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Marion Shilling.MARION SHILLING

by Boyd Magers

Graceful, charming, beautiful, intelligent—all describe Marion Shilling, co-star to ten ‘30s B-Western heroes. Born Marion Helen Schilling, Dec. 3, 1910, in Denver, CO, her original aspirations were not theatrical. “I love words, and if I had had the opportunity to attend college, I’d have majored in journalism.”

Marion’s father and his partner, obtained West Coast rights to the play “Dracula” and brought the original London-N.Y. production starring Bela Lugosi to California, Oregon and Washington. “I had a small part in ‘Dracula’ and met many film people who came to see the play at the old Biltmore Theater in L.A. Talking pictures were just bursting forth, the studios were looking for young people with stage experience. I had played many child parts in my father’s plays. MGM signed me to a contract and gave me the leading feminine role in ‘Wise Girls’ (‘29), actually, a photographed play. I understand it was MGM’s very first film shown only in theaters wired for sound.” Although “Wise Girls” was successful, her next two outings were not. “MGM released everyone connected with either film.” (“Lord Byron of Broadway” and “Road Show”)

Next, under contract to Paramount, Marion co-starred with William Powell in “Shadow of the Law” (‘30). Released by Paramount after six months, she was signed by Pathe for a year. “I played opposite Lew Cody in ‘Beyond Victory’ and Tom Keene in ‘Sundown Trail’. Derr and Sullivan, who were in charge of Pathe, told me they’d probably team me with Joel McCrea. But, alas, the studio changed hands several times and was finally absorbed by RKO. Just at that critical time, my agent, who had been my guide and counselor from the very beginning of my career in films, had a heart attack and died. I was rudderless, adrift. I was so young, dependent. That strong, sure, guiding hand was gone. I wish, at that crucial time, I could have had my present maturity, confidence and resolve. I was so green and scared. I then made films for Allied Artists, Monogram and other independent studios, but the momentum was lost. Then came the westerns which afforded me the most enjoyable years of all.”

We asked Marion to describe the temperament of each of her 10 leading cowboys. Tom Keene: “Pleasant, affable, a great tease. He and Nick Stuart spent all the time between scenes trying to make me blush and giggle.”

Title card for "Sundown Trail" starring Tom Keene and Marion Shilling.

Hoot Gibson: “A really ‘nice guy.’ A true professional, always on time, always knew his lines. I understand in earlier days he’d been a stunt man. When I worked with him he’d be photographed mounting a horse, eventually dismounting; all riding was done by doubles. I guess at that point the studio didn’t want to take any chance of his being injured.”

Reb Russell: “A sweet guy. A reserved ‘Southern Gentleman’.”

Big Boy Williams: “Easy going.”

Tim McCoy: “By far the most polished of the cowboys. Well aware of being an intellectual, he never missed an opportunity to mention his close friendship with Ronnie (Colman) and Bill (Powell). Tim and I dated for some time. He was very gallant, such excellent manners! Up to that time I had never had a drink. With my mother’s OK, he introduced me to sloe gin fizzes. When he suggested introducing me to a more sophisticated activity, a weekend at Palm Springs where he’d ‘teach me all about life,’ I realized I was well over my depth and decided to stay home. Anyone who knew my mother would be certain I never made it to Palm Springs.”

Tim McCoy is unapproving of the moves Joe Sawyer is making on Marion Shilling in Columbia's "The Westerner" ('34).

A romantic moment with Buck Jones and Marion in Universal's "Red Rider" serial ('34).Buck Jones: “Ah! there was one great person! His fan clubs are ever growing in popularity and strength. No wonder. Buck was a star. He was so kind to everyone. Twinkling with good humor, he loved telling sometimes racy jokes between scenes but his wit always exceeded the vulgarity. Then when we were called before the cameras, he was all business. He loved to assign people nicknames. Of all the actors I ever worked with, he was my favorite.”

Buck Coburn: “A sweet, gentle guy. He was thrilled to have been made a Western star. I was the lead in his first (and only) starring film.”

Tom Tyler: “A handsome big mass of muscle. Always prompt and knew his lines but very quiet. He was in the midst of a torrid romance with Marlene Dietrich and during the day was probably ‘in recovery’.”

Tom Tyler helps Marion from the stagecoach in "Rio Rattler" ('35 Reliable). Crooked banker William Gould is the dress heavy.

Rex Bell: “A warm, lovable human being. It’s no wonder the people of Nevada made him their lieutenant-governor. He was devoted and caring of his Clara (Bow) when I knew him. Everyone on the set liked him.”

Title card for "Idaho Kid" starring Rex Bell and Marion Shilling.

