Famous Utahns of Classic Hollywood, Part 1
A look at the famous Classic Hollywood stars and directors from the state of Utah.
While Utah failed to compete as an independent film production center in the first half of the 20th century, numerous Utahns moved to Los Angeles and contributed to some of the most notable and beloved films of the classic Hollywood era (which lasted roughly from the mid-1910s to the mid-1960s). Many of these Utahn actors, directors, and artists maintained a relationship with the state throughout their lives, either returning to shoot their films on-location in the state or returning to Utah after retirement.
In compiling the following list of ten famous classic filmmakers from Utah (split into two parts), I include a brief bio of each classic actor or filmmaker and their most long-lasting contributions to the screen. I also recommend several films from each actor’s career, all of which are either available to rent on various streaming services or now in the public domain.
A character actor that played small supporting roles in some of Hollywood’s most memorable films of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Ogden-born Moroni Olsen started acting at Weber Stake Academy. After studying drama and elocution at the University of Utah, Olsen returned to Ogden and organized The Moroni Olsen Players, a small group of semi-professional actors in the region. After touring in several states in the West with his stock company and subsequently appearing on Broadway, Olsen moved to Hollywood for his screen debut as Porthos in RKO’s 1935 The Three Musketeers.
Olsen never became a lead, always playing supporting roles, but found consistent work in the pictures over his twenty-year film career. Representative of his career as a behind-the-scenes character actor, he is left uncredited in his most influential and well-known role as the voice of the Magic Mirror in Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Despite a bevy of similarly uncredited roles, Olsen was well respected in the industry and appeared in such classics as Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, and the original 1950 Father of the Bride. After making it big in Hollywood, Olsen frequently returned to Utah to perform benefit events for his alma maters up until his death in 1954.
Recommended viewing: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Mildred Pierce (1945), Notorious (1946)
The son of Italian and Swiss Catholic immigrants, Frank Borzage (pronounced Bor-zay-gee) was born in Salt Lake City in 1894. Working in a silver mine in Park City, a teenage Borzage saved up enough money to enroll in a Salt Lake City drama school. There he gained his first experience as an actor performing on a tour of Ogden, Kaysville, and Layton. Borzage moved to Hollywood as a young adult in the early 1910s, appearing in over 100 short films before he turned exclusively to directing in 1918.
Borzage established himself as one of the industry’s most reliable directors, working steadily for Hollywood’s major studios from the late 1910s until the 1950s. While largely forgotten compared to many of his contemporaries, his career has been favorably reevaluated by modern critics and historians over the past several decades. Touted in his prime as Hollywood’s No. 1 director of melodramas, Borzage’s films often center on young romantic couples overcoming immense obstacles such as war, poverty, social prejudice, and political turmoil. Borzage’s best films manage to both capture the beauty of human connection and love while squarely facing the injustices of the world—all without relying on melodramatic sentimentality.
Recommended viewing: 7th Heaven (1927), A Farewell to Arms (1932), History is Made at Night (1937), Moonrise (1948)
Known to screen audiences of the 1920s as The Great Lover, John Gilbert became one of the most popular screen presences in film history. Born John Cecil Pringle in 1897 near Logan, Utah, John spent a large portion of his childhood living at his grandfather’s Logan farm when not traveling on the vaudeville circuit with his mother. Having become accustomed to the big cities he visited on his mother’s tours, John never felt like he fit in amongst the quiet life of his Mormon farming relatives. Following his mother’s death when he was 14, he struck out on his own to San Francisco, never looking back.
After occupying a few odd jobs, Gilbert followed in his mother’s footsteps and started performing on the stage. Struggling to find consistent work, he ventured into the motion pictures as an extra at Thomas Ince Studios in 1915. By the mid-1920s, John had steadily built up to playing bigger roles, first as a young ingenue, a villain, and then finally as a romantic leading man. By the height of his stardom in the mid-1920s at MGM, John Gilbert became the biggest box office draw only rivaled by Rudolph Valentino. Around the time sound films took the industry by storm in the late 1920s, Gilbert struggled to keep his star status and fell into alcoholism, suffering a fatal heart attack in 1937 at the age of 39. Today, Gilbert is best known for his romantic roles opposite icon Greta Garbo and their highly publicized off-screen romance.
Recommended viewing: The Big Parade (1925), Flesh and the Devil (1926), Queen Christina (1933)
Descendant of influential Latter-day Saint apostle Charles C. Rich, Laraine Day was born in Roosevelt, Utah, in 1920 and began acting as a teenager when her family moved to California. Spotted by an MGM talent scout, Day played a few bit parts before getting her chance as the lead in a handful of low-budget Westerns. Dubbed as The Girl Next Door, Day broke in the studios’ prestige pictures playing opposite such bonafide stars as Robert Mitchum, John Wayne, and Cary Grant and under the direction of Hollywood legends like Cecil B. DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock.
While Day never established star status despite her steady work in film, spending most of her time after the 1940s in television, she is unique for having been openly Mormon throughout her life. Early on in her career, she established a playhouse in Los Angeles specifically for Mormon actors. She reportedly never smoked, drank, or swore throughout her career. Near the end of her life, she moved back to Utah to live with her family and died in 2007.
Recommended viewing: Foreign Correspondent (1940), The Locket (1946), Tycoon (1947)
The great-granddaughter of early Latter-day Saint apostle Heber C. Kimball, Natacha Rambova was born Winifred Kimball Shaughnessy in Salt Lake City in 1897 to a wealthy family. Taking up ballet while living abroad in Europe as a teen, Winifred adopted the stage name Natacha Rambova while dancing in the New York-based Imperial Russian Ballet Company. At age 19, she relocated to Los Angeles landing her first job in the film industry designing costumes for the legendary director Cecil B. DeMille. Although today she is best known for her marriage to silent superstar and screen idol Rudolph Valentino, her biggest mark on cinematic history is her accomplishments in film production and costume design.
Working on several films as an art director and costume designer in the 1920s, Rambova brought modern art deco style to Hollywood filmmaking. The strange combination of ancient styles and art deco designs make Rambova’s sets and costumes pop off the screen and create worlds that remain bold and unique, rarely matched in subsequent silent or sound cinema. After her divorce from Valentino in 1925, Rambova moved on from film but continued designing clothing for A-list Hollywood actresses. Later in life, she became a respected Egyptologist and eventually donated her extensive collection of Egyptian artifacts to the University of Utah’s Museum of Fine Arts.
Recommended viewing: Why Change Your Wife? (1920), Camille (1921), Salome (1923)
Part 2 covers the director behind the first epic Western, Charlie Chaplin’s most recognizable co-star, and the story behind one of the most iconic film studio logos.