Clara Kimball Young was born Clarisa Kimball on September 6, 1890, to Edward Kimball and the former Mrs. E.M. Kimball, traveling stock company actors with the Holden Co. Though she claimed Chicago as her birthplace, there are no records of her being born in Cook County--which includes Chicago--and she may have been born on one of her parents' tours. Her parents lived in Benton Harbor, Michigan, where her birth name Clarisa changed from the 1890 census to Clairee in the one of 1900, though she once claimed her birth name was Edith.
Young Clarisa Kimball made her professional debut as an actress at the advanced age of three, touring with the Holden Co. with her parents and playing child parts in the company's repertoire. After attending Chicago's St. Francis Xavier Academy, she joined another traveling stock company that took her out west. She married actor James Young, and sometime between 1909 and 1912 they were both hired by the Vitagraph Co. Though she was making $75 a week in the stock company, she accepted Vitragraph's offer of an annual contract paying her $25 a week, as it was steady employment.
Though Clara made dozens of films at Vitagraph, few of them survive. In her early films she was quite charming, and these showcased her natural personality better than did her later dramas. A tall, dark-haired, full-figured gal who was a popular type in the early 20th century, Clara played both conventional leading ladies and light comedy I(at which she excelled). She quickly became a top star at Vitagraph, ranking 17th in a 1913 popularity poll of stars that was topped by Kalem's Alice Joyce.
Clara would soon knock Joyce off her perch atop the popularity charts. When Vitagraph supplemented its normal output of one- and two-reelers in 1914 and '15 with several longer feature films, it paired Young and the equally popular 'Earle Williams' as her leading man. One of their first collaborations, My Official Wife (1914)--a potboiler in the then-popular Russian aristocracy genre, propelled Young and Williams to the top rank of stardom in the polls. The movie, helmed by her husband, made him a major director.
Into this "Garden of Eden" arrived a serpent in the guise of producer Lewis J. Selznick, the vice president of the new World Film Corp., who signed Young to a personal contract in 1914 and proceeded to change her image into that of an unbridled sexpot. In that year's Lola (1914) (aka "Without a Soul"), which was directed by her husband, she played a decent woman who dies and is resurrected, unfortunately lacking a soul (like many producers before and since). Transformed into a "vamp", the heartless Lola sets out to destroy men, resulting in Clara conquering the box office with another huge hit that cemented her reputation as a superstar. Simultaneously, Selznick was destroying the equanimity of his leading lady's home life, leading her husband to remark ruefully to Mabel Normand, "[W]here I made my mistake was in ever inviting that fellow to the house."
In 1916 James Young filed a lawsuit against Selznick for alienation of affections, to which Selznick riposted that the marriage was troubled before he had arrived on the scene. Clara filed charges against her husband, charging cruelty, though eventually it was James Young who obtained a divorce on grounds of desertion on April 8, 1919 (bBy then the Selznick-Kimball Young relationship was on the rocks and in the courts, and there was another correspondent to the divorce).
After playing two man-eating vamps, Clara settled into a series of roles as the traditional hapless heroine whose travails are resolved with a conventional happy ending. She did, however, get to assay the title roles in Camille (1915) and Trilby (1915) with more tragic results, and she got to play some more decadent Russian hussies in Hearts in Exile (1915) and The Yellow Passport (1916).
Screenwriter Frances Marion, her longtime friend, reported that Clara was bored with her roles at World Film and resentful about Selznick's control over her private life. Like many a movie mogul before and since, Selznick was determined to create a public image for his star that matched the roles she played, that of a gloomy tragedienne.
Selznick was an ambitious man who had a habit of alienating his business partners (a trait that would trigger the failure of his last company in 1923). He was ousted as general manager of World Film in February 1916. Three months later he left formed the Clara Kimball Young Film Corp. to produce films for her with himself as president, and Selznick Productions Inc., to distribute both her films and those of independent production companies. Now with exclusive control of her career, Selznick seemed determined to turn her back into the sexpot he made her when he produced her first movie at World. Leaving behind the five-reelers, he launched her in seven-reel extravaganzas, dressed in fashionable wardrobe and parrying risqué subject matter in The Common Law (1916), The Foolish Virgin (1916), The Price She Paid (1915) and The Easiest Way (1917).
She had a falling-out with Selznick after the initial series of four films for the company named for her--but controlled by him--apparently due to the salaciousness of the subject matter and his complete control over her life and career. At this time she became associated with Detroit-based movie exhibitor Harry Garson, with whom she entered into a personal relationship, as she had earlier with Selznick. In February 1917 a knife-wielding James Young attacked Garson as he exited New York City's Astor Theater with his wife.
It was Garson, anxious to make the leap from exhibition to production that former exhibitors like Louis B. Mayer had accomplished, who apparently encouraged her legal campaign to become emancipated from Selznick. She filed a lawsuit against him in June 1917, charging the president of Clara Kimball Young Film Corp. with fraud. She alleged that Selznick had set up dummy corporations to hide profits and had elected himself president of her production company while not allowing her any input into its management. Publicly denying the charge, Selznick obtained an injunction forbidding her to appear in movies produced by any other company. Selznick counter-charged that Young was under the influence of Garson and planned to make films with him as director for her new lover's Garson Productions.
