Born: August 9, 1900 in Onset Bay, MA, USA
Died: May 6, 1990 in Palm Springs, CA, USA
Charles David Farrell
by Sarah Baker
The man who became matinee idol to millions was born on August 9, 1900 in his neighbors’ bedroom.
His mother, Estelle Farrell, demanded the only heated room in the Fuller Tavern Annex when she
went into labor. And so, she was given her neighbors’ apartment to bring little Charles David Farrell
into the world.
Charlie’s family were working-class Irish immigrants, but using their own innate intelligence and
drive, made a mark for themselves in Walpole, MA and later Onset Bay, MA. The Farrell family owned
a restaurant and a newspaper stand, and later branched out into the theatre business. Charlie was
given jobs in all the family businesses, but he preferred to set up films and sweep up rubbish in the
theatre. As a boy, he began dreaming about becoming a film star, as he later recalled:
Even in those surroundings, I knew I was going to be a great
motion picture actor. I never sold a ticket to the theater but what
I looked the customer in the eye and said to myself, “Some day
that person will be going to the theater to see Charlie Farrell.”
His father David had other plans, though, and pushed Charlie to Boston University in the hopes
Charlie would become a dentist. Charlie compromised by working towards a business degree. Just
before his senior year, however, Charlie abruptly dropped out of school to become a valet to Little
Billy, a famous vaudeville midget. It wasn’t Charlie’s ideal gig, but it provided the means to get to
Charlie landed a few bit parts in 1923-1924, but his was a pretty lean existence. He finally signed with
Fox Films in 1925 and was promptly loaned to Paramount for the historical epic film, Old Ironsides
(1926). His performance as the naïve “Commodore” was exceptional, and marked the birth of the
Charles Farrell brand of hero: athletic and brawny but at the same time, naïve and tender. Fox
hastened to put Charlie back to work before he was poached by Paramount for good, and assigned
him to their most prestigious project, 7th Heaven (1927). This film marked the beginning of two
partnerships: his long-term collaboration with director Frank Borzage, and his long-term romantic
partnership with Janet Gaynor.
In 1929, when sound finally took over the motion picture industry, Charlie and his co-star Janet
passed the “mic test” with flying colors. But one crucial element changed. Both Charlie and Janet
were expected to be singing, talking, dancing musical stars, and they were cast in silly comedies. This
was a dramatic departure from their work in silent films, where their parts were poetic, dramatic, and
tailor-made to their talents. 1929 marked the death of the Charles Farrell brand of hero, as well. The
new matinee idols were brash, hard-hitting, and macho: think Clark Gable or Jimmy Cagney. There
was no longer any demand for a hero who was both virile and tender.
Amazingly, Charlie’s popularity never faltered, not with the advent of sound; nor with Janet Gaynor’s
infamous strike of 1930; nor with the new vogue of he-man matinee idols. His career at Fox ended
abruptly in 1932 when he refused a single role in the film The Face in the Sky. After his departure
from Fox, Charlie had a successful freelance career and was lured back to Fox a year later for a two-
picture deal with Janet Gaynor. However, after making one last film with Janet (Change of Heart,
1934), Charlie terminated his contract with Fox. His reasons were personal: he had a terrible fight
with his wife, Virginia Valli Farrell, who had discovered one of Charlie’s extramarital affairs. He went
to London and Fox bought Charlie’s contract out. He worked as a freelancer in several British films
and performed in summer stock. Eventually he made a few more American films, but when WWII
broke out, he abandoned his film career and enlisted in the Navy.
Charlie served as the Personnel and Administrative Officer aboard the USS Hornet, under the
command of Lt. Commander Marshall Beebe. The Hornet saw heavy combat in the spring and
summer of 1944; indeed, when Charlie returned home in 1945, his hair had turned grey. The men of
Task Force 58, which included the crew of the Hornet, received a Presidential Unit Citation by
President Harry Truman for extraordinary heroism.
