Mary Murillo was born Mary O’Connor, daughter of Edward O’Connor, an Irish commercial traveler and Sarah Mary née Sunter. The family was Roman Catholic, and probably came originally from Ballybrophy in County Leix, Ireland. She was the eldest of four sisters and was educated at St Monica’s in Skipton, Yorkshire, and Convent of the Sacred Heart School in Roehampton. She showed a talent for music while at school, and it may have been artistic ambitions thwarted by parental concerns that led her to make the bold move of heading for America in 1908 as a stage actress. By this time she had adopted the name of Mary Murillo, because she had been compared in looks to a Murillo painting of the Madonna.
In February 1909 she made her debut in the chorus of the Broadway musical comedy Havana alongside her step-sister Isabel Daintry (later an actor with the Thanhouser film company). She toured America, finding only small parts and few enough of them, until 1913, when she started sending scenarios to film companies. Her first script to be accepted was bought by the husband-and-wife team of Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber. Other commissions followed, and the first film known to be credited to her is A Strand of Blond Hair (1914), a Vitagraph comedy short starring John Bunny and Flora Finch.
She moved from comedy shorts to feature film melodrama, at which point her rise in the film industry was dramatic. In 1915 she was taken on as chief scenarist for the Fox Film Corporation, writing in particular for Theda Bara, for whom she scripted Gold and the Woman, The Eternal Sapho, East Lynne, Her Double Life and The Vixen (all 1916). Other scripts followed for William Farnum, Virginia Pearson, Genevieve Hamper and Valeska Suratt, and she wrote fairytale-based films for Fox, including Jack and the Beanstalk (1917). By 1918 it was reported that she was earning $25,000 a year. In 1917 she went independent, writing for Metro, Clara Kimball Young and the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation (she claimed to have written for Nazimova but no specific title has been identified), and in 1919 she was taken on by Talmadge as the actress’ lead scriptwriter, just at the point when she was reaching the peak of her popularity. Her scripts for Talmadge included The Heart of Wetona (1919), Passion Flower (1921) and The Sign on the Door (1921), while Murillo also wrote for other studios, including Realart, Selznick and Fox, sometimes acting as a form of script doctor.
In 1923 she left America for Britain (a New York Times report suggests a trail of unpaid debts, but it could equally signify someone who was rich enough not always to notice to whom debts were due). She joined the Stoll Picture Company, which filmed three of her scripts: The Sins Ye Do (1924, directed by Fred LeRoy Granville), The White Slippers (1924) and A Woman Redeemed (1927, both directed by Sinclair Hill). Another film, Forbidden Cargoes (1925) was made for Granville’s own company, while she wrote The White Sheik (1928), directed by Harley Knoles) for BIP. She was active, but her film career had started to lose something of its momentum, probably not unconnected with the slump in British production that occurred in the mid-1920s. However her name still carried some weight, as she was named as a major part of the plans for the British Lion Film Corporation when the company was floated in 1927 (the prospectus refereed to her as “in the forefront of Scenario Writers”). She wrote The Ringer (1928, directed by Arthur Maude) for British Lion, based on the play by the company’s chairman, Edgar Wallace, but information is lacking on any other scripts she may have produced for them. She then was named in the prospectus for the Ludwig Blattner Film Corporation, but it is unclear if any of the two or three films she was announced as writing for the company were produced. Instead she moved to France, working on English versions of French early talkies, before scripting one of the big hits of early sound French cinema, Accusée, levez-vous! (1930).
She claimed to have continued working in French films, but evidence of specific titles is lacking. Her final known film credit is as a co-scriptwriter for the Betty Balfour British picture, My Old Dutch (1934, directed once more by Sinclair Hill). The last that is heard of her is in 1941, when she volunteered her support for Belgian exiles in London. Mary Murillo was an intriguing figure; a figure of some importance in American, British and French film, with a sound popular touch and a particular aptitude for fashioning star vehicles for leading film actresses of the late teens and early twenties. She worked with such leading directors as Herbert Brenon, Edward José, Ralph Ince, Sidney Franklin, Rex Ingram, Maurice Tourneur and allegedly D.W. Griffith (she claimed to have had some influence over Griffith’s decision to film The Birth of a Nation). She left frustratingly little trace (she goes unmentioned in any of the film memoirs covering that period), but seems to have conducted herself with a spirited independence. Half a dozen of her films exist today, including A Woman Redeemed among her British titles, while her scripts alone enjoy a remarkable survival rate. At least a dozen are held in archives in the United States and Britain, including three of her British films: The Sins Ye Do (held by the BFI), A Woman Redeemed (held by the BFI and Norfolk Record Office) and The Ringer (in private hands). She is a subject worthy of further investigation.
Note: It should be noted that there was another Mary O’Connor, full name Mary Hamilton O’Connor (1872-1959), who was a scriptwriter for American films in the 1910s and worked for a time in British films in the early 1920s.
©Luke McKernan, 2007. NB McKernan’s work is ongoing and more up to date information can be found via Murillo’s Wikipedia page.
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