In most of her movies she played a supporting role to the main stars of the day, such as Jean Harlow, Ginger Rogers, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable and Marlene Dietrich. Towards the end of her career, she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in 'Summer and Smoke' in 1961.
BiographyShe was born Una Kohnfelder on December 10, 1903 in Covington, Kentucky. Her father, Arno, moved his family round with his salesman's job. After moving to New York they went to Philadelphia where Una graduated from High School, and then back to New York where, in 1920, she enrolled in the Alviene School of Dramatic Art to follow her early dream of an acting career.
Acting CareerUna had the good fortune to closely resemble the renowned actress of the Silent screen, Lillian Gish. Gish was 10 years older and had appeared in prestigious early classic films such as 'The Birth of a Nation' in 1915 and 'Intolerance' in 1916. Una's first paid acting work was as a stand-in for Gish in the movie 'The Wind' in 1923 and in the same year she also appeared for the first time on screen in the short feature 'Love's Old Sweet Song' and in 1924 she had a small role in the full length feature 'The Fifth Horseman'.
After this brief foray into movies she returned to New York to work for several years on Broadway, appearing in two short run plays, 'Two by Two' in 1925 which lasted just two weeks, and 'The Poor Nut' later the same year, which ran for three weeks.
Finally, in 1927, her perseverance was rewarded when she appeared with Helen Hayes in 'Coquette' which had a 22 month Broadway run.
Hollywood 1930She returned to Hollywood in 1930 and was chosen by D. W. Griffith to co-star with Walter Huston in the well-received 'Abraham Lincoln'. She appeared in several low budget movies in the next few years, including an early version of 'The Maltese Falcon', until in 1932 she was put under contract by MGM. Over the next six years she made over forty movies, often on loan to other studios, gaining a reputation as a hard working, talented professional.
One of her best known roles was as the cynical chorus girl, Lorraine, in '42nd Street' in 1933, alongside Ginger Rogers. She also played leading lady to a number of the top male comedy stars of the time including Harold Lloyd in 'The Cat's-Paw' in 1934, Jack Benny in 'It's in the Air' and 'Broadway Melody of 1936', both in 1935. Una made a speciality of "best friend" roles as with Janet Gaynor in 'Daddy Long Legs' in 1931, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers in '42nd Street' in 1933, Myrna Loy in 'Evelyn Prentice' in 1934, Carole Lombard in 'True Confession' in 1937 and Jean Harlow in 'Red-Headed Woman' in 1932, 'Riffraff' in 1936 and 'Saratoga' in 1937.
She had a natural comic timing and was at her best in the secondary female role, making deadpan quips and giving smart answers in her unmistakable Southern drawl. At the end of the decade she made her most memorable appearance as Lily Belle Callahan, in 'Destry Rides Again' in 1939, in which she engages in an unforgettable, no-holds-barred catfight with saloon gal, Frenchie, played by Marlene Dietrich.
The following year Una joined another top comic when she played the elder daughter of W C Fields in 'The Bank Dick' in 1940.
After this, the offers of good roles began to dry up,although she continued making movies, such as 'Road to Zanzibar' in 1941, with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and the wartime morale booster, 'This Is the Army' alongside Ronald Reagan in 1943. After America joined the war, Una spent time with Gary Cooper and other Hollywood stars, touring USO camps in the South Pacific.
In the mid 1940's Una suffered two major catastrophes in her personal life with her mother committing suicide in 1945 and her first marriage ending in 1947 after 15 years. In the five years from 1945 she only appeared in three movies.' Her movie career briefly revived in the following years and she appeared in ' My Blue Heaven' and 'Emergency Wedding' in 1950. In 1951 she appeared in the musical 'Rich, Young and Pretty' and in 1952, for the second time in the operetta 'The Merry Widow'. (In 1934 she had played Queen Dolores, in 1952, Kitty Riley.
Television Actress 1952Una also began a successful career in television, appearing for the first time in 'Four Star Playhouse' in 1952 and continuing for the rest of her acting career in such programs as 'Kraft Theater', 'Playhouse 90', 'The Real McCoys' and from 1963 to 1965 'Burke's Law'. Her final appearance was in 1968 in 'I Spy'.
Later CareerAs her movie career declined, Una returned to her first love, the stage. She appeared in several productions such as ' The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker' in 1953, and 'Listen To The Mocking Bird' in early 1959. She won a Tony Award for her work in the play 'The Ponder Heart' in 1956. Her final Broadway appearance was in the musical comedy 'Take Me Along' with Jackie Gleason and Walter Pidgeon which ran for 448 performances between October, 1959 and December, 1960.
In 1961 Una's movie career was briefly resuscitated with the Disney production 'The Parent Trap' after which she recreated her earlier stage role as Geraldine Page's domineering mother in 'Summer and Smoke' for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Even though she had played the role on stage 8 years earlier, she still had to go through a screen test to get the movie part. Una's final movie appearance was in 'Spinout' in 1966 with Elvis Presley
PersonalIn March, 1945 Una's mother committed suicide by turning on the gas oven in the New York apartment they shared. Seven years later, in 1952, Una herself accidentally overdosed on sleeping pills. She was in a coma for a day before recovering.
Una married once, to Ronald L. Burla, an aircraft engineer. They married in 1932 and the marriage produced no children. They separated in 1944 and divorced in 1947.
Una was very popular amongst in Hollywood movie colony . She was regarded as kindhearted, down-to-earth professional with a great deal of talent and an unusual absence of ego.
In her final years she years, she lived quietly in an apartment in Los Angeles.
Una Merkel died in Los Angeles, January 2, 1986, age 82.
Una Merkel Academy AwardsNo Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Supporting Actress ... Summer and Smoke (1961)
Una Merkel Filmography
Love's Old Sweet Song (Short)
The Fifth Horseman
The Eyes of the World
The Bat Whispers
All Women are Bad
Six Cylinder Love
The Maltese Falcon
Daddy Long Legs
The Secret Witness
She Wanted a Millionaire
The Impatient Maiden
The Impossible Lover
The Way of Life
Men Are Such Fools
Whistling in the Dark
The Secret of Madame Blanche
Clear All Wires!
Reunion in Vienna
Her First Mate
Ring Up the Curtain(uncredited)
Beauty for Sale
Day of Reckoning
The Women in His Life
This Side of Heaven
Murder on the Runaway Train
Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back
Have a Heart
The Merry Widow
Biography of a Bachelor Girl
The Night Is Young
The Trunk Mystery
Baby Face Harrington
Murder in the Fleet
Broadway Melody of 1936
It's in the Air
The Old School Tie
Born to Dance
Don't Tell the Wife
The Good Old Soak
Four Girls in White
Some Like It Hot
On Borrowed Time
Destry Rides Again