20 February 2011

Famous relative #1

I've been thinking about the famous people in my family - there are just a few. Not dazzlingly, earth-shatteringly famous. I'm not related to Paris Hilton. (Thank goodness.) But I've got relatives who, in their day, were well known and are still vaguely known today, by people in their field. A silent movie star, a composer and an artist.

Today I'm focusing on the movie star: George André Beranger, often known as André de Beranger and many variations in between - he seemed to have quite a flexible relationship with his name!

He was born in Newtown, Sydney, on March 27, 1893, to my great great grandparents, Adam and Caroline Beringer. His mother died when he was just three, and his father remarried when he was nine. His stepmother did not appreciate her stepchildren and they were turned out of home when they reached 14 years of age. By the time he was 19 he had emigrated to the US to seek his fortune in the silent movie business. He managed to get work with the film company Biograph, and through that, worked with DW Griffith, which helped get him known. As was common in those days, many of the actors had other roles in the movies they were in as well, and George sometimes had the role of assistant director. He directed a few movies himself as well.

The really big movie he was in, and also assistant producer of, was the DW Griffith epic The Birth of a Nation from 1915. It's a controversial movie because, set in the time of the American Civil War, it portrays the Ku Klux Klan as heroes and African American men as unintelligent second class citizens. Despite the controversial nature of the movie it had many technical innovations, and this, along with its racism, is what The Birth of a Nation is remembered for. In fact, it was one of the most admired and profitable movies ever produced by Hollywood, only replaced in 1940 by Gone with the Wind.

George Beranger was in over 100 movies. He had his best successes early in his career, and once or twice played a leading-man role. However, as sound was introduced into movies, his roles became smaller and smaller. Not knowing what his voice was like because he had no speaking parts in any of the "talkies" it is possible his wasn't the kind of voice desired for leading men. One of my relatives has written her Masters thesis on George and made the observation that overall his career seems to have placed him only on the edge of the spotlight. This was my impression too, that he never quite made it, and wistfully watched all the good parts pass him by.

He died alone in California in 1973. He had stopped acting by this stage and had taken jobs in other fields before retiring and becoming something of a recluse. He did marry briefly at one stage, but this seemed to be a marriage of convenience. Certainly there is evidence that he kept in contact with his siblings back in Australia (he returned for visits twice) and was adored by his nieces. It's sad though because I just can't shake the feeling that he felt his life was a disappointment.

My thanks go to Bryony Cosgrove for allowing me to read her research on George Beranger, which assisted me in writing this post.

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