Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Wings of an angel: Jobyna Ralston

I seem to recall saying at the beginning of the year, in a post about the reissue of the 1927 film Wings (the only silent to win Best Film at the Oscars until last year's The Artist), that I would in the future devote a whole blog post to one of the actresses to star in that picture and one of my favourite silent film ladies.  A quiet spell in the blogosphere coupled with the winding down of my Style Icons series plus some excellent posts about Lillian Gish over at Flapper Flickers and Silent Stanzas and another dip into my Harold Lloyd Collection have convinced me that now is the time to do just that.

Jack Powell (Charles Rogers) and Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston) in Wings (1927).

Wings starred the famous and archetypal '20s flapper girl actress Clara Bow in the lead role of Mary Preston.  Much has been written about Clara Bow, and quite rightly too, but Wings also featured the lesser-known Jobyna Ralston as rival-for-the-affections Sylvia Lewis. 

Unless you're familiar with the Harold Lloyd films of the 1920s you might not recognise Miss Ralston and indeed it is for the six Lloyd pictures (and Wings) she appeared in that she is arguably most well-known. 

Jobyna Lancaster Raulston was born in Tennessee  on 21st November 1899 and, in proof that it is not a modern affectation, was named after a famous actress of the time - Jobyna Howland.  (Incidentally, debate is still ongoing to this day on how to pronounce Misses Ralston's and Howland's first name.  The general consensus today seems to favour jo-bee-na, although Harold Lloyd himself was heard to use jo-bye-na - personally I prefer the former myself.  She quickly gained the nickname "Joby").

Being named for a famous stage & screen star and with a portrait photographer mother it should not come as a great surprise that Jobyna gravitated to show business.  Her very first performance was at the age of 9 in a local theatre production of Cinderella.  Her acting career was very nearly curtailed by a teenage marriage to a local farmer and childhood sweetheart but the union did not last and by 1919 she was in New York studying at the Ned Wayburn Dancing Academy.

A year later she had "made it" into pictures, featuring in some of the many comedy shorts that were being produced out of Jacksonville, Florida in the years before Hollywood became the centre of American film-making.  In 1921 she had the honour of appearing in the Marx Brothers' first ever picture Humor Risk - now sadly lost - and the next year appeared on Broadway in a George M. Cohan production.  Moving on to the famous Hal Roach Studios, by now in Hollywood, she was spotted by the silent film artist Max Linder and appeared in some of his later shorts for a time before returning to Roach in some of the "Paul Parrot" shorts (Paul Parrott was the stage name of James Parrott, who later went on to direct many of Laurel & Hardy's short films and who was also the brother of Charley Chase - real name Charles Parrott).  It was there that she was first noticed by Harold Lloyd (then still contracted to Hal Roach Studios).


While Jobyna had been busy forging a career for herself Lloyd and Roach were churning out short comedies (and later, features) many of which featured Lloyd's favourite leading lady, Mildred Davis.  He was so fond of her, in fact, that he ended up falling in love and marrying her in real life(!).  Their plan to start a family essentially put an end to Mildred's acting career and Lloyd started looking for a new ingénue.  He found Jobyna Ralston.


Between 1923 and 1927 Lloyd and Ralston appeared together in six films, always with Jobyna as the girl with whom Harold falls in love with and then must win in some fantastically humorous way (the exception being 1924's Hot Water in which she and Harold are already married at the beginning of the film).  Some of Harold Lloyd's best films (and my favourites) - Girl Shy, The Freshman, For Heaven's Sake, The Kid Brother - feature Jobyna who had the notable ability to successfully mix comedy and pathos, essential in those silent days.  It was undoubtedly this talent that earned her a supporting role in Wings

Following this career high Jobyna's acting roles began to decline for she had also married a co-star - Wings' Richard Arlen.  She appeared in a further fourteen features - including a 1928 Frank Capra production The Power of the Press with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. - between 1927 and 1931.  All but the last three of her films were silent and, just as fellow WAMPAS Baby Star Clara Bow with her strong Brooklyn accent had not made a successful transition to sound, so Jobyna struggled too - she had a noticeable lisp (and indeed if you watch closely during any long "speech" she has in the silents - showings of her talking films being rare - you might notice a barely-perceptible movement of the tongue which confirms this), such that The New York Times' review for her first talkie The College Coquette noted that "Miss Ralston's utterances are frequently indistinct".

Her final two films were Rough Waters, in which she starred opposite Rin Tin Tin(!) and 1931's Sheer Luck.  By that time she and Richard Arlen had had a son and Jobyna retired from acting to focus on her family.  In 1945 she and Arlen divorced and Jobyna continued to live in Los Angeles until her death (from a combination of a series of strokes and pneumonia, as well as chronic rheumatism) in 1967 at the age of 67.

The Kid Brother (1927) was the very first Harold Lloyd film I recall seeing, as a pre-teen lad.  It had a fairytale quality to the story which still shines through today and I remember being enthralled not just by the comedy and adventure but also the romance - and a lot of that was down to Joby.  Looking back I also get the feeling I must have marvelled at the nervous, awkward bespectacled boy on the screen actually getting the girl - and in the understated words of Variety's 1924 review of Girl Shy a "decidedly pretty" one at that! It's an empathy (and a crush!) that's never really gone away and I still look upon Girl Shy and The Kid Brother as two of my favourite Lloyd films for that reason. 

Unlike the "it-girl" sexiness of the 1920s typified by Clara Bow, Jobyna Ralston belonged to a different sort of look - tender and delicate more in the manner of late Victorian/early Edwardian women but yet with a modern Twenties "can-do" independence bubbling away underneath.  She complemented Harold Lloyd and his films' plots perfectly and will always have a special place on my list of top silent actresses.


  1. I have to admit, I have seen hardly any silent films! Where would you recommend a complete novice start?

    Miss P xx

    1. You could do worse than some of the Harold Lloyd films mentioned as an introduction to silent films, Miss P. They're almost early rom-coms in a way - boy meets girl, has embarrassing encounters/adventures, defeats nasty piece of work, wins girl. Fairly lightweight yet still enormously enjoyable. Less slapstick than the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel & Hardy too, if that's not your kind of thing. Then you might want to look up the likes of Clara Bow's, Lillian & Dorothy Gish's, Anna Mae Wong's and Louise Brooks' films - standards of their day - as a next step, followed by some of the epics of D.W. Griffith et al or specific genres like The Lost World, Metropolis and Nosferatu.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Oh she was very pretty! Thank you for posting about Clara. :)

  3. What a beauty. She is actually a big style icon of mine. Thanks to you I have now learnt a bit more about her. Great post, thank you. x

  4. I love Jobyna Ralston. I think she was my favourite of Harold Lloyd's leading ladies :)


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