Baby Marie Osborne; early child star of silent films
November 16, 2010
‘Baby’ Marie Osborne, who died on November 11 aged 99, was an early child star of silent films and a favourite with First World War audiences; she made her film debut aged three, and soon appeared as the lead in almost 30 pictures, including her most memorable title, Little Mary Sunshine.
Her fame was, however, short-lived. By the time of her 10th birthday her career was almost over and her fortune dissipated. “I set the trend for virtually every other child star that followed,” she said almost 90 years later.
Helen Alice Myres was born in Denver, Colorado, on November 5 1911, and at the age of three months became the foster daughter of Leon and Edith Osborn (the “e” was a later addition). At the suggestion of her foster mother, her name was changed to Marie.
The Osborns left Denver for Long Beach, California, in 1914, and soon found jobs acting with the Balboa Amusement Company. Unable to afford a babysitter, Leon and Edith took Marie with them to the studio, where she came to the attention of the director Henry King.
King had wanted to cast a male toddler in Maid of the Wild (1915), but liked Marie’s bob hairstyle, and guessed that, with the right wardrobe, she could easily pass for a boy. Soon recognising that he had a potential star on his hands, King urged Balboa to put her under contract.
Later, under his supervision, King had Little Mary Sunshine (1916) especially written for her. The film, which King directed, tells the story of an infant who is suddenly orphaned and taken in by the parents of a man who has been ditched by his fiancée. The scenes starring Baby Marie, as she was billed, remain the film’s most engaging, and made her a star.
Together King and Marie produced a series of successful films, including Joy and the Dragon and Shadows and Sunshine (both 1916), Told at Twilight (1917) and The Locked Heart (1918). The child was well paid for her efforts. “I couldn’t quite understand all the attention being paid me,” she recalled. “I was earning $300 a week when the average American was making less than $1,000 per year.”
Such was her success that, in 1917, Leon and Edith Osborn formed their own production company, Lasalida, and released a string of Baby Marie pictures. In 1918-19, at the height of her popularity, a merchandising deal with a New York toy manufacturer saw Baby Marie Osborne dolls on Christmas wish lists for little girls across the globe.
By 1920 she owned three vast properties in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles, and was driven about town by a dapper chauffeur in a 1907 Hudson.
But her star then began to wane in the face of competition from younger, cuter girls. Baby Marie travelled America to re-engage with her once loyal audience, but the tour did little to reactivate her flagging career. By the time she entered her teens, she had retired.
What happened to the money remained a mystery to Marie Osborne. “I was the first of Hollywood’s washed-up child stars. There was a trust fund, but I never seemed to have received anything from it,” she recalled. “My foster parents lived a gilded life.”
In 1931 she married a businessman, Frank Dempsey, but when their marriage foundered she was obliged to look for work. “I wrote to Henry King,” she remembered. “He was very gracious, and quickly aided me in joining the newly formed Screen Actors’ Guild.” Marie Osborne then appeared in numerous films, often as a stand-in for the likes of Ginger Rogers, Deanna Durbin and Betty Hutton. The Dempseys divorced in 1937.
She met the actor Murray Yeats, who became her second husband, while serving at the Hollywood Canteen during the Second World War.
Postwar she found work in the ladies’ department at the Western Costume Company, later moving to Twentieth Century Fox as assistant costumier, then costume supervisor, for actors including Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Rock Hudson, Robert Redford and Elizabeth Taylor. She retired in 1976. Yeats had died the previous year.
Marie Osborne is survived by a daughter of her first marriage. Of the dozens of films she made, only four complete titles have been preserved.