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.
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.
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.