Karl Dane

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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.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part X (Common myths debunked)

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Over the past 90 years, many myths and misconceptions have sprung up about TJS, the end of the silent era, and the dawn of sound. While many have a sliver of basis in truth, the truth is a lot different and more complex than popular opinion suggests.

Myth #1: TJS was the first talking picture.

As discussed in Part VI, sound-on-film technology had a long history, full of fits and starts, going back to 1894 or 1895. TJS was merely the most popular and successful, due largely to Al Jolson’s star power and charisma. This is similar to the oft-repeated myth about BOAN being the first feature-length film.

TJS also wasn’t even the first all-talking feature. That was 1928’s Lights of New York. TJS is at least 75% silent.

Myth #2: The silent era immediately ended after TJS came out

As discussed in Part IX, the transition from silent to sound film was very long and slow. Even if the entire film industry worldwide had decided, right then and there, to make sound the law of the land, they couldn’t wire all theatres for sound overnight. They also needed to buy a lot of expensive new equipment and film.

China, Japan, and Korea were largely silent well into the Thirties. They didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken. Japan also had the tradition of the benshi, a narrator who accompanied film screenings and was a star in his own right.

Myth #3: Most silent actors had horrible voices, and thus had to retire

Many actors had wonderful or at least competent voices, though they weren’t always best-served by early sound recording technology. People were so enamoured of talkies, they flocked to see anything and anyone. They didn’t mind voices which weren’t professionally trained, such as Clara Bow’s Brooklyn accent. All they cared about was hearing someone talk during a movie.

Some actors genuinely had very thick accents or serious speech impediments which prematurely ended their careers, but this wasn’t the norm. Rare exceptions included:

1. Karl Dane (né Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb), a funny-looking character actor who became a comedian in his own right. His thick Danish accent soon relegated him to lesser and lesser roles, until MGM yanked his contract. He tried several other careers, but nothing panned out. Deep in depression, he finally took his own life.

2. Many foreign exports, like Emil Jannings and Conrad Veidt. They had heavy accents combined with poor English. However, their acting careers continued when they returned to their home countries. Other foreign actors, like Nils Asther, took voice lessons and were cast in roles where accents were expected.

The same thing happened with the large community of Russian actors in France. In that case, going home wasn’t an option if they valued their lives and freedom.

3. Raymond Griffith, a comedian whose voice was barely above a whisper due to childhood vocal chord damage (screaming every night in a stage play). His final acting role was a dying French soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which had extra poignancy with his natural voice.

True blame goes to factors including:

1. ALL stars have a shelf life! Even actors who’ve been successful for several decades eventually slow down or lose popularity to the new generation. These actors just happened to reach their expiration date in the early sound era.

2. Some actors were looking towards retirement anyway. Vilma Bánky, for example, had a thick Hungarian accent, but wanted to leave acting for the full-time role of Rod La Rocque’s wife. She retired in 1930, just as she’d announced she would.

3. Studio politics and personality clashes. Enough said!

4. Even big-name silent stars, and the types of characters they played, were increasingly seen as outdated and unfashionable, reminders of a bygone era.

5. Marriage (or lack thereof). Many women either chose to retire upon or shortly after marriage, or had husbands who insisted they stop working to be full-time wives and mothers. William Haines refused to enter a lavender marriage and dump his boyfriend (whom he was with for 47 years, until his death).

Myth #4: John Gilbert had a terrible, squeaky voice

Jack’s career was sabotaged by the vile, vindictive Louis B. Mayer. He had a lovely voice and well-received talkie début, but Mayer kept giving him sub-par roles. The wonderful Irving Thalberg gave Jack some great films, and ex-lover Greta Garbo chose him as her leading man in Queen Christina (1933), but the damage had already been done.

His depression with inferior films and long periods of unemployment led to increasing alcoholism, and Jack died of a heart attack at age 36.