Anita Page, 98; one of last stars of the silent film era

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post / September 8, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Anita Page, 98, one of Hollywood's last silent-era screen stars and a leading lady in one of the first sound musicals, "The Broadway Melody," died in her sleep Saturday at her home in Los Angeles. No cause of death was given.

Ms. Page was once promoted as "the girl with the most beautiful face in Hollywood," and the vivacious, golden-haired actress claimed at the peak of her fame in the late 1920s to have received marriage proposals by mail from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

She began film work at 15 and played opposite some of the leading male actors of the silent period, including Lon Chaney, William Haines, and Ramon Novarro.

In one of her best parts, she played a ribald flapper who rivals Joan Crawford for the attentions of Johnny Mack Brown in "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928).

In the film, Ms. Page perished by tumbling down a set of stairs in a drunken rage, a scene she said was hard to act because she was 17 and "had never had a drink in my life."

Her career peaked in 1929 as Bessie Love's co-star in the prestigious Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production "The Broadway Melody." Ms. Page played the more-competitive half of a sister-dance team with Broadway aspirations.

The film won an Academy Award for best picture, but reviewers found Ms. Page less than compelling. Critic Mordaunt Hall wrote in The New York Times that Ms. Page, though beautiful to look at, "fails to give one an impression of spontaneity, for she recites rather than speaks her lines."

A limited emotional range on-screen and lousy film roles ("War Nurse," "Jungle Bride") diminished her career during the next few years. However, Ms. Page always attributed her lack of work to poorly timed salary requests and her refusal to sleep with top executives at her home studio.

Of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, she once said: "He told me, 'I can make you the biggest star in the world in three pictures,' and he snapped his fingers like that. 'I could also kill Garbo in three pictures,' and he snapped his fingers.

"But I said, 'Mr. Mayer, I am already a star.' He said, 'I could make you bigger, we could handle things discreetly,' but I told him I didn't play that way."

Anita Evelyn Pomares was born Aug. 4, 1910, in Queens, N.Y., and raised mostly in the Astoria neighborhood, where the Paramount film company had studios. She lived near the family of screen star Betty Bronson, who helped her get into the industry.

In 1928, Ms. Page signed a contract with MGM, and she was rushed into "Telling the World" (1928), starring Haines as a reporter and Ms. Page as a showgirl.

Haines was gay, but his chemistry with Ms. Page led to their being re-teamed in "Speedway," "Navy Blues" (both 1929) and "Are You Listening?" (1932). She claimed Haines and co-star Novarro ("The Flying Fleet"), who was also gay, both made passes at her.

She later told silent-film scholar Tony Villecco: "Ramon and I became so close during that period. . . . When he asked me to marry, I told him, 'Oh, maybe on an off Thursday.' Actually, I couldn't marry anyone who took longer to get ready than I did."

Despite a juicy role in the Lon Chaney police drama "While the City Sleeps" (1928), Ms. Page faced a new screen rival in Joan Crawford. After Ms. Page's work on "Our Dancing Daughters," she had diminished parts in two other Crawford films, "Our Modern Maidens" (1929) and "Our Blushing Brides" (1930).

If any movie would have established her in the sound period, it would have been "The Broadway Melody." Poorly trained as a dancer, Ms. Page is best remembered as the woman to whom matinee idol Charles King croons "You Were Meant for Me."

The ballad was written by Ms. Page's first husband, Nacio Herb Brown, whom she married in Tijuana in 1934. They divorced the next year, she said, "on the basis that I'd never lived with him as his wife."

At the start of the sound era, Ms. Page appeared in supporting parts in movies starring the comedy team of Marie Dressler and Polly Moran and also in some of comedian Buster Keaton's worst films, "Free and Easy" and "The Sidewalks of New York."

One bright spot was playing a married mother framed for prostitution by a corrupt judge (Walter Huston) in the drama "Night Court" (1932). More often, MGM lent her to so-called "Poverty Row" film companies, which effectively crushed her career.

She retired in 1937 after marrying a naval officer, Herschel House. After her husband's death in 1991, Ms. Page emerged in the documentary "I Used to Be in Pictures" and took small parts in a series of slumming horror films, including "Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood" (2000) and "Frankenstein Rising," due out this year.

Ms. Page leaves two daughters.

Ms. Page told Films of the Golden Age that she still became emotional when she thought of the end of the silent period and the way mood music was always played on the set before a scene.

"My favorite song was 'My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice' from 'Samson and Delilah,' " she said. "I never seemed to tire of it. The trouble with talkies was, they let you have the music, but they'd stop it when you had to talk and it was always a letdown for me."

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