Obituary: Patsy Ruth Miller

Kevin Brownlow
Friday 21 July 1995 23:02

Patsy Ruth Miller, actress: born St Louis, Missouri 17 January 1904; married first Tay Garnett, secondly John Lee Mahin, thirdly 1951 E.S. Deans (one son); died California 16 July 1995.

Patsy Ruth Miller was an actress who could do anything - every one of her roles was different. Like all silent stars, she was small; her curly brown hair could be swept back to reveal a face severe or seductive, as the role demanded. She could play a society hostess, a Jewish immigrant or Lorraine of the Lions with equal conviction and vitality, and in 1923 she played opposite Lon Chaney in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Miller was among the first silent film stars I interviewed when I went to America 30 years ago. She lived in Stamford, Connecticut, in a wealthy part of town, and I expected a cold and haughty character at least as old as Miss Havisham. The woman who answered the door was surprisingly youthful - she was then 60 - and full of enthusiasm for the early days of pictures. I spent most of the day with her, while her husband hovered sympathetically in the background. The two of us sprawled on the carpet, examining rare stills and scrapbooks like children in a nursery.

But on a visit to London she shocked me. Explaining her relationship with some of the great directors of the period, like Victor Fleming, she was amusing and frank. As she left, she muttered, "If only my blue movies still survived." I had heard rumours that one or two actresses made pornographic films but had never seen proof. Here was a star not only admitting to them, but apparently quite nostalgic! It was not until I examined her career a little more closely that I realised she was talking about the films she had played in with Monte Blue.

Of Irish origin, Patsy Ruth Miller was born and raised in St Louis, Missouri. She loved motion pictures and was a great admirer of the celebrated Russian actress Alla Nazimova, whose film The Red Lantern (1919) she saw three times. When as a girl she first went to Hollywood, she was given a test at the Douglas Fairbanks studio, but her mother was advised to take her daughter home. "She'll never be an actress. It will save you a lot of heartbreak in the long run."

But at the Hollywood Hotel she met her idol. Nazimova, impressed by Patsy's quiet beauty, cast her as a shop girl in her production of Camille (1921) in which Rudolph Valentino played Armand. Miller thought she would sky- rocket to stardom, but the film managed to waste both her and Valentino. Nor did she and Valentino fall into each other's arms, as most people assume; she was 16 and somewhat irritated that the Italian treated her like an elder brother.

After a few minor roles, Miller became leading lady to the great cowboy star Tom Mix. This proved a somewhat hair-raising experience. Mix taught her how to ride a wild western horse, how to handle a revolver and how to survive an action sequence going wrong. Perhaps Miller's fondest memories were of Charles Ray, a gifted actor who invariably played adolescent boys, awkward and shy. He specialised in what might be called artistic Americana. One of his films was famous for having no subtitles at all. With Miller he made The Girl I Loved (1923), a story of unrequited love based on James Whitcomb Riley's poem. "The most beautiful, romantic, poignant and harrowing picture we ever saw," said the New York Tribune.

Miller mourned the loss of this film more than any other, and I was delighted to discover, a few years ago, that it survived at the Royal Belgian Film Archive. It was incomplete, but one could see what a poetic film it had been. The head of the archive, Jacques Ledoux, presented Miller with a video- cassette, which did not disappoint her, although she quickly spotted vital missing sequences.

If The Girl I Loved has been forgotten, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is as celebrated as ever. (It will be shown at the National Film Theatre on 4 August.) Miller was asked to test for the role of Esmeralda, but almost didn't go, assuming that every actress in Hollywood would be up for it. Why then was she chosen? "I've not the slightest idea," she said, "except that I worked cheaper than anyone else. Also, I could dance." Wallace Worsley directed the film, but Miller said Chaney also collaborated. In the interrogation scene, Worsley was impressed that she shed real tears. Chaney took her aside. "Great acting isn't crying real tears," he said. "Great acting is making the audience cry real tears."

Miller worked with some of the finest directors in cinema history. Victor Seastrom, who was to make The Wind (1928) with Lillian Gish, cast her in his first American film, Name the Man (1924). Miller's instinctive sense of comedy was brought out to brilliant effect by Ernst Lubitsch in So This is Paris (1926). "I adored that man - such humour; wicked, but never malicious, always sweet. Here was a director who directed. 'I have worked for months,' he told us, 'and every scene the writer and I have visualised. We've done it to the best of our ability. And if there is anything an actor feels he cannot do - we will not change the scene, we will change the actor.' " Miller was reported to be engaged with a number of fascinating men - John Monk Saunders, Donald Ogden Stewart . . . "Bring the one and only man in your life over for dinner," Lubitsch would say, "Whoever he is this week."

Warner Bros featured her in a number of comedies by lesser directors, including Roy del Ruth and Charles Riesner, some of these being her Monte Blue pictures. In the only one I've seen, Red Hot Tires (1926), she is superb. It was while making The First Auto (1927) that her co-star, Charles Emmet Mack, was killed in a car crash. He had asked Miller to come with him to watch the racetrack scenes being shot, but her maid insisted that she rest; almost certainly, she saved her life.

In the mid-Twenties, Miller was landed with a number of what were known as "poverty row" productions - cheap pictures made at speed for undemanding audiences. But she didn't behave like a Big Star, and was unaffected. She was soon regarded as a considerable actress. "Patsy Ruth Miller runs away with the picture as far as the story is concerned," ran a review of The White Black Sheep (1926).

Miller's Hollywood career lasted for 70 films over 10 years - 1921 to 1931. Rumour had it that her voice was unsuitable for talkies, but this was not true; she acted successfully in several plays. She married the director Tay Garnett, and wrote radio scripts, screenplays, award- winning short stories and even a novel. Divorcing Garnett, she married the screenwriter Jon Lee Mahin (Scarface, Too Hot to Handle), noted for right-wing political views which Miller shared. In 1951 she married Effingham Smith Deans, a New York importer of Scottish origin.

Patsy's brother Winston Miller, a child actor in silents, graduated to writing screenplays; he co-authored My Darling Clementine (1946) for John Ford. Patsy wrote her life-story with Jeffrey Carrier, published in 1988 as My Hollywood - When Both of Us Were Young. She was fortunate in her publisher, Philip Riley, who added to it the script of Hunchback and printed it to a superb standard. It is now a collector's item.

"I just decided to write about Hollywood as I knew it. It wasn't at all the way it was pictured in all those gossip columns. Those were beautiful years for me." In those years, she knew Scott Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker, Chaplin and Barrymore, and was a frequent guest to San Simeon, the Xanadu of William Randolph Hearst - no wonder she called it "the delirious decade". One could sympathise if everything thereafter was an anticlimax. Yet, in one of her last letters to me she said how full her life was, even in her eighties. "It is simply incredible how busy one can be without working."

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