Mildred Kornman, child actor of the silent film era who later modelled for Vogue – obituary

Mildred Kornman in 2015 - Dimitra Sotirchos / Guardian
Mildred Kornman in 2015 - Dimitra Sotirchos / Guardian

Mildred Kornman, who has died aged 97, was one of the last actresses known to have featured in silent films; she appeared with such stars of the 1920s as Mabel Normand, Oliver Hardy and Charley Chase, and was one of the remaining cast members from the “Our Gang” series of comedy film shorts that lasted from 1922 to 1944; she later found fame as a fashion model under the name Ricki VanDusen.

She was born Mildred Gene Kornman in Beverly Hills on July 10 1925. Her mother was the actress Verna Comer. Her father Gene Kornman, of German descent, was a photographer who worked at Hal Roach’s Hollywood studios.

“Dad was a charmer and a gentleman and everyone adored him,” she recalled. “He was terribly friendly with Harold Lloyd, who was the biggest star under Roach. When I was born, Harold gave Dad his blessing to christen me after his actress wife Mildred Davis.”

Bring Home The Turkey, poster, 1927: Mildred Kornman is on the centre right in blue clothing - Photo by LMPC via Getty Images
Bring Home The Turkey, poster, 1927: Mildred Kornman is on the centre right in blue clothing - Photo by LMPC via Getty Images

Her older sister Mary was one of the stars of the “Our Gang” serials, and Mildred followed in her footsteps aged one, playing Joe Cobb’s baby sister in Thundering Fleas, which was notable for the appearance of Oliver Hardy without Stan Laurel.

That year she also appeared in The Nickel-Hopper, which was intended to be Mabel Normand’s comeback. The career of the great silent-era comedienne appeared to have been scuppered by two scandals: the murder of her friend, the director William Desmond Taylor, and the wounding of the oil millionaire Courtland Dines by her chauffeur, using her pistol. The film did not revive her career, and she died of TB in 1930.

Mildred continued working on the “Our Gang” series into the mid-1930s, though her roles became increasingly sporadic and often uncredited. After a fleeting appearance as a schoolgirl in the musical Mad About Music she left to go to Hollywood High School.

By the time she left school in 1943, she had begun to take on modelling work, under the name of Ricki VanDusen, as well as returning to films – again, in uncredited bit parts, mostly for 20th Century Fox.

She was named by the Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, as one of the “1943 Goldwyn Girls”. But that year she married Lieutenant Norton Hinsey, who was serving in the US Army, and while he was overseas she moved to New York with their infant son to concentrate on modelling.

She became a favourite of photographers including Irving Penn, Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Horst P Horst, and on one occasion she was in a shoot styled by Salvador Dali. She appeared on the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and in ads for Revlon, Cutex, Max Factor, Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden.

Commuting between New York and Hollywood, she juggled films and modelling – and motherhood. She also opened her own fashion boutique, VanDusen Green in the upmarket district of Encino, California; her clients included Jayne Mansfield, June Allyson and Norma Shearer.

In her 50s Mildred Kornman followed in her father’s footsteps to become a photographer.

As one of the last survivors of the silent era she made many appearances at fan conventions and was in demand as an interviewee, though she freely admitted that much of what she had to say was “second hand” as she had been so young. “Everything, when it gets older, becomes more popular,” she said in 2015, by which time she had retired to a secluded ranch in Utah.

Her greatest achievement, she said, was her two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom survive her.

Mildred Kornman, born July 10 1925, died August 20 2022