Thursday, November 21, 2013

Miss Lila Lee

Lila Lee is a name like so many others, that seems to be forgotten with time. It is surprising that she is hardly remembered today because she was a perfect embodiment of the cute flapper that is still idolized from the Roaring Twenties.

But, the silent films fans out there remember her name, which should count for something! And now, here is her story.

Lila Lee was born Augusta Wilhelmena Fredericka Appel on July 25, 1901 in Union Hill, New Jersey. She was the second daughter born to Charles/Carl (I've read both), and Augusta Appel. She had a sister, Paula/Pauline/Margaret (again, I've read a few different versions) who was a year older.

When she was still a child, the Appels moved to New York. Her parents noticed early on that their youngest daughter had a lot of energy and they wanted to find a place where she could put that energy into good use. So, they decided to get her involved in theatre. While performing on stage, the cute little girl earned the nickname, "Cuddles," which stuck with her for the rest of her life. The audience adored the little girl and soon she was working under the well known vaudevillian, Gus Edwards. Edwards soon because Lila's personal manager.

She reportedly got her big break in films by being spotted by Jesse Lasky himself. In 1918, she made her film debut in, The Cruise of the Make-Believes. Lasky clearly had a lot of faith in his new find because he started running advertisements in magazines lauding her praises and announcing her as the next big thing. In fact, one reason that Lila was signed so quickly was because the studio was looking to replace their biggest star, Gloria Swanson who had become temperamental and too high maintenance.

Lila had the chance to appear in some popular pictures early in her career and appear alongside some pretty big stars. In 1919, she appeared in Male and Female with her supposed rival, Gloria Swanson (the two actually became friends). In 1921, she was featured alongside Roscoe Arbuckle in Gasoline Gus, and the following year had her in the film she is probably the most known for nowadays, Blood and Sand, which starred Rudolph Valentino.

Her career was looking as promising as ever! Lila was even named a WAMPAS Baby Star of 1922 along with Patsy Ruth Miller, Bessie Love, and Colleen Moore.

In 1928, she took a brief break from making films to concentrate on caring for her young son. "For a while I had to stay home constantly because of my baby, Jimmy. He is old enough now so that I can leave home with his nurse while I work. I am going to work hard. I want to enjoy the happiness that can only come from success." ~~ Lila Lee to the San Jose News - December 22, 1928

Then, the inevitable happened - the talkies came to Hollywood! Lila faired better than a lot of her fellow actors and actually had a fine voice for the new medium. What happened with her career is that she made some bad career choices when it came to films. That coupled with a bout of tuberculosis and rumored alcoholism did not help matters.

On top of her film roles, Lila also appeared in various stage productions as well as some soap operas when tv became the craze. Unfortunately, she didn't make a splash in either category.

Her last film was 1967's Cottonpickin' Chickenpickers. She played a character by the name of Viola Zickafoose. If you can't tell by the title and her character's name, the film was not a success.

Lila Lee passed away on November 13, 1973 in Saranac Lake, New York after suffering a stroke.

She was buried at the Brookdale Cemetery in Elyria, Ohio. I am not sure why she was buried here, but I would be interested to know for sure.

Lila was married three times. Her first husband was actor James Kirkwood, who she married in 1923. They had a son, James Jr. the following year. The couple had problems from the beginning. Lila's mother was against the marriage because of the age difference between the couple (Kirkwood was 26 years older than Lila). After a few years, the tension became enough where Lila left him, and the public knew all about it. When questioned by reporters on the state of his marriage, Kirkwood stated that even though his wife had left him, they had no plans of divorce and he was confident that she would return to him. Well, it is good to keep your hopes high, but sadly it was to no avail. Kirkwood filed for divorce in 1931 on the grounds of desertion. HE was granted custody of their son.  

Her next husband was a broker named Jack Peine, who she was married to for a year (1934-1935). Her third and final husband was also a broker. She married John Murphy in 1944, but they divorced five years later.

In between husbands two and three, Lila was involved in a scandal when her then fiancĂ©, Reid Russell, was found dead from a gunshot wound while the pair were on vacation at a friend's cottage in Manhattan Beach. Lila's son, James Jr. was with the couple at the time and he was actually the one who found Russell's body lying in a hammock. According to a few newspapers at the time, a suicide note was found, but I am not sure if that was ever confirmed because I have read reports that the case could still either be homicide or suicide.

