Marc McDermott – the Sydney hairdresser who went to Hollywood

Above: The dashing Marc McDermott, with particularly well kept hair, in about 1916. From Motography magazine, April-June 1916, p 1146. via Lantern Media History project. 

In an acting career lasting the thirty years 1899-1929, Australian-born Marc McDermott appeared on stage in numerous productions and in over 200 US films, becoming an extremely well recognised and popular performer in the early years of cinema. In the occasional discussions about who was “the first Australian” to succeed in Hollywood, or “which Australian actor has made the most films”, Marc McDermott should rank highly. But apparently, to emphasize his serious acting credentials, he was keen to disassociate himself from his colonial upbringing as quickly as possible. So keen in fact he contributed to or approved of, a variety of preposterous stories about his origins – that have coloured his biographies to this day.

An example of this is the 1916 Motography magazine account that accompanies the photo above. This romantic story claims he was born in the affluent London suburb of Knightsbridge, and was a descendant of an ancient Irish King of Munster. He was “taken to Australia” by his parents at the age of four, it was claimed. But as the article also celebrates his move to the Vitagraph studio after 6 years at the Edison studio, it has all the hallmarks of a made-up publicity story. Twenty years later, Errol Flynn‘s life story was given almost identical studio PR treatment, he too, being “born in Ireland”, rather than far off and unfamiliar Tasmania. And in the absence of any meaningful later-in-life interviews (McDermott died in 1929) these studio stories have had a mighty influence on the modern and wildly inaccurate accounts of his life.

Motion Picture Story mag Feb - July 1911Marcus Patrick McDermott was born in the regional town of Goulburn, in southern New South Wales, in July 1871. His parents were Patrick James McDermott and Annie Massy nee O’Shaughnessy. The Irish born couple had met in Australia and married in Sydney in early 1870. A sister, May (or Mary), was born in 1881. Patrick, occasionally described as a “senior civil servant” was in fact a Prison Warder – first at Goulburn Gaol, and later promoted to Senior Prison Warder at Bathurst Gaol. It appears young Marc boarded at Saint Ignatius School, Riverview, on Sydney’s lower north shore. (see Note 1 below)

Above: Forty year old Marc McDermott in 1911, Motion Picture Story Magazine Feb-July 1911. Via Lantern Media History Project

Evening News 11 Oct 1897   Sunday Times 20 Feb 1898

Marc McDermott’s first experience performing was through organised amateur theatricals provided by the Sydney Idlers Club, as these newspaper reports indicate. Left – Evening News Oct 8 1897 and right – The Sunday Times, Feb 20, 1898. Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.

If later biographies are to be believed, Marc’s father did not approve of his childhood interest in acting, and on one occasion burnt his toy theatre. Marc persisted and by his mid-twenties was actively involved in amateur theatricals, through membership of the Sydney Idlers Musical and Dramatic Club,  while during the day he was a city hairdresser in Elizabeth Street running a salon near the corner of King Street. Not only is this surprising fact borne out by newspaper references, it is also shown in several years of Sands Directory entries for Sydney, in 1896-98.

Macdermott in the Sands Directory 1898

Above – left column: Marc McDermott, hairdresser, operating at 77 Elizabeth Street, in the 1898 Sands Directory of Sydney.

In 1926, former amateur Sydney performer Jack Glover provided some reminiscences of Marc McDermott, by then very well established in Hollywood. Recalling the late 1890s, Glover told Everyone’s Magazine “I often smile and wonder whilst watching him on the screen if he ever thinks of the little barber’s shop in Elizabeth Street in which he used to lather and shave whilst we discussed the drama, for he (McDermott) was always ambitious to go on the stage.”  McDermott’s imitations of popular actors were apparently his specialty.

Others remembered him too – Harry P. Stewart, who had brought a theatrical version of Around the World in Eighty Days to Sydney in early 1899, recalled giving McDermott a part. And there is evidence of McDermott trying out humorous songs in vaudeville in a company travelling through New South Wales.

McDermott 1898

Above: Marc McDermott in Elsie Lander’s ( Charlotte Hazlewood Hannam’s) vaudeville company. This advertisement is from a Parramatta (NSW) newspaper in April 1898. Via National library of Australia’s Trove

But his great breakthrough was to be employed in George Rignold‘s company, sometime in 1899, and embarking on an Australia-wide performance tour.

