Not quite right

Two stars in ship’s clothing.

I recently bid on a photograph associated with a 1938 Cecil B. DeMille film called The Buccaneer, and noticed that the seller identified the man in the picture – the actor Fredric March (1897–1975) – but not the woman: a search at The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) suggested that she was the Hungarian actress Franciska Gaal (1904–1973). In the end, I won the auction, and when I went to pay the seller I started thinking about Miss Gaal’s hair – which led me on an internet search that revealed that the actress, the actor, and the film were not quite what they seemed.

Miss Gaal (as I must still call her) is clad in fetching chiffon rags as she clings to her suitor, but her hair, with its marcelled waves and generally fluffiness, hints that the photo belongs to the 1920s. I was also bothered by her protector, Mr. March, as he didn’t match my recollection of Fredric March’s features.

Since the photo was coded as a DeMille production (D.M. 2–10, 191), I looked at DeMille’s filmography at IMDb, keeping my focus on the decade between 1920 and 1930. As a producer, he was associated with a film called The Cruise of the Jasper B. (1926) starring Rod La Rocque (1898–1969) and Mildred Harris (1901–1944), better known by her married name of Mrs. Charles Chaplin between 1918 and 1921.

I was embarrassed to recognize “Fredric March” as Rod La Rocque, as I already had photos of La Rocque and his future wife, Vilma Bánky (1898–1991), perhaps best known for appearing opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik and Ronald Colman and Gary Cooper in The Winning of Barbara Worth (both in 1926). While I knew of Mildred Harris from the stories of Chaplin’s tumultuous private life, I did not recognize her from this photo. Still, DeMille and La Rocque’s presence in the photo suggested that I was on the right track. A Google search soon led me to a poster for The Cruise of the Jasper B., in which La Rocque and Harris embrace on the deck of the foundering Jasper B. – et voilà!

In the end, I bought a photo from 1926 rather than 1938, one that features Rod La Rocque instead of Fredric March and Mildred Harris rather than Franciska Gaal. Happy as I would be in either case, as I do like the photo itself, the additional research clarifying the date of the picture has given me the satisfaction of learning more about DeMille’s career and more about Mrs. Chaplin – and all because Mildred Harris’s hairstyle didn’t seem quite right!

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About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward has been NEHGS’ Editor-in-Chief since 2013. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

14 thoughts on “Not quite right

  1. Scott,

    At least you knew to look and to trust your instinct that something was “off” or not quite right. How often do we all just accept something as it has been presented to us without doing the actual homework that we surely should always at least consider. What a fun thing to collect – and what a great collection you must have!! Hair styles indeed! Sir, that was case of acute observation, and of your discerning eye.

    Best regards,

    Jeff

  2. Scott, here is a website you’ll enjoy: LADailyMirror.wordpress.com, and its feature “Movie Mystery Photo.”

    Beginning on Mondays, it posts a week-long series of mystery photos of actors and actresses from a movie of the 1920s, 1930s or 1940s. Readers are invited to guess the names of these fabulous character players, and name the movie. The website is a compendium of photos and stories from the long gone Los Angeles Daily Mirror, which was a major newspaper for the growing L.A. Metro area. (There are numerous features on old architecture, development, politics, entertainment, murder cases like “The Black Dahlia” and so on, with expert commentary from previous staffers.) Considering your own expertise exhibited in “Not Quite Right” (above), I think you’d have a good time and great success recognizing the faces.

    I appreciate your point about gaining clues to identity from hairstyles, clothing, jewelry, furniture, and backgrounds from old photos of our ancestors. With some diligence, we can at least narrow down a time frame for our own mystery characters in old photos.

  3. Congratulations on winning a truly interesting photo–and finding its provenance. Have you come across any interesting photos of the silent movie star, Wedgewood Nowell, aka Harry Hawkins Nowell, born 24 Jan 1878 in Portmouth, N.H.? I did find a studio portrait of him online, but nothing of him posed on a silent movie set with an actress. His most notable roles: The Disciple (1915) and The Deserter (1916).

  4. There is some information on the ancestors of Cecil B. DeMille in: Otto Schutte, “Origins of the De Milt / De Mill(e) Family of New Amsterdam,” NYGBR vol. 133, no. 4 (Oct 2002), pp. 269-278. Also, Frans C. M. Gouverneur presents some more details on the family of Anthony1 de Milt and Elisabeth van der Liphorst in “Dutch origins of some early settlers and allied families, part 4: Van der Liphorst, Provoost,” New Netherland Connections Vol,. 9, no. 4(2004), pp. 19-28.

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