A Tribute to Mary MacLaren
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on January 19, 1896, Mary MacLaren was barely pretty, but she had the appearance of an average working-class girl. Director Lois Weber found the actress easy to direct and was impressed by her ordinary features. As a result, Mary was perfect for the lead in Shoes (1916) where she is a shop girl.
It was a heartrending melodrama that might have been over the top were it not for Weber’s direction and Mary’s performance. Weber directed Mary again in Idle Wives (1916) , Wanted –a Home (1916), and The Mysterious Mrs. M. (1917), in which the actress had the opportunity to play a lighter role.
Weber brought out in Mary a talent that others could not discern. David O. Selznick was particularly harsh, stating that Mary could not act. However, audiences enjoyed Mary’s performances because she seemed able to weep profusely on camera.
Persuaded by her sister, actress Katherine MacDonald not to renegotiate a Universal contract, and unable to come to terms with Paramount, Mary became an independent player in the late teens, but she was unsuccessful at finding adequate roles.
Mary’s last prominent appearance is as the queen of France in Douglas Fairbanks’ production of The Three Musketeers (1921). Mary’s last silent film is The Dark Swan (1924), in which she is seventh billed. In 1924, Mary married a British colonel George H. Young and moved with him to India. The marriage was not successful and the couple divorced.
Mary returned to the screen in 1933 as a bit player in more than seventy-five films made over the next two decades. In the late 1940’s, Mary began operating the home in which she had moved in 1917 in Hollywood as a boarding house. She sank slowly into poverty.
Mary was involved in automobile wrecks in 1946 and 1961. In 1965, Mary married Robert S. Coleman, a blind amputee veteran of World War I. She described it as a “marriage of mercy.” In 1981, a fire destroyed the upper floor of Mary’s house.
A visit to Mary’s house after the fire was certainly an experience. She would sit down on the decomposing couch on the front porch. Mary also slept on a rotted mattress with her five dogs and four cats. The welfare of the animals was far more important to Mary than her wellbeing, and whatever money was available, she spent on them.
In December 1983, the house in which Mary had lived for 65 years was auctioned off. Mary passed away on November 9, 1985 as a resident of the Virgil Convalescent Hospital. She was eighty-nine years old.
It is very sad that the 1929 stock market crash wiped Mary’s fortune and in her final decades she was declared incompetent and living like a bag lady while her sister actress Katherine MacDonald died in luxury. It’s also ironic that Mary was a more talented actress than Katherine.