A frail blonde with no previous acting experience, Virginia Cherrill became part of screen history with her first film, the silent classic City Lights in which her portrayal of the blind flower seller whose sight is restored by an operation paid for by a nondescript tramp (Charlie Chaplin) has continued to move and captivate audiences ever since the film's premiere in 1931. Her subsequent film roles were less distinguished (her voice was not ideal for sound) and, after a brief marriage to Cary Grant, she came to England, where, throughout the war years, she was the Countess of Jersey.
Born on a farm in Carthage, Illinois, in 1908, she moved to California in 1928 after a disastrous early marriage to a Chicago lawyer. Her college friend Sue Carol had become a successful film actress and Cherrill liked the idea of working in movies. Reports on her meeting with Chaplin vary - most indicate that they met at a boxing match, but Chaplin states that he had seen her earlier on the beach where she had bluntly asked, "When am I going to work for you?" Though he thought "her shapely form in a bathing suit did not inspire the idea of her playing such a spiritual part as the blind girl", he tested her and found that "to my surprise, she had the faculty of looking blind, following my advice to look inwardly at me but not see me".
The shooting of the film was stormy - Chaplin, the perfectionist, took five days to capture one 70-second sequence, where the tramp first encounters Cherrill who, believing him to be a millionaire, asks him to buy a flower. Concerned about the impact sound was having on cinema, the tense Chaplin had little patience with Cherrill's lack of commitment.
Described by the gossip columnist Louella Parsons as "Hollywood's greatest beauty", she was an inveterate party-goer, necessitating careful make- up for the film cameras the next morning. At one point, Chaplin tested other actresses with the intention of replacing Cherrill, but none had the poignant quality she was bringing to the role.
After over a year in the making City Lights opened to great acclaim and, though a music track and some sound effects were Chaplin's only concession to the craze for sound, it made an enormous profit. Despite the accolades given Cherrill, Chaplin had no desire to work with her again ("I never liked Chaplin and he never liked me", she later said), and she signed a contract with Fox, who put her into three 1931 releases, Girls Demand Excitement (with a young John Wayne), John Ford's The Brat, and a supporting role in the Janet Gaynor musical Delicious.
She was briefly engaged to the acrobatic dancer Buster West and to the millionaire William Rhinelander Stewart before meeting Cary Grant at a party. "I fell in love with her almost the moment she walked in," he said later. The couple were married in February 1934 but before the end of the year they were separated. Grant later stated: "My possessiveness and fear of losing her brought about the very condition I feared: the loss of her." (They remained friends and over 30 years later, when Grant was divorcing Dyan Cannon, Cherrill rang him to say: "If you want a character witness, I'll come right down there and give you one.") Cherrill resumed her career in Britain with two minor thrillers starring James Mason, Late Extra (1935, Mason's first film) and Troubled Waters (1936), which was to be her last film.
In 1937 she married the ninth Earl of Jersey, and as Lady Jersey undertook charity work during the Second World War. The marriage ended in 1946 and two years later Cherrill married a flying ace, Florian Martini. In 1950, they settled in Santa Barbara, California, where their 48-year marriage lasted until Cherrill's death.
"I was no great shakes as an actress," she once said, but her final close- ups in City Lights in which, her sight restored, she fails to recognise the tramp as her benefactor until, giving him a flower, she touches his hand, moved the writer and critic James Agee to state: "It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies."
Virginia Cherrill, actress: born Carthage, Illinois 12 April 1908; married 1927 Irving Adler (marriage dissolved 1928), 1934 Cary Grant (marriage dissolved 1935), 1937 George, ninth Earl of Jersey (marriage dissolved 1946), 1948 Florian Martini; died Santa Barbara, California 14 November 1996.
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