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Obituary: Laura La Plante

If Laura La Plante in old age had not resembled herself in youth so strongly, I should have suspected an impostor. She was charming, friendly and immensely likeable, but no one would have taken her for one of the most popular stars in film history. For she seemed totally unaffected by the experience; too modest, too forgetful.

When David Gill and I arrived at her home in Rancho Mirage, outside Palm Springs, with a film crew for our Hollywood series in 1977, Laura retreated to the kitchen and pleaded not to be interviewed. She knew we'd come to film her husband Irving Asher, producer and silent-era publicist, but she also knew we'd grab something of her if we could. When we realised her reticence was genuine, we relented.

I had tried to chronicle her career during several visits, and while she tried hard to remember, her memory was as bad as she said it was. She could recall exactly what she wore in a picture, but none of the incidents associated with the making of it. But during those visits I grew very fond of her. She had a dry sense of humour; I remember her poring over some photographs with an old friend, the silent actress Bessie Love, trying to remember the names. Eventually she turned to me and said "Care to take a nap?"

She was best-known as a comedienne, and yet her finest performances were in dramatic roles, in two films of 1924 directed by Clarence Brown: Butterfly, in which she played a violin student (which she was in real life) for whose talent her older sister sacrifices her career; and Smouldering Fires, a realistic drama about an autocratic, middle-aged woman who runs a factory (Pauline Frederick) and falls for a young employee, only to find him pursuing her youthful sister (Laura). The sensitivity of the playing transformed the stereotyped story into a minor masterpiece.

Laura La Plante came from a poverty-stricken background in St Louis, Missouri. Her father was a dance teacher. After her mother divorced him, she moved with Laura and her younger sister Violet to San Diego, California.

As a teenager, Laura spent summer vacations with a cousin, Mary MacMahon, in Hollywood. Mary spotted a newspaper ad asking for children for moving pictures, and Laura was selected and brought home some money. Her mother, who had lost her job, sent her back in the holidays.

Mary MacMahon did all she could for Laura. Next door lived a scenario writer who knew the great director George Loane Tucker, and he was asked to meet Laura. Tucker staged a test in the garden, but Laura felt his cameraman had no film in his camera, because all she got were words of encouragement. Tucker advised her to visit a studio and to watch how things were done. Film-making was a relatively casual affair in 1919, and Laura was able to do just that.

When her cousin moved to an apartment on Gower Street, Laura secured a proper test at the nearby Christie comedy studios. She was noticed by Al Christie and this is Laura's account of the conversation: "'How did you get into stock here?' 'I didn't . . .' 'Would you like to?' 'Yes.' 'Well, as of Monday, you're in stock.'" ("He was," explained Laura, "in a very good mood.")

Al Christie cast her in a series based on a newspaper cartoon strip called Bringing Up Father. Her first important role was in Charles Ray's The Old Swimmin' Hole (1921). Charles Ray was then nearing the end of his career playing wistful, hayseed roles in films deeply nostalgic for a vanishing America. This film was something of an experiment, being made entirely without subtitles. La Plante's fresh, naturalistic, performance won her notice and she thought stardom was assured.

Instead, she was cast by Fox in a western, Big Town Round-up (1921) with Tom Mix. Westerns, even with Tom Mix, were regarded as the cheap end, one might almost say the rear end, of the industry, and appearing in them brought little attention. Furthermore, she had to ride a horse. She couldn't ride, but refused to admit it and the experience brought her nothing but terror.

From Fox she went over to Universal, which was a foolish move because they were were famous for their westerns. La Plante was cast in a relentless series of western two-reelers and five-reelers and even a serial, Perils of the Yukon (1922), for which she was expected to do her own stunts, and during which the company were snowed in on location in the High Sierras. She never learned to ride properly, and was grateful for a brief spell at Goldwyn where she played the prettiest girl in town in Rupert Hughes's The Wallflower (1922).

Her career began to take off when she was selected as a Wampas Baby Star of 1923 (Wampas standing for Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers). The following year she played with Reginald Denny in a motor-racing comedy called Sporting Youth. By now she had dyed her light-brown hair blonde, and her dazzling beauty, together with her personality - humorous, mischievous, but basically sensible and kind - brought her tremendous popularity. She became Universal's top star, a sort of Carole Lombard of her day.

While her favourite films were the comedies she made with Reginald Denny, her most celebrated role, was in The Cat and the Canary (1927), a brilliant parody of Gothic horror directed by the German master Paul Leni.

ln 1926 she married William Seiter, who had directed the best of her Denny comedies. After playing Magnolia in Show Boat (1929) - a silent version, later reissued with sound prologue and music and effects - and an appearance in King of Jazz (1930), Laura La Plante and Universal parted company.

In 1933 she moved to Europe, and in 1934, after an amicable divorce from William Seiter, she married Irving Asher, then in charge of the Warner Bros studios at Teddington. She played in only a handful of the films he produced there, for she was now the mother of two children, Jill and Tony.

When war came, Asher joined the US Army and Laura and the children returned to California. She made a few more appearances on film, played in television and made her last film, Spring Reunion, in 1957.

When her son Tony was 16, he was asked what his mother was doing these days. "Oh now," he said, "she's just a woman." Laura La Plante may have vanished from public view, but she made a final appearance in New York in The Night of 100 Stars in 1985.

Laura Isabelle La Plante, actress: born St Louis, Missouri 1 November 1904; married 1926 William Seiter (marriage dissolved 1934), 1934 Irving Asher (died 1985; one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 14 October 1996.