Her greatest role was as the Blind Flower Girl in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, but who was Virginia Cherrill? Through her genealogy, movie career, and public records I intend to find out and shed some light on the person who, in the opinion of film critic James Agee, delivered with Chaplin, “The greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid.”
Virginia Cherrill was born on 12 April 1908 in Illinois to James Edward Cherrill, a dealer in livestock, and Blanche Wilcox. The couple married because Blanche was pregnant. She gave birth to a daughter, Sydney Rose, who sadly died in 1908, a month before Virginia was born. James was a womaniser and, in due course, Blanche obtained a divorce.
During her childhood, Virginia was known as Dolly. She lived with her mother, and with uncles and grandparents. At school, she befriended Evelyn Lederer, who changed her name to Sue Carol when she became an actress. Later, Sue became an agent and married Alan Ladd.
When she was seventeen, Virginia caught the eye of a handsome young lawyer, Irving Adler. Irving invited her to dances and the theatre. From a high-society Chicago family and with good prospects, Irving had a lot going for him. He proposed marriage, repeatedly, and eventually Virginia said, “yes”.
In the summer of 1926 Virginia and Irving married in secret, often a portent of things to come. Sheltered by an over-protective mother, Virginia’s wedding night came as a shock to her, and the events of that night set the tone for her marriage.
Irving was often away on business. Lonely, and after seventeen months of marriage, Virginia admitted her mistake. She sought a divorce and on 25 November 1927 made her way west, to friends in Hollywood.
Separated from her husband after seventeen months of marriage on grounds of incompatibility, Virginia found herself in Hollywood, staying with relatives. At social events, she met many prominent people, including Charlie Chaplin.
The timeline of Virginia’s meetings with Chaplin varies, but it would appear that he noticed her on a beach and, when they met again at a boxing match, he invited her to co-star in his new movie, City Lights.
Chaplin often cast unknowns in his movies and he hired Virginia, who had no acting experience or ambitions to become an actress, without a screen test. By Chaplin, this was an inspired piece of casting.
United Artists sent out press releases and Virginia, along with this unflattering picture, appeared in local, national and international newspapers. Fame and fortune beckoned…
Virginia Cherrill, selected by Charlie Chaplin to appear in his latest movie, City Lights, soon discovered that Chaplin was a perfectionist who insisted on his cast appearing on the set, even when they were not performing, and that multiple takes were standard work-practice – the opening scene, pictured, took 342 takes.
City Lights took two years to make. During that time, the United Artists’ publicly department promoted Virginia Cherrill, in pieces similar to this feature in The Tatler, 20 March 1929.
Charlie Chaplin selected Virginia Cherrill to co-star in City Lights, then sacked her. The reason for her sacking is not clear. Possibly her attitude was at fault – long lunch breaks and hairdressing appointments seemed to take preference in her mind. Or she spurned Chaplin’s advances – he was famous for having relationships with his leading ladies. Virginia, who was sensitive in these matters, was not interested.
Because a number of scenes had been shot, Chaplin had no choice but to invite Virginia back on to the set. She agreed, providing he improved her contract.
Virginia Cherrill had no real intention of becoming an actress and despite her wonderful performance in City Lights, you sense that her heart was not really in acting.
This newspaper article from January 1931 is wrong about Virginia Cherrill’s age: she was nineteen when she started work on City Lights – and her screen test: Charlie Chaplin hired her on the spot, no screen test required – he regarded a lack of acting experience as a positive advantage.
The article is right about the way Chaplin hired his leading ladies, often married them, and about the way they drifted into obscurity.
It’s also worth noting that most of the pictures of Virginia Cherrill circulated to the media at this time tended to be unflattering. She had yet to be ‘moulded’ into a star.
This newspaper article from February 1931 has become the accepted version of how Virginia Cherrill became an “overnight sensation”.
After the success of City Lights, Virginia Cherrill was in big demand. She was paired with John Wayne in Girls Demand Excitement. Wayne later stated that this film was the worst movie he ever appeared in and, unfortunately, it set a trend for Virginia’s future movies. However, the reluctant star remained in the spotlight, thanks to a high-profile marriage…
After the bright lights of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and the critical disaster of Girls Demand Excitement, Virginia Cherrill made two more movies in 1931, The Brat and Delicious.
