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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.

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.

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Thank you for the article. I came across Miss O’Neil while doing some research on vaudeville history for The Orpheum Theatre, where I currently work as a manager. I became fascinated with Sally: her beauty, stardom, and the fact she settled down in Galesburg. It was always my wonder if she came to know Galesburg via The Orpheum Circuit. Would love to connect with you and learn about any more info you know about her, as well as hear any stories you may have from your childhood in Galesburg… please email me!

  2. I stumbled upon your post because my sister and I are Sally’s great nieces and we have often spoken of Sally’s disappearance from the family, show business and subsequent move to Galesburg. We know that she married and settled there but not much else. Any information you have on her would be appreciated.

    Best regards.

  3. To all, this is a bit dated but Sally O’Neil was my great aunt on my mother’s side. My mother was Patricia Noonan who also did movies in Los Angeles with her two Aunts, Sally O’Neil and Molly O’Day.

    My sister and I were hoping to find out where Sally had been buried and thank you for that informaton.

    Blessings to all

  4. We very much enjoyed your kind remarks about my former “Aunt Sally”, by marriage to her late niece , who was the daughter also of the late Molly O’Day (my mother in-law in the early sixties) .

    Lot’s more to this story . We should talk.

    >>>>>Joel Laykin , Hong Kong , China….

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