Remembering Una Merkel on Her 114th Birthday…

In Herman Raucher‘s coming-of-age novel Summer of ’42, his teen-aged protagonist has a big crush not on Lana Turner, Betty Grable, or Rita Hayworth, but on Penny Singleton, best known for portraying Blondie, wife to Arthur Lake‘s Dagwood in a long series of comic B-pictures.

We have a similar little thing for Una Merkel, whose 114th birthday it is today. Una came to specialize in playing second bananas, but she was certainly not without her own charms, not the least of which was her Southern drawl.

Here are 10 things you should know about Una Merkel

Una Merkel—Picture Saver

This interview with Una Merkel originally appeared in the May 1935 edition of Movie Classic magazine.

Talent, combined with a marvelous
disposition, keeps this charming
young player the busiest actress
in Hollywood

By ROBERT FENDER

Una MerkelTHERE’S a girl in Hollywood known to directors and writers as “the pulmotor girl.” Does that mean anything to you? It didn’t to me, either, until I started thinking of those things used by firemen, lifeguards and physicians known as pulmotors. They’re the emergency machines employed to bring nearly dead people back to life.

Just so, when writers have a nearly dead story on their hands, they write in a part for this girl. And when directors see their pictures expiring dead away, they broadcast a frantic call for this very same girl. She’ll save it if it can be saved, they cry. Get her. And get her right now!

The “her” in this case, as anyone in Hollywood will tell you, is a charming little person with blonde ringlets in her hair, a twinkle in her eyes and a great heart tucked away inside her. Her name is Una Merkel. And she’s perhaps the most universally loved girl in town. Certainly she’s the busiest.

If you saw Una in a Hollywood crowd (say at a preview), you couldn’t pick her out if your life depended upon it. But ten to one she would be the young lady on your left who, on very tip-toe was jockeying for a better position to see the movie stars pass by. For Una is the most confirmed and ardent movie fan in town. She is, to my knowledge, the only one who saves all the programs of all the shows she attends—yes, and makes tiny penciled notes on the margins about players she likes best and why.

Una is so necessary to directors and ailing pictures, I suppose, because she is the only one of her kind in town. She is no more “movie actress” than you. Her unaffected laugh, tinkly and delightful to hear, differs from the average star’s studied “abandon” as a child’s laughter differs from the wearied old man’s croak. She is youth itself, mighty good for the soul, and she’ll continue to be young no matter how many years pile up on her.

“There’s so much,” she told me in her tiny feminine dressing room at M-G-M, “to be happy for. There’s so much to laugh about. Do you see that big building next door? Well, next week I’m going to have a grand big new dressing room.”

“Moving you over there, Una?”

Una laughed. “Oh, Heavens no,” she cried. “That’s going to be for the big stars. But they’ll leave their dressing rooms here and they’re going to give me a bigger one in this building. And they’re going to let me furnish it. Just as I like!” she finished, evidently carried away in high glee.

“Don’t you want to be a big star, Una?”

Una burst out laughing. “Me a star? Do you know any more funny ones?” Then she wrinkled her cute little brow and indulged in some thinking. “But,” she began, “but—even if I could, I don’t think I would. The other night I was trying to think what I’d rather be than myself and I couldn’t think of anything. Not,” she hurried, “that I think I’m pretty good but simply that I’m—I’m so darned happy!

“I love my husband, Ronnie Burla, and he loves me. I get more pleasure out of my work than anyone in Hollywood. There’s just one thing that worries me and that is that there are so many people who don’t share my good luck. I feel so sorry for people who don’t seem to have anything. I wish there was some better way of distributing money and happiness.

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Happy 112th Birthday, Una Merkel!

In Herman Raucher‘s coming-of-age novel Summer of ’42, his teenaged protagonist (perhaps not coincidentally named … Hermie) has a big crush not on Lana Turner, Betty Grable, or Rita Hayworth, but on Penny Singleton, best known for portraying Blondie, wife to Arthur Lake‘s Dagwood in a long series of comic B-pictures.

Hermie was a little bit embarrassed by his preference in movie stars, but he figured there was not as much competition that way.

We have a similar little thing for Una Merkel, whose 112th birthday it is today. Una came to specialize in playing wise (and sometimes wisecracking), loyal second bananas to the leading ladies in films of the Pre-Code Era, but she was certainly not without her own charms, not the least of which was her Southern drawl.

Una Merkel

Ironically enough, it was Una who was first slated to play Blondie in that popular series of films before the role was finally awarded to Singleton.

