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FOKUS magazine article
The following is the original English version of this article
that appeared in the October 12, 2006 issue of the weekly Danish magazine FOKUS.
Denmark's Forgotten Film Star
"Slim of 'Big Parade' Dead Amid Poverty," "Riches to Rags," "Actor Who Once Made $1500 a Week Saved From Pauper's Grave."
These were some of the headlines that appeared in American newspapers in April 1934 after the suicide of Copenhagen-born silent star Karl Dane. Today, however, as his 120th birthday approaches, the name Karl Dane is almost unknown in his native Denmark. In America, where he achieved fame and fortune, he is sadly known mostly to classic film fans and readers of Hollywood scandal books.
Karl Dane's rise and fall is unparalleled in the history of film stars. In 1925, an unknown, he shot to stardom after appearing in King Vidor's classic The Big Parade, as the buddy of star John Gilbert. Just nine years later, after plummeting to the depths of poverty because of the perceived unsuitability of his voice for sound films, he shot himself in his Los Angeles apartment. Until MGM stepped forward to arrange his funeral, it looked as if he would have to buried in a pauper's grave.
As Karl's landmark birthday approaches on October 12, one wonders how someone who received so much fame and made so much money, could be reduced to such despair and poverty so quickly? In researching his life, it becomes obvious that there was so much more to Karl Dane than the tragic circumstances of his death.
Karl was born Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb in 1886, the second of three sons to glovemaker, Rasmus Marius Gottlieb, from Horsens, and, Anna Cathrine Simonsen, from Aarhus. His brother Reinald was a year older, and they were very close. Another brother, Viggo, apparently died in childhood. Karl's parents' marriage was a stormy one, since Rasmus had problems with alcohol and money management, and they parted in 1903. Karl and Reinald were both apprenticed at age 14 as machinists to the firm Smith, Mygind, and H?ttemeir, the makers of railroad equipment. Karl was also a member of the Coastal Artillery Regiment, earning high marks as a soldier, and was discharged as a Corporal in 1915.
Karl was very tall, at 6'3 ½", and while lanky, he was also powerful and athletic. He loved all sports, was an excellent swimmer, rode a horse, and could do just about any trick on a bicycle. It was also reported that he was one of the first pilots in Denmark, but no evidence has yet been found to support this. Karl was funny, down to earth, friendly, kindhearted, and a big flirt with the ladies. He also loved to play practical jokes, and was a fearless daredevil from childhood.
At about that time, Karl met and fell in love with an attractive young dressmaker, Carla Dagmar Hagen. They were married in September 1910 at Saint Paul's Church in Copenhagen. Carla and Karl welcomed their son Ejlert, into the world in 1911. A daughter, Ingeborg, followed the next year.
Following Karl's military discharge, prospects for finding employment were poor, so he decided to emigrate to America and send for his family later. He sailed in January 1916, on the Oscar II, with only $25 and no English skills. He settled in Brooklyn, and got a job in a foundry. As time went on, he took jobs as a machinist, carpenter, and automobile mechanic.
By 1917, Karl decided to supplement his income by taking film work as an extra and stunt man. His height, unconventional good looks, and strength got him noticed. He was also a fine and natural actor, who could play any sort of part. That year, Warner Brothers was looking for someone to play the giant German Chancellor in their first feature, My Four Years in Germany, and Karl was ideal. He was so good that he reprised the role in two more films. He also made a terrific nasty villain in the serial, The Wolves of Kultur, with motorcycle daredevil star Charles Hutchison.
As Karl was making his mark in films, he was also losing touch with his family in Copenhagen. Carla no longer wanted to join him in the United States, due to ill health, and they legally separated. A lonely Karl then fell in love with young Swede named Helen Benson. Tired of taking risks as a stunt man and suffering from his own periodic illnesses, they decided to move out west. The couple purchased land in southern California, and became poultry farmers. At this time, Karl became an American citizen, and changed his name to Karl Dane.
