This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire page, written around 2005–07.
Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Thekelsen Gottlieb) (12 October 1886–15 April 1934) was born in Copenhagen. His parents, Rasmus Carl Marius Gottlieb (a glove-maker) and Anne Cathrine Simonsen, had a troubled marriage which ended in divorce in 1903.
Though Karl was primarily raised by his mother, his father provided the impetus for a career in show business. Young Karl and his brother Reinald often acted in their father’s toy theatre for paying patrons. The brothers also often went to a local theatre where their dad worked as a curtain-puller.
Karl worked as a machinist on and off, and served in the military. After his mandatory term of service ended in 1910, he married dressmaker Carla Dagmar Hagen. They had two kids, Ejlert Carl (born 1911) and Ingeborg Helene (born 1912).
When WWI began, Karl was called back into service, and promoted to corporal. In January 1916, he sailed for the U.S. with $25 in his pocket and no knowledge of English. He intended to bring the rest of his family over later.
On 11 February, he arrived and was approved by Ellis Island. Karl settled in Brooklyn with a friend and began working in a foundry that same day. (If only jobs were still that easy to get!)
Karl moved to Lincoln, Nebraska in 1916 and began working as an auto mechanic. In summer 1917, he returned to New York, still working as a mechanic and making $3 a week.
In late 1917, Karl began film acting, earning $3 a day. Most of his early films were anti-German propaganda.
Karl stopped acting in 1921 when he married Swedish immigrant Helen Benson. (He and Carla separated in 1918 and divorced in 1919.) Karl and Helen moved to Van Nuys, California and started a chicken farm. Sadly, Helen died in childbirth on 9 August 1923. Their infant daughter also died.
Karl returned to acting in December 1924, when he was recommended for the role of Slim in King Vidor’s incredible WWI epic The Big Parade. Slim is one of protagonist Jim (John Gilbert)’s best friends. As in many of Karl’s films, his physical appearance adds great comic relief to an otherwise serious story.
The Big Parade is one of those films that’s so damn good, I give it 6 out of 5 stars!
Karl began getting much more important roles after this runaway success. His films included The Son of the Sheik with Rudy Valentino; The Scarlet Letter with Lillian Gish; La Bohème with Lillian Gish and John Gilbert; Alias Jimmy Valentine with William Haines; Bardelys the Magnificent with John Gilbert; and The Red Mill with Marion Davies.
In 1927, Karl was teamed with George K. Arthur for a series of comedy films. Dane & Arthur were an immediate success, earning Karl a a longterm MGM contract. Karl earned $1,500 a week at the peak of his success.
Dane & Arthur’s first talkie, Brotherly Love, was released 23 December 1928, and it didn’t go well. Whereas George had a familiar British accent, Karl had a thick Danish accent which audiences struggled to understand.
The duo made six more talkies during 1929, and MGM offered Karl fewer and fewer roles. In 1930, MGM terminated his contract. Though Karl’s accent was an obvious factor in his career’s sharp decline, he also was exhausted from so much constant filming, had suffered a nervous breakdown, and was grieving his dad’s death.
In December 1930, Paramount gave Dane & Arthur a 23-week Publix Theatre vaudeville tour. After it ended in November 1931, the duo went their separate ways.
Karl tried to start over by forming a mining corporation, but he didn’t have success. In February 1932, he returned to vaudeville and bombed there too. He gave up on acting in 1933 and tried mining ownership again.
Mining success eluded Karl, and his later jobs as a mechanic and plumber failed too.
A myth persists that Karl sold hotdogs at MGM’s gate, but he was truly a waiter in a tiny café which included a hotdog stand and seating. The café failed in 1934, and Karl was rejected as a carpenter and extra by MGM and Paramount.
After Karl was pickpocketed of $18, all the money he had left, he went home and shot himself in the head. He was only 47 years old.