Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Betty Compson (1897-1974)


The petite Utah native with her blond curls and bright blue eyes, found herself working at an early age to help support her mother upon her fathers death. A talented violinist, she made a decent living on stage in Salt Lake City.  Like many before her, vaudeville gave her exposure at an early age. Another high school drop out who was taking home $15 a week at the ripe old age of 16.

I've looked at this signature at all angles and in different light and it does appear to be ink but just to be sure I do have a spare autograph for Betty. 



At 18 she was ready to go on tour with her mother in tow, eventually making her way to the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles.  It was there that she was discovered by the comedic producer, Al Christie who immediately cast her in one reel comedic shorts with that lovable, Fatty Arbuckle. (It seems like every up and coming comedic actress had to pay their dues by working alongside Fatty. I guess a jobs a job!)




Betty co-starred in five shorts during 1915 for the Nestor Film Company. By 1916 she was a popular leading lady, often taking top billing in close to 40 films that year. Often starring with Lee Moran, Eddie Lyons, Harry Rattenberry, Ethel Lynne and Stella Adams. 

Although Betty was kept busy, able to make a comfortable living making comedic shorts for the next two years it was the end of the decade when she first found real success with the help of director/writer George Loane Tucker who cast her opposite Lon Chaney in "The Miracle Man" 1919. It was also during this time that the studio suggested Betty dye her hair a dark brown to fit with her onscreen persona as the sweet, innocent, girl next door. 



"The Miracle Man" and Betty were such a critical success that she was signed to a five year contract with Paramount Studios. One of the studios most popular stars with an income to rival her peers at $5,000 a week by the end of 1924. She could now afford the finest things and she moved her doting mother out of their bungalow into a roomy home in Hollywood. Everything a girl could ask for at the age of 22. Most of her peers were married by age 18 or spending their off hours partying after work but Betty was content with a casual date here and there then time with her mother on the weekends, for now anyway. 


Betty in "The Little Minister" 1921

By 1921 she was taking advantage of her newfound popularity by branching out into dramatic and romantic roles with the studio's blessing. By the end of the year she would also find herself running her own production company where she would have complete control over her films and co-stars as well as poetic license as she began producing her own films.  The first film for Betty to show her creativity behind and in front of the cameras would be "Prisoner of Love" 1921 co-starring Ralph Lewis.

Taking top billing above Milton Stills in the successful "At the End of the World" 1921 then "The Bonded Woman" 1922 with Richard Dix and John Bowers. (Unfortunately, both silent films have been lost or destroyed like so many early films.) All seven of Compson's full length pictures from 1922 and so many after that are assumed to be lost.



Betty's signature from my collection, c. early 1960s. (Click for a larger view)


Betty would continue to work steadily in 1923, starring in another five films after traveling abroad where she signed on to star in several films for a London production company. One of which was titled "Woman to Woman" and written by a young Brit who was given odd work at the London studio. His name was Alfred Hitchcock. (Although the film has been reviewed by several people on IMDb I have never seen it nor do I know if it's even available. Perhaps if anyone knows they can share it with the rest of us. )

Compson would have the good fortune of starring in another two films written by Hitchcock the following year as well. " White Shadows" 1924, co-starring Clive Brook and Henry Victor then in the romantic drama, "Dangerous Virtue".  Betty would also get the opportunity to star alongside the dashing, Warner Baxter that year in "The Female" which also starred the very talented, Noah Beery. 

Betty Compson in "The Pony Express" 1925


Back from London at the end of 1924, Betty would star in "The Garden of Weeds", opposite Warner Baxter. The film was directed by someone she had not worked with previously. James Cruze, who had also started his career in front of the camera in the late 1900s, appearing in close to 100 shorts himself before finding his niche behind the camera as a producer/director.  By the time filming wrapped on "The Garden of Weeds", Betty was being courted by Cruze, falling in love for the first time. (James was newly divorced, having dissolved his union with his first wife, silent actress, Marguerite Snow, the year before.)


By the end of 1925, Compson had wrapped up another seven films for Famous Players Lasky, taking off just long enough to wed the tall, lanky Cruze. With both having very successful careers, the next step would be to find a large mansion of their own where they could start their lives together. At the suggestion of the studio, they needed something grand enough to show success, wealth, a lifestyle expected of Hollywood elite.



In 1919, the silent actor, Charles Ray purchased a newly built estate in a recently developed area of Los Angeles, named Beverly Hills. The home with it's large corner lot had everything a star could ask for during the early days of  'stars living the good life'.  Like many actors before him and since, Ray thought the money from motion pictures would flow for years so he spared no expense on his home on North Camden Drive during the first part of the 1920s. Gold fixtures, a crystal bathtub, the finest silver, china, furnishings for entertaining his peers. He added servants quarters and new landscaping, making the home one of the finest on the block with it's unique architecture and thatched, green roof. 

