Robert Harron, Devout Catholic actor of the Silent Era

Robert Harron was born April 12,1893 in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City, New York to John Harron, Sr. and Anne Arnold. He was the second of nine children in a poor Irish Catholic family. Robert who was known as “Bobbie” by his family and many of his friends was a devout Catholic his entire life. He attended St. Joseph’s Parochial School, run by the Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers. In 1907, in order to help support his family, he and his friend, James Smith were found a job by one of the Brothers as an errand boy at the American Mutoscope and Biograph Studio in Manhattan. The job paid $5 a week and Harron proved to be a good worker. In 1907, he got his first film role in Dr. Skinum (1907), a 10 minute short directed by Wallace “Old Man” McCutcheon. He was given the lead in Wallace McCutcheon’s 1908 film, Bobby’s Kodak, a comic short. However, he continued to play small roles for much of 1908. However, his luck began to change for the best in 1908, when David Wark Griffith, a 33 year old struggling playwright and actor joined Biograph. When film director, Wallace McCutcheon fell ill and Griffith became Biograph’s lead director. He would be best known as D. W. Griffith. His first film role in a Griffith film was A Calamitous Elopement (1908). Harron was a good friends with Griffith and Griffith felt like a father to him. He continued being a favorite in many of Griffith’s films from 1908 onwards. In 1914, D. W. Griffith began filming his most famous yet controversial masterpiece, The Birth of a Nation. The film was released on February 8,1915 and the film was based Thomas Dixon, Jr.’s 1905 novel, The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. The film chronicled the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Reconstruction era (1863-1877), and the birth of the Ku Klux Klan (1865-1871). The film was met with protests amid accusations that the film promoted a pro-Klan message. Robert Harron played the role of Tod Stoneman. Despite the controversy, the film ran from 2 to over 3 hours long and grossed an estimated $50 to $100 million dollars. The film was also used an excuse by many bigoted southerners to revive the Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia on November 25,1915. Thomas Dixon, Jr. condemned the revived Klan when they preached anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. He pointed out that Mary, the mother of Jesus was Jewish and lauded Catholics their loyalty and good citizenship. Harron worked on Griffith for his next film which was first filmed as The Mother and the Law. Griffith later renamed it Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages and decided to film more than one story. The film had four stories: The ancient “Babylonian” story
(539 BC), The Biblical “Judean” story (circa 27 AD), The Renaissance “French” story (1572),
and The Modern Story (circa 1914). The film had many religious themes. In the Babylonian story segment, it depicts the conflict between Prince Belshazzar of Babylon and Cyrus the Great of Persia. The fall of Babylon is a result of intolerance arising from a conflict between devotees of two rival Babylonian gods—Bel-Marduk and Ishtar. The Judean story recounts the life of Jesus and his ministry which included many important events: the Wedding at Cana, the Woman Taken in Adultery, and the Crucifixion of Jesus. The French story tells of the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre which was started by Catholic royals against Protestant Huguenots. The Modern story demonstrates how crime, moral puritanism, and conflicts between ruthless capitalists and striking workers help ruin the lives of marginal Americans. Robert Harron played the character of The Boy, who was a worker a mill factory and lost his job during a strike because the owner ordered a 10% cut in wages which leads to a strike and the death of the Boy’s father. The Boy along with many others affected by the strike move to the nearby city, Los Angeles. The Boy who can’t find a job begins a criminal life and works for the leader of a local crime family, The Musketeer of the Slums. The Boy meets the Dear One, another victim of the strike and later marry. The Dear One convinces the Boy to leave his criminal past. When he attempts to, the Boss decides to have his men teach him a lesson and frames him for a crime, which leads him to a term in prison. While in prison, his wife has a baby and must endure their child being taken away by the “moral uplift society” who was responsible for the strike at the mill. Upon his release from prison, the Boy discovers his ex-boss attempting to force himself on his wife. A struggle begins and the girlfriend of the boss shoots and kills the boss. She manages to escape and the Boy is arrested for the boss’s murder. He is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. A kindly policeman helps The Dear One find the real killer, the boss’s girlfriend and together they race to the Governor managing to stop the train he’s on. The Governor is told what happened and signs the pardon to stop the execution. The Kindly policeman, The Dear One, and the Killer race to the prison and stop the execution just in time. The Boy and The Dear One are reunited and their baby is returned to them. The film also promoted a pacifist message. The film was released on September 5,1916 and was not successful mostly due to its pacifist message at the time when the United States was almost near war with Imperial Germany. The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Throughout the Ages (1916) are highly regarded as Robert Harron’s best roles. Harron continued a successful film career. In 1920, he was at the top of his career. On September 1,1920, he was in New York to attend the preview of his upcoming film, Coincidence and the premiere of D. W. Griffith’s Way Down East. While unpacking his clothes at the Hotel Seymour, a gun that Harron had fell out of the suitcase to the floor and discharged, hitting him in the chest and punctured his lung. He called the hotel desk for assistance and was still conscious when the hotel manager came to his room. Harron did not believe he was seriously wounded and joked with the manager that he was in a “devil of a fix” having shot himself. When the manager wanted to call an ambulance, Harron initially refused and requested that he be examined by the local physician in his room. After a physician could not be found, Harron relented and agreed to allow the manager to call for an ambulance. When medics arrived and attempted to transport him using a stretcher, Harron refused and insisted to be taken down in a chair. Because he lost a considerable amount of blood, medics convinced him that he needed to be transported on a stretcher. Robert Harron was transported to Bellevue Hospital Center where he remained in critical condition. While he was being treated, because he owned a firearm without a permit, he was arrested and charged under the 1911 Sullivan Act, and placed in the prison ward. His friends managed to gather enough money to bail him out and have him placed in a non-prison ward. Shortly after the shooting, newspapers began false stories (aka Fake News) that he attempted to commit suicide. Many of his friends rejected that theory and even Robert Harron rejected that theory. When he was given Last Rites by Father William Humphrey, a Catholic priest and friend of Robert Harron, the priest asked what happened and Harron told him it was accidental. Father Humphrey believed him. It is also noted that Harron was a devout Catholic all his life. Friend who visited him in the hospital were optimistic about his recovery as he appeared to be on the mend. Sadly, on September 5,1920, Robert Harron died of his wounds at the age of 27. His mother, Anne who arrived from Los Angeles too late to see her son was told the sad news by Harron’s friend Lillian Gish. Hollywood observed a moment of silence and many of Harron’s friends and colleagues were grieved and distraught. D. W. Griffith paid for Harron’s funeral arrangements. Robert Harron is interred at Calvary Cemetery in Woodside, Queens, New York City, New York. Had he lived he would have been a successful actor throughout the rest of the Silent Era. R.I.P. Robert Harron (April 12,1893-September 5,1920)

 

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