Barbara Kent: “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but being an actress was not it.”
—The Sound of Silence, by Michael Ankerich.
Barbara Kent, b. Barbara Cloutman, who passed away a few weeks ago, was one of the last surviving movie stars–Mickey Rooney, ailing and frail, might be the last–who worked in the golden era of silent movies and then made the transition to sound.
She was a reluctant actress, a star whose light shined quite briefly, and then with exquisite sanity, she stepped out of the limelight and into the embrace of private life and marriage.
In 1925 Kent won the Miss Hollywood beauty pageant. Apparently, her parents pushed her to enter the contest. Thus, from the very beginning, Barbara was playing a role she neither sought nor desired. Though she had no acting experience, Universal offered the tiny–she was under five feet tall–baby-faced, 17 year-old beauty queen a contract.
In 1926, Kent was cast in “Flesh and the Devil” (1926) as a young woman in love with the dashing John Gilbert who has eyes only for the heartless vamp Greta Garbo. Garbo gets all the loving close-ups, but I’ve always felt that Kent was far more attractive and desirable than the remote and narcissistic Garbo.
Kent starred opposite Oliver Hardy in “No Man’s Law” (1927). In this film, she’s seen swimming in the nude, but in fact she was wearing a flesh-colored body stocking. This was something of a minor scandal, but a little scandal has never hurt the career of a Hollywood ingenue.
My very favorite Kent film is “Lonesome” (1928), a near-masterpiece set in Coney Island, directed by Paul Fejos. Kent plays Mary, a switchboard operator who meets Jim (Glenn Tryon), a factory worker, in Coney Island. They spend the day together, fall in love, and then get separated in the bustling crowd. It’s a simple urban tale, a slice of poetry that’s distinguished by the heart-breaking sincerity of the performances and the director’s keen eye for location and expressive camera movement. Sadly, Universal added three stiff talking scenes to the film in order to show off the new technology. This bone-head move–the studios were in a panic about talkies–nearly ruins the magic of a wonderful if obscure movie.
After taking voice lessons, Kent made the switch to talkies. She starred opposite the great Harold Lloyd–he first laid eyes on her at Hearst’s San Simeon castle–in his first sound film, “Welcome Danger” (1929). Kent plays Lloyd’s love interest, though she’s dressed as a man when they first meet.
In “Feet First,” (1930) Lloyd plays a shoe salesman who believes that Kent is the boss’s daughter and goes to lunatic lengths to impress her. Lloyd was a great spotter of talent. That he used Barbara in two pictures back to back is evidence of Kent’s promise as a star.
In both films Kent is charming, feisty and adorably mischievous. She’s the all-American girl every American boy aspires to marry.
Kent married MGM executive-turned-agent Harry Edington in 1932 and, except for a few more film roles, she retired to private life. The two remained together until Edington’s death in 1949. Kent married Jack Monroe, an engineer, in 1954. Monroe died in 1998. Towards the end of her life, Kent lived in Palm Desert, Calif.
Kent granted few interviews and frequently denied that she was ever a movie star. Make no mistake about it, Kent is a Hollywood success story. She survived the grinding wheels of stardom. Later in life Kent observed:
“It saddened me when I watched the likes of Bette Davis and Anita Page crawling across the screen looking like a cross between Baby Jane Hudson and a tired, chipped old porcelain dolly. I am a firm believer in the Mary Pickford school, where one should quit whilst still good-looking and on top.”
An active woman, Kent piloted light aircraft until her 85th birthday and played golf well into her mid-90s.
It is odd, but I suddenly realize how deeply attached I am to the stars of the silent screen. Their images have nourished me, their films taught and continue to teach me my craft as a screenwriter. I have internalized their dramatic emotional lives, and in some cases I have come to understand–however imperfectly–their real lives which were, quite frequently, even more tumultuous than their fictional lives.
Now, I am witness to the final heart beats of that remarkable generation. Movies are ribbons of dreams–and this dream, the age of silent movies, when the visual language of movies was invented and perfected–is coming to an end.
RIP, Barbara Kent.