In The Brat, a comedy directed by John Ford and starring Sally O’Neil, Virginia played Angela, a support character. She also had a supporting role in Delicious, a musical romantic comedy starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.
Career-wise, Virginia was slotting into support roles. However, her profile remained high in Hollywood, and she was a regular at parties hosted by William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, Marion Davies.
Engagements to eligible bachelors were announced in the press, but they amounted to nothing. After the distressing experience of a brief first marriage and divorce, Virginia was understandably cautious.
In 1933, Virginia Cherrill played Virginia, a support character in Fast Workers, aka Rivets, a drama that starred John Gilbert. The critics hated the movie. Harrison Reports, a New York film-review service, stated that Fast Workers was, “Mediocre! The action is slow, the talk dirty and suggestive, and the behavior of the characters vile. Unsuitable for children, adolescents, and for Sundays.”
Virginia’s acting career was not going anywhere. However, she was travelling. On 25 August 1933, in Los Angeles, Virginia boarded the Matson Lines passenger liner SS Lurline, pictured approaching Pier 10 at Honolulu in the 1930s, and arrived in Honolulu on 31 August 1933.
Virginia was also sailing in another sense, into the life of Archie Leach, aka Cary Grant…
In 1933, Virgina Cherrill featured in five movies: Fast Workers, The Nuisance, He Couldn’t Take It, Charlie Chan’s Greatest Case, and Ladies Must Love. None of these movies excited moviegoers or film critics.
However, Virginia was exciting Cary Grant, who seemed keen on marriage. Virginia, married at nineteen and divorced at twenty appeared more reticent, as this newspaper report from November 13, 1933 suggests.
In November 1933 the newspapers were speculating that Cary Grant planned to marry Virgina Cherrill. But what’s the story behind that story?
In 1933 Cary Grant was an upcoming actor in Hollywood. He was living with Randolph Scott. Were the two men lovers? Some sources say yes, others say no.
Virginia Cherrill had recently featured in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights. She was acting in movies with no real ambitions to become a full-time actress. Instead, she enjoyed the life of a “society girl”, attending parties held by the likes of William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies.
Cary Grant met Virginia Cherrill at a society party. At the end of the evening, he phoned her repeatedly, asking for a date. Eventually, she relented. In those early hours of their relationship, the pattern was set.
With a failed marriage behind her, Virgina Cherrill had no wish to commit to a deeply meaningful relationship, whereas Cary Grant was crazy about her, to the extent that he rammed a love rival’s car.
The intensity of her relationship with Grant compelled Virgina Cherrill to seek solace in London with her society friends. Grant was determined to marry Virginia, and he followed her to London. His cover story was he was visiting his father in Bristol, and his mother, who’d been in an asylum for a number of years.
In London, Grant met Virgina, and the newspapers picked up the scent. Would the couple marry? Grant was a driven man, professionally and personally, whereas Virginia was a bundle of contradictions – an actress who didn’t really want to act, a woman who was looking for love, but reluctant to accept it when offered.
Grant and Virginia were two confused people. Were they made for each other, or was this a match made in hell?
November 1933 and Virgina Cherrill’s on-off affair with Cary Grant is still on-off. Virginia, the Blind Flower Girl in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights, has escaped to Britain to be away from Cary Grant while Grant, determined to marry Virginia, has followed her. To complicate matters, Randolph Scott, Grant’s housemate, has arrived in London to “keep an eye” on Grant.
In London, Virgina is appearing in modest movies and stage productions. Nevertheless, as an actress and “society girl” she is constantly invited to London’s high society parties.
To the media, Virginia stated that she’s never had a part as good as the Blind Flower Girl, and she never would. Her acting career would remain low-key. Meanwhile, Cary Grant was on the brink of a major breakthrough in Hollywood.
At this time, there’s a Great Gatsby air to Virginia Cherrill and Cary Grant’s lives. He is obsessed with her, and she seems content to drift from one low-key role to another, from one high society party to the next one. And like the Great Gatsby, you know it’s going to end in tears.