A leading lady, an ingénue, a comedienne, and a cowgirl, Nora Lane played dozens of roles as she transformed from a small-town girl to a Hollywood actress, entertaining millions during a career that endured for more than two decades.
Nora Marie Schilling, the daughter of German immigrant farmers, was born in Cora, Illinois, on September 12, 1905. Her birthplace was so near the county’s border that her parents, Louis Schilling and Marie Wachsnicht Schilling, initially attempted to register her birth in Jackson County, eventually crossing out the county name and hand-writing “Randolph County” on her birth certificate. She was the sixth of eight children.
Nora was raised in and around the German community of Wine Hill, where the local church played a significant role in her early life. She was baptized at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in October 1905. Her parents farmed land in the rural country around Wine Hill and Chester for the first years of her life, but by the outbreak of World War I, they had relocated to Willisville, where her father worked as a coal miner. And then tragedy struck the family: at the height of the Spanish influenza outbreak, Nora’s mother died. With all of her elder siblings either married or serving in the military, Nora was left to take on the work of keeping house and caring for her younger brother and sister. She was only thirteen.
By the early 1920s, Nora sought independence. She found work as a fashion and artist’s model in St. Louis, where one of her maternal uncles had settled with his family. In 1925, a trip to California to visit friends turned quickly and unexpectedly into something much more. While in Hollywood, she was offered a screen test, and soon after she began appearing in silent films as an extra. In a later interview, Nora spoke about her unplanned career change: “I didn’t choose pictures for a career — they chose me. I came out here on a visit with no intention of going into pictures. Even when my friends suggested that I was the right type I told them I had no desire to become an actress since I had a perfectly good job back in St. Louis.” But the prospect of a movie career ended up to be too much to resist. She worked in extra roles in Hollywood for about a year before her star began to rise. Thousands of men and women took extra roles in pictures, and most were never plucked from obscurity to join the ranks of Hollywood’s movie stars.
Nora, however, was the exception to that rule. Contemporary newspapers took note. “The current season in Hollywood has been good to the Cinderellas,” one syndicated article explained. “Each of them went to Hollywood with no intention of going into pictures — oh, no — and in just a short time had joined the throng of ‘extras.’ The latest star discovered lived at Chester, Illinois, proving that there is no geographical handicap in getting into the pictures.” As she transitioned into credited work, Nora also took on a stage name: Nora Lane. The colorful gossip columnist Louella Parsons even applauded Nora’s success: “We enjoy hearing about these girls who land — so often we hear of the ones who return to Gopher Springs without so much as a look in at the studios.”
Nora caught the eye of Paramount Pictures star Fred Thomson, one of the most popular actors of the day, and his wife, screenwriter Frances Marion. They cast her as Thomson’s leading lady in Arizona Nights, Pioneer Scout, and Kit Carson, establishing her early on as an actress who excelled at roles in Western and adventure films. One of the most important early roles in her career came in Thomson’s prestige biopic of the outlaw Jesse James. Nora was cast as Jesse’s sweetheart, Zerelda Mimms. The real Jesse James, Jr. was consulted in the casting, and he reportedly approved of Nora’s “remarkable resemblance” to his late mother. Critics acclaimed her portrayal of Zerelda; the Los Angeles Times remarked, “An air of gentility and refinement hovered about Nora Lane as the romantic heroine in Jesse James. Maybe it is going to spell a future for her? It should.”
But not long after the release of Jesse James, Nora’s future in Hollywood was suddenly on shaky ground. Her partnership with Thomson and Marion was abruptly cut short when, after stepping on a nail while working in his stables, Thomson died of tetanus on Christmas Day 1928. All of the films that Nora had made with Thomson had been financed by Joseph P. Kennedy (the father of President John F. Kennedy) for FBO; after Thomson’s death, the company decided to dispose of his films to make space in their vaults. Kennedy’s biographer, Cari Beauchamp, explains that FBO “destroyed 2,200 pounds of ‘scrap film’ or, in other words, Fred Thomson’s life work.” Because of this decision, very few of Nora’s early films survive today.
Although the first promising phase of Nora’s career ended with Thomson’s death, her prowess as a Western leading lady helped her find steady employment. She made films with some of the other noted cowboy stars of the day, including Tom Tyler, Frankie Darro, Ken Maynard, Jack Holt, and Tom Mix. Critics dubbed Nora “a newcomer who has made an enviable record in a short time.” The physical demands of Western pictures sometimes put Nora in dangerous situations. During filming on The Gun Runner, her accomplished riding skills helped to avert tragedy: “Her role of Inez required her to dash down a mountain trail on horseback, and one of the camera men, on a perspective shot to get the legs of the horse, [remained on the] ground too long. Miss Lane spurred her horse into a jump and cleared the man nicely, the only damages being a broken tripod leg on the camera and a torn shirt for the near victim.”
While filming The Cisco Kid in the summer of 1931, Nora saw a much more serious accident first-hand. The film’s actors, crew, and equipment were traveling on a passenger train from Los Angeles to a filming location in Arizona when the first section of the train derailed just outside of Yuma. Nora and the other actors were safe on the second section of the train, which managed to avoid crashing into the wrecked cars, but two railroad employees were killed and sixteen other people were injured. Three of the production’s horses also perished in the wreck.
To ensure steady work, Nora diversified. Along with her Western roles, Nora starred in films from a variety of other genres. She took on dramatic roles opposite the distinguished Adolphe Menjou and comedic roles with the madcap Reginald Denny. She garnered significant press when she played a boardwalk beauty queen in The Cohens and the Kellys in Atlantic City. She had roles in films directed by two giants of the industry, Frank Capra and Cecil B. DeMille, and she appeared with horror king Boris Karloff in King of the Wild and canine star Rin Tin Tin in The Man Hunter. While many actors found their voices suddenly unsuitable for film with the advent of sound, Nora made the transition to talking pictures easily. She even appeared in a musical, Sally, that was filmed and screened entirely in Technicolor. By July 1932, Variety crowned her one of their newcomers to watch.
In the mid-1930s, however, Nora’s leading roles became fewer and fewer. She continued to work, appearing mainly in supporting roles and short films. She was also hired to endorse products, including Lux soap. Her career still brought her in proximity to some of the most famous names in the business. She made films with Spencer Tracy, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Jimmy Stewart, and Mickey Rooney. But Nora’s name soon became synonymous with Hollywood disappointment. Columnist Dan Thomas name-checked her in a long piece about actors who had almost – but not quite – become stars. “Contrary to the prevailing belief, shared alike by the public and neophytes of filmdom,” he wrote, “a studio contract is by no means a one-way ticket to screen fame. Rather it is only the first milestone on a long and treacherous highway.” Nora’s career had officially hit a bump in the road.
After marrying her business manager, Henry F. Bennett, Jr., Nora’s career stalled even further. The couple became involved in the Los Angeles social scene, playing in tennis tournaments and watching polo. But the marriage, which was Nora’s second, was ultimately unsuccessful. Bennett quit his investment banking career in Los Angeles to invest in real estate in Reno. The choice of location turned out to be prophetic. The famed Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote in January 1939: “Nora Lane was doing OK at Fox in The Cisco Kid and Dance Team a few years back. Well, that was before she decided to marry her business manager, whom she’s just subtracted at Reno. Now she’s resumed her career.” After the divorce was finalized, Nora headed back to Los Angeles, ready to try her hand at movie stardom once more.
Western movies had helped to launch Nora’s career, and in the late ‘30s, they helped to revive it once more. She dusted off her spurs and saddle and signed on for a series of Hopalong Cassidy movies alongside William Boyd and Gabby Hayes. She played Hoppy’s love interest in Hopalong Rides Again and Cassidy of Bar-20. She also served as leading lady in two more Western films, Six-Gun Trail and Texas Renegades, alongside a close friend, Tim McCoy.
In 1940, newspapers took notice when Nora made an extended trip back to Illinois to visit her father and other relatives. Murphysboro’s Daily Independent trumpeted the arrival of the Hollywood star, noting that “Chester claims Miss Lane, whose real name is Nora Schilling, because of her early life there.” As Nora’s career enjoyed a minor renaissance, she also experienced the happiest years of her personal life. In 1941, she married Burdette Henney, who was locally famous in Los Angeles as a former yell-leader at the University of Southern California. Burdette had two young children, Tim and Jill, who helped Nora form the family she’d always wanted. As she focused on her life at home with her family in Glendale, she still took on occasional film roles, many of them uncredited. She also devoted herself to charitable efforts, joining her husband’s work in Los Angeles with Optimists International, an organization focused on improving the lives of children.
Nora’s final film appearance was an uncredited role in 1944’s Lake Placid Serenade, an ice skating musical set against the background of World War II. Content to focus on her personal life, she left Hollywood behind. Her stepson, Tim Henney, remembers her as someone who never bragged about her career in the movies. “In retrospect,” he notes, “Nora seemed a modest lady. Never once during those years do I remember her suggesting that we watch some of her old films, or go see one at a theater, or whatever. One gets the impression that modesty is not among the principal characteristics of film stars, or even of ex-B-Western film actresses, yet I think modesty would be one of the traits by which one might define Nora Lane. Knowing what I know about her today … I would guess that she might have had a closet full of her starring or supporting roles in 35 mm cans, stacked up and waiting to be admired by visitors.” But although she could have been boastful or showy about her lengthy, interesting career as a movie star, Nora focused on her present rather than her past.
In 1948, after seven contented years of marriage with Burdette in Glendale, Nora’s personal happiness was shattered. While on a fishing trip, Burdette died suddenly of a massive heart attack. He was only 46. His death proved to be too much for Nora to endure, and she ended her own life only a few weeks later. She is buried beside her husband at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. The Cinderella film star from Randolph County, Illinois, left behind an impressive career legacy: more than 80 film credits and two decades of entertaining moviegoers from around the world.
Nora Lane was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2017.