Who knew that the woman who inspired Betty Boop was raised in an Irish household? From glamorous baby-talking sweethearts like Helen Kane to tough-guy Mafioso duo James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, these actors together create the definition of “Hollywood Star.” It comes as no surprise that their thickest connecting string is an Irish one.
Mary Pickford (1892-1979)
Though this true pioneer of a Hollywood actress was awarded the honorary title of “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford attributes many of her values and character inspirations to her Irish roots. Throughout her career she would recall stories and memories from her mother’s poverty-stricken upbringing in county Kerry, Ireland in order to build connections with her roles, which were typically those of young, honest, penniless female Irish immigrants or Irish-Americans (titles include “The Foundling” (1915), “Little Annie Rooney” (1925) and “Amarilly of Clothes-line Alley” (1918)). With a cunning, confident feminine presence mixed with an innocent “girl-next-door” quality, Pickford carved her way through the male-dominated Hollywood industry, becoming the most highly paid woman in the world by age 27—before women were even allowed to vote. Her subtleties in body language and facial gestures are known to have influenced Charlie Chaplin, with whom she had a close relationship, as they were both revered in the silent film era. In a 1965 interview for American television, Pickford noted that she and other Irish actors of the early Hollywood era stuck together and maintained a strong connection. Sometimes endearingly called “the girl with curls” for her characteristic ringlets of red hair, Pickford was admired for her beauty, but more importantly for her originality, passion and intelligence in claiming Hollywood her own.
Chauncey Olcott (1858-1932)
Though originally from New York, performer Chancellor Olcott, more informally known as Chauncey, made a successful and celebrated career inspired by his Irish descent. Debuting in 1880 as a ballad singer in minstrel shows, Olcott went on to find fame on Broadway, having played the role of acclaimed actress Lillian Russell’s leading man in “Pepita; or, The Girl with the Glass Eyes” (1886). Though Russell is credited with having started Olcott’s career, he went on to find a stronger passion in romantic musicals. Most notably, he starred in “A Romance of Athlone” (1899) and “The Isle O’Dreams” (1912), for which he wrote and composed numbers “My Wild Irish Rose” and “When Irish Eyes are Smiling,” respectively. His unfortunate death in 1932 catalyzed posthumous recognitions: Warner Bros. released a film titled “My Wild Irish Rose (1947)” about his life (starring Dennis Morgan), and Olcott was later inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. With a powerful yet sweet, delicate voice, Olcott sang and danced his way to stardom using his Irish roots as fuel, and continued to maintain high reverence after his death.
Charlie Chaplin (1889-1997)
To be fair, film icon and master of silent film Charlie Chaplin is not of Irish descent. However, interestingly enough, starting in 1959 he began to take his family on yearly vacations to the village of Waterville in County Kerry, Ireland, quickly becoming their most beloved visitor. The English actor/figure is perhaps most widely known for his screen persona “The Tramp” in all his slapstick glory. In between directing, acting in, writing, producing, editing and composing the score for manifold famous works unrelated to Ireland, Chaplin always did manage to find time in each year to visit beautiful Waterville. His fourth wife, Oona O’Neill, daughter of Pulitzer-Prize-winning Irish American playwright Eugene O’Neill, is of close Irish descent, so while Chaplin may not be Irish, his children with Oona have roots in the Emerald Isle. Touched by his commitment to vacationing there, residents of Waterville erected a bronze statue of Chaplin, with a plaque thanking him for his ritual visits. It reads, in Irish and in English, “For the man who made the movies speak in the hearts of millions[,] Charlie spent many years in our midst as a humble guest and friend to many.” In the statue he wears a comedic poorly buttoned suit, and stands with a quirky hand on his hip and typical expressive smile.
Helen Kane (1904-1966)
Helen Kane, our beloved original “Boop Boop a Doop Girl,” likely the inspiration for iconic cartoon Betty Boop, also came from an Irish home. Kane’s mother, an Irish immigrant, helped her daughter into minor stardom by reluctantly purchasing her first costume for the role of the queen in a school production—with money tight, a dress of three dollars seemed an ordeal. But perhaps we can give thanks to this dress and play as the reason Kane fell in love with theater—she quickly made a beeline for vaudeville and kickdancing, easing her way into the world of Hollywood and Broadway in films and plays such as “Stars of the Future” (1922-24) with her young baby-talk voice as her trademark. She made quite a name for herself in music—of all of her soundtracks, solo performances and songs with her trio “The Three X Sisters,” Kane is recognized mostly for her track “I Wanna be Loved By You,” which was later performed by Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot.” With her trademark doe eyes and pouty lips, Kane became a scatting, singing, flapping, acting, dancing, baby-talking extraordinaire with lovable grace and glamor. Who would have guessed that Betty Boop’s inspiration came from an Irish household?
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