Karl Dane - Biography
Home Bio Research Films Photos Links Timeline


In November 2005, my husband Dan and I became avid serial fans. We started watching every cliffhanger we could get our hands on. One of the first serials we watched was Mascot's The Whispering Shadow (1933), mainly because it starred Bela Lugosi. I was surprised to see that Karl Dane was in it as well. He was an actor I had always known, but whose voice I had not previously heard. His voice, of course, was the source of all of his troubles at that time.

Karl was one of the most notorious victims of the traumatic transition from silence to sound. He could not survive the indignity, and the accompanying plunge into poverty, and he committed suicide in 1934. Hearing his voice now for the first time made me recall that sad story, one I originally read about years before in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon II. I liked Karl's voice. It was sweet, endearing, and it matched his physical persona. Most importantly, despite the creakiness of the film, and the fact that it was more than a bit dated, I loved his performance. He was by far the best actor in the serial. Even better than Bela! Admittedly, Karl's Danish accent was thick, and certain words were hard to understand, but the fact that a distinguished career could be so completely destroyed because of this reason struck me as terribly unfair.

After watching the serial I decided to read more about him, searching first for a biography. None had ever been written, and the passages about him in the many books I searched were fragmentary at best. I quickly discovered that hardly anything had ever been written about Karl's life. So I started doing some digging myself, not knowing where it would lead. With the help of many wonderful people (see My Research for details) I began locating important pieces of information, like pieces of a puzzle, of a story that had never been told. I discover more information every day.

So where has it all led? Life can certainly take some ironic twists. The journey that began when I searched for a biography of Karl Dane has progressed into me actually writing the biography I had searched for! If you are interested, please keep checking back here on my progress. And if you have any information on Karl that might be useful in any way, by all means please contact me.

What Sort of Man Was Karl?

He was direct, friendly, totally unpretentious, and sometimes naïve, preferring to spend his spare time in his backyard wood shop or at his little house on the beach in Malibu, which he built himself. He loved to be physically active, and enjoyed swimming, golf, and tennis, and his studio bios said he actually was a physical education instructor while in his military unit in Denmark. He also adored women, and was a big flirt, usually greeting a lady he just met with a big hug and kiss on the lips. Because he was so sweet and endearing, though, such forwardness did not turn them off, but rather charmed both women and men alike. Despite his friendliness, he was actually rather a solitary, shy, and awkward person, and preferred to spend time alone, sometimes feeling that he did not fully fit into the social scene in Hollywood. This was due in part to his poor English skills: he readily comprehended what others said, but had a hard time finding the right words to make himself understood, and sometimes people got the wrong impression of him. He was a real animal-lover, and adopted some sled dogs that needed homes after the making of one of his films, The Trail of 98, a gold rush adventure.

Fact and Fiction

What follows are some basic facts on Karl's life, culled with the help of of archivists, librarians, genealogists, and family members. I also discovered that there have been many myths about Karl contiuously reported over the years.
  • Karl was born Rasmus Karl Therkelsen Gottlieb on October 12, 1886 in Copenhagen (his name was misspelled as "Thekelsen" or reported in other places as "Daen." His father was Rasmus Marius Gottlieb and his mother was Anna Kathrine Simonsen. He had an older brother named Reinold Marius, an electrician.
  • Karl was a trained machinist and carpenter.
  • It has been reported that his father either owned a theatre in Copenhagen or worked as a stagehand or electrician in a theatre and Karl made regular appearances throughout his childhood. Confirmation regarding this can be found nowhere, and according to family members there is no truth to this. Karl's father was a glovemaker.
  • The studio reported that Karl was a member of the Danish Flying Corp but there is no record in Denmark of him being a member.
  • Karl was married to Carla Dagmar Hagen in 1910 in Copenhagen, and had two children: a son Ejlert Carl, born 1911, and a daughter Ingeborg Helene, born 1912.
  • Karl came to the US on February 11, 1916 and lived and worked in Brooklyn as a machinist at the Robert Gair Company.
  • Karl started out in films doing extra and stunt work in Fort Lee, NJ and Brooklyn, NY. His first appearance was in a Vitagraph film, title unknown. Robert McIntyre, the future MGM Casting Director, gave Karl his first job in films.
  • Karl was not a studio carpenter when he was discovered for the role of "Slim" in The Big Parade. He was actually running a chicken farm in the San Fernando Hills. Robert McIntyre had remained friends with Karl over the years and recommended Karl to King Vidor for the role.
  • Karl was married two more times while in the US, but never to actress Thais Valdemar, as was widely and incorrectly reported.
News Archive