Fred Scott: “An outstanding human being. One of the finest persons I ever worked with in the movies. An accomplished actor, singer and artist. Sensitively appreciative of nature; one day as we were awaiting a camera setup, he pointed to a nearby clump of trees and bushes. ‘Look over there,’ he said, ‘you’ll see at least 50 shades of green.’ I’ve been more aware ever since! On location he was involved in a slight accident. His horse brushed against a fence and his arm was injured, not serious but very painful. He refused to make anything over the incident. Fred and his lovely Mary had just become engaged and she was frequently a visitor on the set. Their romance gave a glow to every day of filming.”

Title card for "Romance Ride the Range" starring Fred Scott and Marion Shilling.

Marion also shared recollections of her non-Western leading men and many of the stalwarts who populated B-Westerns. Richard Dix: (“Young Donovan’s Kid”—‘31) “Very sweet to me. He was at the height of his fame when I knew him. When he made his entrance on the sound stage each morning it was an event. Following him was a parade: stand-in, valet, secretary and several musicians, along with a big ego. A contrast to Bill Powell’s modesty. Bill didn’t even have a car, let alone a chauffeured one such as Dix’s. I’d worked with Bill just a few months before. He was a darling.”

Walter Miller: “During my teen days I’d been a fan of Walter’s. I followed several of his serials faithfully with suspense and anticipation, never dreaming one day I’d be working with him. Walter was such a nice person, clean-cut, intelligent, reliable.”

Lafe McKee: “Genial, dependable, reserved.”

Grant Withers: “We worked together during the six weeks of making Buck Jones’ ‘Red Rider’ serial. Grant was lots of fun and completely enamored of his bride, Alice, from Chicago. She was on the set nearly every day.”

Charles Starrett: (“A Shot In the Dark”—‘35) “A refined, reserved person.”

Title card for "A Shot in the Dark" starring Charles Starrett and Marion Shilling.

And her three “Clutching Hand” serial co-horts…Jack Mulhall: “What a dear person! Every moment with him was a delight. We also worked together on many commercials. My mother often accompanied me on the set and she was wild about Jack.”

Rex Lease: “Handsome, personable, his good humor brightened the set. His witty comments kept us all laughing. He had the makings of a big star, but, as he confessed to me during lengthy between-scene chats, he had a weak character. He regretted the hard time he had given his wife. Soon after we had completed ‘The Clutching Hand’, he came by my house one day and asked to borrow my package of stills from that serial. He said they’d help him get a good part, that he’d see I got them back soon. Despite numerous reminders from me, they were never returned and I was unable to replace them.”

Rex Lease and Marion Shilling co-starred in "The Clutching Hand" serial for Stage and Screen in 1936.Ruth Mix: “Ruth and I became very good friends during ‘The Clutching Hand’ serial. She was sincere, unaffected, honest. A natural beauty, but unaware of it. She had flawless, creamy skin, long dark hair and her eyes sparkled. Liked by everyone. After we had finished shooting one evening, Ruth took me to meet her dad (Tom Mix) whose circus was in town. I also met his wife who was performing with him.”

Marion and Big Boy Williams starred in “Thunder Over Texas” directed by Edgar Ulmer under the pseudonym of John Warner to prevent Universal, where he was under contract, from finding out he was moonlighting. Ulmer’s wife Shirley, wrote the script under the nom de plume Sherle Castle. “The name brings memories of an unexploited genius. From the first shot his talent was evident. Imaginative, inventive camera set-ups, a clever, unobtrusive way of getting just what he wanted from the actors. It’s a pity he was never afforded worthy opportunities. It was produced by the Alexander brothers (Max and Arthur), nephews of Carl Laemmle. Max had just returned from the East and surprised everyone by bringing a bride with him, Shirley Mendelsohn. Shirley was on the set every day. It was soon apparent she was shifting her affections from Max to Edgar. Shirley and Max divorced and I understand she and Edgar had a long and happy marriage. ‘Thunder’ was produced by the Alexander brothers, both fine, clean-cut fellows. Arthur was a special friend of mine. Throughout the years he’d often stop by my house and take me to the latest movie. He was a favorite escort of mine to film functions and parties.”

“As to directors, besides Edgar Ulmer, I liked Harry Fraser and Bart Carre. Bob Hill was a dear, dear friend but he was flamboyant and made me overact.”

Marion’s riding experience prior to her Westerns was limited. “My only riding experience had been on burros during my childhood days in Colorado. At first, during the filming of ‘Sundown Trail’, I was terrified of horses, but I like animals and with subsequent experience and some riding lessons in Griffith Park, I learned to enjoy riding, very much. While on location with ‘Red Rider’, I got on my horse and went to an isolated place to practice riding. I soon became aware of someone following me. I looked around and there was Buck Jones. When he knew I was aware of him, he burst out laughing. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is the best example I’ve ever seen of a horse riding a girl!’ He then gave me some coaching and eventually I even learned to do a flying mount.”

