Obituary: Esther Ralston
Tuesday 01 February 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.'
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