April 24, 2010: Laura will be taking part in Local Author's Day at the Morris County Library in Morristown, NJ. Events begin at 10 AM with a presentation by literary agent Evan Marshall on how to get published. Between 11 AM - 1:30 PM local authors, including Laura, will be signing their books and offering them for sale.

Februrary, 2010: Laura's book gets very nice reviews from silent film historian Anthony Slide and journalist and blooger Thomas Gladysz.

November, 2009: Laura is interviewed online at Film Radar a wonderful film site created by Karie Bible, which covers indie films, foreign films, silents, classic Hollywood and other specialty fare. Karie is also the official tour guide of Hollywood Forever Cemetery and her tours are wonderfully fun and informative. If you're in LA, definitely add this to your to-do list!

October, 2009: Laura is interviewed online at Perpetual Prose and Forget the Talkies!.

August 10, 2008: Four clips from The Whispering Shadow were added here.

August, 2008: Laura recently signed a contract with McFarland & Company Publishers for her upcoming Karl Dane biography. We will announce the date for publication soon, so please check back.

April 16, 2008: Laura's article The Big Swede: The Tribulations of a Dane in 1920s Hollywood appears in the April, 2008 issue of the online magazine 16:9.

March 16, 2008: Photos from Laura's visit to Karl's Brooklyn residence and work place were posted here.

January 29, 2008: To coincide with the article in Kosmorama, Laura spoke about the life and career of Karl Dane at a Dane Retrospective hosted by the Danish Film Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark. The talk was interspersed with film clips from his films, and followed by a viewing of one his features. Click here for a description of the evening!

December 2007: Kosmorama included Laura's article on Karl Dane's life and career.

September 30, 2007: New photos were added to three of the photo collections.

September 3, 2007: Frame grabs have been added for the film "La Boheme".

July 31, 2007: The cover article of "The Bridge" (Volume 30 Number 1 2007), the twice-yearly Journal of the Danish American Heritage Society includes Laura's seven-page article on Dane entitled "Denmark's Forgotten Film Star: Karl Dane".

May 31-June 10, 2007: At least 30 new photos from Cole Johnson's collection were added to the Photo section.

May 2, 2007: Many thanks to Lisbon blogger Mariana Pinheiro for generously translating a December 1928 Cinéfilo article on Karl Dane.

April 26, 2007: Approximately 20 new photos from Cole Johnson's collection were added to the Photo section.

April 22, 2007: Frame grabs have been added for the films "The Red Mill" and "Dumbbells in Derbies".

April 15, 2007: The comedy short "Oh Buoy!", not previously included in Karl's official filmography, has been discovered. Thanks to Rob Farr for sending us a copy of this film. Frame grabs from this 1920 short were added here.

The February 2007 issue (#380) of the monthly "Classic Images" includes Laura's extensive article on Karl Dane. Click here to view the article.

The January/March 2007 issue (#60) of the quarterly "Serial Report" includes Laura's three-page article on Karl Dane. Click here to view the article.

Famed film historian Leonard Maltin gives kudos to our Karl Dane website in the November 2006 issue of Leonard's Journal.

The October 12, 2006 issue of the weekly Danish magazine FOKUS includes Laura's four-page article on Karl Dane to celebrate the 120th anniversary of his birth. Click here to view the PDF file (in Danish). The original English version can be found here.

The September 2006 issue of FILM, the Danish Film Institute's periodical, includes an article on Laura's research and upcoming biography on Karl Dane. Click here to view the PDF file (in Danish). The article is on page 50. An English translation by Librarian Christian Hansen can be found here.

Web design by Dan Balogh
Content copyright © Laura Balogh
Last modified: May 25, 2014