Una Merkel's physical resemblance to Lillian Gish enabled her to embark on a dramatic career, and her talent kept her firmly at the thick of the productive actors who dominated Hollywood throughout the film industry's fabled years.
A blond with sparkling blue eyes, Merkel so closely resembled Gish in her early years that director D. W. Griffith made her a stand-in in "Way Down East" in 1920 and "The White Rose" in 1923.
The actress, who may best be remembered for the savage saloon fight she had with Marlene Dietrich in "Destry Rides Again" (1939), had studied drama with Tyrone Power's mother in New York. Her first featured film credit was in the long-forgotten "The Fifth Horseman" in 1924. However, she had to return to New York for work after that, uttering one line in "Two by Two" in 1925, which ran two weeks, and another sentence in "The Poor Nut" the same year, which lasted three weeks.
However, she persevered and in 1927 was cast with Helen Hayes in "Coquette," which enjoyed a 22-month Broadway run.
By 1930, she had returned to both Hollywood and Griffith, who cast her as Ann Rutledge, the sweetheart of "Abraham Lincoln," opposite Walter Huston.
She deadpanned, drawled and wisecracked her way through "Broadway Melody of 1936," "Biography of a Bachelor Girl," "Evelyn Prentice," "Born to Dance," "Saratoga" and two dozen more films in the 1930s, capping the decade with "Destry" in 1939.
The grits-thick accent, quick retorts and sarcasm continued into the '40s, as she kept up a pace of secondary roles in secondary films. However, when the phone quit ringing in the 1950s, Merkel opted to return to New York, where she won critical acclaim and the Tony for Eudora Welty's "The Ponder Heart."
In 1959, she was seen on Broadway with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon in "Take Me Along," a musical adaptation of "Ah, Wilderness" remembered now primarily for its title song.
Her Broadway success evidently convinced film producers that there was more to her than scatterbrained banter. In 1961 she appeared in "The Parent Trap" and as Geraldine Page's bitter mother in the big-screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke." She did three movies after that: "Summer Magic" (1963), "A Tiger Walks" (1964) and "Spinout," an Elvis Presley vehicle in 1966. After that there were only a scattering of television appearances.
|1961||Best Supporting Actress||Summer and Smoke||Nomination|