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The 'brains' and 'action' heavies who had meaty roles and lots of dialog ... and the players who were fathers, ranch owners, lawman, mayors, judges, lawyers, storekeepers, newspaper editors, wardens, etc.

(From Old Corral collection)

Above - vending machine card of Kenneth Harlan as the star of THE VIRGINIAN (Preferred Pictures, 1923).

(Courtesy of Jack Tillmany)

Kenneth Harlan - circa 1940.

Kenneth Harlan

Full name: Kenneth Daniel Harlan

1895 - 1967

Special thanks to guest commentator Bill Russell for authoring this mini biography on Kenneth Harlan. Additional research and details from ye Old Corral webmeister.

Author Owen Wister's great novel of the West, THE VIRGINIAN, has been portrayed on screen four times starring in order of appearance Dustin Farnum ('14), Kenneth Harlan ('23), Gary Cooper ('29), and Joel McCrea ('46). The novel also spawned the long-running TV series starring James Drury ('62-'70) and a pretty good TV movie version starring Bill Pullman.

While Cooper is perhaps the best remembered of Wister's main character, for Kenneth Harlan, it was probably the biggest role of his career, and one of the few starring roles of a career that spanned over 25 years and nearly 200 features and serials.

Born in Boston on July 26, 1895 (although some sources list 1897), he made his first screen appearance around 1917 and was seen as a supporting actor in a Northwest mining yarn by Triangle Pictures entitled FLAME OF THE YUKON. During the silent era he made only a few Westerns, and starred in only two, the 1922 Affiliated Pictures' I AM THE LAW, in which he played a Mountie, and the following year his big starrer for Preferred Pictures' version of Wister's classic.

During this period he worked at many studios, playing a matinee idol role to such leading ladies as Mary Pickford, Pola Negri, Clara Bow, and Bebe Daniels.

In 1930 Harlan landed his first and only starring role in a sound picture, UNDER MONTANA SKIES, a Tiffany production that co-starred Dorothy Gulliver. His first sound appearance, however, may have been in the 1930 PARADISE ISLAND, a musical/romance/comedy starring Paul Hurst and recorded by the new RCA Photophone System.

UNDER MONTANA SKIES received good reviews from the leading trade papers Variety and Harrison's Reports. But somehow he didn't quite catch on as a leading Western hero type and for the next 14 years parlayed a good career in character and support roles in both features and serials ranging from a lawman to leading heavy. Generally, he received high billing as he did in the 1938 Columbia film, LAW OF THE TEXAN starring Buck Jones. He supported just about every Western hero during the 30's and 40's including such notables as William Boyd (appearing in several including PRIDE OF THE WEST and SUNSET TRAIL, both '38 releases, and SANTA FE MARSHAL, released in '40). Harlan also worked with Tim McCoy, Johnny Mack Brown, and William Elliott to mention a few others, and was cast in Roy Rogers' first starring picture, UNDER WESTERN STARS. In addition, Harlan appeared in a number of non-Western adventure dramas during his career. But it was serials where he was most active and they included such cliffhangers as THE OREGON TRAIL, DICK TRACY'S G-MEN, DICK TRACY VS. CRIME, INC., THE GREEN HORNET, DON WINSLOW OF THE NAVY, and THE MASKED MARVEL. One of the best was probably the Allan Lane action-packed serial, DAREDEVILS OF THE WEST in 1943.

Kenneth Harlan ended his film career in 1943 in two Monogram Trailblazers, WILD HORSE STAMPEDE and DEATH VALLEY RANGERS. Also that same year he appeared in several musicals and dramas before actually retiring from the screen.

The former silent star of THE VIRGINIAN, Harlan, who was married seven times, died in Sacramento, California on March 6, 1967 of an aneurysm. He was also the nephew of long-time character actor Otis Harlan, whose chief claim to fame was probably as the voice of the dwarf 'Happy' in the 1937 SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.

Les Adams has Harlan identified in about 120 sound era films. Of these, 27 are westerns and 21 are serials.

(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Left - Kenneth Harlan and pretty Dorothy Gulliver in the early sound oater, UNDER MONTANA SKIES (Tiffany, 1930).

Harlan was about 35 years old when he starred in this.

