Book Reviews

Helen Twelvetrees’ Rotten Luck

Helen Twelvetrees in 1936. Image: Wikipedia
Helen Twelvetrees in 1936. Image: Wikipedia

Why didn’t Helen Twelvetrees become a legendary movie star?

She had the talent: Just watch her in the little-known drama, Young Bride (1931). She plays a naive librarian who marries a slick-talking con artist (Eric Linden).

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.

Eric Linden (right) ... Image:
Eric Linden brags about the millions he’s gonna make. Image: RareFilm

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 Image: Doctor Macro

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.

Helen Twelvetrees arrives in Australia (1935). Image: flickr
Helen Twelvetrees wows ’em in Australia. Image: flickr

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)

Notes:

  • You can purchase a copy of Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films by clicking HERE.
  • Check out Cliff Aliperti’s fab blog, Immortal Ephemera, HERE.
  • To read Kristina’s review of this book at Speakeasy, click HERE.

Note: The author sent us an advance reading copy to review.

Helen_Twelvetrees_P_Cover_for_Kindle-260x390

17 thoughts on “Helen Twelvetrees’ Rotten Luck

  1. Interesting post! 🙂

    Call me shallow but I can’t help thinking the name “Twelvetrees” was a bit of a handicap. maybe if she changed it to something a bit catchier and more Hollywood? :\

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      1. The name may have turned out to be too catchy—it hurt her retroactively by keeping a glimmer of memory alive, but without any substance back of it. It didn’t really hurt her in her prime as she did achieve a solid level of stardom with it between 1930-33. During the early part of that period she was part of Pathe’s big three, her name almost always trailing those of Constance Bennett and Ann Harding in promotional materials. She was hurt more by typecasting continued at Paramount after she left RKO. The quality of films dropped, then her billing dropped as she hopped around studios. If she could have kept up the success she’d had during 1930-33, she’d be better remembered today.

        Thanks again for reviewing the book!

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I really enjoyed your review, Ruth. I’ve been a Twelvetrees fan ever since I saw Millie, and I’m looking forward to reading Cliff’s book, even more so now that I’ve read your take on it! Really good stuff. As always. 😉

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  3. I’ve always liked Helen Twelevetrees, so I am excited about this book! As far as her not attaining superstar status, well, she’s in great company. There were countless talented, charismatic, and beautiful performers who fell by the wayside. That’s Hollywood for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t recall seeing Ms. Twelvetrees, Ruth. I am truly poor at recalling names but I do remember faces. Hers is one that I am not at all familiar with. Such a shame that, for whatever reason, her career lost momentum after such a great start. It seems that she definitely had the talent to make it big.

    Liked by 1 person

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