Marie Osborne, who has died aged 99, was an actress. The name Baby Marie will mean nothing to most people and seems strikingly incongruous for a woman who was just a year short of her century.
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Baby Marie made her film debut around 1914 when she was just two and she had her own film company by the time she was six. She predates Jackie Coogan and she had a very good claim to being cinema’s first child star.
Variously styled as Baby Marie, Baby Osborne and Baby Marie Osborne (and not to be confused with the later Baby Rose Marie), she appeared in around 30 films between 1914 and 1919, by which time she was hardly a baby any more.
She, or rather her family, commanded big fees. She reputedly made $1000 a week, she had her own chauffeur-driven limousine and toy dolls were made in her image in a pioneering merchandising deal. But she never parlayed her early success into adult or even teenage roles and her career as a film star was over years before the arrival of the talkies.
She retired at the age of eight. However, after completing her education, she returned to the industry, signed up with Central Casting as an extra, served as a stand-in for Ginger Rogers and other stars and, later, worked in the costume department on big studio movies, including Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), The Way We Were (1973) and The Godfather Part II (1974).
Born Helen Alice Myres, in Denver, Colorado, she was adopted by Leon and Edyth Osborn (sic), who moved to California soon afterwards to work in movies. They found employment at the Balboa Studios at Long Beach, which rivalled Hollywood as a production centre. The Osborns took the baby with them, which apparently led her to being cast or, perhaps more accurately, used in the role of a baby boy in a short film, The Maid of the Wild, released in 1915.
Henry King, the star and director of The Maid of the Wild, was charmed by the wide-eyed infant, who could produce tears and smiles on cue, and he decided that audiences would be similarly charmed.
Little Mary Sunshine (1916) was written specifically for her. King played a jilted, disillusioned fiance, with a drink problem. He takes the little girl under his wing when the child’s drunken father beats her mother to death and she, too, is left alone in the world. It is one of her few early films to survive.
Very soon she was Balboa’s biggest star, figuratively speaking, and King became her regular co-star and director. The Osborn family set up their own film production company, the Diando Film Corporation, when Baby Marie was at the height of her fame and popularity, and they made a string of dramas and comedies, including The Little Patriot (1917), Daddy’s Girl (1918) and Miss Gingersnap (1919).
By that time she was getting too old to go on playing babies and she retired from films. Her adoptive parents seemed to be competing to work their way through her fortune as quickly as possible, as both Baby Marie’s career and their marriage headed for the rocks. In 1920, one American publication ran a cautionary tale entitled “How Baby Marie’s Big Salary Ruined Her Happy Home”.
She married at 19 and had a daughter, but the marriage was short-lived. Desperate for money, she worked as a shop assistant. She found out all at once that she was adopted, that her birth father had just died and that he had left her a significant sum.
Eventually she returned to the film industry with the help of her former mentor, Henry King, who cast her in small roles in several films, including the 19th century romantic comedy House of Connelly (1934).
She was Ginger Rogers’s stand-in in Change of Heart and The Gay Divorcee (both 1934) and worked through the late 1930s and most of the 1940s as an extra and stand-in, doubling for Deanna Durbin and Betty Hutton, as well as Rogers. She also got married for a second time, to an actor named Murray Yeats, who appeared in small roles in a number of films in the 1940s.
In the early 1950s, she switched direction, worked in costumes and became a costume supervisor at 20th Century-Fox, where she helped dress Elizabeth Taylor for Cleopatra (1963). The Godfather Part II was one of her last films. Her husband died in 1975 and she retired in 1976. In 1999, film historian Billy Doyle interviewed her and wrote: “Her contributions to the film industry give her an almost legendary status as one of the last living witnesses of the crucial early years when Hollywood rose to a position of international importance.”
She is survived by her daughter Joan and five grandchildren.