Una Merkel
Una Merkel - still.JPG
Merkel in 1934
Born(1903-12-10)December 10, 1903
DiedJanuary 2, 1986(1986-01-02) (aged 82)
Resting placeHighland Cemetery, Fort Mitchell, Kentucky
Years active1920–1968
Ronald Burla
(m. 1932; div. 1947)

Una Merkel (December 10, 1903 – January 2, 1986) was an American stage, film, radio, and television actress.

Merkel was born in Kentucky and acted on stage in New York in the 1920s. She went to Hollywood in 1930 and became a popular film actress. Two of her best-known performances are in the films 42nd Street and Destry Rides Again. She won a Tony Award in 1956 and was nominated for an Oscar in 1961.

Life and career

Merkel was born in Covington, Kentucky, to Bessie (née Phares) and Arno Merkel.[1] In her early childhood, she lived in many of the Southern United States due to her father's job as a traveling salesman. At the age of 15, she and her parents moved to Philadelphia. They stayed there a year or so before settling in New York City, where she began attending the Alviene School of Dramatic Art.

Because of her strong resemblance to actress Lillian Gish, Merkel was offered a part as Gish's youngest sister in a silent film called World Shadows. However, the funding for the film dried up and it was never completed. Merkel went on to appear in a few silent movies, several of them for the Lee Bradford Corporation. She also appeared in the two-reel Love's Old Sweet Song (1923), which was made by Lee de Forest in his Phonofilm sound-on-film process and starred Louis Wolheim and Helen Weir. Not making much of a mark in films, Merkel turned her attention to the theater and found work in several important plays on Broadway. Her biggest triumph was in Coquette (1927), which starred her idol, Helen Hayes.

Una Merkel, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers in 42nd Street (1933)
Una Merkel, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers in 42nd Street (1933)
Una Merkel (right) with Phyllis Brooks and Gary Cooper at a Brisbane press conference on their way to entertain the troops (1943)
Una Merkel (right) with Phyllis Brooks and Gary Cooper at a Brisbane press conference on their way to entertain the troops (1943)
As Mom Schneider in I Love Melvin (1953)
As Mom Schneider in I Love Melvin (1953)

Invited to Hollywood by famous director D. W. Griffith to play Ann Rutledge in his film Abraham Lincoln (1930), Merkel became a big success in sound films. During the 1930s, she became a popular second lead in a number of films, usually playing the wisecracking best friend of the heroine, supporting actresses such as Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Loretta Young, and Eleanor Powell.[2]

Merkel was known for her Kewpie-doll looks, strong Southern accent, and wry line delivery. She played Sam Spade's secretary in the original 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon. Merkel was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player from 1932 to 1938, appearing in as many as 12 films in a year, often on loan-out to other studios. She was also often cast as leading lady opposite Jack Benny, Harold Lloyd, Franchot Tone, and Charles Butterworth, among others.

In 42nd Street (1933), Merkel played a streetwise show girl. In the famous "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" number, Merkel and Ginger Rogers sang the verse: "Matrimony is baloney. She'll be wanting alimony in a year or so./Still they go and shuffle, shuffle off to Buffalo." Merkel appeared in both the 1934 and the 1952 film versions of The Merry Widow, playing different roles. She received second billing in The Good Old Soak (1937) with Wallace Beery and Ted Healy in the same year that Healy died mysteriously.

One of her most famous roles was in the Western comedy Destry Rides Again (1939), in which her character, Lily Belle, gets into a famous "cat-fight" with Frenchie (Marlene Dietrich) over the possession of her husband's trousers, won by Frenchie in a crooked card game. She played the elder daughter to the W. C. Fields character, Egbert Sousé, in the 1940 film The Bank Dick. Her film career went into decline during the 1940s, although she continued working in smaller productions. In 1950, she starred with William Bendix in the baseball comedy Kill the Umpire, which was a surprise hit.

She made a comeback as a middle-aged woman playing mothers and maiden aunts, and in 1956 won a Tony Award for her role on Broadway in The Ponder Heart, adapted from the novella of the same name. She had a major part in the MGM 1959 film The Mating Game as Paul Douglas's character's wife and Debbie Reynolds' character's mother, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Summer and Smoke (1961). She was also featured as Brian Keith's character's housekeeper, Verbena, in the Walt Disney comedy The Parent Trap in 1961. Her final film role was opposite Elvis Presley in Spinout (1966).

