Yesteryears: A hometown movie star - The Daily Progress: Lifestyles

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Yesteryears: A hometown movie star

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Posted: Sunday, June 3, 2012 7:00 am | Updated: 11:17 am, Wed Jan 23, 2013.


The black-and-white photograph shows the profile of a pretty young woman.

Her long, wavy hair reaches below her shoulders. She does not smile, but appears to be wistfully looking at something in the distance.

The picture is a publicity shot of Kathleen Clifford, taken sometime between 1912 and 1916. Depending on the year, she could have been as young as 25 or as old as 29.

What is certain is that by the time the photograph was taken, Clifford had become a star of the stage and soon would appear on the silver screen. She wouldn’t become as famous as Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish, but she earned a place of respect among the pioneers of silent film.

Clifford was born in Charlottesville on Feb. 16, 1887. It was a time when vaudeville troupes traveled from town to town entertaining people with a variety of acts from music to dancing to comedy skits.

Clifford might have caught the performance bug while watching a vaudeville show at one of Charlottesville’s theaters. However it happened, vaudeville was the foundation on which she built her career as a comedian.

What set her apart was her spot-on impersonation of men involved in humorous predicaments. One of her billings dubbed her “the smartest chap in town.”

A smart career move for Clifford was teaming up with famous female impersonator Bothwell Browne. The act helped bring her to the attention of the producers of the musical “The Bell of London Town.”

Clifford passed the audition and made her Broadway stage debut in the play in January 1907. She must have been thrilled to be performing in the brand-new Lincoln Square Theatre, which recently had been completed.

If there had been lean times on the vaudeville circuit, they were now in the past. As soon as one play would close, Clifford would land another role.

One of her biggest triumphs came in 1911, when she was cast in the triple-bill musical “Hell, Temptations and Gaby” at the Folies Bergere theater. One of the composers who contributed to the musical scores was Irving Berlin.

After 92 performances the musical closed, but Clifford never missed a beat. She quickly landed a role in the musical comedy “Vera Violetta,” which was being presented at the Winter Garden Theatre.

As Clifford continued to polish her star on the stage, motion pictures were starting to come into their own. In 1917 she stepped before the cameras to make her screen debut in a mystery series, “Who Is Number One?”

Costarring with Clifford was Cullen Landis. A few films later she starred opposite Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in the 1919 comedy “When the Clouds Roll By.”

In 1923, she played the role of Queen Berengaria in the film “Richard the Lion-Hearted.” Wallace Beery costarred with her.

Like a number of silent screen stars, Clifford either couldn’t or didn’t want to make the transition to the “talkies.” Her only sound film —“The Bride’s Bereavement,” in 1932 — would be her last.

In 1945 Beverly Publishing issued a children’s book written by Clifford, “The Enchanted Glen: Never Trod By the Feet of Men.” It was illustrated by Kim Weed.

Clifford died Dec. 28, 1962, in Los Angeles. As the years passed, her once shining star became ever more obscure.

But now, thanks to the Internet, all one needs to do is type “Kathleen Clifford” into a search engine. A few seconds later, there she’ll be, looking into the distance, perhaps thinking of her hometown.

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