Olga Baclanova apprenticed at the Moscow Art Theatre but was soon appearing in films in the Russian cinema. In 1925, as part of a touring company from the Moscow Art Theatre, Olga came to New York City. She defected during the tour and caught the sight of film producers during a performance in Los Angeles. Olga was cast in The Dove in a bit part. The popularity of the film led to bigger roles including the thriller The Man Who Laughs with Conrad Veidt. She received raved reviews for her performances… that is until talking pictures became the trend in Hollywood. The exaggerated mannerisms she displays in silent films, along with her heavy Russian accent, became a hinderance. Her career faltered and she was relegated to small, supporting roles… when she was able to get work.
Director Tod Browning, a fan from her silent picture days, cast her in his follow-up to his hit Dracula. The film was Freaks and Olga played the deceitful trapeze artist Cleopatra. Freaks shocked movie-going audiences and was pulled from widespread distribution. It was banned in a number of countries worldwide. All hopes of reigniting Olga’s career were dashed. She ended her film career in 1943 after a smattering of bit parts.
Undiscouraged, Olga pursued the stage, appearing in Broadway productions, as well as plays on London’s famed West End. She headed to retirement, taking to the stage only a few more times in the 1950s. She moved to Switzerland and spent her final years in a retirement facility. She passed away in 1974 at the age of 81.
Olga experienced some posthumous resurgence in the spotlight. In the early 80s, it was noticed that a budding young singer named Madonna bore a striking resemblance to Olga in her youth. The Man Who Laughs enjoyed a brief revival as a result of Madonna’s popularity.