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Karl Dane

1886 - 1934

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03 Life Stories

Karl Dane
1886 - 1934

The silent film era was a most precious and special time in the history of cinema, and a large reason for its immense popularity was the international scope of the medium, without the limitations of language barriers, allowing people of every tongue and voice to enjoy fame and stardom. Thus, with the dawn of the sound era came the end of many careers – and one of the saddest cases was that of Karl Dane, a silent star who saw his career screech to a halt, and whose life came to a tragic, and self-imposed, end, in its wake.

He was born Rasmus Karl Thekelsen Gottlieb, in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 12, 1886. His roots had theatrical written all over them, as his father owned a theatre in Copenhagen, which is where the youngster made his film debut, at age 14. He arrived in Hollywood during the World War I period, and instantly made his mark as impersonator to Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg in three anti-German propaganda films: My Four Years in Germany (1918), To Hell with the Kaiser (1918), and The Great Victory/Wilson or the Kaiser?/The Fall of the Hohenzollerns (1919). He continued, appearing in films here and there, until 1925, when a thrilling role in one of the era’s most important films sealed his chance at international stardom.

Life was The Big Parade in 1925, for Karl Dane. His role, as a gangly, tobacco-chewing doughboy in the war epic, was his big break, and gained him attention all around the world. His histrionic strengths laid, chiefly, in his ability to convey pathos or humor in any role: he was equally adept at comedy or drama. He made a good living, post-The Big Parade, as a character comedian in the waning years of the silent era, notably appearing in a series of comedy shorts with George K. Arthur. Life was good, and the press was noticing: two notable articles on him in American magazines pointed out his versatility. In August 1926, Cinema Arts magazine headlined an article entitled, “Karl Dane; A Serious Comedian; Read This, and Learn of the Fine Art of Manufacturing Mirth.” In September 1927, Dunham Thorp contributed an article on Dane to famed Motion Picture Classic magazine, entitled, “The Mutt and Jeff of the Movies,” which headlined his universal appeal. Finally, in April 1928, Motion Picture Classic again focused on his unique brand of stardom, with James Bagley’s article, “The Perfect Crime as George Arthur and Karl Dane Would Do It.” In June 1927, Metro signed Dane to a long-term contract. Personally, he was thriving too: he was married, on May 4, 1928, to actress Thais Valdemar. It seemed as if the fame and happiness that he had been groomed for was finally realized: and then, sound hit the theatres, and his life, and career, would never be the same.

Being from Denmark, his thick accent, which was a non-issue during the making of silent films, became a deep handicap for him (as well as for countless others of his contemporaries). He continued trying to make films, appearing in two good films in 1930, Free and Easy, and The Big House, as well as a rendition of Billy the Kid. However, after his appearance in the 1933 serial Whispering Shadows, Dane called it a career.

He tried earning a living as a carpenter, and as a mechanic, but floundered at those endeavors. He was eventually reduced to manning a hotdog stand. The personal and financial pressures, owing to his self-impression of being a has-been at the age of 48, proved too much for him. Karl Dane committed suicide, by shooting, on April 14, 1934, in Los Angeles. He was laid to rest in Section 13 of Hollywood Memorial Park (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery). His great contributions to the cinema industry were not forgotten, however: he was posthumously honored with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6140 Hollywood Boulevard.

It is sad, indeed, that a person can feel washed up, and worthless, simply owing to his or her natural uniqueness and heritage. For Karl Dane, the sad truth was that his accent was not a handicap at all, but a standout cultural feature: however, for him, during the times in which he lived, it ended a promising career. The lesson his life, and his death, continue to teach us – of the acceptance of cultural diversity, and the celebration of the distinctiveness of each life – will hopefully teach future generations to embrace individuality, and to enjoy being the best you can be: yourself.