There are very, very few major pre-World War II movie stars still around, let alone silent movie stars. But yesterday, we lost one of the most popular American actresses of the late 1920s, when Anita Page passed away at age 98. In recent years, she had made a low key return to the screen, acting in a bunch of horror B-movies in her 80s and 90s.
She was born Anita Pomares in Flushing, Queens, but went Hollywood early, breaking into movies as a teenager toward the end of the silent era. Most notable among her early pictures was While the City Sleeps, in which she was the leading lady of none other than the king of the silents, Lon Chaney Sr. When sound movies came in at the end of the decade, she went right along with it, starring in the early musical The Broadway Melody, as well as the rare Buster Keaton talkies Free & Easy and Sidewalks of New York.
Although not well remembered today, at the height of her popularity in 1929, she received some 10,000 fan letters per week--second only to Greta Garbo--and was actively pursued by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. But her time at the top did not last long. According to her own statements later in life, the reason for her abrupt and early retirement in the mid 1930s was her refusal to abide by the notorious "casting couch" system employed by some studio heads at the time.
Aside from one role in the 1960s, Page stayed in retirement for 60 years. Amazingly, she was bit by the acting bug again at the age of 86, when she started discovering that she still had a following among early film aficionados. Over the past dozen years, she took to appearing in primarily low-budget, low-profile productions. Among these were Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood and The Crawling Brain, abysmal trash to which she lent more class than was deserved in supporting roles. Due out later this year, her last movie was Frankenstein Rising, in which she plays Elizabeth Frankenstein.
"I am so honored," she recently said. "I sign autographs and the people are so kind. This is one of the most wonderful moments of my career, and to experience it at this time in my life, and at my age, I never would have dreamed."
Here's to you, doll. In the parlance of the day, you were the cat's pajamas.
* For more on Anita Page, check out my other blog, Standard of the Day.