Hollywood folklore includes many examples (mostly from the 1920s and 1930s) of charming and talented young women who were “discovered” in unlikely settings and became stars of the silver screen. Probably the best-known “discovery” is that of 15-year-old Lana Turner, who was found by director Mervyn LeRoy in a California soda fountain. She went on to a spectacular career spanning nearly 50 years in film and television.
This column is the result of my own “discovery” of a lovely young actress named Merna Kennedy – but I found her in the waning years of her career, rather than at the beginning. I was researching a different topic in the November 23, 1938 edition of the Kankakee Republican-News when the headline “Kankakee Movie Star on ‘Comeback’ Trail'” caught my eye.
Dated New York City, the story under the title opens, “Pretty Merna Kennedy, who was born Maude Kahler in Kankakee, Illinois, in 1908 and was catapulted to national fame when Charles Chaplin saw her in Los Angeles and gave her a test screen, starring her as his leading lady in “The Circus,” came to New York to try and come back.
Although Merna Kennedy’s film career was quite short, from 1928 to 1934, searches involving old newspapers, Kankakee County Museum files, and the Internet revealed a wealth of material about the little (5-foot-2, 5 inches) actress with red hair.
She was the daughter of John E. and Maud Kahler, born September 7, 1908 in Manteno. Some confusion exists over the birth name of the future actress; some biographies and newspaper articles mention her as “Maud” (like her mother), others as Merna. Her birth certificate lists the child’s name as Merna (which may have been a second choice: the name “Lucile” was written, then crossed out and replaced with Merna). Additionally, his birthplace is shown as Manteno, rather than Kankakee.
Like her film career, Merna’s stay in Kankakee County was short—her parents separated around 1913, and her mother moved to California with Merna and a younger brother, Merle. The two children embarked on entertainment careers as early as 1917, forming a dance number that toured the Pantages vaudeville circuit. A California newspaper called 9-year-old Merna “the daughter of the sun” and noted, “She is expertly assisted by her brother, Merle, and they both give quite a clever dance number.”
In 1919, both children acquired new surnames when Maude Kahler married grocer Thomas Kennedy. Although their mother later married for the third time, Merna and Merle kept the name Kennedy for the rest of their lives.
While the young Merna took dance lessons, she struck up a friendship that would lead her, years later, to her first film role. In 1924, Merna’s childhood friend Lillita MacMurray (whose stage name was Lita Grey) married prolific comedian and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin, who made over 100 films (most of them “silent”) between 1914 and 1967, was planning a new film in early 1926 and was looking for a “new face” for the female lead. The comedian’s wife, Lita, suggested her friend Merna Kennedy for the role. Merna then appeared on stage in a musical entitled “All For You”. Chaplin quickly offered her the role of his co-star in his new film, “The Circus”.
On February 19, 1926, the Chicago Tribune informed its readers: “Merna Kennedy, 19…will make her film debut as Charlie Chaplin’s new female lead, according to an announcement made today.” Miss Kennedy, who took to the stage 10 years ago as a child dancer… had never faced a film camera until Chaplin invited her to do screen tests.
In her story, the Tribune referred to Merna as “Chicago’s girl,” expanding the geography of Illinois a bit. Interestingly, the Kankakee Daily Republican made no mention of her selection for the Chaplin movie. Also, one wonders if the film was played in Kankakee after its 1928 release. A search of local film listings from late 1928 to early 1929 failed to find it advertised by any of the four theaters in Kankakee.
“The Circus”, filmed at the end of the silent films, featured Chaplin in his comedy persona “Tramp”. Merna played the role of a beautiful horsewoman and bareback trapeze artist suffering from abuse from the circus owner and ringmaster, who was her stepfather. Naturally, Chaplin – who joined the circus as a clown – fell in love with the young performer.
Rosalind Schoffer, a film columnist for the Tribune, reported on November 27, 1927 that the audience at a preview of the film was “cheering wildly for five minutes a clock after the crossfade”. She also noted, “Merna Kennedy isn’t causing quite as much of a stir as one had anticipated about Hollywood.”
Despite this mixed opinion, Merna Kennedy’s film career had been successfully launched. Over the next few years, she made the transition to “the talkies”, playing leading roles and many small roles. Her last film was “Jimmy the Gent”, in which she played a wise secretary named “Jitters”. The 1934 film starred James Cagney and Bette Davis.
The same year as her last film, she married director/choreographer Busby Berkeley, who was known for his elaborately planned huge dance numbers in 1930s films. The marriage only lasted until 1936.
Little is known about Merna’s life between 1936 and 1944, when she married a soldier returning from active duty in World War II. Just four days after marrying Staff Sergeant Forrest Brayton, the former movie star died of a heart attack. She was 36 years old.
Merna Kennedy’s last mention in the Kankakee Republican-News was on December 21, 1944. A three-paragraph headline read, “Former Actress, A Kankakee Native, Dies in California.”