A less scandalous incident she was involved in took place in 1926 while performing on stage in London. Apparently, stage star May Moore Duprez refused to say the word "hell" that was part of a song she was performing. The audience praised her decision after the show with a standing ovation and flowers. The producer of the revue meanwhile was not at all amused and threatened to break her contract. When asked about the incident, Lila, who was working as Ms. Duprez's understudy, replied, "I see no objection to the word." (The Evening Independent - August 30, 1926). Gotta love that spunk!

"To lose whatever standing I have today would be a loss greater than the loss of my stardom. I've built my career thru constant study. It is me and I am it." ~~ Lila Lee, Motion Picture Magazine - February 1923

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Mr. John Bowers

A friend of mine who does a lot of local history research mentioned a silent film actor she came across named John Bowers. Now, this is a name I was only slightly familiar with and I knew him for his legacy and not his film career. John is supposedly one of the inspirations for the character of Norman Maine in the film A Star is Born. He had such an interesting life, career, and legacy that he is worth looking into more, so, here we are!

John Bowers was born John Edward Bowersox on December 25, 1885 in Garrett, Indiana. He was the third child born to George, a railroad engineer, and Ida Bowersox. Older brother Bruce was born ten years earlier, but sadly passed away in 1890 at age 15 in a train crash. John also had an older sister named Gertrude, and a younger sister who was born in 1891 but died when she was still a child (I can't find her name in any records). 

While attending a business college in Indiana, John got interested in acting. He eventually joined up with an acting company and made his way to New York where he began appearing in various Broadway productions. 

The films came calling next! John made his film debut in the 1914 short, The Baited Trap, for the IMP Company. 

Corinne Griffith, John, and Hobart Bosworth

During his film career, which consisted of over 90 films in a span of 17 years, he had the privilege of sharing screen time with such stars as Lon Chaney (in three films), Mary Pickford, Clara Bow, and Mary Miles Minter. His most frequent female costars were June Elvidge, Alice Brady, and Colleen Moore.

Aside from A Star is Born, the thing John Bowers is remembered for is costarring with his future wife, Marguerite De La Motte. The two made 12 films together in a span of just four years: What a Wife Learned (1923), Desire (1923), Richard the Lion-Hearted (1923), When a Man's a Man (1924), Those Who Dare (1924), Off the Highway (1925), Daughters Who Pay (1925), The People vs. Nancy Preston (1925), Flattery (1925), Hearts and Fists (1926), Pals in Paradise (1926), and Ragtime (1927). 

It only took a few films before his star began to rise to heights of stardom. Fans enjoyed his looks as well as his dramatic acting abilities. But, then the inevitable happened, the talkies came around. John only appeared in three talkies, and like a lot of silent stars, it just wasn't working. 

He made his last film appearance in 1931's Mounted Fury, with Lina Basquette and Blanche Mehaffey. 

John Bowers passed away on November 17, 1936 in Santa Monica, California. John had sailed to Santa Catalina island, to the home of director Henry Hathaway. He heard that Hathaway was directing a new movie and he wanted to try and get a part. Hathaway told him that the film didn't require a lot of actors and that if he wanted a bigger role, he would have to contact the studio. Pissed off, John's parting words to Hathaway were, "You'll have a real life sea picture. I'm going to jump overboard!" The boat he had rented was found floating abandoned in the ocean, and his body washed up on shore the next day. 

John's suicide didn't surprise a lot of people. In fact, he was once quoted as saying that he wanted to end his life in a 'heroic matter' and 'sail away into the sunset.' Well, he did just that.

He was cremated and the location of his ashes is unknown.

As I mentioned before, John was married to actress Marguerite De La Motte. They married in 1924 and some reports state that they remained married until his death, while others state that they were separated a few years before his death. Either way, the two were the Brad and Angelina of the silent days, a famous onscreen couple that took their romance off the silver screen. 

There isn't a lot out there about what kind of person John was off the screen as far as personality. What is known is that he was an aviator and at one point wanted to open his own flying school. He loved yachting, which is kinda interesting considering he died out on the water. On the negative side, it appears that John's dark side did rear it's head in a public way in 1930. In July of that year, he was arrested for being drunk and abusive to police officers. The cops were called by neighbors complaining about gunshots and when they arrived, they found John sitting in the back of his car with a gun. He told newspaper reporters, "Those cops just got mad because I told them all police were rotten shots. I told them I could shoot better upside down than they could standing up. I don't know why that made them mad but it did and they bundled me into jail." He later went on to say that he was not drunk and that the police would not give him a sobriety test to prove it. He got into more trouble months later after he failed to appear in court for the charges. Clearly, something was going on there...

