Bruce Guerin: Child actor who became a star thanks to his work with Josef von Sternberg

Kevin Brownlow
Tuesday 01 November 2016 14:47

Child actors are seldom remembered beyond their childhood, let alone 90 years later. From the silent era, one can think of Jackie Coogan and his heartbreaking performance in Chaplin's The Kid (1921) And anybody who sees Josef von Sternberg's Salvation Hunters (1925) will find it hard to forget the wistful child played by Bruce Guerin.

Guerin was born in Los Angeles in 1919. His mother had been a vaudeville dancer and his father, Paul Guerin, was in charge of electrical effects at Mack Sennett ,becoming a sound engineer when talkies arrived and an executive at Republic. (A street in Studio City is named after him.) Bruce entered pictures as "Baby Bruce Guerin" in 1922, thanks to his sister Marjorie, who had played for DW Griffith. His woebegone look registers well in his 1925 Standard Casting Directory photograph. The historian Janet Bergstrom described him as 'thoughtful, sombre and introspective."

He played in pictures for Warner Bros, Universal, United Artists and MGM. Drifting (1923), with Priscilla Dean and Anna May Wong, was a film about opium trafficking made by Tod Browning, celebrated director of the bizarre. A Warner Bros programmer, Country Kid (1923), as charming as the other wasn't, was directed by William Beaudine and starred a more famous child actor, Wesley Barry. The Woman He Loved was about a Jewish family from Russia emigrating to the United States, where poverty forces them to relinquish their child (Bruce) for adoption. It was directed by Edward Sloman, himself an emigrant from Whitechapel.

The Parasite (1925) had Bertie (Bruce) falling ill, and his father hiring Joan Laird (Madge Bellamy) to look after him. Society misunderstands and Joan is branded a parasite. The divorced wife, Laura, kidnaps the boy, and Joan gives chase. Laura is killed when her car goes over a cliff. The boy survives but he and Joan become lost in the mountains and to prevent him dying of hunger, she cuts her arm and forces the boy to drink her blood. (And this was produced nearly a century ago!)

The fan magazine Picture Play wrote in 1924: "Of the new crop of little kids stands out Bruce Guerin, who has been signed on a long-term contract by Warner Bros. They are grooming him with the hope that he will step into the roles that Wes Barry filled so capably, until he reached the awkward age. I doubt if Bruce is a logical successor to the particular type of Wes' characterization. For that matter, I don't like that term 'successor' anyway; imitators invariably fail. Bruce is individually himself; his talent is a sort of cross between Wes Barry's boyishness and Jackie Coogan's pathos. His work is that of a youngster gifted beyond the ordinary but, above all, of an absolute naturalness."

At the age of five, the piano became the central feature of his life. He began lessons at his own insistence. "As you passed each house on Stanley Avenue around 3pm you could hear a piano or violin," he recalled. "I had to do an hour on the piano before I was allowed to play with the neighbourhood kids. This went on until I graduated from North Hollywood High." He won a degree from the music school at UCLA

He was drafted in January 1942 and was selected for a new unit in Special Services. He had no military duties; his company commander was the outstanding Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans and his comrades were skilled instrumentalists, The 18 Pipers.

Piano players were highly valued, and Guerin served throughout the war playing for the soldiers on Oahu. Because Hawaii was under martial law, subjected to a black-out and a suspension of civil rights, he didn't get off Oahu until 1945. "Believe me," he said, "in wartime there's one thing you never get away from – it's the cocktail parties." Some of the key decisions about the war in the Pacific were made by the top brass – General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Chester Nimitz, General George Marshall – while Private Guerin played in the background. He played with stars such as Bob Hope, the Andrews Sisters and Ray Bolger and the shows were broadcast throughout the Pacific. After the war, he embarked on tours of the US before becoming a 14-year fixture at the Fog Cutter Restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard.

He returned to Hawaii in 1969, performing six nights a week at the Gangplank Lounge of the New Surfrider Hotel at Waikiki. He later moved to Maui, where he played at the Royal Lahaina Resort and then the Swan Court at the Hyatt Regency, continuing as pianist and raconteur. Visitors enjoyed challenging him to a game called Stump the Pianist in which they tried to think of a song he couldn't play. "They ask," said Lucille, his fourth wife "and he spins around on his bench and plays it. It shocks them."

Dr Janet Bergstrom, studying the work of Josef von Sternberg, discovered Guerin playing the piano in supper clubs on Maui in 2006. She began a long-distance friendship with him and Lucille; Guerin was amused to learn that Salvation Hunters was now regarded as a classic. "Some of the critics of the day wrote that it may be the WORST MOVIE ever made!!!" he recalled. Guerin retired in 1996.

A silent film called Kindred of the Dust, made 90 years ago by Raoul Walsh and featuring Miriam Cooper, Ralph Graves and Guerin, was being screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna on the day he died.

Bruce Guerin, actor and musician: born Los Angeles 18 January 1919; married Lucille (three sons, one daughter); died Wailuku, Hawaii 27 June 2012.

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