Personal life

On March 5, 1945, Merkel was nearly killed when her mother Bessie, with whom she shared an apartment in New York City, died by suicide by gassing herself. Merkel was overcome by the five gas jets her mother had turned on in their kitchen and was found unconscious in her bedroom.[3][4]

On March 4, 1952, seven years almost to the day after her mother died, Merkel overdosed on sleeping pills.[3] She was found unconscious by a nurse who was caring for her at the time and remained in a coma for a day before recovering.[5]

Merkel was a lifelong Methodist.[6][7]


Merkel was married once and had no children.[8] She married North American Aviation executive Ronald L. Burla in 1932.[9] They separated in April 1944. Merkel filed for divorce on December 19, 1946, in Miami, and it was granted in March 1947.[10]


On January 2, 1986, Merkel died in Los Angeles at the age of 82.[8][11] She is buried near her parents, Arno and Bessie Merkel, in Highland Cemetery in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky.[12]

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Una Merkel has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (6230 Hollywood Boulevard).[13] In 1991, a historical marker was dedicated to her in her hometown of Covington.[citation needed]


For TV movies, see § Television.

Year Title Role Notes
1923 Love's Old Sweet Song Short
1924 The Fifth Horseman Dorothy
1930 Abraham Lincoln Ann Rutledge
1930 The Eyes of the World Sybil
1930 The Bat Whispers Dale Van Gorder
1931 Command Performance Princess Katerina
1931 Don't Bet on Women Tallulah Hope
1931 Six Cylinder Love Margaret Rogers
1931 The Maltese Falcon Effie Perine
1931 Daddy Long Legs Sally McBride
1931 The Bargain Etta
1931 Wicked June
1931 The Secret Witness Lois Martin
1931 Private Lives Sibyl
1932 She Wanted a Millionaire Mary Taylor
1932 The Impatient Maiden Betty Merrick
1932 Man Wanted Ruth 'Ruthie' Holman
1932 Huddle Thelma
1932 Red-Headed Woman Sally
1932 They Call It Sin Dixie Dare
1932 Men Are Such Fools Molly
1933 Whistling in the Dark Toby Van Buren
1933 The Secret of Madame Blanche Ella
1933 42nd Street Lorraine Fleming
1933 Clear All Wires! Dolly
1933 Reunion in Vienna Ilsa Hinrich
1933 Midnight Mary Bunny
1933 Her First Mate Hattie
1933 Broadway to Hollywood Flirt in Audience Uncredited
1933 Beauty for Sale Carol Merrick
1933 Menu Mrs. Omsk Short, uncredited
1933 Bombshell Mac
1933 Day of Reckoning Mamie
1933 The Women in His Life Miss 'Simmy' Simmons
1934 This Side of Heaven Birdie
1934 Murder in the Private Car Georgia Latham
1934 Paris Interlude Cassie
1934 The Cat's-Paw Pet Pratt
1934 Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back Gwen
1934 Have a Heart Joan O'Day
1934 The Merry Widow Queen Dolores
1934 Evelyn Prentice Amy Drexel
1935 Biography of a Bachelor Girl Slade Kinnicott
1935 The Night Is Young Fanni Kerner
1935 One New York Night Phoebe
1935 Baby Face Harrington Millicent
1935 Murder in the Fleet 'Toots' Timmons
1935 Broadway Melody of 1936 Kitty Corbett
1935 It's in the Air Alice Lane Churchill
1936 Riffraff Lil Bundt
1936 Speed Josephine Sanderson
1936 We Went to College Susan Standish
1936 Born to Dance Jenny Saks
1937 Don't Tell the Wife Nancy Dorsey
1937 The Good Old Soak Nellie
1937 Saratoga Fritzi
1937 Checkers Mamie Appleby
1937 True Confession Daisy McClure
1939 Four Girls in White Gertie Robbins
1939 Some Like It Hot Flo Saunders
1939 On Borrowed Time Marcia Giles
1939 Destry Rides Again Lily Belle
1940 Comin' Round the Mountain Belinda Watters
1940 Sandy Gets Her Man Nan Clark
1940 The Bank Dick Myrtle Sousé
1941 Double Date Aunt Elsie Kirkland
1941 Road to Zanzibar Julia Quimby
1941 Cracked Nuts Sharon Knight
1942 The Mad Doctor of Market Street Aunt Margaret Wentworth
1942 Twin Beds Lydia
1943 This Is the Army Rose Dibble
1943 Quack Service Daffy Short
1944 To Heir Is Human Una Short
1944 Sweethearts of the U.S.A. Patsy Wilkins
1947 It's a Joke, Son! Mrs. Magnolia Claghorn
1948 The Bride Goes Wild Miss Doberly
1948 The Man from Texas Widow Weeks
1950 Kill the Umpire Betty Johnson
1950 My Blue Heaven Miss Irma Gilbert
1950 Emergency Wedding Emma
1951 Rich, Young and Pretty Glynnie
1951 A Millionaire for Christy Patsy Clifford
1951 Golden Girl Mary Ann Crabtree
1952 With a Song in My Heart Sister Marie
1952 The Merry Widow Kitty Riley
1953 I Love Melvin Mom Schneider
1955 The Kentuckian Sophie Wakefield
1956 The Kettles in the Ozarks Miss Bedelia Baines
1956 Bundle of Joy Mrs. Dugan
1957 The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown Bertha
1958 The Girl Most Likely Mother
1959 The Mating Game Ma Larkin
1961 The Parent Trap Verbena
1961 Summer and Smoke Mrs. Winemiller
1963 Summer Magic Mariah Popham
1964 A Tiger Walks Mrs. Watkins
1966 Spinout Violet Ranley


