Sunday, April 6, 2014

Dangerous Curves Atop Hollywood Heels The Lives, Careers, And Misfortunes Of 14 Hard-Luck Girls Of The Silent Screen by Michael G. Ankerich

This is one of the best Hollywood history books that I've happened across in a long time. The author steers clear from the same old tragedies and familiar names most classic movie lovers are familiar with and trains the spotlight on the more obscure stars from the silent era who crashed and burned or simply dimmed out and faded into obscurity.

Here are some highlights of blondes and brunettes most of the world forgot:

Agnes Ayres, who is best remembered for her role as Valentino’s beautiful captive in “The Sheik,” her movie producer lover made her a star, but struggles with her weight led to a downward slide, though she never stopped trying to claw her way back up to the top again. She suffered a nervous breakdown in 1938 and died two years later at only forty-two.

Raven-haired “Joy Girl” Olive Borden, who was known for the naughty negligees she wore on screen, but the advent of talkies on top of too much booze and too many bad choices, big spending, and a bigamy trial led to a life of obscurity and alcoholism.

Golden blonde Grace Darmond got her fifteen minutes of fame when the alluring lesbian lured Rudolph Valentino’s bride, Jean Acker, away to set up house with her.

Elinor Fair was considered one of the most promising actresses of the 1920s, but her struggles with mental illness and alcohol kept her promise from being fulfilled. In the end she had to beg gossip columnist Hedda Hopper for charity just so she could buy medicine for the liver disease that was killing her.

Heroin heroine Juanita Hansen learned from her mistakes—when a showerhead malfunctioned and scalding water poured down on her she was given morphine for the pain and quickly became addicted. Drugs ruined her life, looks, and her career. She became the first celebrity to come clean and speak openly about drug abuse, she did her best to educate others but the comeback she hoped for never happened and she faded from the public eye and died quietly of heart disease in 1961. 

Wanda Hawley dreamed of being an opera singer, but after she was discovered by Cecil B. DeMille and soon found herself playing opposite Rudolph Valentino and Wallace Reid, the biggest male stars of the day, but she mysteriously, suddenly, gave it all up and sailed away to Europe with her handsome business manager.

Natalie Joyce lived to be ninety, she was one of the rare ones who walked away by choice, this brunette beauty refused to play the Hollywood game, she kept herself off the casting couch, and while her more famous cousin, screen beauty Olive Borden, crashed and burned, Natalie quit the movies, married, opened a beauty salon, and led a quiet life until her death in 1992.

Barbara La Marr, “The Girl Who Was Too Beautiful” a dark, exotic beauty who boasted “I take my lovers by the dozen, like roses,” never seemed able to find the love she was craving, despite five husband, countless lovers, and friends. She lived her life on a steady diet of nightclubbing, champagne, drugs, and no more than two hours sleep a day. When she secretly gave birth to a son, she arranged to adopt him. Little Martin gave her the unconditional love she had always longed for, but after she sprained her ankle on the set of “Souls For Sale” the studio doctors injected their star with morphine to keep her moving and by the end of the movie she was hooked. She died in 1926. She was only thirty.

Martha Mansfield, a former Ziegfeld Girl, was standing on the brink of stardom in 1923 when she was cast as a southern belle in love with a Union officer in The Warrens of Virginia. But her life, and with it her career, went up in flames when someone’s carelessly discarded match set her full, frilly hoop skirt on fire.

Mary Nolan, the beautiful and the damned bottle blonde, who lived her life by a pattern—changing her name after each scandal. She was variously known as Mary Robertson, Imogene Robertson, Imogene Wilson, Mary Nolan, and Mary Wilson. After a miserable life, part of which was spent in a Catholic orphanage, she became a Ziegfeld Girl while still in her teens. She became involved with a married man, a sadistic comedic star who beat her, and in the wake of scandal and lawsuits fled to Europe, there she stared in a few German films before an American producer brought her back to America under the name of Mary Nolan. But drugs, alcohol, affairs, abusive relationships, and drugs their toll and her film career fizzled. She died a suicide in 1948.

Marie Prevost began her movie career as one of Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties but today, if she is remembered at all, it is usually for a rumor about her death. A string of tragedies led to Marie’s own downfall. Grief over her beloved mother’s death and her own failed marriage led to depression, drinking, weight gain, when she tried to pull herself together, she was only able to land a few bit parts. Still, she was determined to try, she fought a valiant battle against the bottle and her weight, but in 1937 she was found dead, alone in bed, with a whiskey bottle in the kitchen sink and her beloved dachshund Maxie beside her. Her body was malnourished from dieting and her heart gave out under the strain of it all. Somehow a rumor got started that her dog, alone in her apartment, with nothing to eat, turned to its mistress’s body for sustenance. But this is not true. The little dog had only attempted to awaken her by nipping at her and thus left behind a few teethmarks.

Lucille Ricksen is one of the most enigmatic ladies in this book. She was known as “The Youngest Leading Lady.” The public thought she was sixteen but she was actually thirteen. She had begun as a child model, a tot with golden curls posing for pictures and illustrated postcards, then a child star, the course of her career steered by her mother. She could be spunky or sweet, whatever the director desired. One day as a joke she went to the wardrobe department and dressed up like a grown lady then returned to the set, pretending to be her own sister, asking everyone “Have you seen Lucille?” That was the end of kiddie roles and Lucille Ricksen became Hollywood’s “Youngest Leading Lady.” Although she was only a little girl, she was the sole breadwinner for her family and worked harder than most adults. For years she was dedicated to maintaining her scrapbook, pasting in articles and pictures, and writing notations in white ink. Then, all of a sudden, she stopped. In 1924 she collapsed with a mysterious illness and died a year later. She was only seventeen. Speculation abounds about the cause of her death—was it tuberculosis, exhaustion, a nervous breakdown, anemia, or a secret abortion that went tragically wrong?

Eve Southern was “Hollywood’s Mystic.” As Mary, Queen of Scots in a past life, she may have thought she deserved more regal treatment in Tinseltown  but more often than not she ended up as “the face on the cutting room floor.” Then a car accident, followed by a tobogganing accident, ending her career, and, almost, her life and she vanished into obscurity.

Alberta Vaughn was dancing on the side of a public highway in a pair of men’s longjohns to amuse some soldiers in 1946 when the police arrived to cart the drunken dame off to jail. No one realized that this middle-aged alcoholic had once been one of the brightest comedic stars on the 1920s. Since the end of her career she had been in and out of jail, for boozing and running a brothel out of her home, which she complained was haunted by a ghost.

I really enjoyed this book, I have been a classic movie fan since I was a little girl and I discovered names and stories here that I had never heard of. My only complaint is that some were tantalizing vague and left me wanting to know more, but that is not the author’s fault, the information is simply lost to time.

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