Karl Dane (born Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb, 12 October 1886 – 14 April 1934) was a Danish-American comedian and actor known for his work in American films, mainly of the silent film era. He became a star after portraying “Slim”, a supporting role in one of the most successful silent films of all time, The Big Parade (1925), directed by King Vidor and starring John Gilbert.
After signing with MGM in 1926, he appeared in supporting roles in several popular silent films before teaming up with George K. Arthur to form the successful comedy duo Dane & Arthur. They appeared in a number of silent, short comedy films and toured the vaudeville circuit. At the peak of his career, Dane earned $1500 a week. As the film industry transitioned from silent to sound films in the late 1920s, Dane’s thick Danish accent became problematic. By 1930, Dane was relegated to less prominent roles, often with little to no dialogue. Later that year, MGM terminated his contract. Dane attempted to pursue work in other fields but found no success. Broke and despondent, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in April 1934.
Karl Dane’s rapid career decline, depression and subsequent death have been cited as an extreme example of the fate that befell many silent film stars who were unable to make the transition from silent to sound films.
Dane was born Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb (not Karl Daen as sometimes reported) in Turesensgade 23 in central Copenhagen, Denmark to Rasmus Carl Marius Gottlieb and Anne Cathrine (née Simonsen) Gottlieb. He had two brothers: Reinald Marius and Viggo Eiler. His parents’ marriage was apparently stormy, with his father having trouble with alcohol and money management. In 1903, Dane’s parents divorced, leaving him in the custody of his mother. His father was a glove maker by trade but enjoyed the theatre. Around the start of the 20th century, he built a toy theatre which people began to pay to see; during this time, Dane and his brother Reinald would perform for the crowds. His father worked as a curtain puller at the local theatre, to which his two sons accompanied him. Dane later said this would inspire him to act. In 1900, Dane and his brother apprenticed as machinists, a job he would perform on and off throughout his life. In 1907, he began compulsory military service in the First Artillery Battalion. He was promoted to lance corporal in June 1908. After being discharged from the military, he married dressmaker Carla Dagmar Hagen on 10 September 1910. The marriage produced two children: Ejlert Carl (born March 1911) and Ingeborg Helene (July 1912). With the outbreak of World War I, Dane was recalled up to duty; he was stationed again at Trekroner Fort in August 1914. He was promoted to corporal in November 1915.
On 25 January 1916, Dane headed for the United States alone. He intended to send for his family later. He boarded the SS Oscar II with $25 in his pocket and speaking no English. The ship arrived on 11 February 1916 at Ellis Island. Dane passed immigrant inspection and moved to 345 Court Street in Brooklyn with a friend named Charles Lindgren. The same day, he found work in a foundry. Sometime in 1916 he moved to Lincoln, Nebraska where he worked as an auto mechanic. By summer 1917, he returned to New York City where he again worked as a mechanic.
In late 1917, Dane made his film début in a bit part in a Vitagraph Studios short filmed in Fort Lee, New Jersey. He made $3 a day (as a mechanic he had been making $3 a week) for his part. However, his scenes were cut and the title of this film is not known. Any footage is presumed lost. Dane then appeared in Warner Bros. anti-German sentiment film My Four Years in Germany as Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg. This would be the first of many such roles for Dane in his early career. The film was released 29 April 1918 and was a success, earning an approximate $500,000 at the box office (the film had a budget of $50,000). His next film was Wolves of Kultur which contained 15 chapters (running about three hours total). The film was released chapter by chapter between 1918 and 1919. He then followed with the June Mathis-penned film To Hell with the Kaiser!, reprising his role as Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg. Dane completed two more anti-German propaganda style films, The Great Victory, Wilson or the Kaiser? The Fall of the Hohenzollerns and Daring Hearts, both released in 1919. In 1920, Dane portrayed “The Wolf” in another 15-chapter serial The Whirlwind. That film is now presumed lost.
In early 1921, Dane met a Swedish immigrant named Helen Benson. He then quit acting and moved with Benson to Van Nuys, California, where they opened a chicken farm. They married on 15 June 1921. On 9 August 1923, Benson died in childbirth as did the couple’s daughter. In December 1923, Dane ran into his old friend Charles Hutchison who convinced him to appear in a serial he was then producing.
In December 1924, MGM casting director Robert McIntyre — who had previously hired Dane back at Vitagraph — recommended the actor for a role in King Vidor’s latest project, The Big Parade. Dane was selected to play the part of Slim, alongside John Gilbert and Renée Adorée. The movie was a major success, both critically and financially, becoming the second highest grossing silent film of all time, making almost $6.5 million (approximately $100,698,000 today). As a consequence, Dane’s career blossomed.
