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Karie (site owner) Written by Karie (site owner)
Nov. 23, 2009 | 10:39 PM

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An interview with biographer Laura Petersen Balogh, author of Karl Dane: A Biography & Filmography

When did you first become interested in silent films?

I’ve been a silent film fan ever since I was in 4th grade. My teacher wrote an assignment on the board to write a report on the life of Frederick Douglass. However, she made a mistake: she wrote “Douglas Fairbanks” instead! I raised my hand and asked who this person was and she brushed me off, so when I went home, I looked him up in the encyclopedia. I saw this dashing, handsome figure and was instantly smitten. Luckily, at the time, PBS was showing a lot of silent movies, and I became interested in Mary Pickford, D.W Griffith, Lillian Gish and Charlie Chaplin. My hometown library had a huge film book collection, and Joe Franklin’s “Classics of the Silent Screen” became my bible!

How did you first come to discover the work of Karl Dane?

I had always known who he was and had seen The Big Parade, but was never a fan. Then I finally heard his voice in December 2005 when my husband Dan and I saw the Mascot serial The Whispering Shadow. I was really intrigued since it seemed like his accent wasn’t so bad that it would keep him from sound films, as Hollywood legend has it.

What led you to writing the biography?

After I saw the serial, I looked for a biography, but none had ever been written, much to my surprise, since he was such a big star in his day. I just couldn’t forget about him and knew there had to be more to his story. It was like solving a mystery—who was Karl Dane really?

Was it difficult to track down Karl’s relatives or people who could provide you with insight about him?

I enlisted the help of a genealogist who was able to tell me that he had 2 children, a boy and a girl. I also knew the cities where Karl’s ancestors came from, so conducted a letter writing campaign to people named “Gottlieb” who lived in these cities, asking them if they were descendants. Finally, I reached the right people.  I’m lucky Karl’s name was Gottlieb, a relatively uncommon name in Denmark, rather than Petersen (my Danish maiden name)!

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What were some of the biggest obstacles you faced when researching the book? How did you get around them?

The fact that no one (with the one exception of former child actor Frank “Junior” Coghlan) was still alive who knew Karl.  This and the fact that he died so long ago, and in such tragic circumstances, that people didn’t really talk about him too much in their memoirs in later years. Thank God for George K. Arthur’s unpublished memoirs, or else I would not have had many anecdotes about him at all! I got around the obstacles by persistence and dogged research. You need to be willing to spend the time to search every lead. was a real big help for old articles about him—a few were real gems. Also, I went through thousands of pages of movie magazines on microfilm at the Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

What was the most interesting and exciting part of the process?

Exploring film archives for information. I felt a bit like an archaeologist going into boxes of pictures, memoirs, clippings and studio records with white gloves, such as George K .Arthur’s collection at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC , and the King Vidor Collection at USC. It was so exciting since you never knew what nugget of information would turn up from one minute to the next!

What was it like to work with Kevin Brownlow?

Kevin Brownlow is the very definition of the word “gentleman.” It was wonderful working with him, a dream come true for me, since he has been my idol since I was a child. I was lucky enough to have met and spoken to him at a film festival about 20 years ago, but never imagined at the time that I’d be writing a book, let alone one with a Foreword by him. Not only did he agree to my request to contribute this piece, but he was kind enough to read and edit my entire book. I feel I learned so much from him.

How did Karl first discover a passion for acting?

He was a natural little performer from the time he was a boy. Karl’s father was a glove maker who worked a second job as a stagehand. Karl accompanied his dad to the theater where he watched the performances and smelled the greasepaint. He and his brother Reinald had a toy theater that they constructed, most likely based upon the Royal Theater of Copenhagen. This was an extremely popular pastime for families in Victorian times. The boys put on shows and sold tickets to friends and neighbors. Reinald recalled years later that Karl also loved to put on skits at family picnics, sing songs and perform daredevil stunts.

