Know Your Character Actor: Una Merkel

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March 22, 2014 by smumcounty

UnaMerkel

Abraham Lincoln (1930)

Abraham Lincoln (1930)

Una Merkel was born in Covington, Kentucky on Dec 10th, 1903. In her teens she moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in films. In her early years, she so resembled Lillian Gish that D.W. Griffith hired her as Gish’s stand-in for “Way Down East” (1920) and “The White Rose” (1923). Her first film credit was for “The Fifth Horseman” (1924). Not finding success in Hollywood she decided to move to New York to try her hand on Broadway. After a few roles in short lived plays she eventually landed a role in “Coquette” (1927) playing opposite Helen Hayes. This garnered her enough attention that D.W. Griffith cast her as Ann Rutledge in his 1930 talkie “Abraham Lincoln” bringing her back to Hollywood.

Loretta Young and Una Merkel in Midnight Mary

Loretta Young and Una Merkel in Midnight Mary

Jean Harlow and Una Merkel in Bombshell

Jean Harlow and Una Merkel in Bombshell

With her gamine good looks and Southern accent she was in great demand in Hollywood in the 30’s often playing best friend and confidante of the leading lady. In this role, she appeared with Loretta Young in “Midnight Mary” (1933), Myrna Loy in “Evelyn Prentice” (1934), Carole Lombard in “True Confession” (1937) , and Jean Harlow in “Red-Headed Woman” (1932), “Bombshell” (1933), “Riffraff” (1936), and “Saratoga” (1937).  She was Sam Spade’s secretary in the original “Maltese Falcon” (1931). She was the dim-witted but lovable BFF of Ginger Rogers in “42nd Street” (1933) where they exhorted us to “Shuffle off to Buffalo”. She cracked wise as the secretary of Robert Taylor in “Broadway Melody of 1936”. She gave as good as she got in the legendary, no-holds-barred cat fight with Marlene Dietrich in “Destry Rides Again” (1939).

Una Merkel and Charles Butterworth in The Night Is Young

Una Merkel and Charles Butterworth in The Night Is Young

She also got the chance to occasionally play leading lady, often paired with comedians such as Harold Lloyd, Jack Benny, and Charles Butterworth. If you’ve watched classic films of the 30’s you’ve probably seen her a dozen times without realizing it.

These types of roles continued through the 40’s but when the 50’s came and the phone stopped ringing, she moved back to Broadway. In 1956, she won the Tony award for her portrayal of Edna Earle Ponder in Eudora Welty’s “The Ponder Heart”. In 1959, she appeared with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon in “Take Me Along” a musical version of Eugene O’Neill’s “Ah, Wilderness”.

Una Merkel and Haley Mills in Parent Trap

Una Merkel and Haley Mills in Parent Trap

At the end of her career, she made her way back to Hollywood transitioning to matronly roles such as the housekeeper in “The Parent Trap” (1961). Also in 1961, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as the mother in “Summer and Smoke” a role she had first played on stage. Her last film was the Elvis Presley film “Spinout” (1966). She died in Los Angeles in 1986 at the age of 82.

Una with Myrna Loy in “Evelyn Prentice” (1934)

Una and Jean Harlow in “Red-Headed Woman” (1932)

Una Merkel Mash-up

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