In 1926, he co-starred with Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Bánky in The Son of the Sheik. The film was a released after Valentino’s death in August 1926 and became a massive success. It was re-released several more times well into the late 1930s. After working on The Son of the Sheik, Dane signed a contract with MGM in June 1926. He began to appear in comic relief roles in several films including The Scarlet Letter (directed by Victor Sjöström and starring Lillian Gish), La Bohème (again directed by Vidor, and starring Gish, Gilbert and Adorée), and Alias Jimmy Valentine with William Haines and Leila Hyams.
Dane & Arthur
Soon after signing his MGM contract, Dane began work on the Vidor film, Bardelys the Magnificent. It was on this film that MGM executive Harry Rapf decided to team Dane with English actor George K. Arthur as a comedic duo. Together they were dubbed Dane & Arthur. In May 1927, the duo’s first film, Rookies, opened and was an instant success. In June 1927, MGM signed Dane to a long-term contract, making such films as Detectives, Circus Rookies, and The Trail of ’98. In April 1928, Dane broke his shoulder on set. He developed a serious case of bronchial pneumonia but eventually recovered and went back to work on the duo’s films. At the peak of his success and popularity, Dane earned $1500 a week.
Talkies and decline
Dane & Arthur’s last silent short was Detectives in 1928. On 23 December 1928 their first talkie, Brotherly Love was released. By this time, sound films were rising in popularity and MGM was worried that actors with thick foreign accents would not be ideal for sound films. In his memoirs, George K. Arthur claimed that after MGM tested the duo for sound films, they felt his British accent was “more desirable” and thought Dane’s thick Danish accent made his English difficult for audiences to understand. As a result, MGM began offering Dane fewer roles. Dane & Arthur made only six more talkies, ending with China Bound in 1929.
In 1930, Dane had a supporting role in Montana Moon, a musical Western starring Joan Crawford and Johnny Mack Brown. He followed with another supporting role (in which he had no dialogue) in the prison drama The Big House, starring Robert Montgomery, Wallace Beery and Chester Morris. Later that year, MGM terminated Dane’s contract citing his Danish accent. In his final interview in September 1933, Dane claimed that MGM wanted to renew his contract but he declined as he had suffered a nervous breakdown. Dane admitted that he had found it difficult to transition from silent to sound films due to his accent, but also said that he was exhausted from years of constant filming and was grieving the death of his father who died in September 1930.
In December 1930, Paramount offered Dane & Arthur a twenty-three-week Publix Theatre vaudeville tour. The pair had made a few shorts for Paramount and RKO as well. The partnership ended with the end of the vaudeville tour. After the tour ended in November 1931, Dane and some friends formed a mining corporation called Avelina Mines. The venture failed. By February 1932, Dane had returned to vaudeville, this time as a solo comedic act. His act was panned by critics and apparently short-lived. Dane’s final film appearance was a bit role as a dispatcher in the 1933 thriller The Whispering Shadow, starring Bela Lugosi.
Dane became an American citizen on 13 July 1928 and legally changed his name to Karl Dane.
Marriages and relationships
Dane’s first marriage was to Carla Dagmar Hagen. The couple married 10 September 1910 at Saint Paul’s Church in Copenhagen. Dane’s only living children were born during this union; son Ejlert Carl, in 1911 and daughter Ingeborg Helene in 1912. When Dane immigrated to the US, in 1916, he intended to send for his family later. However, by the time his career became successful, Dane had begun to lose touch with his family. Carla no longer wanted to join him, as she was suffering from ill health. The pair separated in 1918 and divorced in 1919.
In early 1921, Dane met Swedish immigrant Helen Benson. It was then he quit films and moved to Van Nuys. The couple married on 15 June 1921. Benson died in childbirth 9 August 1923, as did the couple’s daughter. Unable to cope with the loss of his wife and daughter, Dane rushed into a marriage with telephone operator supervisor Emma Awilda Peabody Sawyer, seven years his senior. The couple married on 8 March 1924, and separated on 30 September 1924.
In June 1928, Dane reportedly fell in love with a Russian dancer, Thais Valdemar. The couple began dating and eventually claimed to be married though they indeed never were (many sources incorrectly state that she was his legal wife). The couple lived together at Dane’s Beverly Hills home, until November 1928, when Valdemar moved out. By December, she filed a breach of promise suit against Dane for $75,000, but the case was ultimately dropped in 1929.
Later years and death
By the summer of 1933, Dane had given up on his film career and made a second attempt at mining. He spent three months driving up and down the West Coast trying to find a good mining deal. In September 1933, Dane lost $1,100 on a mining deal that failed to gain traction and advance. Deeply depressed by this lack of success, Dane subsequently worked as a mechanic and as a carpenter, but he was unable to stay employed for an extended period.
