Why didn’t Helen Twelvetrees become a legendary movie star?
One evening, shortly after their honeymoon, a restless Linden tells Twelvetrees he needs his space, needs to get out and see people. She, understandably, doesn’t want him to leave, but she bravely (stupidly) encourages him to go.
Look at the way she gets his overcoat, and how tenderly she holds it against herself, even gently kissing the collar before she helps him into it. “You go on ahead,” she says. “I’ll be fine.”
Putting on a brave face is what she does in many of her films. Perhaps it’s what she had to do in life, too.
Helen Twelvetrees is an actress who, for a brief moment, made it Big in Hollywood. She appeared in films with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and John Barrymore, but many people today have never heard of her.
Happily, classic film blogger and historian, Cliff Aliperti, has published a biography of Twelvetrees, Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films.
Aliperti’s book is a fascinating account of an ambitious and hard-working woman, a stage actress who went to Hollywood in the late 1920s. (“Twelvetrees” was the surname of her first husband.)
The book is divided into two parts: Part 1 focuses on Twelvetrees’ life, while Part 2 provides reviews of her 32 films. (Aliperti notes where each film can be viewed, or if a particular film is lost.)
In Hollywood, says Aliperti, Twelvetrees became famous for “weepies”. Turns out, she was a pro:
You see, they found out right away that I could cry real tears in a well-written situation. No glycerine stuff, but tears. So they turned me into a weeper, which seems funny because I never was a crier at all in real life. But I wept my way along for years – in rags, in satins, abandoned, deserted… (ibid, p. 117)
According to Aliperti, Twelvetrees hit her peak in 1931 with the movie Millie. After that, her career began its slow ride down to the ground floor.
At her peak, she was twenty-four years old.
Helen Twelvetrees and Robert Ames in Millie (1931). Image: Doctor Macro
Aliperti’s book is well written and incredibly well researched. He cites newspaper articles, ship passenger lists, and even the 1940 U.S. Census.
One thing we (as in, yours truly) appreciate about this book is Aliperti’s refusal to turn it into a juicy tell-all. He easily could have; Twelvetrees was regarded as a temperamental actress who was married four times.
But the most fascinating thing he discusses is Twelvetrees’ ill-fated Hollywood career.
It appears the industry was in a period of flux in the early 1930s. Smaller or less profitable studios merged with, or were bought out by, competing studios. Twelvetrees’ studio, RKO, saw changes in upper management and in the way actors were hired.
Then there was the birth of her son in 1932. When she returned to work, it was at a new studio where she was hired as a featured player, not a star.
Additionally, says Aliperti, Twelvetrees was typecast and missed out on some really important roles. She was considered for the lead in What Price Hollywood?, but that went to Constance Bennett. RKO also refused her permission to audition for roles in Red-Headed Woman (it went to Jean Harlow) and Rain (went to Joan Crawford).
Maybe if Twelvetrees had kept her temperament in check, other opportunities may have arisen for her. However, Hollywood grinds out temperamental artists by the truckload. Twelvetrees can’t be entirely to blame for her career descent.
After her final movie in 1939, Twelvetrees returned to the stage. She became involved with the USO during WWII, and later hosted a radio gossip show in New York. She would eventually work in television, as well.
She died in 1958, aged 50. The coroner listed the cause as suicide from pain killers that she was taking for back pain.
Would she describe her career as a case of rotten luck? Perhaps not. Aliperti includes this observation from Twelvetrees herself in a New York Post interview in 1942.
I have no kick coming. I made a lot of money and I had a lot of fun. Sure, pictures are a cruel business. But nobody pushes you into them. You go in of your own free will and you have to expect the bad with the good. (ibid, p. 119)
Note: The author sent us an advance reading copy to review.