Sadly, Ray invested all of his savings into backing a motion picture which flopped, costing him everything in 1923. The first thing that had to go in order for Ray to survive his bad investment, was his Beverly Hills home. It would sit on the market until newlyweds, the Cruze's grabbed it up two years later.  

Other famous residents on North Camden Drive during this time were, Monte Blue, Mabel Normand, and Blanche Sweet.  During the 1930s, Leslie Howard would also reside on the same street, buying his home from the young starlet, Hedy Lamarr. (I'll be featuring all of these home in future posts so stay tuned!)

With Jack Holt in "Eve's Secret" 1925

The mansion as it appeared during the early 1920s when Charles Ray resided there at 901 North Camden Drive.

A different view of the estate in a postcard during the mid 1920s when Betty Compson and James Cruze resided in the home. (Yes, it's still standing as you'll see shortly!) 

 Betty Compson shares a moment with Viola Dana and her husband, actor/director, James Cruz (standing) in their home during the mid 1920s. (It's a bit odd to place a piano in front of your wood burning fireplace but that's just me!)

Betty would only star in three pictures during 1926, opting to spend more time at home while Cruze worked steadily, directing motion pictures. Both were hoping to start a family but sadly that would not come to pass. 

She went back to work full time in 1927, still a box office draw with her romantic lead status intact. No longer under contract for Lasky Studios she found herself with even better roles, taking direction from Walter Lang in the crime/drama "The Ladybird" then "Love Me and the World is Mine" at her new home, Universal Pictures. This time with Mary Philbin receiving top billing.

The petite, 5'2 actress gets into the Christmas spirit.

Taking a break from a bit of yard work.

During 1928, Compson found herself playing a prostitute in the highly acclaimed "The Docks of New York" with Josef von Sternberg at the helm and George Bancroft as her leading man. However it was her follow up film, "The Barker" which co-starred, Dorothy MacKaill, Milton Stills and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that year that would provide her with her biggest accolades. Betty, was nominated for an Academy Award the following year (the very first Oscars) for her portrayal of a carnival girl, Carrie in the drama which had actual talking dialogue added during several scenes. She would lose out to Mary Pickford who would win the first Oscar for a Leading Actress for her performance in "Coquette".



By 1929, Betty's husband Cruze, had started his own production company where he would direct my favorite film of hers, "The Great Gabbo". The musical, drama has the feel of "Phantom of the Opera" with Eric von Stroheim playing a rather odd and terrifying figure, Gabbo, who expresses himself through his ventriloquist dummy as he pursues his assistant, Mary, played by Compson.  (If you've seen this film I would love to get your opinion of it, see if you enjoyed it as much as I did) I saw a movie back in the 1978 as a young teen that reminded me so much of "The Great Gabbo", titled "Magic". It starred Anthony Hopkins who also ran around with his creepy ventriloquist dummy, although it had much more violence, a darker turn as I recall now. And now that I think about it I can't help but wonder if the writer of "Magic" got some of his ideas from von Stroheim's character so long ago. (There's just something about using a mannequin to terrorize others that ups the creep factor ten fold!)

Poster courtesy of MoviePosterDB.com

Betty with Gustaf Lovas, in "The Great Gabbo" 1929

By the end of 1929 and with the advent of talkies, the studios were producing musicals to showcase their silent stars finally singing, dancing and yes, speaking dialogue. With their all star casts each studio churned out their own version, with Warner Brothers showcasing their stars in "The Show of Shows". Betty Conpson would take the stage alongside, Noah Beery, John Barrymore, Mary Astor, Richard Barthelmess, Monte Blue, Sally Blane, Louise Fazenda, Viola Dana, Doug Fairbanks Jr., Sally Eilers, the Costello sisters, Dolores and Helene with Frank Fay as the Master of Ceremonies.  Betty would get two numbers in the film, singing The Pirate Number and Lady Luck.

With Chester Morris in "The Case of Sergeant Grischa" 1930


By 1930 she was starring with Chester Morris in "The Case of Sergeant Grischa at RKO Pictures and separated from her husband, James. They would divorce in May of that year and their home on Camden Drive would be sold. (Just a short time later, MGM studio mogul, Sam Goldwyn would purchase the property, adding a cement pool, a pool house, a large guest cottage, a tennis court and lush gardens where he would entertain guests with his wife, Frances, throughout the 1930s and 40s. (The home still stands today in all of it's grandeur.) This is also the home where Sam Goldwyn Jr. would spend his childhood.

The home at 901 North Camden Drive, Beverly Hills as it appears today via Google Earth. You can see the original structure with it's odd thatched roof. Of course there are several new additions to the original home, like a large garage then a new tennis court. 