  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on:
Kenneth Harlan:
Actress Forence / Flo Hart (1893-1960) - Harlan was married to her from 1920-1922:
Actress Marie Prevost (1898-1937) - Harlan was married to her from 1924-1928:

The Internet Broadway database has a couple of New York stage credits for Harlan:

The Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections has a color photo postcard of the Beverly Hills home of Kenneth Harlan and Marie Prevost:

The story is true about actors Kenneth Harlan and Rex Lease compiling and publishing a cookbook in 1939 titled What Actors Eat When They Eat:

You can view/stream/download Harlan's UNDER MONTANA SKIES (Tiffany, 1930) from the Internet Archive:

The Internet Archive has several other Harlan films which you can view/stream/download. Included are series westerns with the Trail Blazers, Mesquiteers and Renfrew, as well as an East Side Kids, a Lugosi, and a Mary Pickford silent:

On the trail of Kenneth Harlan
The Family Search website (free), (subscription), California Death Index, Social Security Death Index (SSDI), ProQuest obituaries, newspapers and trade publications provide more information on Kenneth Harlan.

There is confusion with the name of Harlan's mother - it appears to be Sarah Rita Wolff.

And biographies on Harlan note his many marriages and divorces. In the info below, we've found references to seven wives, and I've highlighted their names in this color.

  • New Jersey Marriage index record (not the marriage license) - George W. Harlan and Sarah R. Wolff were married January 16, 1890 in Camden, New Jersey:
  • Massachusetts Birth Index - Kenneth Daniel Harlan was born July 26, 1895 to George W. Harlan and Sarah Wolff:
  • 1900 census summary and census takers worksheet - the Harlen [sic] family is living in New York City. There's 38 year old father George Harlen [sic] (born California), 30 year old wife Marita [sic] (born New York), 9 year old Dorothy (born Pennsylvania), 8 year old Gladis [sic] (born Pennsylvania) and 5 year old Kenneth (born Massachusetts). George and Marita have been married about 11 years, and they've had six children, but only three are still living. Father George's occupation is "Actor":
  • World War I draft registration - 22 year old Kenneth D. Harlan was born July 26, 1894 in Boston, Massachusetts. He is married; is responsible for the support of his mother; lives in Los Angeles; occupation is self-employed "Actor"; and he has 1 1/2 years prior military experience in the Navy:
  • Various trades and fan magazines had blurbs on Harlan's Army duty in France during World War I. A couple excerpts:
    July 20, 1918 Moving Picture World: "Kenneth Harlan, popular matinee idol ... has been called to the colors and is stationed with the Fortieth Division at Camp Kearny, Linda Vista, California."
    May 19, 1919 Photoplay: Harlan is "... in the 143rd Field Artillery, in France."
  • has California World War I Soldier Service Cards and Photos - Kenneth Daniel Harlan (occupation actor) was born July 26, 1895 in Boston to George W. Harlan and Sarah Rita Wolff. Service with the 143 Field Artillery, Camp Kearny, American Expd. Forces - France.
  • 1920 census summary and census takers worksheet - 24 year old Kenneth D. Harlan (born Massachusetts) is renting in Los Angeles. He is married but living alone, and his occupation is "Actor - Motion Pictures":
  • Various trade publications note that Harlan was married from 1920-1922 to Florence / Flo Hart, actress and onetime Ziegfeld Follies showgirl. There were many articles on his and her lawsuits, alimony, etc. Their divorce was announced in the November 17, 1922 Variety: "... interlocutory decree of divorce in favor of Flo Hart (Harlan) against Kenneth Harlan, pictures. The decree went by default, the suit being undefended."
  • October 14, 1924 California marriage license of 29 year old Kenneth D. Harlan (born Massachusetts) to 24 year old Marie B. Gerke (this is actress Marie Prevost; her birth name was Mary Bickford Dunn). Their occupations are "Actor" and "Actress" and "Warner Bros". This is his 3rd marriage and her second:
  • 1930 census summary and census takers worksheet - 34 year old Kenneth Harlan is single, owns his home at 1327 LeMoyne, Los Angeles, and is the head of household. He was a World War I veteran and occupation is "Actor - Motion Picture". Other family members are his 55 year old mother Rita W. Harlan (born New York), his 37 year old sister Gladys H. Busteed (born Pennsylvania) and her three children:
  • May 19, 1930 California marriage license of 34 year old Kenneth Daniel Harlan (born Boston; this was his third marriage) to 23 year old Doris Hilda Booth (single; born Massachusetts). His occupation is "Actor" and parents were George W. Harlan and Rita W. Woolf:
  • June 1, 1933 New York Times newspaper had a death notice for Harlan's mother. Excerpts: "Los Angeles, May 31 - Mrs. Rita Harlan, mother of Kenneth Harlan ... died here today at the home of a daughter after an illness of five months."
  • allows subscribers to build family trees. One such tree noted a November 9, 1932 marriage and August 15, 1934 annulment from Phyllis McClure.
    June 26, 1934 Variety had news about this: "Baltimore, June 25 (1932). Kenneth Harlan ... currently in vaude with Al St. John, is asking annulment of his marriage to Phyllis McClure. They were married here in '32, Harlan using the name of Daniel Harlan and Miss McClure the name Phyllis Johnson. It was Harlan's fourth splicing. Harland stated they never lived together as man and wife, but separated after the ceremony."
  • allows subscribers to build family trees. One tree had an August 20, 1934 marriage and August 16, 1946 divorce from Helen Spelner [sic].
    August 24, 1934 Film Daily noted that "Kenneth Harlan married Helen Spelner [sic] of Chicago at Endicott, N. Y."
  • August 20, 1934 New York marriage license of 39 year old Kenneth Harlan (born Massachusetts; occupation "Actor") and 23 year old Helen Spetner (born Chicago; occupation "Dancer") in Endicott, New York. Harlan was doing an RKO vaudeville tour with Al St. John, and Al and his wife June were witnesses to the wedding:
  • Cook County, Illinois birth record for Daniel Sherman Harlan. He was born in Chicago on January 25, 1935 to Kenneth Harlan (born Massachusetts) and 24 year old Helen Spetner (born Chicago):
  • 1940 census summary and census takers worksheet - renting at 15243 Van Owen, Los Angeles are 45 year old Kenneth Horlan [sic] (born Massachusetts), his 29 year old wife Donna (born Missouri), 5 year old son Don (born California), and a nurse. His occupation is "Actor - Moving Picture", and in 1939, he worked 46 weeks and earned $3000.00. Donna's occupation is "Secretary - Moving Picture", and in 1939, she worked 52 weeks and earned $2400.00. Wife Donna is Helen Spetner and Family Search has a 1951 marriage license for Donna Harlan, maiden name of Donna Spetner:
  • World War II draft registration - 46 year old Kenneth Daniel Harlan was born July 26, 1895 in Boston, Massachusetts. Home address is 6056 Carpenter Avenue, North Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California. His occupation is "Self-Employed Agent and Free Lance Actor", 9010 Sunset Boulevard, West Hollywood, California. His contact is Mrs. Gladys Busteed, Los Angeles (his sister):
  • September 18, 1957 California marriage license of 62 year old Kenneth D. Harlan (born Massachusetts) and Lois Jane Howden (born Massachusetts). This is his 4th marriage; his parents were George Harlan and Rita Wolf:
  • California marriage index record for the March 5, 1963 marriage of 67 year old Kenneth D. Harlan (born about 1896) to 47 year old Rosemary Gonsalves in San Francisco:
  • California Death Index and Social Security Death Index (SSDI) for 72 year old Kenneth D. Harlan. He was born July 26, 1895 in Massachusetts and passed away on March 6, 1967 in the Sacramento, California area:
  • Newspaper death notices mentioned that Harlan entered Sutter Memorial hospital in Sacramento, California on March 5, 1967 for abdominal surgery and died March 6 from an aneurysm.
  • Find A Grave has a photo of the grave marker for Kenneth Harlan at Hollywood Forever, Los Angeles County, California:

