In Kevin Brownlow’s documentary on Hollywood from about 1979, one of the elderly stars interviewed warmed my heart and charmed me completely. Her name was Viola Dana.
Viola in Brownlow’s documentary
Viola’s real name was Virginia Flugrath. Her sister Leonie was also an actress– stage name Shirley Mason. While a major actress of the silent period, Viola also had very sad luck with love.
Her first husband was a director named John Hancock Collins. He passed away from pneumonia during the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918.
Fast forward to 1920, and Viola was swept off her feet by a handsome, dashing aviator (and Texan! w00t!) named Ormer Locklear. Locklear became the model for Robert Redford’s movie character The Great Waldo Pepper. He was a war hero and a barnstormer, performing feats of airborne derring-do. Hollywood beckoned, so he and his pal Milton “Skeets” Elliott headed for California and began doing aerial stunts for the movies.
Actress Leatrice Joy described his eagerness to take up the stars when he came around the set, and how she always managed to make herself scarce, until one day he cornered her and convinced her to go up with him. He then proceeded to perform any number of stomach-rolling stunts until she was overjoyed to get back on the ground.
Viola didn’t have that problem. When he asked her to go up in his little Jenny plane, she blushed and answered “of course!” She thought he was big and handsome, and in her words, “he had green eyes too.” You could see her wizened face light up when she talked about him. They soon became engaged.
Locklear was scheduled to perform in The Skywayman, a documentary on stunt flying. One scene was to be filmed at night at the DeMille Airfield, near the oilfields in Los Angeles. Elliott, as usual, was his co-pilot. It was to be a 5000-foot dive, and the wings were supposed to look like they were on fire.
Pretty young Viola
“Okay, ” he told the fellows setting up the stunt. “Make sure to kill the searchlights. That way I can see where I am and I can pull out of it.”
Locklear and Elliott did the dive, but no one cut the searchlights. Unable to see how close to the ground they were, they crashed into an oil derrick and the plane burst into flames. They were both killed instantly.
Poor Viola was in the audience that night, and began to ran toward the disaster. She remembered someone saying “Somebody grab her!” and then she figured she must have passed out.
“When you’re young,” she said, “those kinds of things are very shocking.” Those big green eyes filled with tears, and you could hear the knot in her throat. “I don’t really like to talk about it,” she said, almost in a whisper . My heart broke for her.
Viola married several times, but none really successful love matches. The last one ended in 1945. Viola herself passed away in 1987. I hope that she’s been able to find some peace in her afterlife, and that she and Ormer are reunited once again.