"If movie fans think a motion picture actor's life is a bed of roses, they have another 'think' coming." ~~ John Bowers to the Hartford Courant - July 22, 1923

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Miss Thelma Hill

I had a reader ask me to do an entry about Thelma Hill and I had her on my list but I got caught up in the previous series and AHHHHHH!!

But, have no fear! I have gotten a few reader requests and if I don't get to them right away, please know that as soon as I get a request, I make a note of it. So, on a little sticky note on my computer I have a list of people to cover and I will get to them! Scout's honor!

Thelma Hill was born Thelma Floy Hillerman on December 12, 1906 in Emporia, Kansas. She was the only child born to Clifford, a conductor (for music, not trains) and Gussie Hillerman. Census records once again get a little confusing because in both a 1905 and a 1910 record, Gussie is listed as 'widowed' but Clifford Hillerman didn't pass away until 1914. I did briefly read in some newspaper articles from the time that the couple divorced in 1909, but that still doesn't explain why she is listed as 'widowed.' Maybe she was still smarting from him deserting her. Can't blame her!

When she was in her teens, Thelma and her mother moved to California. They moved near a film studio and one day she was discovered by Mack Sennett himself! He liked what he saw, but not enough to put her into starring roles right off the bat. She started out as extras in his pictures and sometimes got to play a bit part. Eventually she was hired to work as a double for Mabel Normand. 

Her first film was a 1924 short called Picking Peaches, which is said to be the first film to feature the Mack Sennett Bathing Beauties. The other beauties in the film were Evelyn Francisco, Elsie Tarron, Gladys Tennyson, Dorothy Dorr, Cecille Evans, and Marceline Day (to name a few). 

Being one of the Bathing Beauties is what Thelma is most known for nowadays. She was one of the first of the Beauties to branch out and have a screen career on her own. If she wasn't billed using her real name, people would recognize Thelma by nickname given to her, the "Mah Jongg Bathing Girl," because of a Mah Jongg bathing suit she was frequently photographed in. She had another nickname, "Pee-Wee," but this was mostly between friends and on set. Why Pee-Wee? Probably because Thelma was a little thing, she was only 5'1''.

Her film career lasted for 10 years and in that span Thelma appeared in over 100 films. Besides being a Bathing Beauty, Thelma also starred in the screen adaptation of the comic strip "Toots and Casper." The serial lasted from 1927 til 1929 with Thelma as Toots and Bud Duncan as Casper.

Then the talkies came to town! Thelma did appear in a few films and was quoted in a film magazine during this time, saying: 

                 "I'm all enthused over what the next two years may bring me. I was scared
              to death the first time I faced the microphone, but I have made three talkies
                   now and feel just as much at home as I did when we had only cameras to face. 
                   I am taking dancing lessons now, too, and if I ever get sufficient courage I am
                   going to take singing lessons as I think both will be necessary with sound films
                   now in vogue."

But, it seemed that her flair for slapstick comedy belonged in the silent era and was not what movie audiences were wanting now. 

She made her last screen appearance in the 1934 short, Mixed Nuts. 

Thelma Hill passed away on May 11, 1938 in Culver City, California. Her career at a standstill had made her depressed and so she begun to drink excessively. Her alcohol intake took a toll on her health quickly and she eventually had to be checked into a sanitarium. It was here that she died, officially from a cerebral hemorrhage but it was exacerbated by malnutrition and cirrhosis of the liver due to her hard drinking. She was only 31 years old, poor girl.

Her ashes were interred at Forest Lawn in Glendale, in a scary looking closet room I might add.

Thelma was married once, to actor John Sinclair. The two married in 1934 and were still married when she died four years later. Sinclair, also a heavy drinker, died in 1945 of cirrhosis of the liver. Before she wed Sinclair, she was engaged to director St. Elmo Boyce, who unfortunately also became an alcoholic when his career began to wain. He ended up committing suicide in 1930.

A story ran in the June 14, 1929 issue of the San Jose News that Thelma got her break in films because she spilled soup on Roscoe Arbuckle. It stated that when she was 13 years old and working with her mother in a cafe, that she had to waitress tables because they were extra busy. A movie was shooting nearby, so a lot of the film folks were coming by to eat and one of those folks was Arbuckle. Apparently, Thelma was clumsy and spilled a bowl of soup on Arbuckle's lap and somehow she ended up in pictures. That is the only place I read of that being how she got her start, so don't take it as the gospel truth. 

Marion Davies and Thelma