A legendary stage actress and character player in early films, Lucille La Verne is one of those forgotten legends who seem to fade as the years go on. However, at her prime she was one of the most acclaimed actresses of her generation.
Lucille La Verne Mitchum was born in Nashville, Tennessee, on November 8, 1872. Little is known about her family. She made her stage debut at the local summer stock theater in 1876. The production was called "Centennial" in honor of America's 100th birthday, and the three-year old Lucille was among a handful of child extras in the play. In 1878 she returned to play another child part. She continued to return every summer, sort of becoming the playhouse's resident child star. She quickly proved herself a talented actress, and as she got older she was given better parts. She won great acclaim when during the summer of 1887 she played both Juliet and Lady Macbeth--at only 14 years of age.
On the night of her 16th birthday in 1888, made her Broadway debut with a supporting role in "La Tosca". The play closed after four weeks. In the fall of 1889 she performed with a stock company in Washington, DC, where she played May in "May Blossom" and Chrissy Rogers in "The Governess". She also toured as Ethel in "Judge Not". Her breakthrough performance was a limited-run Broadway revival of "As You Like It" with an all-female cast in March 1894, and she won much acclaim for her performance as "Corin". In the 1894-95 season, she played Patsy in Frank Mayo's Broadway production of Mark Twain's "Pudd'nhead Wilson". She also scored great success by playing the female lead roles in three different acclaimed touring productions over the next three years: "Notre Dame" (1895-96), "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1897-98) and "Lady Windermere's Fan" (1897-98). In 1898 La Verne was made manager and director of the newly built Empire Theater in Richmond, VA. She staged five shows every season, and received mostly rave reviews. She played everything from leading roles in "Hedda Gabbler" and "Antigone" to character parts such as "Ma Frochard" in "The Two Orphans." She also wrote an adaptation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol", which she first staged in 1900, and her version was used by several other theaters in the early 1900s. She received much acclaim for her work at the Empire, and even received the Woman of the Year Award from the Virginia Women's Society in 1901.
She stepped down from the Empire Theater at the end of the 1903-04 season to make her London debut in a comic supporting role in the play "Clarice". She again received acclaim and repeated her success in the Broadway production three months later. She remained a staple of the Broadway stage for the next several years, specializing in character parts. She also returned on occasion to stock theaters to act and direct. She made her film debut in 1914 in Butterflies and Orange Blossoms (1914). From then on she would divide her time between film and the stage. She was used in film frequently by D.W. Griffith for various character parts. While she was a versatile actress, her most memorable parts in film were always those of vengeful women.
Her greatest stage triumph was the creation of the Widow Caggle role in the original Broadway production of "Sun Up". After the Broadway engagement she directed, as well as continued to perform, in the US and European tours of the play. She also recreated her role for the film version (Sun-Up (1925)). In 1927 Broadway's Princess Theater was renamed the Lucille La Verne Theater in her honor, and she was named manager and director. For her first outing as a Broadway producer and director she chose an original play called "Hot Water", giving herself the role of Jessica Dale. The play received mixed reviews and closed rather quickly. Later that same season she launched a revival of "Sun Up" repeating her Widow Caggle role, but it also closed quickly. Since the theater had lost money, she was let go as manager and the name reverted to being the Princess Theater. Upset, she moved to California for the time being to make more movies.
By 1928 she had already established herself as a good character actress in silent films and made the transition easily to talkies. As with her stage career, however, she tended to get typecast as unlikable women, despite her acclaim on Broadway for being able to play almost any character type. She did not abandon the stage entirely, however, and appeared frequently in regional productions in Los Angeles and San Francisco. In 1936 she returned to Broadway in the lead role of the thriller "Black Widow". Despite the rave reviews she received, the play itself got mixed reviews and closed after just a few performances. It would be her last stage production. La Verne quickly returned to Hollywood to take on her most famous role. She voiced both the Wicked Queen and her alter ego, the Old Hag in Walt Disney's first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). She also worked as a live-action model for the artists.
After working on "Snow White", Lucille La Verne retired from acting and became co-owner of a successful nightclub. She died at age 72 of cancer on March 4, 1945, in Culver City, CA.