The photo above is from "The Broadway Melody," released by MGM in February 1929. It was the first full-fledged musical film, inaugurated the popular "backstage" format for musicals and would win the Academy Award as best picture -- the first "talkie" to do so. (To be fair, other musicals issued later that year, such as "Applause" or "The Love Parade," eclipse it in terms of technical aplomb or storytelling -- but that in no way diminishes "Broadway Melody's" groundbreaking status.)
The woman at left in the photo, Anita Page, was one of the leads in that historic movie, playing Queenie Mahoney, one of two sisters who comes to the big city seeking fortune and fame on the musical stage after previous success in vaudeville. (Page's older sister is played by Bessie Love, a veteran of the film industry whose prior credits included "Intolerance" and "The Lost World.")
Anita Page died early Saturday at her home in Los Angeles, barely a month after turning 98. She was one of the few links left to the silent era, as she made several silents before "The Broadway Melody."
Born Anita Pomares in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., on Aug. 4, 1910, her family later moved to the Astoria section of the borough, not far from where Paramount was establishing its eastern studio. As it turned out, Anita's neighbors included the family of Paramount star Betty Bronson, who took a liking to the young girl and made her an extra in her 1925 vehicle "A Kiss For Cinderella."
She then signed up with independent Kenilworth Productions, which moved its operations from New York to Los Angeles in December 1927, paying moving expenses for Anita (who now used the name "Anita Rivers") and her family. So far, so good -- but when the train taking the crew arrived in Chicago and the film company's owner boarded, his identity was revealed: Harry K. Thaw, who some two decades earlier was in the 20th century's first "trial of the century," acquitted on grounds of insanity in the murder of famed architect Stanford White over the affections of Thaw's wife, the young beauty Evelyn Nesbit.
Page's mother wanted nothing to do with Thaw and wanted Anita to get off the train in Chicago. The daughter successfully dissuaded her mother, and they went on to California. A planned deal with United Artists fell through when UA wanted nothing to do with the unsavory Thaw. Anita's mother was able to get an attorney to nullify her contract with Thaw's company, and the teen -- soon to be given "Page" as her last name on screen -- signed with MGM.
Anita's first silent at MGM was "Telling The World," in which she was the leading lady to William Haines (alas, it's currently lost). but her next film there is probably her second most-remembered: the 1928 Jazz Age gem "Our Dancing Daughters," with Anita, at left, working with Joan Crawford and Dorothy Sebastian:
In retrospect, "Daughters" was probably the film that cemented Crawford's style and look -- but many will tell you that Page, playing an impoverished gold-digger guided by her mother (1910s star Kathlyn Williams, reportedly one of Carole Lombard's favorite actresses while growing up), steals the show. Page and Crawford were never close, but in the 1970s Crawfprd tracked Page down to co-sign a "Daughters" picture a fan had sent her, and after the book "Mommie Dearest" came out, Page criticized Christina Crawford's portrayal of her adoptive mother.
Crawford, Page and Sebastian also made two sequels of sorts (although they played different characters), "Our Modern Maidens" (1929) and "Our Blushing Brides" (1930).
Before 1928 ended, Page was leading lady to Lon Chaney ("While The City Sleeps"). During 1929, Page was at her peak of popularity, getting thousands of fan letters. One of her admirers was reportedly Benito Mussolini.
Anita was still riding high when 1930 began, but things slowly began to unravel. She was Buster Keaton's co-star in his first sound feature, "Free And Easy," but that title certainly wasn't referring to MGM's authoritarian filmmaking style. Buster's work on screen consequently suffered, as did Page's career.
By 1931, Anita's status at MGM was, to borrow one of her film titles that year, "Reducing" (where she had a supporting role to Marie Dressler). She was the first film actress to have a romantic role opposite Clark Gable, in "The Easiest Way," but both are supporting players in this Constance Bennett vehicle.
Page later maintained that much of her decline was due to her refusal to sleep with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer.
She had a few good character parts, such as in "Night Court" with Walter Huston and the racy pre-Code saga "Skyscraper Souls," but by 1933 Page was reduced to loanouts to Monogram, a place she once described as "the last gas station on the way to the desert." Once her MGM contract expired, that was it, more or less.
Did Anita Page know Lombard, who was nearly two years her senior? They may have met, but likely were little more than acquaintances, as they worked in completely different environments.
Anita married songwriter Nacio Herb Brown in Tijuana in 1934, but it was annulled the following year when she discovered his earlier divorce wasn't final at the time of their marriage.
A mutual friend of both Page and Lombard came to the rescue after the annulment. Marion Davies invited Anita to spend some time at San Simeon. and "I wound up staying for five months," she recalled. "Marion wouldn’t let me go. That’s why I always say never invite me anywhere, ’cause I’ll never leave."
In 1936, Anita took a small role in the film "Hitch-Hike To Heaven," which would be her last screen credit for decades. Late that year, she went to San Diego to golf with some friends. In the company was a Navy lieutenant, Herschel A. House. They immediately clicked, and married a few weeks later in early 1937. The union lasted more than half a century, producing two daughters, and House was promoted to admiral. They lived in Coronado, Calif., near where they had met.
Following House's death in 1991, Page returned to Los Angeles, appearing at film conventions and similar events. There she found a number of people fascinated in her career and her ties to a Hollywood that had long disappeared. She attended the musical version of "Sunset Boulevard," where she's shown with Glenn Close, in costume as Norma Desmond:
In addition, Anita began acting again, appearing in the 1996 independent production "Sunset After Dark," where she plays a retired silent film star. She made several more appearances in low-budget films, including the forthcoming "Frankenstein Rising." For her, it was a kick; for the filmmakers, it was a way to link themselves to Hollywood's Golden Age.
For more on Anita, go to a nice two-part interview conducted with her in the late 1990s at http://www.altfg.com/blog/actors/anita-page-last-silent-film-star/ and http://www.altfg.com/blog/actors/anita-page-allan-ellenberger-part-ii/. In its "The Daily Mirror" blog, the Los Angeles Times has reissued a July 1928 interview with Anita (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/thedailymirror/2008/09/1920s-movie-sta.html); the Page piece begins in the lower left-hand corner.
We'll leave you with some Page portraits taken by three of the era's better-known photographers -- from left, George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull and Ruth Harriet Louise: