I am pleased to present this article on the life and career of the very underappreciated Bobby Harron, an actor of rare talent who left his mark on some of the greatest films of the silent era–and the film industry in general. It’s a long one, so I’ve added a list of contents for your convenience!
One of the earliest and most overlooked film stars is Robert “Bobby” Harron. The slender, unassuming young man acted in dozens of films, including the largest milestones of all time: The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).
And yet, perhaps because of the attention given to Griffith’s actresses, Bobby is constantly, and consistently, overlooked. It’s common to see articles merely mention him as a costar to Mae Marsh or Lillian Gish before delving into the details of the women’s performances. Gish and Marsh were some of the finest actresses of the silent era, to say nothing of other talented Griffith players like Miriam Cooper or Blanche Sweet. But Bobby was a massively talented actor in his own right. Take a moment to turn your concentration from Gish or Marsh to the dark-haired Irish lad just to their side, and you’ll realize what you’ve been missing.
To cameraman Billy Bitzer, Bobby represented a “thread of unity” for the Griffith studio. That studio having given us some of the most influential films ever made, this “thread of unity” is worth a closer look–and deserves a flood of fresh appreciation.
Robert Emmett Harron (he liked the nickname “Bobbie,” but the media tended to spell it “Bobby”), was an Irish Catholic native of New York City. He born on April 12, 1893 to parents John and Mary Harron. He was the second oldest in their large family, with six sisters (Frances, Tessie, Mary, Agnes, Madeline, and Edna) and two brothers (Charles and Johnnie).
The lower class Harrons lived in Greenwich Village, which by the turn of the 20th century had evolved beyond the gilded “Age of Innocence” captured by Edith Wharton and was drawing numbers of German, French, Italian, and Irish immigrants hoping for opportunity. The Greenwich Village that Bobby knew was a quaint, ethnically diverse area of low rent that was already starting to attract the bohemian artists, small presses, and theater groups that would one day define it.
Young Bobby attended St. Joseph’s Parochial School, run by the Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers. It was a much-praised school with high academic standards, in its heyday teaching up to 1,500 students. The Harrons may have gone to Mass at the Church of St. Joseph, a Greenwich Village landmark since the 1830s and the oldest Roman Catholic church building in New York City. Or they could’ve gone to any one of the eight churches and chapels in the then-very Catholic Village (and half of them had predominantly Irish congregations). Bobby would’ve grown up hearing the words of the old Latin Mass, singing familiar hymns with the other parishioners, and reflecting on Christ’s Passion during Lent. He would remain a devout Catholic throughout his life.
In 1907, fourteen-year-old Bobby, like many other young lads at the time, was looking for work to help support his family. One of the Brothers at his school supportively sent him and friend James Smith to a place that was hiring: the American Mutoscope and Biograph Studio at 11 East 14th Street, not far from Bobby’s home. The boys were quickly put to work as “go’fers,” Jacks-of-all-trades. For $5 a week quiet, hardworking Bobby kept busy working in the cutting room, sweeping floors, helping put together sets, picking up lunch orders, and shuttling completed films to various theaters throughout the city. He would later recall delivering films “to a man named Loew running a little place over on Second Avenue.” This man would turn out to be Marcus Loew, the theater magnate who would found MGM.
The Beginnings of a Career
Early film studios were a thrifty, democratic bunch, sometimes pulling crew members onto the set as extras or to play tiny roles. Not long after coming to Biograph Bobby was recruited to play a small part in the 10-minute short Dr. Skinum (1907), directed by Wallace “Old Man” McCutcheon–one of the very earliest film directors (he began his career in 1899).
Bobby must’ve done a good job with that little part in Dr. Skinum, because McCutcheon gave him the lead in a comic short, Bobby’s Kodak (1908)–even though he had no previous acting experience. In the film, young Bobby is given a Kodak camera and quickly gets the hang of using it…and then begins secretly photographing everything he sees, including family members in compromising situations (such as his father kissing his secretary). A Variety ad stated, “Photographically this film is perfect, and the situations are sure to elicit a succession of laughs terminating in a yell.” (While often assumed lost, a print of Bobby’s Kodak does survive in the Library of Congress.)
In 1918, when he was a star, Bobby spoke fondly of that early film:
This picture gave me my first big joy in life, because it gave me the chance to be the kind of kid I had wanted to be in my dreams, but had never had the chance to be in real life. My oldest brother and I had it in us to be little devils, but we lacked the teamwork of the Katzenjammers…For instance, I’d come to him and propose that I play hookey and fix up a nice little story for him to tell the Brother, but he’s say, ‘Well, I don’t see why I can’t play hookey and you tell the story to the Brother,’ and so it would end by neither of us playing hookey.
That lead role in Bobby’s Kodak was a bit of a fluke. Throughout the next few years Bobby would mainly play bit parts in dozens–and dozens–of Biograph shorts. Light comedies, morality tales, quaint rural dramas, classic literature adaptations, Civil War stories, familial tragedies, crime stories, Westerns, all neatly tied up in ten to thirty minutes–Bobby pops up in them all. His roles varied from “Messenger boy” to “Stagehand” to “Boy passing handbills.” Whenever there was a crowd scene he could be counted on to quietly fill in behind the main actors like Arthur Johnson, Mary Pickford and James Kirkwood. You can spot him in his earliest surviving film, The Boy Detective, or The Abductors Foiled (1908), where he’s the friend of the aforementioned detective, shooting marbles on the sidewalk and walking off with the gait of a New York boy used to hustling along those city streets.
It was an unassuming but absurdly lucky beginning to Bobby’s acting career. Working at one of the very first movie studios in the very young “picture business,” under some of the earliest film directors, the working class lad would grow up along with the movies and be a firsthand witness to their quick evolution. He was very much in the right place at the right time.
And he was doubly lucky that a certain 33-year-old struggling playwright and actor joined the Biograph fold in 1908. David Wark Griffith was hired on as an actor, but when Wallace McCutcheon fell ill one thing lead to another and “D.W.” became Biograph’s new lead director. Bobby got along with him famously; Griffith felt like a father to him. Blanche Sweet would later remark, “Bobby Harron would have gotten down and let Griffith jump up and down on him if that had been necessary.” Other Biograph personnel would carefully address the director as “Mr. Griffith,” but Bobby alone could get away with the cheerful greeting of “Hey, Griff!”
Developing as an Actor
Fighting Blood (1911) was probably Bobby’s first big role under Griffith’s direction. In this surviving film he plays the oldest son of a strict Civil War veteran. The two have a fight and the son leaves on horseback, but then discovers that American Indians are planning an attack. Bobby shows an eye-opening glimpse of intensity in his acting (and also surprisingly good horsemanship). Griffith must’ve been pleased, because he was then given the official lead in Bobby, the Coward (1911), playing opposite Florence LaBadie.
Gradually Griffith gave him more lead roles in addition to the bit parts. Lillian Gish would recall:
Bobby was young and serious, and something about him caught the heart. He was sensitive and poetic-looking…when Mr. Griffith finally decided that he was ready to play leads, they had to add a mustache to his upper lip or lengthen his sideburns or have him wear a romantic cape–anything to give him age and dignity…Bobby could play any role that Mr. Griffith gave him.
It was clear that he had a natural onscreen charisma, and his acting style was refreshingly free of the stage’s influence–something that hampered many professional actors trying to get used to “playing to the camera.” He also had incredible range, playing roles ranging from mature men to gangsters to innocent youths. In short, Bobby was a Discovery.
His unique touch of boyish innocence soon endeared him to audiences. Even his darkest characters seemed like they were merely lead astray, through coercion or their own naivete, still capable of redemption. A recurring role for him was the “falsely accused victim.” And more and more he came to be defined by roles simply described as “The Boy.” By about 1913 viewers were writing to movie magazines to find out the name of the slim Biograph actor (onscreen credits weren’t the norm). Griffith seemed to have realized Bobby’s growing fanbase–a May 1913 issue of Variety mentioned “Robert Harron–the ever popular Bobby–has had several leading roles with Biograph recently.”
It helped that a year earlier another natural talent had joined the Biograph Studio: the spunky Mae Marsh, who also had no previous acting experience. Her specialty was bubbly girlish innocence, and she excelled at dramatic scenes. She would later recall having a crush on shy Bobby for a time during those early studio days–the kind of crush that was being shared by many young gals at the movies back then:
I thought Bobby Harron was the most wonderful being in the world. He had such beautiful eyes. I didn’t know how to get acquainted with him, but I did so want to attract his attention.
So, when I’d see him hurrying around rustling props between scenes–he was property boy as well as actor in those days–I’d gather together a pile of pebbles, stones, rocks of all sizes, and shyly throw them at him. The better I liked him, the bigger the rocks.
The two were paired for the first time in Man’s Genesis (1912), and their talents were well-matched. If Bobby was The Boy, the youthful Mae was certainly The Girl. They acted together in film after film throughout the 1910s–from shorts like The Sands of Dee (1912) to features like Home, Sweet Home (1914). In all, they co-starred 27 times. Audiences were delighted by them and critics raved about their “exceptional” abilities and the way they appeared to “feel” their roles. “I did my best work with Bobby…” Mae once said, “I think it is the best work I shall ever do.”
Bobby would also co-star with Lillian and Dorothy Gish and Blanche Sweet, although less often than with Mae. But offscreen he spent the most time with the funny, mischievous Dorothy. Lillian spoke of their romance with a touch of warm amusement:
Bobby and Dorothy had been in love from the time that he was fifteen and she was thirteen. They would hold hands shyly. He never let her use any makeup, although it seemed to us that he always liked the girls who wore the most makeup…It was a childlike love affair, but I think they had unspoken dreams of marrying.
As early as 1915 fan magazines were already reporting rumors that Dorothy and Bobby “had eloped” or “were engaged,” although they never quite made that leap.
He was being given more and more important roles. He was in Griffith’s first feature, Judith of Bethulia (1914), and in the following The Battle of the Sexes. Bobby and Mae then had a feature built around them, the Reliance film The Great Leap (1914). This Hatfields-and-McCoys type story climaxed with a horseback chase that featured an exciting–and dangerous–stunt. The two main characters, riding on one horse, end up plunging the horse over a 50-foot cliff into a river (some sources say it was 80 feet). Since the film is lost, one can only pray that stunt doubles were used.
He also had a daring part in the lost film The Escape (1914), a lurid tale of a dysfunctional family. He played the kind young son who goes mad after his father beats him. Disturbingly, the character’s madness is illustrated by having him strangle a kitten (fortunately the kitten wasn’t harmed in real life).
In 1914 Griffith, now filming in Los Angeles, began work on a major feature–a huge feature–the most ambitious project he would do at that point: The Birth of a Nation. Today the sensation it made in 1915 is well known. As the son Tod Stoneman Bobby’s part was modest but still memorable–viewers found the scene where he and his pal Duke Cameron kidded around to be warmly human. According to Photoplay, “‘Everyone’ says of this scene that it doesn’t look a bit like acting.” The friends’ death scene on the battlefield was also deeply affecting to many.
Following The Birth, Griffith began work on another Bobby and Mae feature, The Mother and the Law, about a young gangster who marries and decides to reform, angering his “Musketeer” boss. Somehow, this small drama inspired Griffith. He would weave it into the massive spectacle that would be Intolerance. It is interesting that The Mother and the Law in particular, where Bobby played such an essential role, would be the stimulus of that filmmaking milestone.
There had been other epics, other spectacles before Intolerance, but nothing would quite reach its scope or come close to touching its ambition. It was epic in every sense of the word, trying hard to apply its message of “intolerance” to humanity as a whole. And Bobby had one of its most prominent roles, as “The Boy” to Mae Marsh’s “Dear One.”
It would arguably be his greatest performance, as stunning today as it was back in 1916. Writer Anthony Slide would call it “the finest male performance in silent films.” Intolerance is sometimes criticized for its imbalance between the four stories, its ambitious subject matter, etc., but in my opinion its biggest flaw is that the sheer length and spectacle might distract a first-time viewer from realizing the power of Bobby’s acting.
This is established in an early scene where the Boy’s father dies during a workers’ strike. Bobby gazes straight into the camera with a long look of sorrow, shock, and grimness. Then and there we realize that his acting will be something special. He, who so often played farmboys and pure-hearted youths, is completely convincing as the hardened “musketeer” who masterfully woos the Girl by caressing her hand. You believe him when he resolves to be through with “the old life,” and fear for him when he’s framed by his gangster boss.
The most powerful scene is probably when “The Boy,” awaiting the death penalty, receives his last rites. His quiet confession in the ear of the priest, his glowing eyes lifted up to heaven as the words of absolution are spoken (in a remarkable closeup), and his collapse after receiving the Eucharist have a sublimity to them. They draw on something very deep. Bobby is not merely going through the motions of a man receiving the last rites–he’s portraying a soul being transformed, being cleansed of the “old life” through grace. As a practicing Roman Catholic myself, I am positive that only someone who had also gone to confession, had also received the Eucharist, and had familiarity with Catholicism’s many centuries’ worth of saints, ancient prayers, Biblical readings, sacred art, and hymns could have played that scene with such power.
Another standout is where the Boy and the Dear One are reunited after having come so close to death. Their sincere emotion never fails to draw a tear from me. Everyone who wells up at the ending of City Lights will find much to move them about the end of the modern story in Intolerance.
An Established Leading Man
Following the great heights of Intolerance, Bobby and Mae starred in a few more minor films until she departed to work for Sam Goldwyn in 1917. At this time, World War I was raging and the motion picture industry was reflecting it with a stream of propaganda films. Griffith, then one of the world’s most famous directors, was asked by the British War Office Cinematograph Committee to create such a film. Griffith agreed, chose Bobby, Lillian, and Dorothy for his leads, and took them across to the ocean right to war-torn England and France to begin filming Hearts of the World in that most realistic of locations.
Bobby had previously been drafted, and Griffith had signed Richard Barthelmess in case his star had to go “over there.” Fortunately he was exempt from service due to being in Hearts of the World.
Bobby found himself a part of history right away when he happened to cross the Atlantic on the same boat as General Pershing. Although this was supposed to be a complete secret Bobby told his mother about it, hoping it would ease her anxiety to know that Pershing himself was on board. But as he recalled,
I knew she wouldn’t say anything about it, but nevertheless my conscience troubled me a little until, just as we were going aboard, with a lot of dock hands within easy hearing distance, someone yelled at the top of his voice to a friend at the foot of the gangplank, ‘Hey, who do you think’s onboard–General Pershing!’ Yes; it was quite some secret!
Hearts of the World, while little-watched today and surviving in a sadly battered condition, was a huge deal in its time. People spoke of it in the same breath as Intolerance and The Birth of a Nation. The three leads were highly praised, and you could argue that their work helped many viewers grasp the human cost of the war. Few films have matched the poetic quality of the scene where Lillian, gone mad after her village is destroyed, wanders through the battlegrounds in the moonlight. She finds her lover (Bobby) lying wounded, and spends the night at his side.
Following that epic war picture Griffith made The Greatest Thing in Life (1918), a lost film (which I really hope will be found one day). It had glowing reviews, and Bobby was singled out for his excellent performance as a spoiled rich youth, especially in one thought-provoking scene. According to a Picture-Play Magazine review:
Harron’s playing of the snob appears to-day as the best thing he has ever done. Perhaps to-morrow we will be forced to change our minds because of some subsequent appearance. But Harron has never done such an excellent piece of acting as when he learns that race prejudice has no place on the battlefield–when he kisses the cheek of a dying negro calling for his mammy!
Griffith then teamed Bobby with Lillian Gish in a series of charming rural dramas: A Romance of Happy Valley (1919), True Heart Susie (1919), and The Greatest Question (1919). To see Bobby as a slim farm boy in Happy Valley, or as the grinning school kid in the beginning of True Heart Susie, is startling when you consider that these films were made years after his manly gangster in Intolerance. He and Lillian made a charming pair, well-suited for the nostalgic settings and storylines. Their naive love scenes had a sweetness that felt sincere rather than cloying.
