Obituary: Esther Ralston

Esther Ralston, actress: born Bar Harbor, Maine 17 September 1902; married three times; died Ventura, California 14 January 1994.

ESTHER RALSTON was a captivating blonde beauty with an engaging sense of humour who was a leading star of the silent screen. Though specialising in wholesome heroines, she had an extensive range and remained in films for a decade after the birth of talkies.

She was born in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1902, to vaudevillian parents whose ancestors were on the Mayflower (Ralston's mother was a collateral descendant of Catherine Howard). Esther made her stage debut in their act (along with her four brothers) at the age of eight, and her film debut as an extra in Deep Purple (1915), a New York-made film starring Clara Kimble Young. Her family moved to California in 1917, and Ralston continued to work as an extra until given a lead role in William Desmond Taylor's Huckleberry Finn (1920). She played winsome heroines in minor films, many of them westerns, until 1924 when Paramount signed her to a contract and cast her as Mrs Darling in Peter Pan with Betty Bronson. The film was a great success (even more so in Britain than the US) and the studio saw Ralston's potential.

Over the next six years she made 24 films and became one of Hollywood's highest-paid actresses. After playing Fairy Godmother to Bronson in another Barrie property, A Kiss For Cinderella (1925), she starred in two films directed by James Cruze, an adaptation of the Kaufman-Connelly play Beggar On Horseback (a remarkably stylised film regarded by the director as his best work), and The Goose Hangs High (both 1925). Cruze had tapped her flair for comedy, and when Ralston was cast the following year in The American Venus, a satire on the Miss America contest, it was given a large budget, including Technicolor production numbers, plus a publicity campaign that gave Ralston her eponymous nickname.

She followed this with a popular collegiate movie, The Quarterback (1926), with her frequent co-star Richard Dix, then made Cruze's Old Ironsides (1926), an epic concerning the fight between 19th-century sailing ships and pirates, starring Ralston with Charles Farrell and filmed in the early large-screen process Magnascope. One of its writers was Dorothy Arzner, who made her directorial debut with Fashions For Women (1927), a delightful comedy starring Ralston in the dual role of an ageing society woman and the cigarette-girl who takes her place while she has a secret facelift.

After a second film by Arzner, Ten Modern Commandments (1927), Ralston, whose wholesomeness extended to her own personality, asked the studio not to put her with the director again as she objected to Arzner's open homosexuality. Ralston also found the freewheeling behaviour of Clara Bow hard to take when they co-starred with Bow's lover Gary Cooper in Children of Divorce (1927), directed by Frank Lloyd but extensively reshot by Josef von Sternberg. 'I didn't really dislike her,' Ralston said later. 'But she was pretty loose and I'd been brought up differently.'

Ralston and Cooper were the romantic leads in the last Hollywood movie of Emil Jannings, Lewis Milestone's Betrayal (1929). Her last silent feature was von Sternberg's The Case of Lena Smith (1929), a tragic tale, stunningly designed (by Hans Dreier), of a peasant girl's affair with an army officer in 1890s Austria. Now lost, the film is one Ralston took particular pride in because she felt it best displayed her abilities as an actress. 'If I ever looked for an Academy Award,' she said in a 1992 interview, 'that film would be the one. But it came out the same time the talkies did, which is why it never got the showing it might have.'

Ralston then made what she later admitted was a serious error. Knowing that her voice was fine for talkies, she acted on the advice of her husband and told Paramount she would not sign a new contract for less than dollars 100,000. The studio used her in two talkies under her old contract, The Wheel of Life, with Dix, and The Mighty (1930), with George Bancroft, then she was let go.

For the rest of her career she freelanced, making 27 more films for both big studios and small independents, but her career lost its propulsion. After a racy comedy, Lonely Wives, and a turgid romantic musical, The Prodigal, with Lawrence Tibbett, Ralston travelled to England in 1932 and made two of her best talkies, Rome Express and After The Ball. Her good friend Randolph Scott persuaded Paramount to hire her back as his co-star in a Zane Grey western, To the Last Man (1933), but she had only supporting roles in the Joan Crawford vehicle Sadie McKee (1934), which allowed her to use her pleasant singing voice for the first time, and an amusing version of an Edith Wharton story 'Bread upon the Waters', retitled Strange Wives (1935).

Ralston returned to vaudeville in the Thirties, headlining twice at the Palace and once at the Palladium in London. After a small role as the celebrated singer Nora Bayes in the Alice Faye musical Tin Pan Alley (1940) and seventh billing in a 'B' thriller, San Francisco Docks (also 1940), Ralston retired from the screen. She continued to work on radio, while supplementing her income by working in B. Altman's department store in New York. Later she did television commercials and occasional theatre work, including a regional production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1975.

Her three marriages were all unsuccessful ('My first husband was a gambler, the second an alcoholic and the third unfaithful') but she took much pleasure in her three children and 15 grandchildren. 'I have had a very long and brilliant life,' she remarked just over a year ago, 'and I am very very grateful.'

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Guru Careers: Graduate Resourcer / Recruitment Account Executive

£18k + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a bright, enthusiastic and internet...

Reach Volunteering: Chair and trustees sought for YMCA Bolton

VOLUNTARY ONLY - EXPENSES REIMBURSED: Reach Volunteering: Bolton YMCA is now a...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher Geography teach...

Day In a Page

'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern