Author Laura Petersen Balogh answers questions on her new biography of Karl Dane
Karl Dane’s life was a Cinderella story gone horribly wrong. The immigrant from Copenhagen was rapidly transformed from a machinist to a Hollywood star after his turn as the tobacco-chewing Slim in The Big Parade in 1925. After that, Dane appeared in more than 40 films with such luminaries as Lillian Gish, John Gilbert and William Haines until development of talkies virtually ruined his career. The most famous casualty of the transition from silent to sound film, Dane reportedly lost his career because of his accent. He was broke and alone at the height of the Depression and committed suicide in 1934.
This Sunday, October 18, at 5 p.m., author Laura Petersen Balogh will be in Hollywood at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater doing a book signing and giving a talk about Karl’s life and career. A screening of The Big Parade will follow with Robert Israel on the organ. Click here for complete information.
Laura was kind enough to answer a few questions about her new biography on Karl Dane:
Why Karl Dane? What is it about him and his story that moved you to write a biography?
I had always known who Karl Dane was, being a silent film buff my whole life, but he never really made that much of an impression on me. I had read different Hollywood scandal books which said his voice was not suited to the talkies, but pretty much thought that was the end of the story. It wasn’t until December 2005, when my husband Dan and I were watching the 1933 early sound serial The Whispering Shadow, co-starring Karl and Bela Lugosi, that I sat up and took notice–I was hearing his voice for the first time and was suddenly intrigued. It didn’t seem to me that his accent was that much of a barrier–it fit his physical persona and seemed easy enough to understand. I decided to find out more about him, but there were no biographies available. After awhile, I remained so curious and motivated that I decided to take on the project myself. I felt a sense of empathy for him, too, and wanted to find out what really happened.
How was Karl Dane the man, different from Karl Dane the actor?
Karl was always portrayed as a bit of a bumpkin, but reporters were always shocked to find him a lot more sophisticated off-camera. While always ready with an easy grin, he was actually quiet and reserved. Also, Karl rarely got the girl in his films, but comedy partner George K. Arthur said that he “had a way with women that was something incredible.” He was reported to be a bit of a romantic in real life so must have been a very charming sort.
Was he popular among his fellow actors?
There was apparently some snobbery towards him in Hollywood due to his working class background which he never tried to disguise and also his broken English. Some cast and crew members got the wrong impression of him due to misunderstandings due to language, and got to thinking he was self-important or just plain stupid, which was not the case. He also was a loner and didn’t go to Hollywood parties of the day, and this further isolated him.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe he was married three times and had at least three children. Were you able to contact any surviving family members or friends?
Yes, exactly. He had 3 children, but one of them died at birth. I was able to contact family members, including one of his grandsons and a grand-nephew who very generously shared all the information they had with me. However, none of his surviving family ever met Karl–they were born after Karl died. I did manage to contact Frank “Junior” Coghlan, who appeared with Karl in the film Slide Kelly Slide in 1927 and remembered Karl very fondly.
What was the most difficult part of your research?
Probably at the beginning stages, I was the most unsure, because I had very little idea of where to go for information and whom to contact. I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to uncover enough to write a book at all. I was putting money into the research at that point without knowing for sure if it would all be worth it.
What part of your research did you enjoy the most?
Sitting down in various film archives at USC, Warner’s, the Danish Film Institute, and MOMA, digging through boxes of unpublished memoirs, scripts, photo albums, clippings, and production records. I felt like an archaeologist at times! I also loved going to the Eastman House to see all the Dane films in their catalog.
What is your favorite Karl Dane film and why?
Although he’s primarily remembered as a silent actor since Pantomime was his main forte, I really love seeing his sound films, like the wonderful Navy Blues with William Haines and Anita Page. Karl’s voice really fit his persona, and it’s nice seeing the complete performer onscreen.
There are a lot of stories about Dane’s last days and his death. Did you find them to be mostly true?
Some aspects of the stories were true. It was true that Karl committed suicide when he was reduced to poverty, and that he did have part ownership in a “hot dog stand.” However, it was probably a myth that the stand was near the studio gates. Also, Karl didn’t lose his studio contract because his accent was bad. Sure, they reduced his roles, but would have kept him on, had he not suffered a complete nervous breakdown in 1930, brought about by overwork and loss of confidence.
Reportedly MGM paid for Dane’s funeral and sent Jean Hersholt to claim his body. Why didn’t the studio or his Hollywood friends try to help him when they could?
Jean Hersholt didn’t claim his body–it was another studio employee. Hersholt had nothing to do with arranging the funeral, according to his later interviews, although he did act as a pallbearer at the funeral. Also, some people did in fact try to help Karl. Mary Pickford planned a film called Shantytown in which Karl was supposed to have a featured role, but she abandoned it to make Secrets instead. Friend Buster Keaton also gave Karl roles in at least 2 of his films, but Keaton was having enough personal and studio troubles of his own at the time.
What is your next project?
I have a few ideas that I’m contemplating–but I don’t want to jinx anything yet!
Click here to purchase Karl Dane: A Biography and Filmography