Classic Movie Travels: Nell O’Day – California
While the Golden Age of Hollywood has stars that are iconic to this day, some are more underrated. After viewing the restoration of King of Jazz (1930), many up-and-coming performers–some of whom were already established vaudevillians–caught my eye. In addition to the likes of Jeanette Loff and Marion Stadler, Nell O’Day also brought a fine enthusiasm to the screen.
Nell Roach was born on September 22, 1909, in Prairie Hill, Texas, to Edward E. Roach and Mildred Livonia McClellan Roach. Nell’s mother descended from Elder John Parker, who was massacred at Fort Parker, Texas. Cynthia Ann Parker, his granddaughter, was captured, raised with the Comanche Indians, and became the mother of Quanah Parker, last chief of the Comanche Indians.
She began her career in the entertainment industry as a child dancer in the early 1920s, taking on the stage name of Nell O’Day. According to the 1920 census, the family was comprised of Mildred in addition to O’Day’s older sister, Isabella, and O’Day. Edward had passed away in 1918.
Upon leaving Texas, Mildred was working in a photography studio, while O’Day was employed in public theater. In the same decade, O’Day would find herself performing with the Tommy Atkins Sextet and carrying out her first on-screen roles. This led to a part in King of Jazz (1930) in addition to a role in a stage play, Fine and Dandy, with dancer Eleanor Powell.
O’Day’s first starring role was in Rackety Rax (1932) alongside Victor McLaglen and Greta Nissan. She followed this with several comedy shorts opposite Harry Langdon and more secondary parts in feature films, including This Side of Heaven (1934), Woman in the Dark (1934), and The Road to Ruin (1934). She would also make a small number of Western films during the same period.
By the 1940s, O’Day was becoming a regular in Western films and started to receive starring roles in them, typically opposite the likes of Johnny Mack Brown, Ray “Crash” Corrigan, Max Terhune, and John ‘Dusty’ King. Thanks to her experience as a talented equestrian, she signed a contract with Universal and fulfilled a recurring cowgirl role in a series of hoss operas opposite star Brown and his sidekick, Fuzzy Knight. She would also appear in Westerns for other studios, including Republic and Monogram. Her last starring Western role would be in Boss of Rawhide (1943).
O’Day began to express an interest in writing plays and screenplays. She co-wrote The Monster Maker (1944) with her first husband, Larry Williams, but only Williams received screen credit. Neither she nor Williams was ever paid for the screenplay.
Though O’Day occasionally performed on stage, she retired in 1945 after performing in the Broadway’s Many Happy Returns. She made one more movie, a non-Western, entitled The Story of Kenneth W. Randall M.D. (1946). O’Day then devoted her time to writing. One of her successes was the play The Bride of Denmark Hill, which was later turned into a BBC-TV production.
O’Day would write and grant interviews until the end of her life at age 79. She died from a heart attack on January 3, 1989, in Los Angeles, California. Her burial location is unknown.
Today, there are few tributes to O’Day that remain.
Her family home in 1920 stood at 282 S. Rampart Blvd in Los Angeles, California. Today, the location is a strip mall.
While the 1920s home no longer stands, her residence in 1940 remains. At that time, she lived in the El Cerrito apartments, located at 1800 El Cerrito Pl in Los Angeles, California.
Due to the fact that so few locations remain, the best way to enjoy her work is to view her filmography and read her interviews.
–Annette Bochenek for Classic Movie Hub
Annette Bochenek pens our monthly Classic Movie Travels column. You can read all of Annette’s Classic Movie Travel articles here.
Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a PhD student at Dominican University and an independent scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for Classic Movie Hub, she also writes for Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco SocietyMagazine.
I have always thought that Universal left money on the table by not starring Nell in her own western series. She was so good in the Johnny Mack Brown films and she would have been an inspiration to young female western fans. Thanks for the research and article.