Rod La Rocque - Silent Star of August, 1998

by Kally Mavromatis

Rod La Rocque was born November 29, 1898 in Chicago, the son of an Irish mother and French father. In his early teens he was far more interested in hanging around stage doors than school, and during summer vacation began performing with Willard Mack and Maud Leone's stock company. For $1 per performance he performed "boy parts," appearing in Salomy Jane and Samson Valley. The next summer he performed with the Gus Forbes Stock Company, with parts in The Middleman, When Knighthood Was in Flower, and The Professor's Romance.

In 1914, while performing in Jim Carroll's vaudeville show, La Rocque decided to make a visit to Triangle Studios on Argyle Street to earn extra money. He got a bit part in The Snowman, directed by E.H. Calvert, earning $3.25 for one day's work. Encouraged, La Rocque took to haunting the studio daily for work.

Essanay (named for producer George K. Spoor and "Broncho Billy" Anderson) was a thriving studio, at one time employing Charles Chaplin, Gloria Swanson, Bryant Washburn, Ruth Stonehouse, and Francis X. Bushman. La Rocque continued to get bit parts at Essanay from 1914-1917, working under the Black Cat Productions moniker, a brand name for the melodramas and comedies that the company was churning out. He began earning better parts and better pay, starring in The Alster Case (1915), Efficiency Edgar´s Courtship (1917), Money Mad (1918), and Uneasy Money (1918).

When Essanay ceased production, he followed Calvert to New York, living in a room at the YMCA with fellow actor Ralph Graves. Following Graves' advice, he signed with Eddie Small, agent for May McAvoy and Norma Shearer. La Rocque began haunting all the area studios: Vitagraph, Paramount, and the New Jersey studios, eventually getting a bit part in a Billie Burke picture Let´s Get A Divorce (1918).

Despite his success in films, La Rocque still wanted to keep a foot in theatre, obtaining the lead in Up the Ladder with producer William Brady and starring his daughter Alice. The play was unsuccessful, and La Rocque returned to films, starring in three films for Sam Goldwyn: The Venus Model (1918); A Perfect 36 (1918); and A Perfect Lady (1918). For the next four years he continued to freelance between films and theatre, starring in such films as The Trap (1919) for Universal; The Garter Girl (1920) for Vitagraph; Easy to Get (1920) for Famous Players-Lasky; The Stolen Kiss (1920) for Webb; Paying the Piper (1921), again for Famous Players; What´s Wrong With Women? (1922) for Equity; Notoriety (1922) for Weber/North; and The Challenge (1922) for Star.

In 1922 La Rocque was approached by Robert Z. Leonard and Mae Murray to star in a Tiffany production of Jazzmania (1923), which in turn led to a call from Cecil B. DeMille. In 1923 he starred in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, the film that made him a star. He spent the next five years working for both DeMille's Producers' Distribution Corporation (PDC) (which filmed at the old Ince Studio in Culver City) and Famous Players-Lasky in a number of films, including Code of the Sea (1924); A Society Scandal (1924); Feet of Clay (1924); Night Life of New York (1925); Braveheart (1925); Gigolo (1926); The Fighting Eagle (1927); and Hold ´Em Yale (1928).

In 1925 La Rocque was asked to be the "extra man" at a dinner party at DeMille's, where he met actress Vilma Banky, recently imported from Hungary by MGM. They married in 1927 in a lavish church wedding, with bridesmaids Constance Talmadge, Bebe Daniels, and Rod's sister Mildred; best man DeMille; and ushers Donald Crisp, Harold Lloyd, Ronald Colman, and friend Victor Varconi. After a reception for 2,000 Beverly Hills Hotel, the couple honeymooned in Banff.

La Rocque did not follow DeMille to MGM, and after his contract with the director and Famous Players-Lasky expired he continued to freelance, acting in The One Woman Idea (1929) for Fox; The Man and the Moment (1929) for First National; and Let Us Be Gay (1930) with Norma Shearer. In 1930 he and Banky were asked by producer Archie Selwyn to star in a play, Cherries are Ripe, written by Anita Loos and husband John Emerson. Despite the couple's popularity, the play was not a big success.

In 1933 the couple travelled to Germany, where Banky made her final film The Rebel and La Rocque filmed S.O.S. Eisberg (a/k/a S.O.S. Iceberg) (1933) with Leni Riefenstahl. Despite Banky's retirement, La Rocque continued acting with films such as The Drag-Net (1934), Frisco Waterfront (1935), Taming the Wild (1936), The Shadow Strikes (1937), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and his final film, Meet John Doe (1941).

After retiring from the screen, La Rocque and Banky continued to live in Hollywood, where Rod La Rocque died October 15, 1969.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 1998 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431