Wednesday, November 5, 2014
I don't know what I was researching or looking at that made me come across Merna Kennedy. I could have SWORN that I did an entry on her a few years ago and was pretty surprised to find out that I had not. I must have fantasy blog entries in my brain that I think are the real thing.
So, let's shine the spotlight on Merna!
Merna Kennedy was born Maude Kahler on September 7, 1908 in Kankakee, Illinois.
AND right from the get-go we have some disputes about birth names and birthplaces. From everything I have read, Merna was born "Maude," but in the 1910 census, she is listed as "Merna." So, my guess is that Merna is either a middle name or a nickname. Easy enough explanation there. Now, as far as her birthplace, in a 1926 article in Screenland magazine it was listed that Manteno, Illinois was her actual place of birth but Kankakee (and another Illinois city) were wanting the honor of being Merna's birthplace. Manteno and Kankakee are only 16 minutes apart, so it really is just splitting hairs.
Merna was the second child born to John, who I believe was a butcher (it was hard to read the census record), and his wife Maud. Her older brother, Merle, nicknamed "Bud," was born four years before Merna.
At age seven, Merna appeared on the vaudeville stage for the first time. Her mother had wanted to be an actress when she was younger, but her devoutly religious parents forbid it. So, she put all that drive into making sure her children, mainly her daughter, were on stage in front of an audience. Pretty soon Merna and Bud were touring vaudeville with a comedy and dance act.
At age nine, Merna met a little girl in her dance class name Lita. The two soon became friends, as did their mothers. These friendships lasted for years, all the way to Hollywood when Lita became Lita Grey Chaplin after marrying Charlie Chaplin at age sixteen. It was Lita who gave Merna her big break in Hollywood.
Chaplin was looking to cast his leading lady in his upcoming film, The Circus. Lita had been the leading lady to her husband, but she had two sons to take care of now and wasn't going to be appearing on the screen anytime soon. So, she had the bright idea of putting her good friend Merna up for the part, but she had to be careful about how to approach the subject to Chaplin. One night, Lita invited Merna out to dinner with her and Charlie so that he could get a look at her and make it seem like the idea for casting Merna was his idea all along. And so, The Circus became Merna Kennedy's film debut! Not a bad way to start!
After her big break, Merna had quite a few more movie roles and people seemed excited about the lady Chaplin had picked for his film. While Merna did appear in a few good flicks during her career, she couldn't really match the fame she garnered appearing next to Chaplin. She did have the distinction of appearing in Universal Studio's first talking picture, 1929's Broadway. The film is also notable for the few Technicolor sequences it contains.
Her last film was 1934's I Like It That Way which starred Gloria Stuart. She chose to retire to focus on her personal life, having just gotten married.
Merna Kennedy passed away on December 20, 1944 due to a myocardial infarction (heart attack). She was only 36 years old.
She was buried at the Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California. She is buried with her older brother, Bud, but I am not sure who died first since the headstone does not contain any dates.
Merna was married twice. Her first husband was famous director/choreographer, Busby Berkeley who she married in 1934. The marriage was doomed to failure considering the couple was always under the watchful eye of Berkeley's mother, Gertrude. Her opinion was quite important to her son and she could very well be the reason behind Busby being married four times. (I've also heard six!) Merna eventually filed for divorce in 1935 citing mental cruelty.
Her second husband was Master Sergeant Forrest Brayton who she married sometime in 1944. I am not sure of the exact date, but from what I read it was very close to when she died in December.
Merna's other relationships included Hell's Angels actor James Hall who she was engaged to for a period of time. Her most famous beau would be the man who gave her her big break, Charlie Chaplin. The two reportedly had an affair during the filming of The Circus, something that Mrs. Lita Grey Chaplin used against Charlie when she filed for divorce. Not a great way to treat your best girlfriend, Miss Merna. If this is all true that is...
According to a movie magazine of the time Merna was a green eyed, red haired, 100 lbs. tomboy who was not a fan of flappers and hated being called one.
"Miss Kennedy is a very clever girl." ~~ Charlie Chaplin