Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Viola Dana

Viola Dana, Edna Flugrath, and Shirley Mason

I will be covering all three Flugrath sisters: Viola Dana, Shirley Mason, and Edna Flugrath. Each sister had a part in the silent movie industry and so all three deserve to be remembered. 

Oh, and because they are awesome and I love them!

Viola Dana was born Virginia Flugrath on June 26, 1897 in Brooklyn, New York.

She we was the third child born to Emil, a printer, and Mary Flugrath. The couple already had a daughter Edna (b. 1893) and a son, LeRoy (1895-1901). Youngest daughter, Leonie (Shirley Mason) was born in 1900. 

Emil Flugrath is an interesting person, at least as far as research goes. His name appears in the 1900 census but he is not found in the 1910 or 1920 census records I was looking through. However, he was in TWO records in 1930. In one, his name is crossed out with "ERROR" written next to his name and in the other, his name is listed by himself. I haven't seen something like that before so it was pretty interesting. From what I have read, Emil was a part of his daughter's lives and didn't desert them, so, I am thinking that the census record taker misspelled his/the family's name.

Viola with her father and her mother

Mary Flugrath didn't just want her girls to be actresses, she wanted them to be stars! She had wanted to be on the stage when she was a child, but her parents refused to allow their daughter to become an actress, so she took all that focus and drive and put it towards her own daughters. She wanted them to practice to be the best and the whole family eventually got on the fast track to stardom. Emil, having been an amateur athlete, built a gymnasium for his daughters to exercise in to help keep them in shape. 

The middle Flugrath daughter, Viola, was the first one to start going to the nearby Edison studios to look for work. Eventually, younger sister Leonie/Shirley would tag along and the two would be cast in the 1910 version of A Christmas Carol. The girls appear as the daughters of Bob Cratchit in the final scene and Viola appears as the friend of a young Ebeneezer Scrooge earlier in the film. They are kinda hard to make out because they don't get up close to the camera but Viola's nose gives her away!

Shirley Mason as Natacha Rambova and Viola as Rudolph Valentino

The sisters only appeared in a few films together. The only film that all three girls appeared in together (where they were credited at least) was a 1912 short called The Third Thanksgiving. Viola and Shirley appeared together in Children Who Labor (1912), The Portrait in the Attic (1915) and The Show of Shows (1929), while only Viola and Edna appeared together once in 1923's The Social Circle

Early in her career she appeared under the name 'Viola Flugrath.' It wasn't until around 1914 that she began using the screen name 'Viola Dana.' She was given that name by Eleanor Gates, the author of the play "The Poor Little Rich Girl" which Viola had appeared in.

During her movie career Viola had the opportunity to share the screen with such notables as Boris Karloff, Zasu Pitts, Anna Q. Nilsson, and Chester Conklin. She played flapper-esque characters with names like Euphemia Miggles, Happy O'Brien, Fifty-Fifty Mamie, Tangletop, and Etta Concanna. (I just love these!)

Her last film appearance was in The Show of Shows, performing in a few sequences including "Meet My Sister" with sister Shirley. This is seriously one of my favorite classic film sequences because you get to see the Flugrath sisters along with other famous sister pairs. 

Viola Dana passed away on July 3, 1987 in Woodland Hills, California. 

She was cremated and her ashes were interred with her younger brother LeRoy, father (d. 1942), and older sister Edna (d. 1966) at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Mary Flugrath died in 1922 but I don't see her name listed as being buried with her family. I am hoping that she is with them and that her name was just omitted from the urn. Younger sister Shirley Mason had passed away in 1979 but was interred at Westwood Memorial Park with her husband. 

Viola was married three times. Her first husband was director John Collins who she met while working at the Edison studios. The couple married in 1915 and were very much in love, Collins even saying that he loved her from the first day they met. The partnership worked well both at work and at home, with Collins taking his wife with him when he moved from Edison to Metro studios. Sadly, their happiness would not last. In 1918, Collins left to go to a training camp to possibly be sent overseas in the last days of World War I. He was sent back home the next day with a high fever, having fallen victim to the flu epidemic that was sweeping the country. He succumbed to the disease five days later.

