Forgotten Movie Stars of the '20s & '30s: Lillian Roth
I love Lillian Roth. I know what you're going to say. "Who the Hell is Lillian Roth?" A fair question. Lillian Roth's movie career lasted all of four years in the early days of talking pictures, from 1929 to 1933. I first encountered her playing a co-starring role in the second Marx Brothers movie Animal Crackers. She played the role of the romantic lead. It was common practice for Marx Brothers movies to take a breather so the romantic male and female could sing some kind of a love song at each other. More often than not, they were played by staggeringly dull performers. There was something more alive about Lillian Roth, though. I couldn't quite put my finger on it when I was younger, but there's a kind of naturalism to her performances that really stuck out in movies of the early 1930s. Here's a number from the film where she and co-star Hal Thompson serenade each other. You will notice that Thompson is more along the lines of the staggeringly dull performer I mentioned above. So dull, in fact, his IMDB page doesn't even include a photo.
In 1929 and 1930, in the super-early days of talking pictures, Roth seemed destined for stardom. Under contract with Paramount Pictures, she not only had the opportunity to work with the legendary Marx Brothers, but in 1929, she got her first big cinematic break with the great director Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch's first talkie, The Love Parade, is probably the best "first talkie" of any silent director of the era. While there are technical limitations present, stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald are naturals in the brand-new medium. Roth, here in this number with comedian Lupino Lane, plays a rather affectionate maid. There's a kind of manic fearlessness here that is completely absent from most performances in the early talkies of 1929.
Other roles would soon follow, such as the role of the vixen in Madame Satan, probably one of Cecil B. DeMille's most bizarre movies. She's just great in this, one of the most appealing performers in this era of very early musicals.
I think she's great! Right? But her movie career would stall and end in 1933, as she struggled terribly with alcoholism. While the addiction would seemingly end her career, her battle to overcome it would bring her greater fame than ever before, when she published her autobiography I'll Cry Tomorrow in 1954. Roth was really the first celebrity who really opened up publicly about her struggles with alcoholism. Susan Hayward would portray Roth the next year in a major Hollywood picture.
If I were to recommend one Roth picture, it would have to be The Love Parade. She's not the only thing great about it, and it's one of the few early talking pictures from the late 1920s that's not only watchable, but still consistently entertaining. I think she's just swell.