They walked away from a fantasy life.
But what they left behind is still fulfilling dreams.
Neil and Gloria Hardin were stars of films for one of Hollywood’s biggest studios in the early days of motion pictures. However, fame and fortune did not go to their heads.
Thanks to a bequest left by the childless couple, hundreds of Louisiana kids have gotten to go to college.
Historian and journalist Betty Allen grew up in Louisiana, and remembers the Hardins well. She says their legacy continues to reap benefits.
“They were quiet enablers and thoughtful doers,” Allen said. “They were very visible, but not in an arrogant, flamboyant way. They were very concerned about young people.”
Neil Cameron Hardin Jr. was born in Louisiana on Sept. 20, 1880.
Cam, as he was known, hailed from a distinguished pioneer family.
His grandfather became a doctor at 19 and arrived in Pike County from Kentucky in 1828. In 1844, he built a three-story house at 300 N. Main.
The elegant home, which still stands, sheltered some of Morgan’s Raiders during a multi-state Confederate campaign in 1863.
Hardin’s father was a graduate of Harvard Law School and was the youngest member of the Missouri Constitutional Convention of 1875. Buffalo Bill was a family friend, and once traded the Hardins a pistol in exchange for a loan.
Cam became an attorney, too, but was enticed by acting -- a craft that his staid relatives probably never fully understood.
A 1918 newspaper article about the origins of Hardin’s artistic talent concluded that there was no way his abilities came from genes.
“Neil Hardin did not imitate any of his ancestors when he went on the stage,” the article said. “Any of the people up around Louisiana, Mo., where he was brought up, when they get to talking about the success he has made, say they never thought ‘Cam’ Hardin would turn out to be an actor.”
Hardin toured with theater stock companies and finally settled in California to make silent films. His first was the adventure/mystery “The Broken Coin” in 1915.
A year later, Hardin left Universal Studios to work for Balboa Amusement Producing Company. The massive studio, featuring 10 buildings over eight acres at the corner of Sixth and Alamitos in downtown Long Beach, attracted the top directors and stars of the era.
It was there in 1916 that Hardin met Gloria Payton, who was born in New York City on Aug. 2, 1897.
The girl’s parents died when she was seven, and Gloria went to live with friends of her mother’s. After being educated in Texas, she moved at 15 to California to live with a foster aunt, who knew Cam Hardin.
Cam and Gloria fell pretty hard for each other, even though they were almost two decades apart in age.
A 1917 “Movie Gossip” column reported on the lovebirds.
“Cupid visited Balboa studio again last week and led away captive Gloria Payton and Neil Cameron Hardin,” the column reported. “Mr. Hardin will continue his work in ‘The Twisted Thread,’ Balboa’s latest serial, but Miss Payton will retire temporarily from the screen. No more popular couple has ever been at Balboa.”
Cam often was cast as a suave, yet unsavory, character. His good looks, high intelligence and strong physique helped him land roles opposite some of the leading ladies of the time.
A newspaper article called Cam “one of the strongest men in films” and said he “handles men like men handle schoolboys.” A review for the film “The Neglected Wife” called Hardin “one of the best heavies on the screen.”
“Mr. Hardin is in the films solely for love of the game,” the article said. “His meal ticket was provided for long before he was born, but he is nevertheless an enthusiastic and indefatigable worker.”
While Gloria made only nine films compared with Cam’s 27, she was more popular with audiences. A March 1917 tidbit in a gossip column marveled at Payton’s rise to fame, and offered a little-used description of her vitality.
“Six months ago, Gloria Payton of Balboa was an extra girl,” the article reported. “Now, she’s playing leads. She has spizzerinctum, all right!”
The couple’s only onscreen appearance together also came in 1917 in the drama “Temptation and the Girl.”
Gloria’s roles certainly were not limited to folly. In 1919, she made “The Faith of the Strong,” which included themes of rape and domestic abuse.
Balboa, which at one time had as many as 10 movie companies shooting more than 15,000 feet of film a week, declared bankruptcy in 1918.
Cam made his last film, “The Girl in the Rain,” for Universal in 1920. Gloria followed in 1921 with a highly-touted role as Quan Yin in “Where Lights Are Low” with Sessue Hayakawa, a filmmaker and actor who would later be nominated for an Academy Award for portraying the Japanese prison camp commandant in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
“Where Lights Are Low” also had social overtones, with Gloria’s character being sold into slavery and a Chinese prince fighting to save her. A review called her “an American actress of high skill” who had “marked versatility and charm.”
Despite their popularity, the couple decided to return to Cam’s hometown. It would be the best decision of their lives -- and those of countless young people.
‘Leave things better’
Cam and Gloria returned to the house his grandfather had built in 1844.
He resumed his lawyer duties and she was ever the lady. Despite investing wisely and living well, the couple was always approachable.
Allen, 86, remembers that she and a high school friend would visit a downtown Louisiana pharmacy once a week during the school year to eat. In those days, there was no school lunch program, so kids were left to their own devices.
Cam and Gloria also ate regularly at the pharmacy, and Allen and her friend, Ada Burns, always marveled that they were in the presence of what they considered movie stars.
“Many times, we would stop by and say a few words to them,” Allen said.
Years later, Allen attended a brunch and Gloria called her over.
“She said, ‘Betty, you and Ada will never know how you made our day when you’d come over and talk to us,’” Allen said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. I thought it would be just the opposite.’”
Allen recalls that Hardin repeatedly told her to “try to leave things a little bit better than you found them.”
“I’ve never forgotten that,” she said. “In those days, you took for granted that you were going to do the best you could.”
Gloria put her words into action in 1949, helping a Louisiana woman to get a four-year scholarship to an East Coast university. It was the beginning of a philanthropic endeavor that would manifest itself 40 years later.
Cam died on Nov. 22, 1969, at age 89. Gloria followed on Aug. 1, 1989 – one day shy of her 92nd birthday. They are buried in Louisiana’s Riverview Cemetery.
Though the couple’s home was sold outside the family, they left $1.7 million in a trust with instructions that the interest be used exclusively for scholarships to Louisiana High School students.
The program began in 1992, and in the almost quarter-century since has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in educational assistance.
“I know students who benefitted who probably wouldn’t have gotten a chance to go to college otherwise,” Allen said.
One more thing
Cam Hardin loved the water.
It can be seen in the many photographs of him frolicking with Gloria or showing off his muscles on Pacific Ocean beaches in California.
But the Mississippi River also captured his attention. And he apparently never fully left his artistic abilities in Tinseltown.
The evidence can be found in the incredibly descriptive, apparently unpublished short stories Cam authored. Just about all of them center upon life along the Father of Waters.
One, entitled “River Scum,” is part of a series about the fictional town of Todalo, and tells the sordid tale of two drifters who arrive in the small waterfront burg.
“Todalo sprawled in the river’s excretion,” the opening paragraph reads. “Spring rains could not wash away the years of accumulated spume.”