The ball now in her court, Clara announced to the press her plans to take complete control of her career, artistically and financially, by forming her own company. Bristling over her former mentor's turning her into a public sexpot, she announced that she would no longer make pictures that flouted the mores of the censorship boards. In the legal round robin that their troubles degenerated into, Selznick then sued Garson to keep Garson Productions from doing business with Selznick Enterprises, which had a contract to release Clara Kimball Young films. For his part, Garson claimed that Clara's contract with Selznick was broken due to the failure of Selznick's companies to produce and deliver her movies.
The machinations of Selznick nemesis Adolph Zukor, who would later force him into bankruptcy and out of the business in 1923, came into play. Zukor helped finance the formation of the C.K.Y. Film Corp. in August 1917, while secretly acquiring a 50% stake in Selznick's company. Zukor temporarily left Selznick in charge of the renamed Select Pictures Corp., which would release films produced by Young with her own C.K.Y. Film. Corp.
Clara, her parents and her "business manager" Garson moved to California in early 1918, and in June of that year they announced plans to build a studio. To build a stock company for this new studio, Garson hired Blanche Sweet and director Marshall Neilan, and named himself a producer. The output of C.K.Y. Film Corp. continued Selznick's practice of outfitting Clara in fancy duds, but the length of the "features" was cut back to five reels. Intended for an adult audience, the films starring Clara featured female characters who could think for themselves and make their own decisions--ironically a case of wishful thinking for this woman who had had not one but two Svengalis in her life within a short period. She did branch out beyond her Selznick-construed vamp image, though, and appeared in a few comedies, including Cheating Cheaters (1919), which was hailed for its ingenious plot and wonderful supporting performances. Unfortunately, none of the movies produced by C.K.Y Film Corp. have survived.
Conflict with Selznick reared its ugly head again in 1919, when C.K.Y. posted a legal notice as an advertisement in the January 11th issue of "Moving Picture World". In it, Clara declared, "I have this day served notice upon the C.K.Y. Film Corporation of the termination of all contract relations between that company and myself, because of several flagrant violations of the terms of the agreement under which motion pictures has been produced for distribution through the Select Pictures Corporation." The ad also stated that "Cheating Cheaters" would be the last film for the C.K.Y. Film Corp. Declaring themselves independent producers, C.K.Y. and Garson began shooting The Better Wife (1919).
Another legal donnybrook between Trilby and her penultimate Svengali ensued. Selznick claimed that C.K.Y. was under contract to the C.K.Y. Film Corp. until August 21, 1921, and that Select Pictures owned C.K.Y. Film. "The Better Wife" wound up being released by Select Pictures in July 1919, the same month that Equity Pictures Corp. was created to distribute Clara Kimball Young films produced by Garson Productions. Launching their first independent feature, Eyes of Youth (1919), Young placed another advertisement declaring she had her own independent production company. Equity got off to a strong start, as "Eyes of Youth" proved to be a huge hit, her biggest box-office smash since "My Official Wife" made her the top female star in motion pictures back in 1914. Arguably the best film she ever made, "Eyes of Youth" sported fashionable gowns and a first-rate supporting cast, including featured player Rudolph Valentino in his pre-superstar days, and featured high-quality production values. The film was heavily advertised, which paid off at the box office. Her success was short-lived, however, as Selznick launched another legal battle against her and Equity Pictures. His threats to sue exhibitors who showed "Eyes of Youth" forced many canceled bookings, causing Equity Pictures to ultimately sustain a loss despite its healthy box-office intake.
After the qualified success of "Eyes of Youth," Harry Garson decided he wanted to direct. An uninspired director whose control over the medium seemed to deteriorate with experience, he helmed Young's next nine films. The movies, with weaker scripts, turned out badly and the productions were hampered by a lack of capital. The decline of the quality of their films became so blatant that critics scored Garson and Young for the bad direction of her last two films. Young was always mature-looking, even in her youth, and the films contained characters who were supposed to be possessed of a youthful quality now alien to the actress. She had grown old on-screen, violating one of cinema's strongest taboos that still is in effect for actresses.
The "Roaring Twenties" proved her demise. The quality of her films had deteriorated to the point that her 1921 film, Hush (1921) was released on a "states rights" basis rather than as a road show, a sure sign of the waning appeal of the woman who was once the #1 female star in America. Exhibitors would not pay top dollar for her films, and the income from them was sure to drop, as under the "tates Rights" model, exhibitors could show a movie as many times as they wanted within their territory for a contracted period and would only have to pay the initial exhibition fee to the production company, instead of the usual system in which the studio got a percentage of the entire box office.
The financial fortunes of Equity took a hit when the courts held for Selznick, ruling that he was owed $25,000 for each of her next ten films. In addition to fighting Selznick's legal barrage, she was subjected to lawsuits by the Harriman National Bank and Fine Arts Film Corp. The fan magazine "Moving Picture World"' in a case of paid-for editorial content, featured many stories attesting to Young's continued popularity, sometimes accompanied with personal appeals from her to her fans to continue showing their support. By the time Equity released her last two films for the company, What No Man Knows (1921) and The Worldly Madonna (1922), her films had degenerated into the cheap, rushed look of what were known as "Poverty Row" productions. Equity Pictures and Garson Productions ceased to be functioning entities in 1922.