In 1933, Dane began working as a waiter in a “tiny cafe” in Westwood, Los Angeles. According to Dane’s biographer, Laura Petersen Balough, oft told accounts that Dane “bought stake in a hot dog stand outside the gates of MGM Studios” which was supposedly shunned by his former co-workers are likely false. The “hot dog stand” or “hot dog cart” that is often referred to was actually similar to a luncheonette, a small, permanent structure that had a counter and seating for patrons. Dane eventually bought a stake in the cafe after the owner thought that having a former film star as a co-owner would drum up business. Dane’s former comedy partner, George K. Arthur, mentioned Dane’s final venture in his memoir:
… Another man might have kidded and clowned and made a feature of being “mine host” in a restaurant, but when Karl opened his hot dog stand in Westwood his own feeling of despair must have been served across the counter with the hamburgers. People could not bear to watch it. So they didn’t come to buy his hamburgers.
By 1934, Dane’s restaurant venture had failed and he was once again unemployed and broke. He then tried to seek work as carpenter or as an extra at MGM and Paramount Pictures. He was reportedly turned down for extra work because his body type and look were too distracting.
On 13 April 1934, Dane was pickpocketed of all the money he had: $18. On 14 April, he was to meet his friend, Frances Leake, with whom he planned to see a movie. After he failed to show, Leake became worried. She went to his apartment (at 626 South Burnside Avenue) and with the assistance of the landlady, they were able to open the door. There they found Dane, dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, in his chair with a gun at his feet. Leake fainted at the scene. When she was revived, Leake found Dane’s suicide note on a nearby table, next to a scrapbook filled with memorabilia, including photos, reviews and contracts, from his acting career. The note read, “To Frances and all my friends-goodbye.”
No friends or relatives came forward to claim Karl Dane’s body. Police tagged his body with the note, “May have relatives in Denmark. Hold for awhile”. For the next few days, authorities attempted to find his family, even placing ads in major Copenhagen newspapers. However, the Gottliebs did not find out about Dane’s death until weeks later. Fellow Danish actor Jean Hersholt stepped forward and insisted MGM pay for a funeral and burial. MGM agreed and, on 18 April, held a public funeral for Dane. There were around fifty attendees. Hersholt was a pallbearer as was Tom O’Brien. Dane was interred at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. At the time of his death, Dane’s estate was valued at $197.
Many of Dane’s films still exist today and a few are available on DVD including Son of the Sheik, The Big Parade, and The Whispering Shadow. Bardelys the Magnificent was thought lost, but most of the film has been found. It has been restored and released on DVD. Of the seven Dane & Arthur shorts, five still exist.
Dane received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to film, which is located at 6140 Hollywood Blvd (located in front of the Henry Fonda Music Box Theater).
Renewed interest has been shown in Dane’s career, especially in his native Denmark. On 12 October 2006, Danish weekly paper FOKUS published an article on Dane to commemorate what would have been his 120th birthday. In February 2007, an issue of the monthly Classic Images (#380) included an article on Dane. In the July 2007 biannual publication The Bridge (Volume 30 Number 1 2007), published by the Danish American Heritage Society, featured an article on Dane. In December 2007, the Danish Film Festival Kosmorama published an article about Dane in their newsletter.
On 28 January 2008, the Danish Film Institute held a ‘Karl Dane Retrospective’ in Copenhagen, Denmark. A speech was given by Laura Petersen Balogh and featured clips from Dane’s films followed by a screening of one of his features. The event was attended by some of Dane’s descendants. In 2009, a biography about Dane written by Balogh was released through McFarland & Company.
|1918||My Four Years in Germany||Chancellor von Bethmana-Hollweg|
|1918||The Triumph of Venus||Mars|
|1918||Her Final Reckoning||Prince Tcheretoff|
|1918||To Hell with the Kaiser!||Von Hollweg|
|1919||The Fall of the Hohenzollerns||Von Bethmann Hollweg|
|1919||Daring Hearts||Lieutenant Von Bergheim|
|1919||The Whirlwind||The Wolf||Lost film|
|1925||The Big Parade||Slim|
|1925||Lights of Old Broadway||Roosevelt’s Father||Alternative title: Little Old New York|
|1926||The Scarlet Letter||Master Giles|
|1926||Bardelys the Magnificent||Rodenard|
|1927||The Red Mill||Captain Jacop Van Goop|
|1927||Slide, Kelly, Slide||Swede Hansen|
|1928||Baby Mine||Oswald Hardy|
|1928||The Trail of ’98||Lars Petersen|
|1928||Circus Rookies||Oscar Thrust|
|1928||Alias Jimmy Valentine||Swede|
|1929||The Duke Steps Out||Barney, Duke’s Chauffeur|
|1929||China Bound||Sharkey Nye|
|1929||Navy Blues||Sven Swanson|
|1929||The Hollywood Revue of 1929||Himself|
|1930||The Big House||Olsen|
|1930||Billy the Kid||Swenson||Alternative title: The Highwayman Rides|
|1931||A Put Up Job|
|1931||Dumbbells in Derbies|
|1931||Lime Juice Nights|
|1933||The Whispering Shadow||Sparks (dispatcher)|