Mae Marsh

Mae Marsh

Photo of Marsh from The Photo-Play Journal (July 1916)
Born Mary Wayne Marsh
(1894-11-09)November 9, 1894
Madrid, New Mexico, U.S.
Died February 13, 1968(1968-02-13) (aged 73)
Hermosa Beach, California, U.S.
Occupation Film actress
Years active 19101964
Spouse(s) Louis Lee Arms (m. 1918–68) 3 children

Mae Marsh (born Mary Wayne Marsh, November 9, 1894[1] February 13, 1968) was an American film actress with a career spanning over 50 years.

Early life

A frequently told story of Marsh's childhood is that her father, a railroad auditor, died when she was four. Her family moved to San Francisco, where her stepfather was killed in the great earthquake of 1906. Her great-aunt then took Mae and her older sister Marguerite to Los Angeles, hoping her show-business background would open doors for jobs at various movie studios needing extras. However, her father, S. Charles Marsh, was a bartender, not a railroad auditor, and he was alive at least as late as June 1900, when Mae Marsh was nearly six.[1] Her stepfather, oil-field inspector William Hall, could not have been killed in the 1906 earthquake, as he was alive, listed in the 1910 census, living with her mother, May née Warne, and sisters.[2]

Marsh worked as a salesgirl and loitered around the sets and locations while her older sister worked on a film, observing the progress of her sister’s performance. She first started as an extra in various movies, and played her first substantial role in the film Ramona (1910) at the age of 15.

“I tagged my way into motion pictures,” Marsh recalled in The Silent Picture. “I used to follow my sister Marguerite to the old Biograph studio and then, one great day, Mr. Griffith noticed me, put me in a picture and I had my chance. I love my work and though new and very wonderful interests have entered my life, I still love it and couldn’t think of giving it up.”[3]

Career rise

Mae Marsh in The Birth of a Nation, 1915.
Mae Marsh in Intolerance, 1916
Mae Marsh as a Belgian girl and A. C. Gibbons as a German soldier in Goldwyn's all-star Liberty Loan picture, Stake Uncle Sam to Play Your Hand (1918)

Marsh worked with D.W. Griffith in small roles at Biograph when they were filming in California and in New York. Her big break came when Mary Pickford, resident star of the Biograph lot and a married woman at that time, refused to play the bare-legged, grass-skirted role of Lily-White in Man's Genesis. Griffith announced that if Pickford would not play that part in Man’s Genesis she would not play the coveted title role in his next film, The Sands of Dee. The other actresses stood behind Pickford, each refusing in turn to play the part, citing the same objection.

Years later, Marsh recalled in an interview in The Silent Picture, “...and he called rehearsal, and we were all there and he said, ‘Well now, Miss Marsh, you can rehearse this.’ And Mary Pickford said, ‘What!’ and Mr. Griffith said, ‘Yes, Mary Pickford, if you don’t do what I tell you I want you to do, I’m going to have someone else do The Sands of Dee. Mary Pickford didn’t play Man’s Genesis so Mae can play The Sands of Dee.’ Of course, I was thrilled, and she was very much hurt. And I thought, ‘Well, it's all right with me. That is something.’ I was, you know, just a lamebrain.”[4]

Working with Mack Sennett and D.W. Griffith, she was a prolific actress, sometimes appearing in eight movies a year and often paired with fellow Sennett protégé Robert Harron in romantic roles. In The Birth of a Nation (1915) she played the innocent sister who waits for her brothers to come home from war and who, in one of the film's most racially charged scenes, leaps to her death rather than submit to the lustful advances of Gus, the so-called "renegade Negro" who is later killed by the Ku Klux Klan. In Intolerance (1916) she plays the wife who has her baby taken away after her husband is unjustly imprisoned.

She signed a lucrative contract with Samuel Goldwyn worth $2,500 per week after Intolerance, but none of the films she made with him were particularly successful. After her marriage to Lee Arms, a publicity agent for Goldwyn, in 1918, her film output decreased to about one per year.

Marsh's last notable starring role was as a flapper for Griffith in The White Rose (1923) with Ivor Novello and Carol Dempster. She re-teamed with Novello for the film version of his hit stage play, The Rat (1925).

In 1955, Marsh was awarded the "George Eastman Award",[5] given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.


Marsh returned from retirement to appear in "talkies" and played a role in Henry King’s remake of Over the Hill (1931). She gravitated toward character roles, and worked in this manner for the next several decades. Marsh appeared in numerous popular films, such as Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1932) and Little Man, What Now? (1934). She also became a favorite of director John Ford, appearing in The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), 3 Godfathers (1948), The Robe (1953), and The Searchers (1956).

Marsh has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1600 Vine Street.

Personal life

She married Sam Goldwyn's publicity agent Louis Lee Arms, in 1918 and bore three children with him. They were married until her death, in 1968. Husband Louis Arms died in June 1989, at age 101. They are buried together in Section 5, at Pacific Crest Cemetery, in Redondo Beach, California. Her sister Marguerite Marsh died in 1925 at the age of 37. Her only brother, cinematographer Oliver Marsh, died in 1941. Her daughter, Marguerite Arms White, died in 2016 when she was 88 years old.

Silent filmography


  1. 1 2 U.S. Census records for 1900, El Paso, Texas, Sheet No. 6
  2. U.S. Census records for 1910, Los Angeles, California, Sheet No. 4A
  3. The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee. Connecticut: Praeger, 2004. p. 114
  4. The First Female Stars: Women of the Silent Era by David W. Menefee. Connecticut: Praeger, 2004. p. 117
  5. "Eastman House award recipients · George Eastman House Rochester". Retrieved 2013-07-03.
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