What is your most favorite Karl Dane performance?

It’s hard to narrow it down. I of course think he was brilliant in The Big Parade but like to hear his voice. I enjoyed Navy Blues with William Haines a lot.

Did Karl win any awards for The Big Parade? I imagine he would have easily won “Best Supporting Actor” had the Academy Awards been around at the time.

He didn’t win any awards that I know of, although the magazine “Photoplay” awarded The Big Parade the best movie of 1925.

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What was Karl’s initial reaction when talkies came in?

According to his comedy partner George K. Arthur, Karl “didn’t know what hit him.” He was not the most politically savvy or proactive person in the world. He lived very much in the present. Also, Louis B. Mayer was known for telling the members of the studio that if they worked hard for him and were loyal, they would always have a job. I honestly think Karl took this at face value and didn’t worry since his films were doing well and he was popular.

What led to Karl’s decline both career wise and personally?

Karl suffered a nervous breakdown in 1930 due to a general loss of confidence in himself and his abilities. He had many over 40 pictures in just 5 years and he was forced to take time off and rest. By the time he was able to get back to work, it was the height of the Great Depression and there were fewer opportunities for him.  He then quit movies and invested a large amount of money in 2 gold mining deals, but was cheated by one of his business partners. He never recovered from this, either financially or psychologically. His final jobs were real comedowns for a star of his magnitude: waiting tables and operating a hamburger stand. When he couldn’t make even the stand work and he was down to literally $1.57, it was too much for him and he took his own life. 

What rumors or myths about Karl would you most like to dispel?

The biggest myth is that Karl simply lost his career because his accent was so atrocious. The truth was much more complicated than that, his breakdown and the coming of the Depression playing a large part of his downfall. Also, another myth was that is hot dog or hamburger stand was right outside the studio gates. This appears to have been a fabrication of Kenneth Anger years later. None of the newspaper obituaries said it was located there and if it was true there probably would have been humiliating photos taken while it was in operation.

Many of Karl’s films are not available on DVD like The Big Parade and The Scarlet Letter. Is there any chance that will change in the future?

I’ve been hearing rumors for years that The Big Parade was coming out on DVD, but it never does. I really don’t know what’s going on with that. I think with the economy being the way it is, we may have to wait awhile. 

Which films with Karl are available on DVD?

A good amount! My Four Years in Germany, Wolves of Kultur, Bardelys the Magnificent, Son of the Sheik, The Whispering Shadow, Speedway, the Dane & Arthur sound short A Put Up Job (on “Paramount Comedy Shorts 1929-1933” set), Trail of ‘98, Crazy House (accompanies the DVD of The Champ from Warner Video), Free & Easy (on Buster Keaton Collection from TCM archives), Show People and The Red Mill

What do you think is ultimately Karl Dane’s legacy?

I think that enough films are available on DVD and VHS for people to see his wonderful versatility. He portrayed a German Chancellor (My Four Years in Germany), diabolical villains (The Wolves of Kultur), lovable bumpkin (A Put Up Job), and race car driver (Speedway).  I hope people who read the book are able to see past the tragedy at the end of his life and his obvious flaws to recognize his great talent, passion, and courage. We’re in our own economic crisis right now and so many people are suffering and in the same emotional and financial trouble as Karl was. I hope his story can raise awareness for us all to look after each other and lend a helping hand where we can, even if it’s just a sympathetic ear. 

Are you screening Karl’s films and having more events like the recent one at the Egyptian?

I sure hope so! I’ve talked to some programmers for different film festivals, but nothing is set yet. Stay tuned and check out my website at for news. 

What is your next project? I am already looking forward to it!

Thanks Karie!! I actually thought I had a project but it fell through. I’m looking for ideas though since I want to get started on another journey. Any suggestions??

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KARL DANE: A BIOGRAPHY & FILMOGRAPHY is now available in bookstores and online.  For more updates and information, log on to

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