To Jazz Age and Depression era audiences, he was one of their favorite actors. Peers admired him for his sincerity and humility, besides being good looking. Today Charles Farrell is nearly forgotten. His films aren’t as accessible as others actors of the silent era and why? His acting brought elegance even during the most emotional scenes and refreshed the image of masculinity in film even after he successfully transitioned into sound. Oh and he was one of the first to go nude in film (in The River from 1929 there’s a brief scene where he swam nude and is about to get out of the water completely before he sees a woman nearby.)
Farrell was also one half of one of the most iconic duos of silent/early talkies. The other half was Janet Gaynor, his co-star for 12 films. This is the work that Farrell is probably most remembered for today. The plots of the Gaynor-Farrell films were fit for a fairytale book where love conquers all and the good prevail, with convincing acting that makes you believe it. (Director of 3 of these films was Frank Borzage, known for stories set in a surreal or ethereal like world.) It’s like a book where you know the ending, but you keep reading it because the characters and the setting make it an enjoyable escape.
Born on August 9, 1900 in Onset, Massachusetts, Farrell was the only son in his family. His father owned a lunch counter where films were shown on the upper floor which introduced Charles Farrell to the world of cinema. He briefly attended Boston University to study business while participating in sports but dropped out to become an actor in the theater. This didn’t go well with his family, especially his father, so Farrell was on his own. He took any acting job possible that would get him financially and professionally closer to his goal of being in Hollywood films. Once in Hollywood, Farrell worked as an extra on several films before making his way up to the leading man. In 1931 he married actress Virginia Valli, they were together until her death in 1968.
Well mannered and athletically built, Farrell’s roles were dramatic but often romantic leads that brought a new definition of men in cinema. His gentleness in his characters created the idea that men could be sensitive and kind yet strong at the same time. Not to say that men from this era couldn’t be this way in real life but to it was rare in film to depict men as being vulnerable. This post is going to focus on this golden era of his career and what made him so special, as well as a link to a notable film to watch.
Rachel’s Recommendation: Seventh Heaven
Around this time Farrell was beginning to see his efforts as an extra pay off. The pivotal role as the Parisian sewer cleaner Chico in the Academy Award winning Seventh Heaven, boosted his image and became the first of the dozen films he’d make with Janet Gaynor, once the studio noticed the audiences growing a craze for the two. Although he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor, his association with this film garnered more attention for his performances from here on out. Two of my favorite title cards are “Not bad, eh? I work in the sewer, but I live near the stars!” And the quote that some fans reference to Farrell himself, “I’m a very remarkable fellow!” I couldn’t argue with that one! 😉
Rachel’s Recommendation: The Red Dance (for this film you have to pay on Youtube to rent)
The beautiful and talented Dolores del Rio co-starred as a poor girl-turned-dancer who falls in love with Farrell’s character of Grand Duke Eugene during the Bolshevik Revolution. I chose this film first of all because Dolores del Rio was one of the first Mexican actresses in Hollywood and these two were both changing perception of differences in Hollywood in their own ways.
According to an archived collection from May-October 1928 of the film magazine, Screenland, they praised Farrell’s work and personality,
“He’s the one great screen sheik who can be quaint in the love scenes and live. He is ambling and he is awkward but he’s a bona-fide Don Juan. When you have seen Mr. Farrell in Seventh Heaven and Street Angel you have met the kid himself…in pictures he is exuberant, extravagant, picturesque. In real life, the same. He still drives the same dilapidated old Ford he rode around in when he was an extra.”
Rachel’s Recommendation: Lucky Star
Two months before the stock market crash, Farrell and Gaynor starred in the unique and heartfelt WWI love story, Lucky Star. One of my favorite scenes in this film is where Tim (Farrell) washes Mary’s (Gaynor) hair, reinforcing the masculinity that Farrell’s characters brought of being gentle and vulnerable yet full of an inner strength. Tim returns from the war in a wheelchair and the sequences of overcoming the struggles with this change are truly powerful performances from Farrell.
Rachel’s Recommendation: City Girl
The Depression was just beginning when Farrell’s made his last and one of his best silents. This is my favorite Farrell film. He plays Lem, a young man from the country sent to the city for business who falls in love with the waitress at the lunch counter named Kate (Mary Duncan). A mixture of the themes of dreaming of the grass on the other side and coming from two different worlds makes it a beautiful story.
By the mid 1930s his career declined. Rumors point to his personal life or lack of memorable scripts, but my interpretation is the latter and the fact that men in film were changing with the Depression. Think of the rugged Clark Gable type, it seemed that the image of manliness reverted a bit to the traditional avenue. Maybe it was for a sense of structure and order during a difficult and uncertain time. Society instructed men to be the breadwinners who were tough and didn’t show emotion that would emasculate them. This isn’t to say that all men or women were one way or another during that time. The scripts Farrell received included musicals which sadly weren’t allowing him to showcase his acting range. Change of Heart (1934) is the only talkie that gave him an opportunity for something like that, correct me if I’m wrong! An obituary from the New York Times quoted Farrell from an interview in 1954 where he said regarding his career decline,
They said I didn’t have diction. When the talkies came in, a lot of stage people came to Hollywood from New York and I knew that I didn’t talk like them, but my voice was me and that’s all there was to it.
After serving in the Navy during World War II, Farrell was one of the founders of the Hollywood Racquet Club in Palm Springs. Though his role on the 1950s sitcoms, My Little Margie and the briefly lived Charles Farrell Show, introduced him to a new generation, for the remainder of his life Farrell managed the club until the late 1960s, served as mayor of Palm Springs and kept out of the Hollywood spotlight. He died of a heart attack on May 6, 1990.
Charles Farrell was known by peers and friends to be easygoing and modest about fame. Before he died though he felt forgotten as an actor and his films were too dated to be appreciated. Maybe film scholars will remember him more but if only as Janet Gaynor’s love interest in film they’d be omitting a lot since he was much more than that. He was a man who made his dream of being an actor come true and enjoyed his craft…but he also knew when it was time to transition and became an entrepreneur/mayor, while always maintaining a reputation of being gracious and a true gentleman.
*Many of the photos used during specific year sequences and piano photo came from the Charles Farrell Tumblr blog, some details for mini bio were clarified from Find a Grave, candid photo and commentary from fan magazines are public domain sourced from Internet Archive.