Una Merkel, Movie, Stage Actress, Dies

Times Staff Writer

Una Merkel, whose physical resemblance to Lillian Gish enabled her to embark on a dramatic career and whose talent kept her firmly at the thick of the productive actors who dominated Hollywood throughout the film industry’s fabled years, died Thursday.

The Kentucky-born Miss Merkel was 82 and was seen in the last of her 67 silent and sound pictures in 1966.

At her death, she had run a coastal gamut that brought her an Antoinette Perry (Tony) award in 1956 for best supporting actress in Broadway’s “The Ponder Heart” and an Academy Award (Oscar) nomination for best supporting actress in Hollywood’s “Summer and Smoke.”


She was part of that nearly extinct cadre of entertainers who made successful transitions from the era of overdrawn acting in films that could not talk to the often asinine comedies of the 1930s, when audiences fretted that characters would never shut up.

Looks Back on Career

And she managed it, said her associates, with an equanimity and self-effacing personna seldom seen on motion picture sets.

Looking back on her career several years ago, she did allow to author Richard Lamparski that “I really was kinda cute.” But then she quickly added: “I wish I’d known that then. I always thought I came over like a little hick.”

A blonde with sparkling blue eyes who so closely resembled Miss Gish in her early years that director D. W. Griffith made her a stand-in in “Way Down East” in 1920 and “The White Rose” in 1923, Miss Merkel had moved from her native Kentucky to Los Angeles while in her teens, seeking a career in films.

Movie Saloon Fight

The actress, who may best be remembered for the savage saloon fight she had with Marlene Dietrich in “Destry Rides Again,” had studied drama with Tyrone Power’s mother in New York. Her first featured film credit was in the long forgotten “The Fifth Horseman” in 1924. However, she had to return to New York for work after that, uttering one line in “Two by Two” in 1925, which ran two weeks, and another sentence in “The Poor Nut” the same year, which lasted three weeks.

However, she persevered and in 1927, was cast with Helen Hayes in “Coquette,” which enjoyed a 22-month Broadway run.

By 1930, she had returned to both Hollywood and Griffith, who cast her as Ann Rutledge, the sweetheart of “Abraham Lincoln,” opposite Walter Huston. But after one additional melodrama (“The Bat Whispers,” also in 1930), she became typed as a second female banana in a string of commercial triumphs. It was not unusual for her to make six films or more in a single year.

She was a caustic chorine in “42nd Street,” played opposite such comics as Harold Lloyd and Charles Butterworth and was an object of W. C. Fields’ frustrations in “The Bank Dick.” She was best on-screen buddies with Ruby Keeler, Janet Gaynor, Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard in individual films and to Jean Harlow in several.

She deadpanned, drawled and wisecracked her way through “Broadway Melody of 1936,” “Biography of a Bachelor Girl,” “Evelyn Prentice,” “Born to Dance,” “Saratoga” and two dozen more films in the 1930s, capping the decade with “Destry” in 1939.

The grits-thick accent, quick retorts and sarcasm continued into the ‘40s, as she kept up a pace of secondary roles in secondary films. However, when the phone quit ringing in the 1950s, Miss Merkel opted to return to New York, where she won critical acclaim and the Tony for Eudora Welty’s “The Ponder Heart.” The success evidently convinced film producers that there was more to Miss Merkel than scatterbrained banter, and she was cast as Geraldine Page’s bitter mother in the film version of Tennessee Williams’ “Summer and Smoke.”

She did, however, have to submit to a screen test to get the role, even though she had already performed it on stage.

Nearly Killed

Miss Merkel, who toured USO camps during World War II with Gary Cooper and other stars, was divorced from aircraft executive Ronald L. Burla in 1946. That was a year after she was nearly killed when her mother committed suicide by turning on the gas in the New York apartment they were sharing.

In 1959, she was seen on Broadway with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon in “Take Me Along,” a musical adaptation of “Ah, Wilderness” remembered now primarily for its title song.

Her movie career lasted only for four additional pictures after “Summer and Smoke:” “The Parent Trap,” “Summer Magic,” “A Tiger Walks” and “Spinout,” an Elvis Presley vehicle in 1966. After that there were only a scattering of television appearances.

“I don’t remember in all those years ever being with unpleasant people,” was how she remembered her career during one of the last interviews she ever granted.

For the past several years, she had lived quietly in an apartment in Los Angeles. She leaves no immediate survivors and will be buried near her parents in Covington, Ky.