“If I ever had a double in a Western, I don’t recall it. I shudder now remembering how dangerous it was for a person as unathletic as I to gallop over long stretches of rough terrain. Actually, I enjoyed the thrill, not giving a thought to the chances I was taking. On ‘Thunder Over Texas’ the horses were very fractious and there were yellow jackets around our location. During the filming of a scene my horse was stung. He reared and threw me. I got up, brushed myself off and said, ‘I’m all right, let’s get on with the scene.’ I then re-mounted and the scene was completed. I must have been in a state of shock, but I can attest to the accuracy of this account as the next day I saw the entire episode in the rushes. I had a sore back for several weeks and the studio arranged for chiropractic treatments.”

Title card for "Thunder Over Texas" starring Big Boy Williams and Marion Shilling.

We asked Marion if she’d had any ‘casting couch’ problems. “Many actors, directors and producers ‘made advances.’. It was not uncommon for us even actually to be chased around the director or producer’s desk. But any girl with spunk can say ‘No’.”

As to her close friends in the business, Marion recalls, “It was during the movie days I met Maryan Mann, with whom I’ve kept in close touch. Under the name, Maryan (or Marion) Dowling she was the lead in several independent Westerns. (“Desert Justice” w/Jack Perrin, “Melody Trail” w/Gene Autry). Married to Gene Mann, a prominent movie agent, she retired early to rear four sons. Maryan later was married to David Eisner, the financier. She lives in Palm Springs but we’re still dear friends. Ellen Corby was another kindred spirit. As was Lois Wilson, Fay McKenzie and her sister, Ella (Mrs. Billy Gilbert).”

Asked about being ‘typed’ in Westerns, Marion smiles, “Weren’t all the heroines in those low budget Westerns sweet and pretty? And virgins? I would liked to have played more spirited parts.”

Marion’s worst and best days were back to back. “My worst day in films, one of the most miserable experiences of my life, occurred during the filming of ‘Shop Angel’ (‘32). Early in January, the weather was gray and cold. I spent all day shooting scenes in an outdoor, unheated swimming pool. Scene after scene I’d have to get back into that frigid water. By evening I thought I was about to die. Then I had to return to the studio, put on fresh makeup and work well into the night. Need I tell you the movie was a quickie? My scenes were with Walter Byron and called for us to embrace and kiss a number of times. And Walter had a heavy cold! I was chilled to the bone from that awful day in the pool and, of course, caught the heavy cold. Six days of shooting remained and I was in almost every scene. Ironically, my best day, by far, was the one preceding. That was the happy day I met Edward Cook, my Prince Charming, my future husband. ‘Shop Angel’ producer, Morris Schlank, and his wife, Bess, (she was modiste to many top stars) were intentionally playing cupid. They invited Edward and his parents to visit the set and planned the introduction. Edward lived in Philadelphia but spent his winters in California. It took me six years to make up my mind to leave my folks and California. Edward and I married in 1937 and moved near Philadelphia. Edward’s folks and mine by then had become dear friends and the Cooks persuaded my mother and dad to move East. My dad managed a movie theater. In 1945, after the war, all of us returned to California so Edward could realize a longtime dream of attending Cal Tech’s graduate school of physics.”

“Our son grew up to become a lawyer, a public defender for Los Angeles County. He also does pro bono work, visiting the black high schools of L.A. talking to the young people on career planning. Our daughter, Frances, graduated from UCLA then earned two master’s degrees at Stanford. She taught school for several years then married. Fran became one of the leading volunteer workers in the Palo Alto area. In October, 1995, Fran died at the age of fifty-four of lung cancer. She didn’t smoke and was not exposed to smoking.”

Lovely Marion in later years.“I regret not having made a more significant contribution to films. With my present self-awareness and maturity I could do so much better. But I know someone up there likes me and, with wisdom far superior to mine, has guided my life and affairs to everyone’s best interests. If I had been working in a major studio on that fateful day in January, 1932, instead of on the set of ‘Shop Angel’, I’d never have met Edward. For nearly over 60 years I’ve been married to this wonderful, tall, handsome, highly successful man. He still tells me, many times every day, how much he loves me. Who could ask for anything more!!!”

Marion, 93, died November 6, 2004.

Marion’s Western Filmography


Movies: Sundown Trail (‘31 RKO)—Tom Keene; A Man’s Land (‘32 Allied)—Hoot Gibson; Fighting To Live (‘34 Principal)—Reb Russell; Thunder Over Texas (‘34 Beacon)—Big Boy Williams;       The Westerner (‘34 Columbia)—Tim McCoy; Stone of Silver Creek (‘35 Universal)—Buck Jones; Gunsmoke on the Guadalupe (‘35 Kent)—Buck Coburn; Rio Rattler (‘35 Reliable)—Tom Tyler; Gun Play (‘35 Beacon)—Big Boy Williams; Blazing Guns (‘35 Kent)—Reb Russell; Idaho Kid (‘36 Colony)—Rex Bell; Romance Rides the Range (‘36 Spectrum)—Fred Scott; Cavalcade of the West (‘36 Diversion)—Hoot Gibson; Serial: Red Rider (‘34 Universal)—Buck Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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