When screen legend John Barrymore declares a 12-year-old girl he worked with as “Hollywood’s greatest actress,” you can’t help but take notice. Born 90 years ago today, classic movie fans remember Virginia Weidler as Dinah Lord, Katharine Hepburn’s precocious sister in MGM’s The Philadelphia Story. She was the girl who played “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” for a bewildered Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey and who did everything she could to sabotage Hepburn’s impending nuptials to George Kittredge. Young Weidler was brilliant in the film, and that performance, along with her role as Little Mary, Norma Shearer’s daughter in MGM’s all-star, all-female The Women, is what she is most known for today. Many people are not familiar with her remarkable career before these two films. Virginia Weidler made over 40 films in her relatively short career and had very successful stints at Paramount, RKO, and other studios. She was still a teenager when she made her final film in 1943. She continued to appear on the stage for several years and in 1947 married naval officer Lionel Krisel. Retired from the industry, Virginia raised two boys, Ron and Gary, before she died in 1968.
For several years, I’ve been involved with an online group to honor the work of the brilliant child star. Founded by Baltimore-based Pete White, The Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society has researched every aspect of Weidler’s career, her films, and her contemporaries, and in 2014 successfully lobbied Turner Classic Movies several for a six-film tribute called “Starring Virginia Weidler.” This year, to mark the 90th anniversary of Weidler’s birth, White contacted the Los Angeles City Council (including councilperson José Huizar who represents Weidler’s Eagle Rock birthplace) to honor the hometown girl. They agreed about Weidler’s contributions, and issued a beautiful proclamation signed by every member of the City Council that details Virginia’s achievements and concludes with the following:
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that by the adoption of this resolution, the City Council of Los Angeles recognizes VIRGINIA WEIDLER for her career accomplishments as well as her contributions to her country, her city, and to all who knew her and that March 21, 2017 is a celebration of Virginia Weidler.
I had the great pleasure of presenting this proclamation to Virginia Weidler’s granddaughter, Lindsay Krisel Rock. “All of us in the family are absolutely thrilled that Ginny’s work is still remembered and celebrated,” Lindsay said upon receiving the resolution. “She was born into a creative, expressive, weird, wonderful family who came to Los Angeles in the 1920s, drawn to America partly because of their reverence for Walt Whitman. She was an incredibly devoted mother — my dad says it was like growing up in a musical. I never got to meet her, and it’s an odd thing that when asked to imagine my grandmother, I usually picture her as a child. But even in her most famously precocious moments on film, she always maintained an honesty about childhood — a curious, mischievous, authentic energy. It is a privilege to be in her family, and a privilege to live in a place that cherishes its memories, and the accomplishments of its young citizens.”
As Lindsay said, Ginny (as she was known by her family and friends), was born into a showbiz family of immigrants in Eagle Rock, California, on March 21, 1927. Her parents, former opera singer Margaret Weidler and architect Alfred Weidler, had six children: Sylvia, Renee, Warner, Walter, George, and Virginia. While the three Weidler boys appeared in several films together, including Shirley Temple’s Dimples, and had long careers as successful musicians, it soon became clear that Virginia was the standout actress in the family.
Weidler’s first credited role in the movies was as Europena Wiggs in Norman Taurog’s Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) starring Pauline Lord, W.C. Fields, Zasu Pitts. Ginny went over big and, with Paramount looking to get in on the boom started by Shirley Temple at 20th Century Fox, several more projects were planned for the young girl. She was also loaned out to RKO and other studios and quickly gained a reputation for being one of the most reliable and skilled actresses around who could hold her own with all of the great stars of the day.
Weidler consistently received raves for her acting. She was a sensation as Little Sister in her next film, George Stevens’ poignant Laddie (1935) with John Beal and Gloria Stuart, and made many other films, some of them true starring vehicles. Virginia’s movies during the 1930s included Freckles (1935), Girl of the Ozarks (1936), The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937), Love Is a Headache (1938), and Bad Little Angel (1939). She worked with many of the top stars in Hollywood and received praise from all quarters. In 1939, Ginny co-starred with John Barrymore in Garson Kanin’s The Great Man Votes. That’s when Barrymore, impressed by Weidler’s incredible talent at such a young age, first gave her that nickname, a claim he repeated the following year when he visited his friend and former co-star Katharine Hepburn on the set of The Philadelphia Story. “I’m thrilled to be seeing Hollywood’s greatest actress in action again,” Barrymore told Hepburn after watching the cast shoot a pivotal scene. “Oh, thank you, John,” Hepburn replied. “No, Kate, I was talking about Virginia Weidler!” Hepburn laughed, and didn’t take offense. She knew they were lucky to have Virginia in the film.
Weidler’s films continued into the early 1940s. In addition to her important role in The Philadelphia Story and her appearance in The Women, Virginia played one of Charles Boyer’s daughters in All This, and Heaven Too (1940) with Bette Davis; sang and danced alongside Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the Busby Berkeley musical Babes on Broadway (1941), and starred in the Technicolor extravaganza Best Foot Forward (1943) and The Youngest Profession (1943) which turned out to be her last two films.
I had the pleasure of talking to the late Robert Osborne about Weidler on several occasions. He was a huge fan of her work and told me how his mentor in Hollywood, Lucille Ball, loved Virginia (they worked together on Best Foot Forward). When I got the chance to talk to Jane Withers at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, she became teary-eyed when discussing her old friend. Pete White has also spoken to some of Ginny’s friends and colleagues and was impressed by what they had to say about her. “Not one person has ever said a single unkind thing about Virginia Weidler. Even those she only touched professionally all remark on her kindness, helpfulness, and professionalism. Tommy Dix (Weidler’s love interest in Best Foot Forward) brought me to tears last year with the things he had to say about her and he only knew her during the making of that film over 70 years ago! Former actor and M*A*S*H producer Gene Reynolds knew her for many years and felt the same tender way toward her. All of these people whose lives were touched by Virginia seem to agree with what actress actress Jean Porter wrote years ago — that Virginia was the nicest person they ever met.”
Although there are very few public photos of Virginia Weidler once she left the movie industry, her granddaughter shared this priceless photo taken of Virginia during the time she and her husband were living in Cuba in the 1950s when they would often visit the home of Ernest Hemingway. That’s Ginny and her husband, Lionel Krisel, looking at the camera, Ernest and Mary Hemingway looking at Ginny, and a couple who won a trip to visit the legendary author in a game show with the final answer “Ernest Hemingway.” Lindsay also shared that when the Duke of Windsor would visit the Hemingways he would specifically seek out Ginny as a dance partner!
While some of Weidler’s bigger films are screened regularly on TCM, click here for a very special birthday treat — you will find links to several early films of Ginny’s that are hard to find. You’ll also find the full text of her friend Jean Porter’s poignant and heartfelt tribute to the actress. Finally, check out the great clip below from The Philadelphia Story that is one of my favorite scenes ever in which Dinah Lord, in cahoots with her sister Tracy (Katharine Hepburn), puts on quite a show for a reporter (James Stewart) and photographer (Ruth Hussey) who are trying to crash Tracy’s wedding.