A closer view looking from the backyard to the North. After Betty and James sold the home to Sam Goldwyn the home next door was purchased and leveled to make way for a large drive, garage and guest house. The original structure still stands as it did during the mid 1910s with a new roof, and renovations, of course.

In this view you can clearly see the original part of the house with it's interesting design, odd angled roof. 

Again, how it appeared during the 1920s for reference.

Looking through the side gate towards the back of the home as it appears via Google Earth today.

A front view from North Camden Drive. 

Looking back towards the pool house which sits directly to the left of the main house.

The newly divorced starlet, kept busy throughout 1930, appearing in ten feature films for Warner Brothers Studios like "Isle of Escape" co-starring Myrna Loy and Monte Blue then "Those Who Dance" with Lila Lee, Monte Blue and William Boyd. This would be her most successful film of that year. Betty would also appear in her first western, talkie "The Spoilers" which starred Hollywood favorite, Gary Cooper. 

One of the reasons that Compson divorced her husband, James Cruze was due to his constant drinking which put a strain on their marriage as well as his health and his desire to focus on work.  It was soon after their divorce that Betty also came to realize, Cruze did not pay his income taxes either. For years she would be saddled with this burden as his career declined, his income stopped, she became liable as his spouse when the taxes were incurred. When it was all said and done she would pay the majority of the debt in excess of $150,,000.  Quite a large sum of money during the early 30s.  She would eventually have to sell her home, car and jewels just to avoid bankruptcy herself.  



By 1931, Compson had been released from Warner Brothers, but she found steady work through RKO Pictures, being offered a short term contract there. She was still drawing an audience and holding onto her leading lady status. Appearing in "The Lady Refuses" with John Darrow then the successful comedy "The Virtuous Husband" with Jean Arthur and Elliott Nugent.  Of course the film I remember most of hers during that year is "Three Who Loved" co-starring Conrad Nagel, Robert Ames and Dickie Moore. 

Betty was still very beautiful at 34 with her Mae Murray-esque bee stung lips and her waves of blonde locks as she gets the attention of both male leads.  She could hold her own with the best of them in dramas, musicals or comedies. Of course you had to have talent to sustain your career once talkies came along and fresh faces crowded their way through those studio gates hoping to climb that elusive ladder to success and leading lady status. 

With John Darrow in "The Lady Refuses" 1931


In just a few short months, Betty found herself without a studio for the first time in her career. RKO had only given her stability for one year then she was finding work with smaller production companies. She landed a role in the drama "Silver Lining" for Patrician Pictures with the fresh faced, Maureen O'Sullivan taking the lead role.  Her only other film during 1932 was the action/crime, drama "Guilty or Not Guilty".  Your typical B rated gangster flick that filled theater seats and paid the bills. 

She would appear in three more, not so memorable films during 1933. First for Monogram Pictures then a drama titled "Destination Unknown" for Universal, starring Ralph Bellamy, Pat O'Brien and Alan Hale. Perhaps Betty didn't care that much for work that year as she became a newlywed for the second time upon her marriage to agent/producer, Irving Weinberg. 


Betty's very modern home in Beverly Hills where she would reside during the 1930s and for several years with her second husband, Irving Weinberg. (Unfortunately, I don't know the physical address of this home to see what it looks like today or to know if it still exists.)

Betty did manage to find work throughout the rest of the 1930s although she often took smaller parts in films at lesser known studios.  Not even 40, she was sometimes cast as the mother to the up and comers. Of course she didn't shy away from that as she knew a steady paycheck was important to rebuild her financial security.  Very wise as she would find herself divorced for a second time by the end of 1937.  

At the end of the decade roles were offered in low budget films and like most of Hollywood, she did a screen test for "Gone With the Wind" hoping to get the part of Belle Watling.  She would also appear in the classic, "Strange Cargo" 1940 which starred Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, although she was uncredited. 


As 1941 rolled around, Alfred Hitchcock was in Hollywood, now directing and taking the US by storm. Of course he remembered Betty and offered her a small part in the comedy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith" starring Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard. She was back at RKO and appearing in a great film even if it was for one picture. 

Once her scenes were completed she was offered a couple of parts back at Monogram, appearing in "Invisible Ghost" with Bela Lugosi and her old pal, Ernie Adams. In 1943, Betty had a small part in "Danger! Women at Work" which starred Patsy Kelly, Isabel Jewell, Mary Brian and Wanda McKay. I've always wanted to see this film with it's fabulous cast of funny ladies but to my knowledge it's not available.  Have any of you had the pleasure of seeing it?


