RIP Barbara Kent - One of the Last Actors from the Silent Era

It's time for me to join the online chorus and comment on the passing of former actress Barbara Kent.  She was an actress for only a few years and by all accounts lived a full and happy life after she retired from the screen.  She died last week at the age of 103 with the distinction of being one of the last surviving actors of the silent era.  (LA Times Obit; New York Times Obit).  We're counting down former silent film players much as people noted the passing of the WWI veterans in the past.  Not too many remain from the silent era and the last of the WWI veterans are gone.  Kent has been little remembered outside the silent film community.  She left a couple of wonderful performances including 1927's Flesh and the Devil, 1928's Lonesome and 1929's The Shakedown.

Garbo and Gilbert so dominate Flesh and the Devil, it's hard to remember Kent as the young girl who did not get her man.  Her charm in that film is quite evident, she was a pretty little thing.  Paul Fejos' Lonesome is a touching and wonderful film and it's really difficult to get to see it.  Really crappy gray-market bootlegs do not do the film any justice and are more than a little bit illegal.  Lonesome is really worth seeking out on the big screen, heck, I'm dying to see it on the big screen. (Anyone at the SF Silent Film Festival listening? Can we get it, can we, huh?)  Lonesome is one at the very top of my wish list for a big screen event. 

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Barbara Kent and James Murray in The Shakedown on the big screen during the 2010 San Francisco Silent Film Festival.  You can read the program notes at their online archive.  It was the sleeper hit of the weekend for me and is still a film I want to see again.  I remember Kent being charming and pretty, which is pretty much all that was required in this film.

Here's my recap of the film from and earlier blog post:

The Shakedown 1929 William Wyler: James Murray, Barbara Kent and Jack Hanlon.

This was the best film of the weekend for me. This was a small film, a programmer and William Wyler’s second film. It was, in short, a revelation. That Wyler could pretty much come out of the box and give us a film that moved at breakneck speed and tell a story with such slim and easily hackneyed material in such an entertaining fashion shows what a raw talent he was. The film also showcased what a tragic loss was the career of James Murray. I’d only seen him in King Vidor’s 1928 film The Crowd. He’s affecting in that film. In The Shakedown he is even more moving, more natural. This illustrated to me all the more how tragic that his career was so short and his end so swift. Murray’s scenes with young Jack Hanlon as the orphaned boy are great, very natural camaraderie between the two and blossoming into a very heartfelt father and son-like affection. Murray and Hanlon’s tears were real, so too were mine. Barbara Kent, who is one of the few silent players still with us, had little to do but to look pretty. She did that well. Harry Gribbon mugged and did his scenes with the boy to great effect. I came away so pleased with the film. It’s a sleeper and was my favorite of the weekend. A programmer that hit a home run out of the ballpark and into McCovey Cove.

As mentioned above, veterans of the silent film era number only a scant few these days.  Mickey Rooney and Diana Serra Cary aka Baby Peggy come to mind immediately.  We can't keep them here, but we can remember them, especially if their films survive for our enjoyment.  Barbara Kent was not Clara Bow, nor even Colleen Moore, but she was for a time, a real charmer on screen with a few really wonderful films to remember her by.  Thanks for everything and Godspeed.


Mercurie said…
It was so sad to hear Barbara Kent died. Oh, I realise she couldn't live forever, but she was one of the very last actors of the Silent Era.
Anonymous said…
"Lonesome" was shown at George Eastman House in December 2010 -- their restoration.

Criterion will release it on DVD and Blu-ray on August 28. I won't spoil it for you, but Barbara Kent's first line is howlingly funny; then you cry. Worth the wait.

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