Year Title Role Notes
1952 Four Star Playhouse Rose Barton "My Wife Geraldine"
1953 Schlitz Playhouse of Stars "Guardian of the Clock"
1953 Your Jeweler's Showcase "The Monkey's Paw"
1953 Willys Theatre Presenting Ben Hecht's Tales of the City "Miracle in the Rain"
1954 Westinghouse Studio One Parsis McHugh "Two Little Minks"
1955 Kraft Television Theatre "Trucks Welcome"
1956 Calling Terry Conway Pearl McGrath TV film
1957 Playhouse 90 Louise Hoagland "The Greer Case"
1957 The Red Skelton Show Mrs. Van Wyck "Freddie and the Happy Helper"
1957 Climax! Maud "The Secret of the Red Room"
1958 DuPont Show of the Month Aladdin's Mother "Cole Porter's 'Aladdin'"
1958 The United States Steel Hour "Flint and Fire"
1962 The Real McCoys Mrs. Gaylord "The New Housekeeper"
1963 The Bill Dana Show Mrs. Hatten "The Poker Game"
1963–1965 Burke's Law Clara Lovelace / Mrs. Thomas Barrett / Miss Samantha Cartier 3 episodes
1964 The Cara Williams Show Amelia Hofstetter "Amelia Hofstetter, Please Go Home"
1964 Destry Granny Farrell "Law and Order Day"
1968 I Spy Aunt Alma "Home to Judgment"


  1. ^ Kentucky. Birth Records, 1847-1911
  2. ^ Reid, Alexander (January 5, 1986). "Una Merket Dies at Age of 82; From Silent Films to a Tony". The New York Times. p. 24.
  3. ^ a b "Una Merkel Lies In Coma After Pill Overdose". Star-News. Wilmington, North Carolina. March 4, 1952. p. 4. Retrieved March 22, 2015.
  4. ^ "Una Merkel in Death Escape". Lodi News-Sentinel. March 6, 1945. p. 8. Retrieved March 22, 2015.
  5. ^ "Una Merkel Recovering". The Sydney Morning Herald. March 6, 1952. p. 3. Retrieved March 22, 2015.
  6. ^ kyumc.org/events/detail/1806
  7. ^ "About FUMC". First United Methodist Church, Eunice, Louisiana. Archived from the original on November 15, 2012.
  8. ^ a b Folkart, Burt A. (January 4, 1986). "Una Merkel, Movie, Stage Actress, Dies". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 22, 2015.
  9. ^ "Divorce Is Sought By Una Merkel". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. December 3, 1946. p. 2. Retrieved March 22, 2015.
  10. ^ "Una Merkel Files Suit on Back Alimony". Los Angeles Times. November 6, 1947. p. 2. Retrieved February 22, 2019.
  11. ^ "Actress Una Merkel dies". The Evening News. Newburgh, New York. January 5, 1986. p. 2A. Retrieved March 22, 2015.
  12. ^ Tenkotte, Paul A.; Claypool, James C., eds. (January 13, 2015). The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky. University Press of Kentucky. p. 615. ISBN 978-0813159966.
  13. ^ "Hollywood Star Walk: Una Merkel". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 22, 2015.

Further reading