Normally a movie star known the world over as the woman who is “too beautiful” is not all that relatable. But when I came across the story of silent screen star Barbara La Marr I was not only fascinated but moved.
As I wrote in my earlier piece on “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful,” though the phrase was meant to describe her dangerous effect on the opposite sex, the only real victim of her beauty was Barbara La Marr herself. Largely unknown today, Barbara La Marr was a silent screen superstar as known for her off-screen vampery as on. But what sparked my interest was a who. Sherri Snyder is a beautiful, talented woman who has dedicated her time, creativity and much of her life to telling Barbara La Marr’s story, on the page and on the stage.
I first became aware of Sherri when I came across the book, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood. As a vintage movie nerd my whole life, I’m always interested in who writes the books on people I always figure me and 8 other people on Earth care about. Imagine my surprise when it turns out the author, Sherri Snyder, is a young, gorgeous Los Angeles-based actress who regularly portrays Barbara in a one-woman performance piece she originally wrote for “Channeling Hollywood,” a Pasadena Playhouse and Pasadena Museum of History production featuring actors portraying long-dead Hollywood stars. Sherri also maintains a beautiful Barbara La Marr tribute website.
Sherri is dedicated, y’all.
I mean, as a fourteen-year-old in the 70s, I made two scrapbooks about Clara Bow, and used my hard-earned money made at Nathan’s and Burger King to buy fading “It Girl” mementos. I’d never seen a Clara Bow movie, but I adored her. Still, it never even once entered my mind to do anything about my obsession. In fact, a rugged sense of self-preservation had me seldom mention any of this out loud. So, when I found out about Sherri and all she’s done, I had to learn more.
DIXIE: Sherri, first of all, how did you first learn about this relatively obscure silent actress, Barbara La Marr?
In 2007, I was asked to audition to portray silent screen star Barbara La Marr in a production called “Channeling Hollywood,” a Pasadena Playhouse and Pasadena Museum of History collaboration involving the life stories of five Hollywood notables. The producers needed five actors to not only play these characters, but also research their respective characters’ life stories and then write about them in monologue form.
After winning the role of Barbara, I became very inspired by her as I delved deeper into her life. Her accomplished careers as an actress, a screenwriter, a vaudevillian, and a dancer notwithstanding, I grew to admire her compassionate, generous heart; her determination to follow her own path; and the resolve that kept her going despite her demons.
After viewing my “Channeling Hollywood” performance, Barbara’s son, Donald Gallery, asked me to write her biography. Naturally, I was honored to continue sharing her story. My book, Barbara La Marr: The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful for Hollywood, is the first full-length biography on Barbara. I was also encouraged to turn my “Channeling Hollywood” piece into a one-woman show, which I’ve performed each October since 2008, alongside her crypt at Hollywood Forever as part of the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles Hollywood Forever tour. I’ve also performed the one-woman show at other venues, including the iconic Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood and Pasadena’s Shakespeare Club.
DIXIE: Now, besides being an actress who discovered Barbara, who are YOU? Were you interested in old movies before? What was there about Barbara La Marr’s life that really spoke to you?
I’ve been passionate about acting and enamored with the beauty, elegance, and timelessness epitomized by Old Hollywood glamour as long as I can remember. When I was about five years old, I discovered a slinky black negligee in the back of one of my mom’s dresser drawers. Something about its loveliness resonated with me. Thinking it was a dress – and on me it was –, I paraded around the house in it every day until my mom hid it again. About a year later, I began playing with my dad’s old Super 8 camera and projector, writing my own silent films and portraying all of the characters in them. I’ve always loved watching old movies on television, and I Love Lucy reruns were a particular favorite of mine. In high school, intrigued by Marilyn Monroe and Jean Harlow, I bleached my hair platinum blonde and wore red lipstick, false eyelashes, clinging dresses, and seamed and fishnet stockings to school. People often remark to this day that I seem to have stepped out of a bygone era.
As an actress, I’ve always gravitated to and been pegged for period roles. I enjoy taking on the mores and conditioning that governed different eras and bringing history to life for people. My background is in theater (I have a degree in theater acting), and, along with portraying Barbara, the 18th century drama Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, set in the 1940s, are among my favorite productions I’ve done. Apart from continuing to perform as Barbara on the annual Art Deco Society of Los Angeles Hollywood Forever tour for over ten years, I’ve produced the tour since 2017. Tourgoers visit the gravesites of over twenty legendary Los Angelenos – including silent screen idol Rudolph Valentino, swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille, actress and William Randolph Hearst mistress Marion Davies, and slain director William Desmond Taylor –, hearing their fascinating, oftentimes scandalous tales through living history interludes and historians.
Working on Barbara’s story as an actress and a writer has really been a dream come true. Interestingly, there are many similarities between us. We’re both determined, sensitive, tender-hearted, emotionally expressive, and spiritual. We discovered our acting and writing talents at very young ages. We both rebelled against our protective parents in our teens and ran away from home. Like Barbara, I’ve always sought to follow my dreams and give the world the best of what I believe to be in me.
