La Marr Conspiracy collection
This wonderfully informative piece was penned by late La Marr researcher Jimmy Bangley in the mid-1990s, and appears at other locations. BarbaraLaMarr.com was formerly the home site of his official Barbara La Marr fan club. He was at work on a full biography when he passed on in December of 2004 at the age of forty-eight. La Marr's son Don Gallery, who was adopted by her dear friend Zasu Pitts, is rumored to be carrying on this project. We'd love to hear from him!
THE LEGENDARY BARBARA LA MARR
by Jimmy Bangley
She was known all over the globe as "The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful." She wrote seven successful screenplays for United Artists and Fox studios, danced in musical comedies on Broadway, hoofed it in Vaudeville (and with exhibition partner Rudolph Valentino), produced films, endorsed celebrity perfume, and designed hats. She also went through five husbands, countless lovers, rivers of alcohol, and a sea of publicity.
Uniquely touched by talent, she was a Renaissance woman of the Art Deco era. Passion, intelligence, tragedy, celebrity, and ultimately bad luck marked her life.
The bright white light of fame had been part of Barbara La Marr's meteor-like life since she was a girl. At the tender age of fourteen she was brought in front of venerable Judge Monroe in Los Angeles juvenile court. Miss La Marr (known then as Reatha Watson, her foster-child adopted name) ran afoul of the law for dancing underage.
With her striking beauty she had created a sensation with her exotic and erotic dance turns. The men went crazy over her, and word spread like wildfire about the sensuous little Salome. L.A.'s finest hauled in the panther-like temptress for inciting a riot. Among her numerous admirers were politicians, millionaires, motion picture moguls, royalty, and, unfortunately, sinister charlatans, horny lounge lizards, and crooks from the gutters of life. All of these men were drawn to the child-woman who held glamour, innocence, sexual delight, and sadness in her violet starlit orbs.
The kindly judge of juvenile court took one look at the homegrown Venus and pronounced her too beautiful to be in the big city alone and unprotected. He made the future Barbara La Marr a ward of the court and placed her back in the protective custody of her foster father, Mr. William Watson. Mr. Watson was a successful newspaper editor working in a small desert community, Palmdale, in the Imperial Valley (known for growing delicious palm dates).
'Beauty's beacon' dreaded going back to the hot, dry provincial valley. She had moved from town to town with her journalistic gypsy family for years, and she hated leaving the bright lights of the City of the Angels with all its opportunity and excitement. While at juvenile court, the childlike Reatha was eyed by the first woman cub reporter in the United States, Adela Rogers (who would soon be famous herself as superwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns). Aggressive Adela could smell a good story a mile away. She convinced the too-beautiful girl to accompany her to her office at The L.A. Examiner. There Reatha was introduced to editor Jack Campbell, who said when he saw the lovely teenager, "Helen of Troy, I presume." A two-page article with wonderful photos resulted. Barbara La Marr's romance with the press was born.
The facts of her life are sketchy at best. No birth certificate has ever been found. We do know that Barbara as a month-old baby was adopted by a foster family, the Watsons. They claim that Barbara was born July 28, 1896 in North Yakima, Washington State. She was named Reatha (sometimes spelled Rheatha) Dale Watson. It's interesting to note that all of her life, Miss La Marr gave her birthplace as Richmond, Virginia. There were always rumors and whispers that in reality Barbara La Marr was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocractic, "first family of Virginia," and a good-looking playboy who happened to be an Italian count. (Some sources say the European count was from Spain.) At any rate, Barbara always listed Richmond, Virginia as her place of birth on all official documents including marriage certificates. She certainly conducted herself as a cross between royalty and a romantic Southern Belle.
Her family was always on the move. Papa took on newspaper work in Portland, Oregon and Tacoma, Washington. In 1904 in Tacoma, she made her theatrical debut as Little Eva in Uncle Tom's Cabin in a stock company production. The child was truly gifted as well as beautiful and went on to be a successful child actress.
When she was acting and living in Fresno, California, her adoptive mother took her to Los Angeles to test for the movies. It was said that the13-year-old girl slapped the face of a very well-known director when he got fresh and tried to kiss and fondle her on the set. Thus ended her first chance to "storm the movies." Rumor has it that the smitten director was none other than Cecil B. DeMille. Alice Terry, that delightful star of the silent screen, as much as told me so.
Around late 1913, Barbara started dancing professionally, and her writing was published (at first in her father's newspapers). As a performer, she was free spirited. Even though she could dance classically, she preferred the freedom of dance expression identified with Isadora Duncan. When Barbara moved, people, especially men, stopped and stared, as if a beautiful statue had come to life.
Jack Lytell was one of the many men who, seeing the girl, had to possess her. He first laid eyes on the young Cleopatra while she was visiting friends and cousins near Yuma, Arizona. He literally swooped down and scooped her out of a slow moving automobile while he was riding horseback, abducting the young beauty and appealing to her fanciful and romantic nature.
After a few months of marital bliss on his ranch, Lytell argued and fought with his young, passionate, too beautiful wife. She wanted to go back to the excitement of Los Angeles, longing for the footlights and the bright worlds of dance, stage, and stardom. After a heated argument, Lytell rode the range, thinking of his dream bride, during a thunderstorm. He became drenched both in mind and body, and rode in the rain for hours. He died two days later of pneumonia.
The too-beautiful widow, guilt ridden, depressed and harboring smoldering dreams, resumed her dancing and writing along with accelerated drinking bouts. During this painful chapter in her life, she was reportedly kidnapped and raped by three or more wild partygoers.