Zeehan Gaiety 1900  445px-George_Rignold_Henry_5_1877

Above left: At 29, Marc McDermott was finally performing professionally. Here is evidence he was in George Rignold’s travelling company, in a featured role. The location was the Gaiety Theatre in  the Tasmanian mining town of Zeehan, and it still stands today. The Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 December 1900, Via National Library of Australia’s Trove.
Above right: George Rignold as Henry V, via Wikipedia commons and State Library of New South Wales.

By mid 1901, the Rignold company tour of Australia had wrapped up, and Rignold returned to Sydney to care for his ailing wife. Following some further acting and at least one experience directing a Sydney play himself, in late July 1902 Marc McDermott sailed for Vancouver, Canada, on the RMS Miowera. By 19 August 1902 he was at the Grand Union Hotel in New York, explaining to a New York Tribune reporter that some Australians with convict ancestry now had significant wealth, and telling witty stories about Australian children in drought ravaged districts – who had so far grown up without seeing rain. “Oh mummy what’s rain? Is it like the circus?” And this seems to have been his last public commentary about Australia.

Only a few months later, he joined British actress Mrs Patrick Campbell‘s productions of Magda, The Joy of Living and The Second Mrs Tanqueray in New York. For the next nine months he was on tour with Campbell through the larger cities of the United States and from mid 1903 he performed with her company in the United Kingdom. In just five years he had made an extraordinary journey from barber shop to the international stage.

Mcdermott drawn by Harry furniss 1913

Above: Actor, writer and director Harry Furness drew this caricature of McDermott in 1913 for The Bioscope, 25 December 1913. Via The British Library Newspaper Archive.

In July 1906 he travelled back to the United States and settled in New York. He then appeared with Richard Mansfield‘s company on their final tour of North America with Peer Gynt (Mansfield died later in 1907). Also in 1907, his mother Annie and sister May joined him in New York. Sadly Marc’s father Patrick, a victim of serious ill-health, had taken his own life in Sydney in August 1904 .

In so far as we can tell, his first films were for the Thomas Edison studio in New York, in 1909. And there, began a long and successful career on the screen.

motionpicturesto07moti_ FEb-Mar 1914

Above: The Thomas Edison Studio lineup from Motion Picture Magazine, Feb-March 1914. The 43 year old Marc McDermott is at top left. Via the Lantern Media History Project 

The reader today may wonder about his great success, particularly when so many others struggled for so long to establish themselves. In part – the answer must be the great names he was associated with from the early days of his acting career – Rignold, Campbell and Mansfield. But there is no doubt he was also a skilled and very versatile actor – who could play sleazy villains and romantic leads as easily as a bent and wizened Ebenzeer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1910).

When she was about 16

Above: Marc McDermott (left) in character as the old farmer, in a screen grab from When She Was About Sixteen (1912) with Bessie Learn and Margery Bonney Eskine. The entire Edison film – and several others featuring McDermott – can be watched online at Amsterdam’s Eye Channel on YouTube.
Above left: Marc McDermott as the nasty Baron – a screen grab from MGMs He Who gets Slapped, 1924. Via the Internet Archive. Above right: A screen grab showing Marc McDermott as Sir John Killigrew (centre) and fellow Australian Enid Bennett as Lady Rosamund (right) in The Sea Hawk, 1924. The Silent Hall of Fame channel on YouTube currently shows the entire film.

Fellow actor Harry Furness, who knew McDermott well, wrote an unusually long piece on him for The Bioscope in December 1913. While acknowledging his versatility, Furness also thought he was “at heart, an intense actor” with the benefit of being “tall, handsome, fascinating, quiet, well dressed…in fact he is in reality a well-bred Briton.”

Well-bred Briton or not, McDermott’s film output at Edison’s New York studio was impressive. In 1910 he appeared in twenty titles, in 1911 – thirty, and by the time he left Edison in late 1916 he had completed almost 130 titles. While each of Edison’s films were only 15-20 minutes long, it must have been an exhausting work load. Not surprisingly, by 1917 his output had slowed. However over the next ten years he performed in numerous full length feature films beside some of the best known actors of the day – Greta Garbo, Dolores Costello, John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, Tim McCoy, Dolores Del Rio, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Ronald Colman, Norma Talmadge as well as fellow Australians Enid Bennett and Alf Goulding. His Directors included Alexander Korda, Fred Niblo, Raoul Walsh and John Ford.

McDermott’s other contributions to the cinema are worthy of note. Apparently a competent make-up artist himself, he was credited by some correspondents with pioneering the use of yellow grease paint to reduce lighting inconsistencies on the face in (black and white) films. In 1912 he appeared in the lead in the first US serial – What Happened to Mary, made in twelve parts by the Edison studio. He also appeared in the sequel, and at least one other serial. Although these did not end with the stereotypical “cliffhanger” of later serials, they were still designed to lure audiences back to the theatre again and again.

