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Mae Marsh

Mae Marsh (November 9, 1895 in Madrid, New Mexico - February 13, 1968 in Hermosa Beach, California) was born Mary Wayne Marsh and was an American film actress whose career spanned 50 years.
Mae Marsh (1895 - 1968)

Marsh appeared in both silent films and “talkies,” but is best known for her work with famed director D.W. Griffith, starring in his controversial epics The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). Griffith discovered young Marsh on the Biograph set where she followed her older sister Marguerite, an aspiring film actress. Marsh’s relationship with Griffith would open the door to the silent film world, achieving her great fame and cementing her place as one of the most prolific silent films actresses in film history.

Early Life

The popular story of Marsh’s upbringing details that her father, a railroad auditor, died when she was only four years old. Marsh’s mother remarried and her family moved to San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, her stepfather was killed in a 1906 earthquake [1] However, this frequently told recount of Marsh’s early life is false, as her father was a bartender, known to have lived until 1900 when Marsh was six. Her stepfather could not have died in the 1906 earthquake, as he is listed on the 1910 census along with Marsh’s mother and siblings[2].

Marsh and her sister Marguerite moved-in with their great aunt, who introduced the young girls to Biograph Pictures. The two hoped they could find jobs as extras in films. Marsh got a job as a salesgirl on the lot and often watched her sister work on a film. Marsh appeared in front of the camera for the first time in Ramona (1910), acting alongside silent film super star, Mary Pickford[3]. Marsh was 15 years old.

Work with D.W. Griffith

In 1912, a 19-year-old Marsh auditioned for D.W. Griffith’s Man’s Genesis (1912). Griffith spotted Marsh on the studio lot, drawn to her “frail, wispy look.”[4] Marsh’s audition for the film prompted another run-in with Pickford, who had turned down the role because of the revealing costume. The role, a prehistoric girl, demanded that the actress wear a short grass skirt and walk around in bare feet. Pickford and other silent film stars who auditioned for the role were not keen on showing their legs on screen, but Marsh was willing[5].

Having achieved fame from Man’s Genesis, Marsh made the decision to further distinguish herself from Pickford, as she feared sharing a first name with the famous actress would cause confusion with audience members and studio executives. Mary Wayne Marsh became Mae Marsh, movie star[6]. The new name and success in Man’s Genesis earned Marsh the coveted role of Mary in Griffith’s 1912 short The Sands of Dee.

In 1913, Marsh made two films for the Kalem Company under Kenean Buell’s direction. The next year, Pickford informed Griffith that she would be leaving his company. Upon Pickford’s departure, Marsh went with Griffith to Majestic-Reliance Studios, acting in three films that year: The Escape, Home Sweet Home, and The Avenging Conscience.

Marsh then began work on the first of Griffith’s landmark epics, The Birth of a Nation (1915). In the film, Marsh plays Flora, a girl who leaps to her death to avoid the rape by a black man. Her moving performance highlighted her acting talents. Griffith encouraged Marsh to act in a natural way, steering her away from making grand gestures and exaggerated facial expressions, though that style of acting was very popular at the time[7]. Instead, Marsh made small, delicate movements that brought authenticity to her dramatic roles.

Mae Marsh in Intolerance (1916),_1916,_la_ragazza_(Mae_Walsh)_al_processo.jpg

Marsh used this style again in Intolerance (1916), Griffith’s account of love and hatred throughout the ages. In this film, Marsh played a woman desperate to save her husband from a false accusation while caring for their infant child. The role required Marsh to continuously wring a handkerchief and press it to her face, simple gestures that created her most powerful performance.

After the success of Intolerance, Griffith formed Triangle Studios with Mack Sennett and Thomas H. Ince, producing three other films, Hoodoo Ann, The Little Liar, and The Wharf Rat, all staring Marsh and released in 1916.

As Marsh’s fame grew, Samuel Goldwyn offered her a staggering $2,500 per week to star in upcoming pictures for Goldwyn Studios[8], effectively making her the first “Goldwyn Girl.” Marsh accepted the offer and joined Goldwyn.

Late Film Career

Marsh’s decision to leave Griffith and join Goldwyn did not bring her the happiness and success she had hoped. Griffith was unlike other directors in the way he lavished attention to his actresses, and Marsh found herself feeling unappreciated by the heads of Goldwyn.
Advertisement for Polly of the Circus (1917)

Despite making several films from 1917 to 1919, Marsh only claimed pride for three of them, Polly of the Circus, The Cinderella Man, and Sunshine Alley, all made in 1917. Marsh married Louise Lee Arms, a Goldwyn publicity executive, in 1918[9]. When her contract expired in 1920, Marsh
departed from Goldwyn Studios.

Marsh resurfaced briefly, making two pictures for Robertson-Cole, Litle ‘Fraid Lady (1920) and Nobody’s Kid (1921)[10]. Marsh moved to England, following an offer of 1,000 pounds per week to star in pictures directed and produced by Graham Cutts and Herbert Wilcox, both Griffith fans. The duo only produced two films with Marsh, The Flames of Passion and Paddy, The Next Best Thing, both released in 1922[11].Griffith beckoned Marsh back to America to star in his 1923 film The White Rose, opposite Ivor Novello. Marsh returned to England for production of The Rat (1925), which would be her final silent film.

Late Life and Death

Marsh had few roles in sound films, first appearing in Henry King’s Over the Hill (1931), and delivering a memorable performance. Marsh began to work with director John Ford, who featured her in his well-known films The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), 3 Godfathers (1948), The Robe (1953), and The Searchers (1956). Marsh’s final film role was in Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961)[12].

Marsh moved to Hermosa Beach, California following her official retirement from acting. She died of a heart attack in her home on February 13, 1968.

Awards and Honors

Marsh won the George Eastman Award in 1957, distinguishing her as one of the greatest actresses of the silent film era. Marsh was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960.

Movie Clips

Ramona (1910).
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Intolerance (1916)

External Links


Internet Movie Database:


  • "Mae Marsh." IMDb., n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2013
  • Shouit, Doug. "Mae Marsh." Hollywood Star Walk. The Los Angeles Times, 14 Feb. 1968. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.
  • "The Silent Collection." Mae Marsh in The Silent Collection by Tammy Stone. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.
  • Stone, Tammy. "The Silent Collection." Mae Marsh in The Silent Collection by Tammy Stone. The Movie Profiles and Premiums Newsletter, n.d. Web. 06 Nov. 2013.
  • T., Brenda. "Mae Marsh, Silent Film Star - Golden Silents Biography and Photos." Mae Marsh, Silent Film Star - Golden Silents Biography and Photos. Golden Silents, n.d. Web. 06


[1] Brenda T. Mae Marsh, Silent Film Star (
[2] Wikipedia Mae Marsh (
[3] Kally Mavromatis Mae Marsh – Silent Star of July 1997 (
[4] Doug Shouit Mae Marsh (
[5] Brenda T.
[6] Kally Mavromatis
[7] Kally Mavromatis
[8] Tammy Stone Mae Marsh in the Silent Collection (
[9] Doug Shouit
[10] Kally Mavomatis
[11] Tammy Stone
[12] Tammy Stone