Dempster who played the lead in “Sally of the Sawdust,” in 1924 with Fields, a film directed by D.W. Griffith of “Birth of a Nation” (1915) fame, had a short albeit notable career in motion pictures, according to some.
La Jolla Historical Society Historian Carol Olten said Dempster moved to La Jolla in 1966 after retiring from silent films. The actress and her wealthy banker husband Eustace S. Larsen lived at 5815 La Jolla Mesa Drive.
“‘Sally of the Sawdust’ was a departure from those films Griffith was known for during the silent period,” Olten said. “I think the story and secret about it is that he had found Carol and they were either dating or living together so she got the part in ‘Sally’ over the popular Gish sisters. Lillian and Dorothy were Griffith’s favorites for star material.”
The full-length silent feature was Dempster’s first feature (she appeared as an uncredited dancer in the 1916 film “Intolerance”) and other films followed including: “The Girl Who Stayed at Home” (1919), also directed by Griffith; “The Love Flower” (1920); “Dream Street” (1921); “One Exciting Night” (1922); “Isn’t Life Wonderful” (1924); and “That Royle Girl” (1925).
Retirement and La Jolla connections
It’s been reported Dempster retired in 1926 possibly because “the talkies” were all the rage and/or according to rumors, Olten said, “She was in an auto accident and face scarred but we don’t know this for sure.”
In 1929, Dempster married Larsen and left Hollywood to live in Manhattan and Connecticut. She returned to Southern California to live in a ranch-style home in La Jolla in 1966.
“She lived in a fairly wealthy neighborhood — and the couple started to collect art,” Olten said. “We don’t know why they moved to La Jolla, possibly they had family members or she had visited when she lived in Hollywood. Many of the early stars came to La Jolla and stayed at the La Valencia Hotel and in La Jolla during breaks.”
Olten said the couple collected a “notable art collection,” part of which was bequeathed to the San Diego Museum of Art after Dempster died at the age of 89 in 1991.
“Her husband died in 1978 and she died of heart failure, ” Olten said. “They left $1.6 million to the museum.”
According to Scott Paulson, Communications and Engagement Exhibits and Events coordinator
at UC San Diego Library and La Jolla Historical Society’s silent film curator, Dempster was indeed a silent film star who retired suddenly at the height of her fame.
“She eventually moved to La Jolla and enjoyed a yachting lifestyle with her husband,” he said. “There were rumors that her retirement was brought on by a disfiguring car accident during film production, but the few times she was caught on camera as a retiree, she seemed to be looking fit and photogenic.”
Dempster was talented and beloved by her fans, yet her rivals were always suspicious of her sudden rise to fame, Paulson added.
“Perhaps because of this industry ill-will, her place in film history is not as prominent as it could be,” he said. “Her sudden retirement and reclusiveness might also have contributed to her under-reported legacy.”
Paulson said most of her roles were of a serious nature, but his favorite is her star turn as “Sally of the Sawdust.”
“In this 1925 silent movie, she is an amazingly physical comedienne, climbing trees and scaling buildings with no stunt double in sight,” he said. “She plays a nimble circus performer in the film, with comedic gymnastic skills and balletic turns that are delightfully ‘buffa.’ She shares the screen here with second-billed W.C. Fields quite successfully.”
Dempster is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.