The couple remained happily on the farm for the next three years. Helen became pregnant, but tragically, in August 1923, both she and the baby girl died in childbirth. Grief-stricken and alone, Karl rushed into another marriage within months, this time to telephone operator Emma Sawyer, seven years his senior, but this was short-lived.
One day, Karl ran into Charles Hutchison, who was by then an independent producer. He convinced Karl to be a part of his current production, another serial. Meanwhile, MGM director King Vidor was trying to find the right actor to play the part of the gangly tobacco-chewing riveter Slim in The Big Parade. Robert McIntyre, the Casting Director who had given Karl his first film role, saw him on the screen, and brought him to Vidor's attention.
Karl was a sensation in Vidor's film, and became a star overnight. The NY Times echoed the sentiments of many critics, citing his "gorgeous characterization", and reporting that Karl "just about runs away with the picture." He signed an MGM contract in June 1926. At the time, the Gottlieb family in Denmark was totally unaware of Karl's newfound fame-and his new name. When The Big Parade premiered in Denmark in January 1927, Karl's brother Reinald was baffled to see this lanky star who so resembled the brother he had not seen in 12 years. He tentatively wrote him a letter in Hollywood asking if Karl Dane and Karl Gottlieb were the same person. He was overjoyed to get the response, "Dear Big Brother! I have received your letter, and confess that I am Karl Dane!"
Meanwhile, Karl's then 15-year old daughter Ingeborg, was in Copenhagen also seeing the film. She was so astonished to see the father she knew mostly from old family pictures, that she exclaimed, "Why, that's Dad!" out loud in the crowded theater.
The legendary Lillian Gish saw an early screening of the film, and personally handpicked Karl for her next projects, La Boheme and The Scarlet Letter. More assignments quickly followed, with prominent stars such as Rudolph Valentino, Marion Davies, and Buster Keaton. He was then teamed with pint-sized actor George K Arthur in a series of successful comedies. Their first film together, the Army-themed Rookies, was enormously popular, and was quickly followed by many other successful features and shorts. Karl, despite his fame and fortune, never enjoyed the Hollywood social scene. He was happiest in simpler pursuits, like building his own beach house in Malibu, working in his carpentry shop in his Beverly Hills backyard, or simply sharing a beer in the kitchen with a friend.
The bubble finally burst for Karl after the arrival of the sound. The primitive new sound equipment made his speech difficult for some to understand, and MGM dropped him in 1930. Although he made some funny sound shorts with Arthur at Paramount and RKO, which led to nationwide vaudeville tour, Karl's career was over by 1932.
Karl's finances were in a shambles by this time. He had never been wise with money, and now he was unemployed. This badly affected his confidence and he became deeply depressed. Every one of his new ventures failed miserably. Then he was cheated out of a large sum of money in a crooked mining deal in Oregon. Desperate, he sank all of his remaining funds into a hot dog stand situated outside the MGM gates, but this too failed when the business was shunned by his former co-workers. Karl then went to his former studio bosses, and begged for a job, any job, even as a humble extra or carpenter. They callously refused.
On Saturday evening, 14 April 1934, Karl was to meet a friend, Frances Leake, to see a movie. When he failed to show up, Frances hurried to his apartment, and pounded on the door. She finally enlisted the aid of the landlady, and together, they found Karl's body slumped in his chair, with a revolver at his feet. Frances fainted at the terrible sight. When she was revived, Frances saw Karl's final note on a nearby table, next to the scrapbook he always kept, filled with his old studio contracts and rave reviews. The simple note read, "To Frances and all my friends-goodbye."
Karl Dane's tragic end can be seen in many lights. It is a stark reminder that fame is fleeting and times change. It also serves as a sad reminder of the terrible way people from different cultures were treated in Hollywood. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that Karl, despite the mistakes he made, and the tragedies he faced, managed to achieve so much living in his short 47 years. He lived his dream, but despite his fame, always remained in spirit the same simple machinist from Copenhagen. For this reason, he still intrigues 120 years after his birth-and deserves a deeper look.
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Last modified: October 17, 2006