Hard Times

September 19, 2010 at 9:10 pm (General blather)

A vamp reels in another victim. Virginia Pearson in Sister Against Sister (1917).

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This post is so relentlessly depressing that I’ve put off writing it for weeks now. Here goes.

Hollywood wasn’t completely a land of make-believe, and success in the movie business was no guarantee of financial security. Here are a few examples of silent stars who eventually found themselves “up against it.”

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In spite of having fairly busy acting careers, Sheldon Lewis and his wife Virginia Pearson were forced to declare bankruptcy in 1924.

Poor investments weren’t to blame, or too much high living. Virginia had been badly hurt in an automobile accident, and the bills that followed overwhelmed their finances to the tune of $9,920, forcing them into bankruptcy court.

(Motion Picture, July 1924, page 65.)

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Today it’s lost and nearly forgotten, but Over the Hill to the Poor House was one of the most acclaimed films (and biggest hits) of 1920. Mary Carr was its heart.

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A melancholy poem of 1872 entitled “Over the Hill to the Poor House” inspired a popular folk song and a William Fox production of 1920. This tale of a hard-working mother of six, who sacrifices for her children only to be abandoned by them and consigned to a poorhouse, was a smash hit with audiences. The mother was played by Mary Carr (coincidentally a mother of six herself), who would enact similar roles for many years thereafter.

Hard times struck in 1931.  A friend needed to borrow money, and Mary co-signed a note. The friend defaulted on the debt, and the lender went after them both.

Mary hadn’t found much work since talkies arrived. With little money saved and more creditors hounding her, she had no choice but to declare bankruptcy.

Against liabilities of $13,000, her meager assets included a wedding ring valued at five dollars, clothes valued at forty dollars, and similar items.

(Motion Picture Classic, July 1931, page 32.)

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Mary Nolan, about the time she was appearing in such films as John Gilbert’s Desert Nights (1929) and Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar (1928).

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Mary Nolan, former Follies girl and 1920s film actress, ran into a lot of trouble in 1932, much of it financial. She and her husband had established the Mary Nolan Gown Shop in the Los Angeles area, but the venture failed completely. As she later testified, the store took in sales of only $75 in several weeks of operation. The shop closed, and lawsuits followed from suppliers and employees who hadn’t been paid.

Nolan confessed in court on April 14, 1932, that her assets amounted to exactly fifteen cents, noting that she and her husband were living entirely on the charity of friends and upon the patience of her landlord, to whom she owed seven weeks’ rent on their $17.50-per-week apartment.

Legal trouble also followed, as she was found guilty of violating the wage claims law and sentenced to thirty days in jail. She jumped bail, and later that year she was arrested in New York over another complaint involving a bounced check for a Minneapolis hotel bill of $304.48.

(Los Angeles Times)

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Betty Blythe in her greatest role (1921).

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Betty Blythe, a statuesque star of the early 1920s, was playing bit roles a decade later. Asked by a reporter how she felt about the comedown, she replied:

“I don’t want to think about it. What is the use, anyway? I’ve had my share of good luck in pictures, and I’ve had my run of bad fortune– perhaps more than I deserved. But I don’t complain about it, because I know the laws that govern actors and actresses too well. You can’t be up too many years without a sudden, jarring fall. I’m experiencing that fall now and am quite resigned to it.”

(“Ex-Favorites Pocket Pride to Get Work,” Los Angeles Times, 8/20/33.)

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Maurice Costello had been one of the biggest stars of the nickelodeon era, placing thirteenth in a 1913 poll of favorite film stars (in which he gathered more votes than Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge combined).

However, his stardom was over by the end of World War I. In the 1930s, the sixtyish actor was dependent upon his family for his income.

He supplemented that with whatever work he could find as a Hollywood extra, and the former matinee idol was literally just another face in the crowd, milling about in the background of new stars’ films. In 1940, for example, he earned just $12.50 a day as an extra for 20th Century-Fox’s Tin Pan Alley.

When he died in 1950, his entire estate consisted of an old car valued at $50, and $41.55 in a bank account.

(Bob Birchard, “Maurice Costello,” in Hollywood Heritage Inc. Newsletter, Winter-Spring 2001, pages 9-10.)

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Actually, neither of the figures depicted on this poster are Maurice Costello, but the image is too cool not to use! Forgive me, Maurice, wherever you are. Incidentally, his great-granddaughter is Drew Barrymore.

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– – – Christopher Snowden


  1. Jennifer said,

    *sigh* It really is depressing. Poor Maurice, too.

  2. Bob Lipton said,

    I believe at one point he sued his daughters for support.


  3. diane said,

    I have seen a few of Mary Nolan’s movies both silent and sound and I thought
    she was a pretty good actress. I think she would have had a promising
    future in talking films, she had a very natural acting style but obviously her
    private life got in the way.

  4. Mary Mallory said,

    Sheldon and Virginia wouldn’t have had a problem if there had been universal health insurance. Just like today, people go broke trying to pay large medical bills.

    • unkvid said,

      Or they could have just bought themselves an insurance policy.

  5. Diane Smith said,

    As a Gilbreth fan, I have every book every written about them. Just wanted to mention that in “Cheaper by the Dozen” by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., mention is made of the movie “Over The Hill to the Poor House.” This is the first reference and poster I had ever seen of that 1920 movie, which Frank Sr. took his children to see in 1920, 4 years before he died. Nice to get a glimpse into the background!

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