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The Movie Star Next Door: Sally O’Neil

 

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Silent film star Sally O’Neil

Sally O’Neil (sometimes spelled O’Neill) is one of that coterie of movie performers who, though little remembered today, were exceptionally popular during their zenith. Between 1925 and 1938, O’Neil starred in just over 40 motion pictures and, more often than not, had her name above the title. And while few of those titles are known today, she nevertheless enjoyed a distinguished career having shared the screen with the likes of Joan Crawford and Buster Keaton, and directed by such luminaries as John Ford and D.W. Griffith.

O’Neil was reportedly “discovered” by a director while dancing at a Los Angeles nightclub, but that may very well be one of those apocryphal only-in-Hollywood stories. Regardless, after a bit part in a 1925 Hal Roach short, she was soon starring in such successful MGM features as Sally, Mary, and Irene (1925), Mike (1926), and The Lovelorn (1927) which co-starred her sister Molly O’Day. Her breakthrough role came opposite Keaton in Battling Butler (1926) and she even made a smooth transition to talkies, starring in On With the Show! (Warner Bros., 1929), the first all color musical (although nothing more than a fragment of the original color version is known to exist). O’Neil’s combination of flapper, devil-may-care style—she was described during her heyday with such adjectives as “piquant,” “vivacious,” and “adorable”—and wide-eyed innocence made her a good fit for the era.

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Library of Congress copyright record for O’Neil film Don’t

But O’Neil’s career was somewhat short-lived. She left MGM in 1927 to pursue a career outside the studio system, but that decision stalled her career and by the early 1930s she was spending most of her time working at Poverty Row studios. She made her last film in 1938, then left Hollywood altogether to pursue a stage career. By 1953, O’Neil had fully abandoned show business and began selling real estate in California’s Rancho Mirage area. That same year she married Midwestern businessman S.S. Battles. Mr. and Mrs. Battles settled in Mr. Battles’s home town of Galesburg, Illinois. O’Neil lived there for the remainder of her life. She passed in 1968 at age 59 and is buried in a cemetery on Galesburg’s far west side.

Galesburg—population 37,000—is usually noted as the birthplace of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg. It is also my home town; I lived there from age 2 until age 20. I first learned of Sally O’Neil in the 1980s, while I was still living in Galesburg; I came across her name and Midwest connection via a short write-up in a film book. Who knew that we once had a real-life movie star in our midst? After my discovery, I did as much research on her as I could at the time but it was harder in those pre-Google and YouTube days. And, sadly, even Sally’s better known films never made it to the late show or onto the video store shelves. Over time, I’ve come to understand the reasons why relatively little of O’Neil’s filmography survives.

Last November I wrote a blog post about Children of Loneliness, a 1935 film for which there is no extant copy. The combination of the well-documented loss rate of silent features and the fact that many of O’Neil’s sound films were—like Children of Loneliness—made by independent, poorly-financed production companies, means that her career is only sporadically preserved. The Library, for example, has only one complete O’Neil silent (Battling Butler), and excerpt from another (The Callahans and the Murphys) and three sound titles. Only a handful of titles exist in other archives or in prints owned by collectors.

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O’Neil with Buster Keaton

Despite Sally O’Neil Battles’s notoriety, the presence of a former movie star living in my working-class community never seemed to draw too much attention. Few townsfolk, then and now, seemed seem to realize that a one-time major film actress was living right in the area. But, then again, how would they have known? It seems Mrs. Battles made little of her earlier life and with so much of her film work obscured, erased, or eradicated, how could it ever be rediscovered?

But all is not lost. Not long ago we screened Battling Butler in our Packard Campus Theater. And there she was, finally for me to see—my hometown girl, right up there on the big screen.

Now Playing at the Packard Campus Theater (May 6-7, 2016)

 The following is a guest post by Jenny Paxson, an Administrative Assistant at the Packard Campus. Friday, May 6 (7:30 p.m.) Pay or Die (Allied Artists, 1960) After he scored a big hit with the 1959 picture Al Capone, Allied Artists hired director/producer Richard Wilson for another Italian mobster movie, this one set in early […]

Now Playing at the Packard Campus Theater (April 29-30, 2016)

The following is a guest post by Matt Barton, curator of Recorded Sound at the Library of Congress. Friday, April 29 (7:30 p.m.) GLAM AND METAL ROCK DOC DOUBLE FEATURE Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (20th Century Fox, 1973) On July 3rd, 1973, David Bowie assumed his “Ziggy Stardust” persona on stage for […]

Now Playing at the Packard Campus Theater (April 22-23, 2016)

The following is a guest post by Matt Barton, Recorded Sound Curator for the Library of Congress. Friday, April 22 (7:30 p.m.) Citizen’s Band (aka Handle with Care) (Paramount, 1977) The CB radio craze was at its peak of popularity and impact when this clever comedy was released, but still the film failed to find an audience. The […]

Now Playing at the Packard Campus Theater (April 15-16, 2016)

The following is a guest post by Matt Barton, Curator of Recorded Sound at the Library of Congress. Friday, April 15 (7:30 p.m.) Play Misty for Me (Universal, 1971 – R-rated *) Late-night jazz disc jockey and inveterate playboy Clint Eastwood plays the field like he plays records on his show, but meets his match […]

10th Orphan Film Symposium (April 6-9, 2016): Travel Lecture Films

The Packard Campus is excited to host to the tenth edition of the Orphan Film Symposium, April 6-9, 2016; the theme is “Sound,” both with and without moving images. “Orphans X” is presented in conjunction with New York University Cinema Studies and its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program. You can register for Orphans X […]

“Harry Potter” Film Fest at the Packard Campus (March 28-April 3, 2016)

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Now Playing at the Packard Campus Theater (March 25-26, 2016)

The following is a guest post by Jenny Paxson, an Administrative Assistant at the Packard Campus. Friday, March 25 (7:30 p.m.) The Ten Commandments (Paramount, 1956) Cecil B. DeMille’s last and most successful work is a partial remake of his 1923 silent film. This Biblical epic follows the life of Moses (played by Charlton Heston) […]

10th Orphan Film Symposium (April 6-9, 2016): Scoring Documentaries

The Packard Campus is excited to host to the tenth edition of the Orphan Film Symposium, April 6-9, 2016; the theme is “Sound,” both with and without moving images. “Orphans X” is presented in conjunction with New York University Cinema Studies and its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program. You can register for Orphans X […]