Friday, July 26, 2013


For a younger movie fan, it is hard to get into a silent movie. We are so used to the movies "talking" and doing all of the work for us. However, there is nothing like watching a silent movie. One of the great actresses to come out of that "silent" era was May McAvoy.

May was born at the turn of the century on September 8, 1899 in New York City. Her beauty was such that she dropped out of high school at the age of 17 to star in her first film Hate. Her well-to-do family owned and operated a large livery stable situated where the Waldorf-Astoria now stands. She initially wanted to be a teacher but became intrigued with show business after watching a friend rehearse a show at a nearby vaudeville theater. A model whose first job was a commercial for Domino Sugar, she moved into extra work in films and received her first major break with The Devil's Garden (1920) co-starring Lionel Barrymore. Stardom was hers, however, as the lead in Sentimental Tommy (1921), which led to a Paramount contract. A unassuming brunette, her petite frame and sweet-natured looks belied a surprisingly feisty, independent nature. When Cecil B. DeMille put a halt on her career in 1923 as punishment for refusing a role that required partial nudity, May assertively bought out her contract and freelanced for the next six years.

May's most well known silent film role today is as "Esther" in the 1925 Ramon Novarro version of  Ben-Hur, the most expensive silent film ever made. I first discovered May McAvoy in what is considered the first "talkie" movie, The Jazz Singer in 1927. May had the distinction of playing opposite Al Jolson although she did not have any speaking lines in that ground-breaking film. She did speak, however, in Warner's fourth part-talkie The Lion and the Mouse (1928) again working with Lionel Barrymore. May also starred in England's first all-talkie The Terror (1928).

There was a rumor that  May had quit Hollywood when talkies came about due to a speech impediment, but clearly this was false because she did appear in a handful of talkies. May was only married once, to the treasurer of United Artists, Maurice Cleary. They were married from 1929 until his death in 1973. They had one son named Patrick. It was Cleary who actually preferred that she not work.    

May McAvoy returned to minor film work for MGM in the 1940s and 1950s, but unfortunately she did not appear in anything memorable. It is a sad example of how little minded Hollywood is. May McAvoy made the movie industry a lot of money during the silent era - but the industry was pretty much silent when she tried to come back to movies. She made her last movie appearance in 1957. May McAvoy died in quiet retirement on April 26, 1984 from the side effects of a heart attack suffered the previous year. Petite at only four feet, eleven inches tall, weighing in at only eighty-nine pounds, the silent movie star May McAvoy never let her small stature interfere with her professional ambitions...


  1. Thanks for an interesting post. It's nice to know more about the actress who I only know of as Jolson's co-star.

  2. Sadly, this great artist, lies in an unmarked great. Very tragic.

  3. What happened to her son? She divorced in 1940.