It is often said that the Lord will give a person only as much pain as he or she can bear. That being said, in her ninety-plus years, Viola Dana endured more highs, and more lows, than can be expected for one person to bear, no matter how strong.
She was born Virginia Flugrath, on June 28, 1897, in Brooklyn, New York, the sister of two future cinematic stars, Edna Flugrath and Shirley Mason. The girls’ mother had dreams of her daughters being actresses, and enthusiastically sought stage work for them. Viola would later recount, “My mother was possessed to make actresses of us,” and towards that end, the girls’ mother saw to it that they had dance lessons early on. The girls spent many happy hours performing with touring companies, at Coney Island, the Elks Clubs, and anywhere else that youthful dancing girls were welcome.
Since the Flugrath family lived near the Edison Studios, it was also natural that the girls would be marketed to the film company: Viola was the first to gain employment in the movies. She was, at the time, thirteen years of age; before long, sister Shirley was tagging along. Later, when a role called for a blonde, Viola suggested sister Edna, and soon the sisterly trio was before camera lenses for a living.
While at Edison, Viola met director John Hancock Collins. He fell in love with the young actress, and when she was sweet sixteen, the two were married. “Johnny gave me my first position in pictures,” Viola recalled. “He was always my hero, and he used to tell me that he fell in love with me that very first day.”
Collins had come to Edison in 1904 and performed all sorts of tasks, including that of handyman, until he was finally elevated to director. After marrying Viola, he became her director and wrote many of her films. Under his guidance, she became one of Edison’s top stars. In 1916, Collins moved to Metro, and took his wife with him. The success of the husband-wife team continued, and Dana owed much to her husband for the success she was experiencing in her career – one of her finest roles under her husband was in the 1916 pre-Bolshevik melodrama The Cossack Whip. The film, written and directed by Collins and which survives, shows Dana at her best, with an intensely dramatic role, an engaging dance number, and a beautifully written scenario to show off her histrionic talents. Sadly, the personal and professional happiness enjoyed by both Collins and Dana was soon to come to an end.
The Collins’ were married a mere five years when he was called to go to war. World War I was in its final days, but Viola said goodbye to her husband, who left for training camp on October 17, 1918, from New York’s Pennsylvania Station. The next day, he was returned home, with a fever of 104 degrees. He died five days later, on October 23, one of the thousands of victims of the great influenza epidemic of 1918. Although Viola became ill with the flu, as well, she overcame the illness, and returned to California to make light comedy, but this time without her beloved John’s guiding hand. And, within a short two years, Viola Dana would, yet again, experience a tragic loss.
Viola met famed film aviator Ormer Leslie Locklear on the Fox set, and the two fell in love, planning to marry. Locklear had become quite a popular part of the Hollywood set, taking many of his cinematic pals up in the air to experience his aerial acrobatics. His skills as an aviator made him perfect movie material, and, while engaged to Viola, he began shooting The Skywayman (1920) for Fox.
Filming called for night flying sequences over oil fields in the Los Angeles area. He was to take his plane into a tailspin, heading dangerously towards the ground. Sunlight arcs were directed at the plane so it would show up against the night sky. The blinding lights were to be shut down just as Locklear reached the level of the oil wells, indicating that he should straighten out the plane. However, the person in charge never took the lights off him, and he crashed, on August 2, 1920. Ormer Locklear was 28 years old at the time of his tragic death, and, once again, Viola was in mourning. She would marry two more times, in 1925, to actor Maurice Bennett “Lefty” Flynn, but that marriage was short-lived, and then to golfer Jimmy Thomson.
In a 1922 Atlanta Journal article, Viola talked about her career in film. She was then in her twelfth year as an actress. Some of the most charming recollections:
“I wish they wouldn’t call them ‘flappers,'” objected Dana, who had just confessed to an interviewer that the “flapper,” so-called, was her favorite type. “The name is an injustice,” she went on. “It sounds blatant, insincere. The true flapper is neither. I like her, and I’m going to do all I can to popularize her on the screen. She’s a distinct modern type.”
“Picture patrons seemed to like me so I have been doing comedy,” she said. “However, I like emotional roles and hope to get back in that line of work soon.”
“Would you advise young girls to ‘go in for the movies?'” she was asked.
“No. It’s hard work and only a few reach stardom. The tax on your nerves and strength is too great. After you get in, however, you wouldn’t do anything else.”
In a career that boasted close to 100 films, Viola Dana showed talents in both dramatic and comedic roles, with her final film role coming in the star-studded Warner Bros. musical The Show of Shows (1929). However, thankfully, that was not the last we saw of her.
She appeared, in the 1950s, as a juror in a Lux Video Theater presentation along with other silent stars May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Buster Keaton, and her sister, Shirley Mason. In addition, she did a number of high-profile interviews in her later years, offering her unique perspective to the highly acclaimed Hollywood series of the early 1980s, and to an award-winning documentary, Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow. Viola Dana died, on July 3, 1987, at the age of 90, in Woodland Hills, California. She was cremated, and her elegant urn rests in the Chapel Colonnade in Hollywood Forever Cemetery, alongside her father and her brother-in-law, director Harold Shaw (married to sister Edna from 1917 until his death in a car crash in 1926). Interestingly, her urn boasts the incorrect year of her birth (1889).
Her contributions to the motion picture industry were many: not only did she appear in almost 100 films, but she shared so much of her insight with future generations through a battery of oral histories. She was honored with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6541 Hollywood Boulevard. A gracious, elegant, and well-appreciated lady, Viola Dana will live on as one of the most beloved of the film pioneers … forever.