He also had one of his more off-beat roles in The Girl Who Stayed At Home (1918), a film which starred Richard Barthelmess and Carol Dempster but was stolen by Bobby and the newly-signed proto-flapper Clarine Seymour. Bobby’s party-loving character, nicknamed the “Oily Peril,” chases after girls and affects a fashionable “slouch.” He had a definite flair for light comedy.
The Close of a Promising Career
By 1920, Bobby had been working mainly for D.W. Griffith for twelve years. He had been a firsthand witness to the film industry’s advance from simple 10-minute shorts to sprawling multi-hour features. And it seemed that Griffith felt he was now ready for a new project.
In the summer of 1920 it was announced that Bobby was given his own company and would star in a series of films. These would be released under Metro and filmed at Griffith’s new studio at Mamaroneck, New York, where Way Down East was in production. The endeavor had Griffith’s emotional and financial support. Bobby would now be an official, “name in lights” star.
The first film under the arrangement was called Coincidence, starring Bobby as the rube Billy Jenks who looks for work in New York City and falls in love. Some of it was filmed on location in the city, including scenes “on the Fifth Avenue buses.”
When it was completed Bobby visited his family in Los Angeles and then returned to New York to attend a preview of Coincidence on September 1, 1920, as well as the premiere of Way Down East on September 3. His longtime friend Victor Heerman, a screenwriter and director, went with him to the preview.
On the night of Sept. 1, Bobby, alone in his hotel room, called the front desk gasping that he had “shot himself.” The bullet had pierced his left lung. He was taken to the hospital where he lingered for several days, visited by Heerman, Griffith, and others. He died suddenly the morning of September 5. He was only 27.
Newspapers across the country reported the tragedy. Lillian Gish herself had to break the sad news to Bobby’s mother, who arrived from L.A. too late to see her son in his final days. He was interred in the Calvary Cemetery in New York, alongside siblings Frances (who passed away in 1909 at age 2), Charles (died in a car accident in 1915), and Tessie (victim of the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918). Griffith himself reportedly paid the funeral expenses.
On the day of the funeral, studios back in Hollywood observed a moment of silence. The whole Griffith company was so grieved over Bobby’s death that the Mamaroneck studio was reportedly closed for several weeks. Dorothy Gish was so distraught that she went out of town for a time.
It was such a tragic end for this beloved young actor. What had happened? The official story, released as soon as the shooting reached the presses on September 2, was that he had been unpacking his trunk when a handgun bundled in his clothes fell to the floor and discharged accidentally. The handgun was said to have been bought from a man who needed money. Friends and colleagues like Lillian Gish and Billy Bitzer would always maintain that it was an accident, and that Bobby would not have committed suicide because of his devotion to his family and his strict Catholicism. And yet, the story seems a little suspect. Were it not called accidental, Bobby’s death would almost certainly have been the very first Hollywood scandal, beating out Olive Thomas’s death by only a few days.
Was the gunshot wound, after all, self-inflicted? For Bobby’s birth centenniel in 1993, the official autopsy report was procured and the descriptions of the bullet’s angle seemed to prove that it was. The mystery remains: why would’ve caused Bobby to despair that much? Why on that night in particular? His career was solid, and his future bright, but after all despair does horrible things to a human mind. Reports that he was upset over being “replaced” by Barthelmess have been around for a long time, but are speculative at best. If anything is certain it’s that we’ll simply never know for sure what went through his mind that one night in the Hotel Seymour.
“The Boy Whom Everyone Liked”
By all accounts, Bobby Harron was a kind and sincerely modest individual who was loved by everyone around him. Coworkers like Lillian Gish and Blanche Sweet remembered him fondly; even Miriam Cooper, who was none too charitable toward some of her former colleagues, called him “a darling boy.” He was also principled–Victor Heerman would recall their double-dates with Constance Talmadge and Dorothy Gish with some wryness: “He’d go out to the drunkenest parties, and he would laugh and have a good time with just a glass of ginger ale.” He was described as “a regular boy” who would “go to a football or a baseball game and have just as keen an interest about it as about a scene at the studio.”