What_Happened_to_Mary_(1912)

Above:  Miriam Nesbitt, Mary Fuller, and Marc McDermott in Edison’s What Happened to Mary (1912). Via Wikipedia Commons

McDermott married fellow Edison actor and regular screen partner Miriam Nesbitt in April 1916 but by 1922 she had taken him to court, seeking a divorce. Miriam’s list of complaints included his “wildly ungovernable temper” and his wandering affections. She also claimed that his annual income had been as high as $35,000. Following the divorce, he briefly took to the stage again and then settled in Hollywood. Several of his later films – The Whip and Glorious Betsy had sound effects added in the rush by studios to respond to the challenge of sound. Had McDermott lived a little longer, we might be able to source an example of his voice.

Marc_McDermott 2

Above: McDermott about the time he appeared in MGM’s The Temptress (1926) with Greta Garbo and Antonio Moreno. He was in his mid fifties at the time.  Photo via Wikipedia Commons

But sadly his career came to an end in 1928. US Newspapers of the time reported the sudden decline in his health in October, his hospitalization in December and his death in January 1929, a result of cirrhosis of the liver. His mother Annie was reportedly with him when he died. Australian newspapers, probably by now thoroughly confused about his identity, generally overlooked his death. He was remarkably quickly forgotten – but through no fault of his own. His silent films were simply thrown out, or at best shelved, in the exciting new era of sound.

 

Nick Murphy
October 2019

 

Note 1
Very little that has been written about Marc McDermott’s early years is accurate. The most constant error is his date of birth. There is no doubt McDermott was born in 1871, not 1881. His official birth record at the New South Wales Births Deaths and Marriages, his sister’s birth certificate and his early US immigration records are all easily searchable and all confirm this. At least one US newspaper – The Detroit Free Press, reported a more accurate age at the time of his death.

McDermott birth certificate

Above: Part of Marc McDermott’s 1871 birth certificate, via New South Wales Births Deaths and Marriages. His parents provided slightly different ages for themselves on his sister’s birth certificate. The wedding date is consistent however.
Key
Column 2 Date and place of birth of child

Column 3 Name 
Column 4 Sex
Column 5 Father’s name, occupation, age and birthplace
Column 6 Date and place of marriage, any previous issue
Column 7 Mother’s name and maiden surname, age and birthplace

Note 2
McDermott or MacDermott? Both spellings were used in his lifetime. This random spelling of surnames can also be found elsewhere in the late nineteenth and early twentieth – for example Mary Maguire’s uncle Andy used the spelling McGuire. There was also a popular but mistaken belief that Mac designated Scottish ancestry while Mc indicated Irish.

 

Further Reading

Text

  • Kevin Brownlow (1968) The Parade’s Gone By… University of California Press.
  • Leonhard Gmür (2013) Rex Ingram: Hollywood’s Rebel of the Silver Screen. epubli GmbH
  • Kalton C Lahue (1968) Bound and Gagged: The Story of the Silent Serials. Castle Books/A.S.Barnes
  • John T. Soister, Henry Nicolella, Steve Joyce (2012 )American Silent Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Feature Films, 1913-1929. McFarland & Co

ADB Online

LA Daily Mirror

Via National Library of Australia’s Trove

  • Evening News (Sydney) 8 October, 1897.
  • The Sunday Times, 20 February, 1898.
  • The Zeehan and Dundas Herald, 25 December 1900.
  • The Australian Star, 27 August, 1904.
  • The Bulletin, 13 September, 1921.
  • Everyone’s, 12 May, 1926.
  • Everyone’s, 2 June 1926.
  • The Sun (Sydney), 13 August 1947.

Via Newspapers.com

  • New York Tribune, 19 August, 1902.
  • Arizona Daily Star, 18 August 1922.
  • The Los Angeles Times 17 February 1923.
  • Detroit Free Press, 6 January, 1929.
  • The Los Angeles Times, 6 January 1929.
  • The Los Angeles Times, 17 August 1932. (Death of McDemott’s mother Annie)

Via British Library Newspaper Archive

  • The Bioscope 25 December, 1913

City of Sydney Sands Directories on-line See 1896 – Part 9; 1897 – Part 11; 1898 – Part 1.

Via Lantern History Digital Library

Internet Archive

Wikipedia Commons holds a large collection of public domain photos of Marc McDermott. 

YouTube Channels. A number of his films are in the public domain.

 

 

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