Paramount Pictures head Adolph Zukor reportedly offered Young a Paramount contract if she would promise to keep Harry Garson out of her career, but she refused and signed with Commonwealth Pictures Corp., owned by Samuel Zierler, who allowed her to bring along her favorite director, Garson. Samuel Zierler Photoplay Corp. was to be the producer of her films, which would be distributed by Commonwealth in the state of New York and by Metro Pictures in all other territories.
Times, however, were changing. Boyish figures on women became the rage during the Twenties, and Young had a figure from the late Victorian era, which combined with the mature appearance made her look older than she actually was, and in fact she came across as matronly. It was the time of jazz babies and flaming youth, and a more naturalistic style of acting that damned more florid players as Young as "old-fashioned." Furthermore, by the 1920s the movie industry was becoming more vertically and horizontally integrated. The days of the entrepreneur were through; until 'Burt Lancaster (I)' became a successful independent star-producer after World War II, Charles Chaplin proved to be the last movie star to form and run his own successful production company. Creating new companies to produce and distribute one's films, as Young did, was a difficult process to undertake in the best of times, and the early 1920s saw a decline at the box office due to a postwar recession and an over-expansion of production that did in C.K.Y.'s nemesis, Lewis J. Selznick himself. It was a Sisyphean task Young had set for herself, hampered by a rolling stone named Harry Garson.
Garson was only to direct one film for Zierler, The Hands of Nara (1922), an out-and-out debacle. He was booted upstairs as producer, and experienced directors were assigned to her films, such as the far more capable King Vidor. Trying to turn around the trajectory of a falling star is difficult, and the uneven quality of her new films hurt her, as did changing tastes. Critics and exhibitors, already derisive of an aging star playing young, began carping about overacting. "Variety," the show business bible, published a sort of pre-mortem, commenting on how deeply Young's star had gone into eclipse in just two years due to bad movies. A Wife's Romance (1923) was the last of her films released by Metro, though she would make one more silent picture, the independently produced Lying Wives (1925). Young tried the novel career move of playing a villain, opposite Madge Kennedy's heroine, but the film fared badly with the critics, and the silent film career of Clara Kimball Young was over.
The rest of the Roaring Twenties were spent in vaudeville and cashing in on her former stardom with personal appearances. She eventually ditched Harry Garson and married Dr. Arthur Fauman in 1928. With the advent of sound, RKO Pictures brought her out of retirement for a featured comic role in Kept Husbands (1931), but her attempt to rejuvenate her career was hampered by a public perception that she was a "has-been". She segued over to Poverty Row for lead roles in and Mother and Son (1931)for low-rent Monogram Pictures and Women Go on Forever (1931) for Tiffany Productions, a producer primarily of cheap "hoss operas" and for introducing James Whale to Hollywood with Journey's End (1930). This was the apogee of her career trajectory in talkies, being reduced to bit parts in Poverty Row productions and appearances as an extra in productions at the "major" studios. Her claim to fame at this stage of her career was her appearance in the classic The Three Stooges short Ants in the Pantry (1936).
Her husband Arthur died in 1937, one of a series of personal misfortunes that Young suffered in the 1930s. Her comeback was derailed by bad publicity, as the press chronicled the sad state she had sunk into, the former top box-office star reduced to bit parts and extra work. They had built her up, and now they tore her down, as Hollywood did love its clichés, this one the great star now has-been reduced to the career gutter, a morality play for the masses who read movie magazines.
Young began appearing in westerns, appearing with William Boyd in his "Hopalong Cassidy" series, and productions with Gene Autry and Richard Dix. She even appeared on the radio, but her attempts to make a go of it ultimately failed. Years later she quipped that "during the Depression I had half a mind to take up a tin cup and beg for alms." She announced her retirement in 1941, declaring, "I've been working since I was two years old, I think I deserve the chance to quit and just enjoy life."
Her last film work was in 1941, in bottom-of-the-barrel PRC's Mr. Celebrity (1941) (a.k.a. "Turf Boy"), in which she appeared as herself with another silent-screen-star/has-been, Francis X. Bushman. During the early days of television broadcasting, the major studios' embargo on selling films to TV and a lack of programming meant that many TV stations began airing silent movies to fill air time. Young's surviving silents began to be showcased, giving her a new notoriety. Once again in the public eye, she was interviewed and went on the personal appearance circuit again, this time attending film conventions. In 1956 CBS hired her as the Hollywood correspondent for the original The Johnny Carson Show (1955) that ran for a single season in 1955-56.
At the dawn of the 1960s, Young battled poor health and had to retire to the Motion Picture Home. Frances Marion, the Oscar-winning screenwriter who had remained her friend, said that Young told her, "I was worn out from the long journey, but I have found my way home."
Clara Kimball Young died on October 15, 1960, and was interred at the Grand View Memorial Park in Glendale, California, after a funeral attended by several hundred friends.