By 1944, Betty was in love again, marrying businessman, Silvius John Gall that year. She would retire from acting for good in 1948 with her last on screen appearance as Mrs. Davenport in the crime/drama, "Second Chance" that year. With her loving husband supporting her, she would go on to start her own cosmetic label then in later years they would run a business selling/marketing personalized ashtrays near their home in Glendale, California.  

Betty and Silvius would remain together, happily married until his death in 1962. Just one year after Betty lost her mother, Mary who she had remained close to and supported financially throughout her life.  Betty would continue on alone until her death in 1974 of a heart attack.  She was buried at San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California, alongside her mother.  Their grave site can be found HERE.


Betty Compson's career spanned four decades and included over 100 films. Perhaps you have a favorite of hers that you'd like to share but until then please enjoy the below scene of her in "The Docks of New York" 1928.  (She's just the cutest in this scene even while smoking like a chimney and complaining!)


Thanks so much for stopping by and for all of you stateside, have a wonderful Thanksgiving Holiday.
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13 comments:

  1. I don't remember her from Mr. and Mrs. Smith and she had been an unknown face for me until last Sunday. Woman to Woman is lost, because The white Shadow is the earliest surviving project involving Hitchcock. I'd love to watch The Great Gabbo, I'll look for it, as well as Docs of New York.
    Excelent post, as always!
    Kisses and happy thanksgiving!

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    Replies
    1. Hi, Le!
      I think you would really enjoy The Great Gabbo. von Stroheim is truly frightening.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read this little bio on Betty. One of my favorite silent actresses.
      All the best!
      Page

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  2. Loved the music in that clip! She was much more beautiful as a blonde, but I guess in those days you had to be brunette to be virtuous! LOL! With every one of these posts you do, Page, I feel more and more that those silent years were probably the most fun of all the Hollywood eras. Of course, they did spend unbelievable money (Ray and his CRYSTAL bathtub? You'd have to be in really good shape to look good in that!). Betty had a wonderful career, lasting a decent amount of time considering that Hollywood routinely dumps actresses who are past 30 or so. Her relationship with her mother was nice to see, and it's too bad that she had to go through other marriages to find the right one. What a cad Cruze was to leave her with all that debt!

    Of course your pictures of the house then and now were fascinating. Excellent post, Page!

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    Replies
    1. Becky,
      I love that you always take away how opulent these homes are and how over the top the stars were with their need to splurge on such silly things to show their status. (A crystal bathtub just seems like the silliest thing ever! And as you said, who would dare get in it?)

      I'm not sure what Betty saw in Cruze. Perhaps she felt a connection since they were both from Utah. He was half Ute Indian. Not attractive by any means. Not that most stars back then went by looks. They often married older men with status, Hollywood connections in order to propel their careers but at what cost?

      I'm so glad you enjoyed this one, got some new info on Betty. She certainly had a look of her own. Interesting that you prefer her as a blonde since I thought she was adorable as a brunette. lol
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  3. What eyes she had! I have The Docks of New York on a Criterion Collection set of DVDs and have yet to watch it. After viewing that clip, I will get to it! Out of curiosity, I checked to see what Josef von Sternberg wrote about Betty in his memoirs, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. He mentions that a scene in The Miracle Man of Betty holding "an obviously lewd book" up to a blind man's eyes prompted him to cast her in The Docks of New York, which I find extraordinary because a) that means the scene stuck in Sternberg's mind for almost a decade and b) it is a description of a scene that is now appears to be lost footage.

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  4. Joseph,
    Thanks for that added info. Interesting! It really is hard to find info on Betty's personality, her life off set. She was so unassuming and a bit shy.

    OH and thanks a lot! You just reminded me of another book that I need to get. von Sternberg's. ha ha (It's a shame that so many early silents have been lost or are in disrepair.)

    Thanks for stopping by and providing those little tidbits about Betty.
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  5. You really did your research! This post was very thorough indeed. I didn't know much about Betty Compson so I appreciate all the information and all the pictures too!

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    1. Hi Raquel,
      I'm glad you enjoyed this look back at Betty's life and career. I've got so many silent stars to get to so I plan to get more bios up here. Look for another one of my Hollywood at Home posts too. : )
      Thanks so much for stopping by.
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    ReplyDelete
  7. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I will definitely return. Plots for sale in Hyderabad

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  9. I am surprised you have not seen the anecdotes about Betty Compson inthe book "Stardust in Hollywood", by Jan and Cora Gordon?

    I also have a book by the above authors inscribed to Betty and Jim Cruze.
    if you are interested please feel free to contact me via my website
    http://www.janandcoragordon.co.uk/

    ReplyDelete
  10. You refer to Betty Compson at one point as a 'starlet.' She isn't and wasn't. A starlet is a neophyte glamour girl not an Academy Award nominee. And certainly not a female star.

    ReplyDelete