Shortly after making The Star (1952), in which she was a waitress serving coffee to Bette Davis, she retired for several years to raise her children, then worked as a receptionist. In 1955 she married the script-writer Bill Davenport, but "he had problems with alcohol and drugs, so that marriage didn't last". Jones returned to work, mainly on television, acting in such series as Peyton Place, Burns and Allen and the soap opera General Hospital. Her occasional films included The Way We Were (1973).

Tom Vallance

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