Merkel was born Una Kohnfelder in Covington, Kentucky (we’ve long wondered at the choice of Merkel to replace Kohnfelder. It doesn’t seem the typical choice for a studio-concocted screen name) and began her career in silent movies. She’s listed in some sources as having appear in a 1924 short called Love’s Old Sweet Song and a feature film produced in Texas that same year called The Fifth Horseman. This now-lost (and good riddance) picture was an entry in the then-active genre of pro-Ku Klux Klan films, so perhaps the less said about it, the better. (We hope and trust our Una was just in it for the money.)

Merkel is said to have resembled Lillian Gish during the early years of her career, and she served as her stand-in for a while (on the 1928 classic The Wind, among others). After some time on Broadway, she was back before the cameras, portraying Anne Rutledge in D. W. Griffith‘s 1930 biopic, Abraham Lincoln.

As the years passed, Merkel got to stretch out a bit and her career showed staying power (her final role final role was in 1968, on the popular television program I Spy). Along the way, she appeared in Jean Harlow‘s final picture, Saratoga (1937), indulged in a hair-pulling catfight with Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), and even appeared in the 1961 Disney comedy The Parent Trap as the Evers’ family’s housekeeper.

But our crush stems from her work in the 1930s, when she was every glamour gal’s best pal in movies such as Red-Headed Woman, 42nd Street, and Bombshell.

Here’s a scene from the latter picture, featuring our Una opposite Harlow and Louise Beavers.

This is a revised version of a post that was originally published on Dec 10, 2013.

Happy Birthday, Una Merkel!

In Herman Raucher‘s coming-of-age novel Summer of ’42, his protagonist (coincidentally named … Hermie) has a big crush not on Lana Turner, Betty Grable, or Rita Hayworth, but on Penny Singleton, best known for portraying Blondie, wife to Arthur Lake‘s Dagwood in a long series of comedy B-pictures.

Hermie was a little bit embarrassed by his preference in movie stars, but he figured there was not as much competition that way.

We have a similar little thing for Una Merkel, whose 110th birthday it is today. Una came to specialize in playing wise and loyal second bananas to the leading ladies in romantic comedies, but she was certainly not without her own charms, not the least of which was her Southern drawl (she was born and raised in Kentucky).

Ironically enough, it was Una who was first slated to play Blondie before the role was finally awarded to Singleton.

Una enjoyed a lengthy career that began on Broadway before she started working in pictures in the late silent era. Her final role was in 1968, opposite Bill Cosby and Robert Culp on the popular television program I Spy.

But our crush stems from her work in the 1930s, when she was the glamour girl’s best pal in movies such as Red-Headed Woman, 42nd Street, and Bombshell.

Here’s a scene from the latter picture, featuring our Una opposite Jean Harlow and Louise Beavers.

Watching the stars come out

We have a grand time when we visit Los Angeles (pronounce it “Angle-eez,” with the hard G, if you please). As movie buffs, we get a kick out of just driving around the various neighborhoods and imagining who once lived in the bungalows we’re passing. Lucille Ball, f’rinstance.

Then there are the more substantial residences that the familiar stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood moved into, once they’d hit it big.

In our several trips to Tinsel Town, we’ve never taken one of the commercial tours of the stars’ homes, but we suspect they tend to focus on the abodes of contemporary stars—Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Justin Bieber—at the expense of the former residences of your Humphrey Bogarts, your Bette Davises, your Una Merkels. And who can blame them? It’s always good policy to give the people what they want, and we who are more interested in seeing where and how the stars of yesteryear lived are undeniably in the minority.

There are guidebooks that provide pointers that allow us to catch a glimpse of where Bogart, Davis, and Merkel lived, worked, and played, of course (we’re partial to Richard Alleman’s Hollywood: The Movie Lover’s Guide: The Ultimate Insider Tour of Movie L.A.), but what if one doesn’t have the wherewithal (or accrued vacation days) to to arrange a Southern California sojorn?

In that case, one turns, as one tends to do these days, to the internet—specifically to Image-Archeology.com and their collection of vintage linen postcards that depict the residences of those performers who made our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents laugh, cry and tap their toes (though not simultaneously).

Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’
home, Pickfair
Jean Harlow’s Beverily Hills residence Claudette Colbert’s hilltop residence
in Hollywood

At this delightful site, one can gaze upon a palatial Hancock Park home while imagining Buster Keaton stepping out to pick up the morning paper, compare contrast two of Groucho Marx‘s Beverly Hills homes, and kill two birds with one stone as you assess the love nest once blissfully shared by a pair of stars who were married once upon a time, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell.

And the list goes on—Myrna Loy, Harold Lloyd, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck; one could grow breathless reciting them. All the cards, from A to Z (well, A to Y—Loretta Young is the last star on the list) are in terrific shape and lovingly presented. We encourage all our readers to experience a little California sunshine by spending some time there.