This post is for the Ninth Annual Buster Keaton blogathon hosted by Silentology. Check out her blog for more Buster goodness.
Kathryn McGuire does not get as much appreciation as Buster Keaton’s other leading ladies. Sybil Seeley had the warmest chemistry with Buster. Marion Mack was hilariously ditzy. Sally O’Neil was cute and sweet. Dorothy Sebastian was prickly, Marceline Day was more like a Harold Lloyd heroine, and Marion Byron was the epitome of the 1920s flapper.
I always think of McGuire as unsmiling and subdued, even a bit wary. And yet, she shared strong chemistry with Keaton, almost coming off as a female variation on his “stoneface.” She was also one of his most active leading ladies, often more of a comic partner than a passive love interest.
But I get ahead of myself. Who exactly was Kathryn McGuire?
McGuire was born on December 6, 1903 in Peoria, Illinois. Her family moved to Hollywood when she was in her mid-teens. From a young age, McGuire’s great passion was dance. Trained under Ernest Belcher, she attributed her dancer’s background to her sense of discipline and would continue to practice dance during her movie career.
This talent got her noticed by no less than filmmaker Thomas Ince at an exhibition in Pasadena. He offered her a dancing part in an upcoming Dorothy Dalton feature. This opportunity led to solo dances in other films, and then a period of extra and supporting work at Mack Sennett’s studio. Her most famous work from this period is The Shriek of Araby, a spoof of The Sheik in which McGuire got to play Diana to Ben Turpin’s cross-eyed Ahmed.
For a while, McGuire was considered a superstar hopeful, listed among the original WAMPAS Baby Stars winners in 1922, along with future silent film luminaries Colleen Moore, Patsy Ruth Miller, Mary Philbin, and Bessie Love. McGuire’s career would not reach the dizzying heights of some of her fellow “baby stars,” though she did have a respectable run, working opposite a variety of major Hollywood players like Tom Mix, Priscilla Dean, Lupino Lane, Charley Bowers— and of course, Buster Keaton.
McGuire’s path crossed with Keaton’s purely by chance. Teenaged Marion Harlan was Keaton’s original leading lady in Sherlock Jr. but she had to withdraw due to an illness. McGuire took over the part and so ensured her own screen immortality by appearing in one of the finest comedies ever made.
Sherlock Jr. is an inventive and affectionate kidding of “movie magic.” It contains two stories, a frame narrative and a surrealistic movie-within-a-movie. Keaton’s character (the Boy) is a movie projectionist who dreams of becoming a world-class detective and winning the love of a character only called the Girl (McGuire). He vies for her love with an oily rival (Ward Crane) who tries to get him out of the way by framing him for theft. An attempt to foil his rival ends in failure, forcing the boy to retreat to the movie theater where he falls asleep, and dreams himself and his real life social circle into the mystery movie on the screen.
The frame story might seem disposable at first, but it’s there that Keaton makes his most pointed satire about movie fan culture. Sherlock Jr. is about how people not only project themselves into the movies, but also a subtle commentary on how audiences try embodying certain movie ideals in their own lives. The Boy wants to be a badass detective (no doubt for 1924 audiences, this would have evoked John Barrymore in the 1922 Sherlock Holmes) and his ladykilling rival is called the Sheik, after the character played by Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 film of the same name. The Girl models herself after Mary Pickford, wearing her long hair in curls and dressing girlishly.
The funny thing is that these characters are more complicated than the movie types they try to emulate. The Boy is a lousy detective, the Sheik is a thieving git, and the Girl turns out to be the real hero of the story. You see, the Boy gives up on clearing his name after briefly “shadowing” the Sheik. The Girl does not. She goes out and investigates the case of the stolen watch, quickly learning that the Sheik was the real criminal the whole time. This turn of events pulls double-duty: plot-wise, it allows us to enjoy the fantasy of the film-within-the-film, but thematically, it shows that real life does not play by the rules of “reel life,” especially when you consider that the Girl’s silver screen counterpart is a passive damsel-in-distress. Real life women aren’t like “reel life women.”
McGuire’s onscreen presence emphasizes the Girl’s practicality. She has a no-nonsense air, even as she allows the Boy to awkwardly court her. However, there is a passionate warmth beneath the placid surface which comes to the fore when the impatient Girl grabs the Boy’s hand, sending a jolt through the both of them. This also illustrates something else I love about McGuire—she’s allowed to be the butt of a joke. She’s no imperious mistress to be yearned after—she feels down-to-earth. These qualities would happily carry over to McGuire’s next collaboration with Keaton.
McGuire’s role in The Navigator is not as thematically profound, but she is no less active a character. The set-up is simple: Keaton and McGuire are wealthy heirs who end up adrift on a ship together. No crew, no direction– and neither character has any clue how to handle it, considering they’ve never had to lift a finger to help themselves in their entire lives.
The Navigator presents Keaton and McGuire as comic partners from the very start. Both are subject to the film’s ribbing of the spoiled rich, and both subsequently develop into more resourceful (if still bumbling) figures as they embark on their unexpected cruise from hell. McGuire’s usual reserved nature and physical grace are arguably even better suited to her stiff upper lip rich girl character. Like Keaton, she could appear as a plain middle-class girl or as one of “nature’s aristocrats,” as critic Imogen Smith once put it.
Her character is also pretty shrewd. My favorite moment is when Buster rescues her from the ocean and despite the fact that she’s perfectly conscious, she pretends to faint so he’ll have to carry her up onto the ship.
Following her final film with Keaton, McGuire’s career continued without much fanfare. Her career lingered a little into the dawn of the talkie era: she made The Long, Long Trail with Hoot Gibson in his sound debut and The Lost Zeppelin, an adventure flick featuring Conway Tearle, Virginia Valli, and Ricardo Cortez. After 1930, McGuire’s movie career fizzled out. In 1936, she and her husband welcomed the birth of their only child, a daughter.
However, this was not the end of McGuire’s acting career. After her husband passed away in 1955, she briefly resumed her old job, this time turning to television. Her final role was on a 1959 episode of Dragnet. She lived another fifteen years before passing away from cancer at age 74.
Were it not for Sherlock Jr. and The Navigator, McGuire would no doubt be a footnote in early Hollywood history. You might say even with those two credits, she already is. And yet, her presence in those films is distinctive as is the variation on the typical comic love interest she played.
Buster Keaton: A Filmmaker’s Life by James Curtis
Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy by Imogen Sara Smith
“Dancer Finds Film Niche,” Camera (Feb. 2, 1924), https://archive.org/details/camera06unse/page/n1027/mode/2up?q=%22kathryn+mcguire%22+%22thomas+ince%22
“Kathryn McGuire,” Pantomime (Sept. 28, 1921), https://archive.org/details/Pantomime092821/page/n25/mode/2up?q=%22mcguire%22
“The Right Weigh,” Motion Picture Magazine (Feb.-July 1925), https://archive.org/details/motionpicturemag29brew/page/n599/mode/2up?q=%22kathryn+mcguire%22+%22thomas+ince%22
“She Started as a Dancer,” Close-Up (1920-1923), https://archive.org/details/closeup1920192300clos/page/n175/mode/2up?q=%22kathryn+mcguire%22