In the early 1930s, Harlan and Al St. John were no longer big names in Tinseltown ... and to put groceries on the table, they signed for a vaudeville tour which was announced in the June 21, 1932 Variety: "Hollywood, June 20 (1932). Owen Moore and Kenneth Harlan with Al St. John have been given vaude routes by RKO. Moore opens in Trenton, N. J., June 25 (1932). Harlan - St. John team starts at Yonkers (New Jersey) on the same date."

The September, 1932 Chicago theater ad above lists "Harlan & St. John" ... and headlining was Baby Rose Marie (Rose Marie Mazetta) who is best remembered as 'Sally Rogers' on the 1961 - 1966 DICK VAN DYKE television program.

The film being shown was THE NIGHT CLUB LADY (Columbia, 1932) which starred Adolphe Menjou.

(From Old Corral collection)

Above from L-to-R are Kenneth Harlan, Bob Livingston and Ray 'Crash' Corrigan in this lobby card from GUNSMOKE RANCH (Republic, 1937), an entry in the Republic Three Mesquiteers series.

(Courtesy of Minard Coons)

Above from L-to-R are Forrest Taylor, Hoot Gibson, Bob Baker (wearing the badge), Betty Miles, Kenneth Harlan (at the desk), Ken Maynard and I. Stanford Jolley in WILD HORSE STAMPEDE (Monogram, 1943), the initial entry in the Trail Blazers series.

This was one of Harlan's last film appearances. He then concentrated on a new career as a theatrical agent.

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