Viola and Maurice "Lefty" Flynn

Her second marriage was to football player and actor Maurice "Lefty" Flynn, who was over a foot taller than little Viola! The couple married in 1925, but eventually divorced in 1929. Her third husband was golfer Jimmy Thomson who she married in 1930. She would retire from film and stage work in order to go on tour with Thomson as he continued his career. Unfortunately, the couple divorced in 1945. 

Viola and Ormer Locklear

In 1920, Viola was dating daredevil pilot Ormer Locklear. Sadly, after losing her first husband only a few years earlier, Viola would once again lose someone she loved, and even worse, she would be front row at the tragic accident. Locklear was doing some night shots for a film he was working on and this specific shot called for him to do a power dive and then pull up right before he hit the ground. The cue for this stunt was for someone to shut off the surrounding lights so that he would be able to see well enough to pull up from the dive. Well, someone was clearly not paying attention because they forgot to cut the lights which resulted in Locklear being too blinded to pull up in time and he crashed into the ground. He and his co-pilot Milton "Skeets" Elliott were killed immediately. Viola saw the entire thing and was understandably upset and screaming and had to be held back from running to the mangled airplane. Locklear was married at the time but his wife hated his daredevil antics and this caused them to have quite a fracture marriage. Viola on the other hand loved to go flying around with him! 

Viola and Buster Keaton

Now, Viola was quite close to my love, Buster Keaton. How close? Well, we don't know for sure. What is known is that Buster loved spending time not only with Viola but with her entire family as well. They were way more laid back and warm hearted as compared to his stuffy in-laws, the Talmadges. According to some sources Buster and Viola would go out on the town with Alice Lake and Roscoe Arbuckle, even though Alice was an ex of Buster's and Viola and Alice were friends. Good Lord...Anyway, on the other end of the spectrum there is a niece of Viola's that claimed that Viola was "too prudish" to take up with Buster in that way. I am thinking they DID have some sort of relationship, be it sexual or just a fling. Viola was the breath of fresh air that Buster needed after dealing with "The Shrew" and how cute would they be together?

Viola was a big help in the documentary series "Hollywood" and offered tons of little tidbits about Buster Keaton as well as her relationship with Ormer Locklear. This series sadly is NOT on DVD and probably never will be. But, if you can get a hold of a VHS copy, you should because it is wonderful. 

[when asked if she would advise young girls to 'go in for the movies'] "No. It's hard work and only a few reach stardom. The tax on your nerves and strength is too great. After you get in, however, you wouldn't do anything else." ~~ Viola Dana, 1922

"Viola Dana is a sister of Peter Pan - a girl who never grew up." ~~ Viola Dana, Picture-Play Magazine, July 1918


  1. What a great post! I knew of Viola only through the Hollywood series (they're all on YouTube). I found her to be so interesting, that I wanted to know more about her, but could only find small articles in Wikipedia. You did an amazing job tellling her story!

    Anne in Colorado

  2. I LOVE Viola Dana! I first knew of her from the documentary which I do own! That series is my prized possession! I am missing one copy-Valentino and Swanson. Anyway, Viola was wonderful talking about her time working in Hollywood and the pain on her face when she talked about Ormer was heart rending. She even stopped talking for a couple of seconds and then said "I don't like talking about it" (his death). She remembered going up with him in the airplane and going low to the ground and she threw lipsticks out at the people below. She was quite the dare devil and a true go-getter-a Classy lady

    1. Jealous! I need to own it, damnit!
      It was so touching that she still got so upset thinking about it over 50 years later.

    2. I think you definately can see parts of this documentary on Youtube. I would click on Hollywood-Viloa Dana & see what happens:)

  3. So funny! I've just been watching the Hollywood series on Youtube, and then read this. It really is good stuff. This is seriously one of the best blogs out there, Jessica. I'm learning so much about these people like the Flugrath sisters, who are usually just footnotes in the books on silent films. Thank you for doing this in-depth research and sharing it with everyone!

    1. Thank you so much, Stacey! That's sweet and means a thousand stars and suns to me. And actually right after I wrote this entry I sat and watched the Hollywood series too!