Being very shy off camera, Bobby didn’t give too many interviews and always seemed a little embarrassed by attention. He would downplay his talent, insisting: “I watched the best screen stars at work, and saw how they made up, how they acted. I was always around, and you know that every one is a born mimic. I would have been stupid indeed if I hadn’t absorbed some of this atmosphere.” One interviewer in 1920 was so charmed by him that the resulting New York Tribune article was titled “Famous, Young and Handsome, Robert Harron Turns Out To Be Modesty Personified.” The interviewer stated, “Getting him to talk about his work was like putting him unwillingly on the witness stand. He would have summed it all up in a sentence if we hadn’t kept on worrying him with questions. And the sentence would have been something like this: ‘It wasn’t I. It was Mr. Griffith.'”
Indeed, Bobby’s loyalty to Griffith was total and heartfelt. If he had lived, it’s not hard to imagine him being one of Griffith’s staunch defenders, alongside Lillian Gish.
When I watch his films, I often feel moved, sensing that behind his calm exterior there is a deep intensity. His coworkers felt the same way. Blanche Sweet remembered: “He was restrained but I think he was very intense also. Bobby felt. He had sensibilities. He was quite sensitive, but I’ve never known him to carry on in any way nervously.” His acting, particularly in Intolerance, certainly bears her out.
Bobby was not only a singularly brilliant actor, but is deeply important to film history. He was of the new generation of “picture actors,” completely free from conventions of the stage, relying on a naturalistic acting style and inborn talent. He was one of the finest actors–perhaps the finest–that Griffith ever directed, thereby enhancing some of the milestones of film history.
After the young man’s sudden death, Billy Bitzer said it was the end of an era at the Griffith studio, “a falling away and a breaking up of our former trust and friendship–it was never the same again.” And no wonder. Bobby Harron was irreplaceable–a rare talent and a rarer soul.
Recommended Bobby films:
Fighting Blood (1911)
An Unseen Enemy (1912)
Man’s Genesis (1912)
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
The Burglar’s Dilemma (1912)
The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)
Home, Sweet Home (1914)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Hoodoo Ann (1916)
Hearts of the World (1918)
A Romance of Happy Valley (1919)
The Girl Who Stayed at Home (1919)
True Heart Susie (1919)
Gish, Lillian. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. With Anne Pinchot. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1988
Golden, Eve. Golden Images: 41 Essays on Silent Film Stars. North Carolina: McFarland, 2001.
Schickel, Richard., D.W. Griffith: An American Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.
Shelley, Thomas J. Greenwich Village Catholics: St. Joseph’s Church and the Evolution of an Urban Faith Community, 1829-2002. CUA Press, 2003.
Slide, Anthony. Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
“Two Mutual Features of Unusual Merit.” The Motion Picture News, Vol. IX, No. 3, January 24, 1914.
“Bobby the Wonder Boy.” Photo-Play Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4, August 1916.
Peltret, Elizabeth. “Griffith’s Boy–Bobby.” Photoplay, Vol. XIII, No. 5, April, 1918.
“Famous, Young and Handsome, Robert Harron Turns Out To Be Modesty Personified.” New York Tribune, Sunday, Feb. 15, 1920.
“Robert Harron Dies After Accidentally Shooting Self.” Exhibitor’s Herald, Volume XI, September 18, 1920.
North, Jean. “Digging Up the Acorn.” Photoplay, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, October, 1920.
“Metro’s Latest Is Pleasing Light Comedy Offering.” Wid’s Daily, Vol. XVI, No. 38, Sunday, May 8, 1921.
“Mae and the Early Days.” Motion Picture Magazine, Vol. XXVII, No. 2, March 1924.
Note: I keep hearing rumors that a biography or two on Bobby is in the works. If you or anyone you know is researching his life, let me know if I can help in any way! Let’s make things happen.
If you have any info on the documentation concerning his death, or even if you just want to chat about Bobby, please contact me!