Remembering Silent Film Star Baby Marie Osborne

Melissa Blocks speaks with Jean-Jacques Jura, author of Balboa Films: A History and Filmography of the Silent Film Studio, about the life of Baby Marie Osborne, star of early silent movies. He met the actress at the end of her life and stayed in touch with her until she died.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Baby Marie Osborne has died at the ripe old age of 99. Marie Osborne Yeats was a child star of the silent film era. In just five years, she made some 30 films, including "Dolly's Vacation," "Tears and Smiles" and "Little Mary Sunshine." And she retired long before most actors' careers even begin - at the age of 8. But that was just the start of a long and eventful life. Joining me to talk about Baby Marie and the woman she became is Jean-Jacques Jura, who wrote a book about silent movies and interviewed Marie Osborne Yeats. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JEAN-JACQUES JURA (Co-author, "Balboa Films: A History and Filmography of the Silent Film Studio"): Oh, thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: As I understand this, she was a baby when she was plucked from the Colorado State Home for Dependent Children and taken by foster parents to California. How did she get her start in movies? She was 3 years old.

Mr. JURA: Well, her parents had been fascinated with the movie industry, and they moved from Colorado to Long Beach. Her father - her foster father, Leon, was actually the manager of the studio zoo, so he was always involved with the animals in the movie productions. And because she was always there with her parents, one day, Henry King needed someone to cover for a boy actor who didn't show up, and in a pinch, he put her in the role of the boy and realized she had great screen presence. And he came up with the whole new concept of co-starring with a juvenile actor in a feature film, and that was the launching of the "Little Mary Sunshine" series.

BLOCK: And she was making a lot of money, right? Hundreds of dollars a week at her peak. Why did she retire when she was 8 years old?

Mr. JURA: I never got a clear answer on that, other than she said she was no longer the little girl. But I think it probably had to do with problems at home. There was a problem with divorce, and I think family issues probably terminated her movie career.

BLOCK: It sounds like the money that she made from her movie fame disappeared with her...

Mr. JURA: It did.

BLOCK: ...foster parents' marriage.

Mr. JURA: It did. There was nothing to protect at that time juvenile actors' incomes, and she was making as much as 300 a week, and that means more than a thousand a month. So she was making more than a bank president and equivalent to what Charlie Chaplin was making a week as well.

BLOCK: Wow. You know, it is refreshing to read that there was a second act -many second acts, really, for...

Mr. JURA: Yeah.

BLOCK: ...Marie Osborne Yeats later in life. Tell us about that. What happened to her?

Mr. JURA: She was a stand-in at different studios, including actresses like Deanna Durbin and Ginger Rogers. And then, she got an opportunity to work as a costumer. That part of her career culminated in her being the personal costumer of Elizabeth Taylor in "Cleopatra."

BLOCK: As you came to know Marie Osborne Yeats late in her life, what was she like? What kinds of stories did she have to tell?

Mr. JURA: She was reluctant to look back and be too sentimental about the past, but she did regret, for example, not having gone to public school. She had a chauffeur. She was always with adults. But, on the other hand, she was curious about things, an avid reader, always informed. And the other thing that was curious is she loved fast cars, and she was driving them till almost the age of 90. She was driving a sports Saab model...

BLOCK: Wow.

Mr. JURA: ...and she would wear leather gloves. I rode with her a couple of times, and it scared me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JURA: But she was a good driver but a very fast driver. And I think that typifies her kind of living in the present but also moving always into the future.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Jura, thanks for telling us about Marie Osborne Yeats.

Mr. JURA: Oh, it's a pleasure. I'm very glad that her contributions and memory are enough to cover.

BLOCK: Jean-Jacques Jura is the co-author with Rodney Norman Bardin of the book "Balboa Films: A History and Filmography of the Silent Film Studio."

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