Utahn was solid gold on silver screen of old
I>This is the fifth in an occasional series about stars and filmmakers from the eary days of Hollywood who had Utah roots.
/I>"Margaret Livingston looks like a New England schoolteacher on the street, but on the screen, Whoopee!"
So wrote columnist Louella Parson of the silent screen actress who made a career of playing "the other woman."Margaret (Marguerite) Livingston was born Nov. 18, 1896, in Salt Lake City. She attended Fremont Grammar School and Salt Lake City High School (along with another future silent screen star, Betty Compson).
At age 19, Livingston was employed as a secretary when she caught the eye of a wealthy sheep and cattle rancher and accepted a marriage offer from the 44-year-old admirer.
But he made the mistake of sending her to Los Angles to buy a wedding trousseau. While shopping there, she spotted Charlie Chaplin's leading lady, Edna Purviance, buying a bottle of perfume for $18 -- a sum that represented a week of her secretarial wages.
After returning to Salt Lake City and sending out her wedding invitations, Livingston had a change of heart and decided to try her luck in Hollywood. For the next two years (1917-18), while attempting to break into the movies, she nearly starved -- but each time she was about to return home, an offer of a small film role would come up.
She worked as one of "Mack Sennett's Bathing Beauties" at the Keystone studio. It was here that other Utahns got their starts -- Mack Swain (of Chaplin's "The Gold Rush"), Compson and Marion Mack (Buster Keaton's "The General").
But Livingston quit Keystone when a part called for her to jump into the freezing cold Pacific Ocean.
Her luck changed when producer Thomas Ince signed her up at his studio, first paying
her $125 a week, then $300. Ince also became interested in her romantically and Livingston was often seen with him in Hollywood social circles.
Celebrating Ince's 43rd birthday, Livingston accompanied him aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht, where guests included Chaplin, author Elinor Glyn and Parsons.
The festivities turned tragic when Ince was stricken with food poisoning -- or, as some stories have it, was shot by a jealous Hearst, who thought someone was flirting with his date, actress Marion Davies.
Ince died at his home, and whatever happened aboard the yacht was hushed up, remaining a mystery to this day.
After Ince's sudden death, Livingston worked at many studios. The self-taught actress took any and all roles she could land -- sometimes playing the lead but more often supporting parts.
In 1925, she signed a contract with Fox Studios for $1,000 a week and thereafter continued to earn big money, which she carefully invested in real estate.
In 1927, William Fox invited German director F.W. Murnau to make any film of his choice in Hollywood -- and the film Murnau chose is recognized today as one of silent cinema's greatest achievements -- "Sunrise" (1927).
The story has a woman from the city enticing a young farmer to drown his wife, sell his property and come with her to the city. George O'Brien and Janet Gaynor played the husband and wife -- and Livingston was cast as the temptress.
Her charms in "Sunrise" also cast a spell on a backstage participant. Bandleader Paul Whiteman, one of the great showmen of his day, was preparing the musical score for "Sunrise" and became fascinated with Livingston's screen image.
After meeting her at a party in New York sometime later, Whiteman, who was six years older than Livingston, began courting her. But he had to lose 100 of the 300 pounds he was then carrying before she would agree to marriage.
Her work in "Sunrise" put Livingston in great demand, and the following year (1928), she appeared in no less than 12 features.
Around this time, sound films began replacing silents, and she continued to be in demand, appearing in nine movies during 1930-31.
One of her final pictures was "Smart Money" (1931) for Warner Bros. -- the only one in which Warner's two great gangster stars, Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney, appeared onscreen together.
In 1934, Livingston signed a contract with Columbia Pictures. But after making her first film for the studio ("The Social Register"), she asked for a release.
Having appeared in nearly 70 films, Livingston retired from the screen and put her considerable business skills to work managing the affairs of the her husband -- Whiteman -- until his death in 1967.
Livingston passed away in a rest home in Pennsylvania on Dec. 13, 1985, at the age of 89.
Many of the films she made as a pioneer in Hollywood are now lost, including "Say it With Sables" (1928), directed by Frank Capra. But others, such as "Through the Breakers" (1928) and "The Charlatan" (1929), can be ordered from Grapevine Video (P.O. Box 4616 1, Phoenix, AZ 85063-6161).
"Sunrise," the film for which she will be best remembered for as long as great films are appreciated, has also had a limited video release. Copies are available for rent locally at Avalon Video and Tower Theatre Video. It is also available on laser disc.