Along with Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary), Lassie Lou Ahern is the last living silent film star. Let that soak in. We have only two left. It’s also why we were so excited to find another of her films in France (Little Mickey Grogan.)
For those of you motivated now, have a look at Jeff Crouse’s GoFundMe project to restore Little Mickey Grogan ( https://www.gofundme.com/2fpwc9w ). Lassie Lou has seen a quick copy of it, still very rough with French titles, and she’s helping Jeff restore it. (Full disclosure: yours truly is involved in this project! I’ll be helping with the restoration, and I’ve researched Meehan and the Stratton-Porter films for years!)
There are still enduring mysteries in the study of film history. One of them is this: When Gene Stratton-Porter died, her son-in-law, James Leo Meehan, continued making movies based on Stratton-Porter’s books. She had been a pioneering woman in cinema.
But Stratton-Porter’s daughter, Jeannette (also Meehan’s wife), was instrumental in keeping her mother’s legacy alive. She worked on all of the films, either as an advisor or scenarist. When Little Mickey Grogan was made, it was a departure: Meehan made the film, released through the FBO exchanges, just like Stratton-Porter’s films had been, but it was not based on one of her books.
So the question arises, “Was Jeannette a part of Little Mickey Grogan?” There’s no evidence she was, but there’s no evidence that she wasn’t either. We’re not even completely sure that Meehan just didn’t make this film as a one-off on for his contract with FBO. There’s some evidence that Meehan signed a separate contract at FBO, but then he also continued directing films for Stratton-Porter’s company after this.
We also know that a lot of the technical people, including scenarist Dorothy Yost, worked on both Little Mickey Grogan and the Gene Stratton-Porter films. It’s Meehan’s only extant silent!
Why is this so important? Well, it’s part of the history of women producers in film, and it’s a part of FBO history, which we just don’t know a lot about (FBO’s film survival rate is less than stellar… probably the worst studio of them all.)
So when I got a chance to interview (through courtesy of Jeff Crouse) Lassie Lou Ahern, you can bet what my first question was…
But Lassie Lou also worked with Charley Chase on one of his most beloved shorts, and with legendary schlock-meister JP McGowan, all people we read about but have no first-hand accounts to discuss.
I didn’t want to bug her for the customary 10 questions (after all, she is 96!) but we did do five…
1) Did you ever meet Jeannette Porter Meehan, the wife of director James Leo Meehan? Do you have any memories of her? There’s an open question about whether she worked at all on Little Mickey Grogan.
No, unfortunately, I don’t recall her. I was too busy palling around a lot with Frankie [Darro] on the set with us enjoying [walking] stilts made by the crew!
2) On Webs of Steel, you worked with serial and western king J. P. McGowan. He made hundreds of pictures, very cheaply. Do you remember anything about him?
My biggest conversation with McGowan happened when he explained to me the scene in Webs of Steel where I’m on the railroad tracks and how men on the front of the cowcatcher would rescue me before the train ran me over! When I asked how he knew it would stop in time, I could see him repress a smile while assuring me that everything would be fine. We really talked about this scene. I remember him being a nice man. I worked with another director named McGowan, but his first name was Robert. Robert McGowan directed most of the Our Gang films of the 1920s and was a fixture at Hal Roach.
3) Little Mickey Grogan was your last movie until the 40s, and even then you were hardly 20. Was there a reason you retired and then came back?
I retired after Little Mickey Grogan because my father thought that with the coming of sound, movies were becoming more violent. He wanted my sister Peggy and I out. I had studied dance under Ernest Belcher, the father of Marge Champion. My dad opened his own dance studio and in time Peggy and I toured the country and the world with our dance and acrobatic shows. By the end of the 1930s, we both got married. Yet once Peggy married, she was no longer interested in performing. However I married a musician, Johnny Brent, who, after our being married in New Orleans, went back to California and joined the hard-to-get-into Los Angeles Musicians Union. There he played in the big studio orchestras. Meanwhile, I had our two small boys. I told Johnny that I wanted to return to performing, and after my boys were born, I went on to work in early Donald 0’Connor musicals at MGM like Mister Big (1943) and Top Man (1945). He was my favorite co-star of them all. I also had a small scene with Joseph Cotton in Gaslight (1944) where I was a stand in. Decades later, in the 1970s, I met a wonderful casting director from Paramount whom I met while working at a health spa outside of San Diego. She adored me. From her I got several TV roles, including small parts in Love, American Style, The Odd Couple, and other shows.
4) Have you seen His Wooden Wedding recently? It’s now considered one of Charley Chase’s better films. What did you think of it?
I have a copy of the film. I remember going to the set feeling rather ashamed because I didn’t have any lines. Instead it was a brief walk-on. I remember wardrobe lifting my dress to strap my lower leg to the back of my upper leg, above the knee, while affixing the wooden peg, all to give the impression that I had a wooden leg. Because they weren’t able to take the artificial leg off and on so easily, I had to wear it all day. (Laughing) Not fun!
5) I know you’ve seen Little Mickey Grogan recently. You worked at a lot of small studios that didn’t save their films. Is there a particular film you’ve not seen that you’re still hoping to find?
There are two films I’m hoping to find. The first is The Forbidden Woman (1927). In it I play an Arab girl, and it starred Jetta Goudal and Joseph Schildkraut. I remember there’s a scene of me laying on a couch, but I could have had more [scenes] in it — I don’t recall. The biggest memory I have of The Forbidden Woman, however, is the wrap-up party — which, because of the drinking, I usually didn’t attend. (I was only six or seven years old.) But Schildkraut approached my dad on the last day of filming to ask if I’d especially attend. He said yes. After I got there, Schildkraut got the room quiet and made an announcement. I remember him first giving me a loving look, and then saying aloud to me and everyone, “Here’s to Lassie Lou, the loveliest actress I ever worked with.” I thought that was so sweet. It makes me really wonder if I only had a single scene in that film to get that kind of response!! Thinking about that reaction makes me curious to find out.The other film I want to see is the Ronald Colman film, The Dark Angel (1925), where I played a flower girl.
Editor’s note: (Thanks to Jeff Crouse) Lassie also appeared in John Ford’s 1925 lost film, Thank You, a Norma Shearer comedy, Excuse Me (1925), and a Leatrice Joy film, Hell’s Highroad (1925).