Charlie returned to his beloved desert home, Palm Springs, where he had created the Palm Springs
Racquet Club in the 1930s. Virginia Valli Farrell, long reconciled with Charlie, had nurtured the Club
in his absence and by the 1950s it became the “playground of the stars.” Further cementing his status
as “Mr. Palm Springs,” Charlie was elected Mayor of Palm Springs, and served for six years.
The 1950s also saw Charlie’s return to acting: as a lark he accepted the role of Vern Albright on a
television show called My Little Margie. It was supposed to be a mere summer replacement for I Love
Lucy, but became a runaway hit. His co-star, Gale Storm, remembered Charlie as “the single most
considerate man I have ever known in my life…he had no vanity at all.” When Margie ended in 1956,
Charlie had his own show, The Charles Farrell Show, a fictionalized account of life at the Racquet
Club. The show ran for two years.
Charlie sold the Racquet Club in 1959 for a hefty profit; but it was a business move that tipped off a
depression that lasted the rest of Charlie’s life. Over the years he became more and more reclusive,
making public appearances only if Janet Gaynor was at his side. When Janet died in 1984, Charlie’s
seclusion was complete; he never granted any interviews or made any public appearances after her
Charlie was unfailingly modest and unlike Janet, never fought to maintain his place in film history.
He refused to even defend his place in Palm Springs history, though it could be argued that his
Racquet Club “founded” Palm Springs as a resort community. When Charlie died in 1990, he was
buried in the local Welwood Murray Cemetery next to Virginia Valli Farrell. Following his dying wish,
his caretakers buried him, and then alerted the press to his passing over a week later.
Charlie died believing he was alone and forgotten. He was certain that his work lost its relevance over
time, but he was wrong. Time and time again, audiences are seduced by the magic of his onscreen
partnership with Janet Gaynor and of the power and grace of the Charles Farrell brand of hero.
Written by Sarah Baker
If you want to know more about Charles Farrell and/or Janet Gaynor check out Sarah Baker's new
book "Lucky Stars."
Click here for a direct link: http://bearmanormedia.bizland.com/id439.html
|~Charles Farrell & The Duchess of Rutland~
|~Charles Farrell & Wife Virginia Valli~
Married February 14, 1931
|~Los Angeles Times, 1990~
Charles Farrell's patrician features placed him among the most luminescent of filmdom's early stars
and his business acumen took him to the barren desert east of Los Angeles where he built a posh
tennis club atop scrub brush.
He and Janet Gaynor were America's most famous film couple in the late 1920s and early '30s when
motion pictures first found a voice. But Farrell's popularity declined when his Boston Brahmin
enunciations brought him into disfavor with the old Fox Studios front office. Tired, he said years
later, of trying to portray James Cagney with an accent more like James Mason's, he left films and—
despite the forbidding Great Depression—he and actor Ralph Bellamy in 1934 built two tennis courts
on sand drifts and scrub that they surrounded with a ramshackle board fence.
The endeavor proved so successful that the Charles Farrell Racquet Club in Palm Springs was to
become not only the setting for his own fortune but for a late 1950s television series that starred
Farrell as the club's owner, dealing with the minor travails of family and staff.
His big break in Hollywood came in 1927, when Farrell was cast opposite Gaynor in "Seventh
Heaven." The movie brought Gaynor the first Academy Award ever given an actress and turned
Farrell from a struggling actor into a star. They made 11 other films, including "Street Angel," "Lucky
Star" and "The Man Who Came Back" before their final teaming in 1934 in "Change of Heart."
In a 1952-55 television series, Farrell played financially successful but authoritarian widower Vernon
Albright, father of the mischievous Gale Storm, in "My Little Margie."
By the time he sold the Charles Farrell Racquet Club in 1959 for a reported $1.2 million, Farrell had
not only become Palm Springs' most famous and enduring resident but the city's mayor from 1947 to
— Burt A. Folkart in the Los Angeles Times May 11, 1990