DIXIE: Clearly Barbara was gorgeous – as are you, Sherri. How did Barbara La Marr get the whole “Girl Who Was Too Beautiful” moniker? (As far as I’m concerned, if I had to be called too-something, I can think of worse things to be called than “too beautiful”. Too smelly, too hairy, too camel toe-y…dozens spring to mind.)
Enchanted by, in her words, bright lights and thrills, she left her parents’ home in El Centro, California, at age seventeen to strike out on her own in Los Angeles. Her protective father, alarmed by reports of her fondness for dancing all night in nightclubs, underage drinking, and entanglements with shady men, pleaded with juvenile authorities to bring her back to him. Following an investigation, she was declared “dangerously beautiful” by the chief juvenile officer and forced under threat of arrest to return to her parents. Newspapers nationwide, proclaiming her “too beautiful for the city,” ran the story.
This wasn’t her first brush with juvenile authorities and headlines – and it wouldn’t be her last. A year earlier, after she mysteriously disappeared, her older half-sister and her half-sister’s married lover were accused of abducting her, spawning a massive manhunt and an ensuing court proceeding. She would again be embroiled in scandal after another attempt to flee parental authority at age seventeen resulted in a bigamous marriage and another sensationalized court proceeding.
DIXIE: Again, from most people’s perspectives, (okay, mine), being called “Too Beautiful” doesn’t sound like such a bad thing. What was it that led to her eventual decline?
Dealing with stardom sometimes took all Barbara had. Her fears of failure and disappointing others, combined with global scrutiny and feelings of being victimized by the press, drove her alcoholism.
In an era when bad publicity often destroyed stars’ careers virtually overnight, the threat of scandal dogged her continuously. Her starring contract with Associated Pictures and First National, awarded in 1923, contained a morality clause, stipulating that any purportedly immoral behavior of hers – past or present, true or fabricated – must never come to light. Barbara’s morality clause was particularly tested when a divorce suit against her resulted in a blackmail attempt.
Film censors blighted her career. In addition to her banishment at age seventeen by Los Angeles film studios for her so-called lurid escapades – and later being forced to conceal her past in order to work in films –, she endured the repeated cutting of sexually-charged film scenes in which she appeared. Her films were banned after risqué comments attributed to her appeared in print. The making of her eagerly anticipated first starring picture in 1924 was halted for over a month because censors believed the film’s racy storyline bore too much resemblance to her turbulent private life; to appease the censorship board, she herself rewrote the scenario.
Barbara’s typecasting as a vamp factored into her career decline. Though playing a vamp had launched her career, light-hearted flappers were eclipsing vamps as the screen’s leading heroines by 1925. What’s more, Barbara’s starring contract had denied her a say in the roles she played, and she had tired of the superficial seductress parts she had been given. An extremely talented actress, she yearned to play dimensional, human roles. Besides being her final film, The Girl from Montmartre, in which she portrays a genuine character, is significant in that she defied her producers by selecting it herself. That she managed to complete the film despite her grave condition – she succumbed to tuberculosis and nephritis shortly after completing it –, and wanted to be remembered for her work in it, are testimony to how much the film meant to her. Fortunately, this film has survived and will hopefully be accessible to the public soon.
Along with a morality clause in her starring contract, Barbara had a weight clause. As flappers supplanted voluptuousness with their thin, boyish figures, Hollywood actresses were pressured to maintain very low body weights. Actresses who exceeded the weight limits mandated by their contracts had their contracts voided or were prohibited from working until they lost weight. Barbara, desperate to keep her weight down, resorted to drastic means, including thyroid pills and, according to her publicist, a tapeworm pill.
DIXIE: Now, let’s say someone’s not a fan of silent movies, i.e., almost everyone. What would they find in your book?
Barbara’s story is the story of a woman’s unyielding determination to forge her own destiny, despite the ever-present danger of losing it all to scandal and, ultimately, death. When she was just eighteen, she said, “I want so awfully to live, to make something out of myself…to give vent to this…pent up restless force that continually urges me on.” Born Reatha Watson, little Reatha possessed an iron will and what her mother called an “unusually romantic” nature, and she sought to live to the fullest from a young age. And she DID.
DIXIE: What really strikes me is, you’ve pretty much dedicated your life to this woman. What’s the juice that keeps you going?
The inspiration she gives me, despite her life’s sorrows, is why I do what I do. Her publicist described her as a creature of both weakness and strength; writer Willis Goldbeck said her weaknesses were all of the flesh, adding that her virtues were of the mind and spirit. That she never stopped trying to follow what she called her “star of destiny” – in spite of the tremendous adversity that marked her life – speaks volumes of her courage and tenacity. A trailblazer who looked to herself to determine her place in the world, she flouted the restrictive social conventions of her day and achieved success on multiple fronts. She endeavored to live and love fully, regardless of the sadness that often tortured her. It’s wonderful when people come away from one of my performances as Barbara or from reading my book feeling as though they know and understand her. I like to think her story inspires others to share their inherent talents and live to the fullest.
Luckily, if anyone wants to check out Barbara’s “too beautiful-ness” on film, these are available free online:
The Three Musketeers: https://archive.org/details/The_Three_Musketeers
The Prisoner of Zenda: https://archive.org/details/the-prisoner-of-zenda-1922-with-synced-symphonic-music
Souls for Sale: https://archive.org/details/SoulsForSale1923