Today is the birthday of one of the most talented young actresses in the history of the movies. You may remember Virginia Weidler primarily as Dinah Lord, Katharine Hepburn’s precocious sister in MGM’s The Philadelphia Story, the girl who plays “Lydia the Tattooed Lady” for a bewildered Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey and who has no small role in sabotaging Hepburn’s impending nuptials. 12-year-old Weidler was absolutely 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 remembered for today. Many people are not familiar with her remarkable career before these two films. Virginia Weidler made over 40 films and had very successful stints at Paramount, RKO, and other studios, but she was still a teenager when she made her last film in 1943. Weidler had a happy life after leaving Hollywood, but she died way too young in 1968 at the age of 41.
Born into a showbiz family in Eagle Rock, California, on March 21, 1927, Ginny (as she was known by her family and friends) got cast in her first film at the age of three, a 1930 production of Moby Dick starring John Barrymore as Ahab. According to studio lore, Ginny refused to remove her dress in a scene that called for it and was summarily replaced. Her parents, former opera singer Margaret Weidler and architect and studio miniature artist Alfred Weidler, decided to call it quits on their daughter’s acting career — except for the frequent performances the six Weidler kids would put on in their backyard.
But the young girl was too good of an actress to stay out of the spotlight for long. In 1934, six-year-old Virginia was cast in the play Autumn Crocus at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. The star of the play, Francis Lederer, was a major heartthrob who had already performed the role in Europe and on Broadway. Many prominent movie folks came to see this production and Ginny soon found herself back in the movies.
Her first credited role was as Europena in Norman Taurog’s Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) starring Pauline Lord, W.C. Fields, Zasu Pitts, and several other child actors including Carmencita Johnson and Edith Fellows. 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.
Weidler consistently received raves for her acting. She was a sensation as Little Sister in her next film, George Stevens’ 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. Following her early Moby Dick debacle, Ginny had the chance to co-star with John Barrymore in Garson Kanin’s The Great Man Votes in 1939. Barrymore was so impressed by Weidler’s talent that from that point on he referred to her as “Hollywood’s greatest actress.”
The films continued into the early 1940s. In addition to her pivotal role in The Philadelphia Story and her appearance in the A-list 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) which, for reasons that are still not entirely clear, turned out to be her last film.
Want to learn more about Virginia Weidler and the golden age of child stars in the studio system? I invite you to join a very fun Facebook page called the Virginia Weidler Remembrance Society (VWRS) that I’ve been involved with for several years. Even if you don’t know that much about Weidler, you’ll enjoy this site if you’re a classic movie fan. Started by Baltimore-based Weidler maven Pete White, the VWRS Facebook page features daily entries about Virginia and all of the stars with whom she worked as well as other young actors who once were part of the Hollywood system but are now largely forgotten. Do names such as Baby LeRoy, Billy Lee, Charlene Wyatt, David Holt, Cora Sue Collins, Ra Hould, Ann Gillis, and Bennie Bartlett ring a bell? There’s a great group of fans and classic movie mavens who participate regularly on the site. We also discuss Ginny’s former co-stars and friends who have survived the test of time — people such as Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Jane Withers, Freddie Bartholomew, and Bonita Granville. And we look at the careers of Virginia’s five siblings: sisters Sylvia and Renee, and her musician brothers, Warner, Walter, and George, who appeared together in several films (including Shirley Temple’s Dimples) and had several bands over the years. For a brief time, George Weidler was married to singer/actress Doris Day.
I asked Pete White when he first became interested in Weidler. “It was probably the first time I saw The Youngest Profession on TCM,” he said. “Robert Osborne explained that this was the second to last film of a great child actress who would soon leave the business. That fascinated me. Later on, I remember seeing a film called The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt and looking up Virginia on IMDB. For some reason, the story of how she left Hollywood didn’t ring true and I made up my mind to find out more. After combing the movie forums, a couple of people convinced me I was better off becoming the expert rather than trying to find the expert. When I wrote to Leonard Maltin for help, he read the background material I provided and wrote back, “You already know much more about Virginia than I do!” I’ve joined Pete in locating obscure information about Virginia and the people with whom she worked in the 1930s and early 40s. Through the VWRS, I’ve learned so much about the workings of Hollywood during the studio system and the successes and challenges of many of its younger members.
I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Osborne a few times during the TCM Classic Film Festival and we always talked about Virginia, an actress he greatly admires. He told me stories about how much his first Hollywood mentor, Lucille Ball, loved Weidler (they worked together on Best Foot Forward). When I got the chance to talk to Jane Withers at the festival, she cried when I brought up Virginia’s name and thanked me profusely for helping to keep her memory alive. The two were very close friends in Hollywood and she told me how devastated she was when she learned that Ginny had died at the age of 41 because of a long-time heart condition.
Through our research of Virginia Weidler and her times, we’ve unearthed enough material to write several tomes about the actress. We often discuss the sudden end of her movie career. Did MGM make some mistakes during her transition from child star to young woman? Did Ginny’s desire to tour the country as a singer in the 1940s have a negative affect on her movie career? How much did MGM’s vaunted signing of teenaged Shirley Temple affect Ginny’s prospects at the studio? (Temple ultimately made only one film at MGM, Kathleen, before having better luck with David O. Selznick and Virginia ended up in several roles that were originally meant for Shirley). It’s clear that Best Foot Forward was not intended to be Weidler’s final film. She was up for several roles in the mid-1940s and was a strong contender for the part of Veda in Warner Bros.’ Mildred Pierce until Ann Blyth got the role at the last minute. Remembering the brilliant bathroom scene between Weidler and Joan Crawford in The Women, it would have been exciting to see the two of them sniping at each other again in Mildred Pierce, and it surely would have reinvigorated her movie career, but, alas, it was not to be.
Virginia appeared on camera just one more time — in a 1945 short with her friend Jane Withers called Peeks at Hollywood. She continued acting on radio and on the stage, including in a Broadway play that was produced by MGM, but when that story made it to the screen, as Cynthia, Ginny’s part went to Elizabeth Taylor. In 1947, Virginia Weidler married naval officer Lionel Krisel and for the most part, left her career behind as she raised two children.
For several years, the VWRS lobbied TCM to honor Virginia Weidler, so we took a little pride in last fall’s “Starring Virginia Weidler” six-film tribute which I live-tweeted all night long. But there are so many more great films that we’d love to see so we’re campaigning to include her in TCM’s upcoming Summer of the Stars tribute. “I fervently believe that Virginia Weidler was the most gifted child actress we’ve ever seen,” said Pete White. “She never resorted to what I’d call ‘kid tricks’ in acting, even at a very young age. That she left films at 16, and is not more remembered and honored today is a crime that I’d like to see corrected!”
In addition to gaining the respect of her colleagues because of her impeccable timing and acting skill, Ginny was clearly loved by those who knew her. “In all the interviews that you and I have done,” White said, “not one person has ever said a single unkind thing about Virginia Weidler. Her close friends still mourn the loss of their ‘Ginny’ and 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. He thanked me for remembering her, just as Jane Withers thanked you. 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.”
Check out the great clip below from The Philadelphia Story in which Dinah Lord, in cahoots with her sister Tracy (Katharine Hepburn), is putting on quite a show for a reporter (James Stewart) and photographer (Ruth Hussey) who are trying to crash Tracy’s wedding. Note that the brilliant George Cukor film will be playing at Grauman’s Chinese Theater next Sunday, March 29, 2015, at a special 75th anniversary screening as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. It will be introduced by actress Madeleine Stowe.