Rodeo fans at the Round-Up in Pendleton, Oregon, in 1928 were thrilled by the prospect of meeting the cowgirl actress chosen to reign over the prestigious event. Queen Mary Duncan had entertained motion picture audiences with her horseback riding skills in the popular silent films Four Devils and The River. Audience members hoped she would demonstrate some of the roping and riding techniques she performed on screen at the event, maybe even participate in a relay race or two. Champion trick rider Mabel Strickland, who had ruled as queen over the prior year’s program, had dazzled ticket buyers with an exhibition of her talent. Queen Mary’s contribution to the festivities would not be as daring.
Born on August 13, 1894, in Luttrellville, Virginia, Mary learned to ride at a young age and could have gone on to work in Wild West shows, but decided to attend Cornell University instead. She left college after two years to go on the stage. She made a phenomenal success in the Broadway plays Poppy and Shanghai Gesture. On the merits of those performances, she was signed by Fox Film Corporation to appear in a series of films portraying a feisty rancher’s daughter who helped fight off cattle thieves. The vivacious, auburn-haired beauty’s talent for the screen equaled her talent on stage.
Mary Duncan had been in Pendleton a month prior to the Round-Up. She arrived with director Edward Sedgwick and other cast and crew members to film a movie entitled Our Daily Bread. Sedgwick wanted to use the rodeo as a backdrop for the setting. It was the first time in motion picture history that the Round-Up would be both heard and seen on the screen. The director had filmed the rodeo in 1924 when his then wife, Josie Sedgwick, had been the queen of the event. Unlike Josie’s court, Mary’s did not feature cowboy attendants. The Round-Up board of directors appointed a traditional court: two princesses from Pendleton and two from the surrounding area. Queen Mary and her attendants appeared in the parade dressed in white leather costumes trimmed in black. Mary rode in a stagecoach and her attendants followed her on horseback.
When the Round-Up concluded, Mary, Edward Sedgwick, and the others associated with the production of Our Daily Bread remained in the area. Local newspaper reporters followed Mary’s every move, referring to her as “Queen” in the articles written about her and the film being made in the wheatfields and hills of Umatilla County. “The people out here are perfectly marvelous,” she told a reporter for the La Grande Observer. “I wish you would convey for me how glorious my time in Oregon has been.”
Pendleton residents who spent time with the actress during her visit praised her for her charm and kindness. Some claimed she was one of the “most talented Round-Up Queens who never rode a horse.” The community invited Mary back to the rodeo to serve again as the queen of the event years after she returned to Hollywood, but she declined the offer, insisting the honor should go to a working cowgirl.
Queen Mary Duncan died on May 9, 1993, at the age of ninety-eight.