Next she met a young, handsome, rich member of the social set who was a favorite Los Angeles attorney, Lawrence Converse (of the Converse shoe family). Converse wooed her with sweet honeyed words and expensive gifts. He was very good-looking and very ardent in his passion for the too- beautiful lovebird. Twenty-four hours after the happy couple were wed, he was charged with the crime of bigamy (he had a socialite wife and three children), carted off to jail where he cried, "he had to have her, to possess her magnificent beauty." Bewitched, he beat his head against the bars moaning he had to have his gorgeous bride. After two days, he was taken to a hospital and died on the operating table being operated on for blood clots in the brain.
The too-beautiful twice-married girl immersed herself in work-- dancing and writing, sometimes dancing with a group or partner or solo. She danced in Chicago, New Orleans, and as far away as the famous Lincoln Hotel on 52nd Street and Broadway in the Big Apple, New York City.
In 1915 (backed by the wealthy Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst), she danced at the Panama-Pacific Exposition (World's Fair) in San Francisco.
It was around this time that she met and married Phil Ainsworth, a popular musical comedy actor and ballroom dancer of the day. He became an anxious admirer while she was headlining in a group known as "Follydytell and the Bluebells."
Alas, their passionate union had not long to live. Ainsworth, completely smitten with his temptress, began forging checks to purchase designer clothes, jewelry, the finest of foods, and honeymoon trips sated with liquors and hot sex. He was arrested, tried, and sent to prison in San Quentin, leaving a bewildered and mournful mate behind. Phil Ainsworth never got over losing his beautiful bride and swore to anyone who would listen that she was the most beautiful woman ever created. He went on to appear in films at Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount Studios) and at Metro, where he made the popular A Chorus Girl's Romance in 1920.
In late 1917 and early 1918, Reatha began her divorce proceedings. Saddened by her ill luck in marriage, she began many torrid affairs, including one with writer Ernest Hemingway, whom she had met while dancing at the famous club, Harlowe's, in downtown Los Angeles. Her dancing exhibition partner was none other than Rudolph Valentino, who remained a close friend of the gifted vamp until the deaths of both, sadly and prematurely in 1926.
She married her next dance partner, Ben Deely, in 1918. Ben was in his 40s, worshipped her, indulged her, and also shared her enthusiasm for literature and art. He also was an alcoholic and too fond of the gambling tables. The two of them would hole up in their apartment, drinking, dancing and writing (Ben Deely loved to critique his wife's work and give her literary advice).
During this wild time in her life, she decided to throw caution to the wind and crash Hollywood as a screenwriter. Due to the extreme notoriety of her name, she changed it to Barbara La Marr-Deely. Very soon, she would drop the Deely.
Barbara La Marr the 22-year-old writer met with immediate success. She doctored scripts already written and wrote more than six screenplays that were produced at Fox Studios and the newly founded United Artists. Among those scripts were Rose of Nome, The Mother of His Children, Little Grey Mouse, My Husband's Wives, and the screenplay for which she received $10,000, The Flame of Youth. Ben Deely began acting in supporting parts in pictures, including Flames of the Flesh (1919, Fox) and the famous Molly O (First National, 1921).
Barbara, because of her beauty, began to be offered small roles in films (which she proudly turned down) and many offers to audition in big Hollywood photoplays. Finally, she was given advice she could not refuse. Mary Pickford, the Queen of Cinema, saw her at the writers' building at United Artists and told Barbara, "My dear, you are too beautiful to be behind a camera. Your vibrant magnetism should be shared by film audiences."
Louis B. Mayer was on the lookout for future stars. The man who "created" Garbo, Crawford, and so many others, was thrilled when he met the lovely La Marr. He was searching for a new face to fill the important vamp role in his next motion picture called Harriet and the Piper (which was called Paying The Piper in England). His star was the famous and popular Anita Stewart, the first of many great MGM girls of the future. Barbara won the part and the notices. It was said that Miss Stewart was none too happy to have Miss La Marr in her photoplay. Audiences took instant notice of this magnetic beauty who could also act.
Marguerite de La Motte was a most successful leading lady in silent pictures. She and her husband, John Bowers (John was to co-star with Barbara La Marr and Lon Chaney in Metro's Quincy Adams Sawyer, and he inspired the tragic character Norman Maine in A Star Is Born .) were close friends of Barbara's. She introduced "La" La Marr to Douglas Fairbanks, who was at first stunned by this vision of loveliness. He cast her as the wicked vampire in his experimental film about an eccentric inventor entitled The Nut (United Artists, 1921). With flowers in her hair, feathered headgear, and breasts heaving, Barbara energetically portrays a gangster's moll who inhabits a gambling casino.
Her next film role was supplied by legendary movie director John Ford. Ford cast her with the reliable Harry Carey and that marvelous character actress Irene Rich. The box office hit western they starred in was 1921's Desperate Trails. Again, La Marr scored big with film audiences and fans.
Her next 1921 release was a major epic and complete success. The film was The Three Musketeers (1921, United Artists). Douglas Fairbanks had conducted a very large, very public search for the Milady (deWinter) casting sweepstakes. As lovers of Dumas know, Milady is the evil and beautiful vamp, spy, and seductress from the celebrated novel of adventure and romance The Three Musketeers.
This character search for the day was almost as big and important as the search for Scarlett was for David O. Selznick with his beloved Gone With The Wind. Of course, Fairbanks cast La Marr (his former vamp from The Nut ) as the wicked Milady.
The Three Musketeers proved a box office sensation in Europe, the Middle East, South America, and around the world. Barbara La Marr's Milady was a secretive, sneaky, sexy Dame from the 1600s. Whether stealing jewels from the Duke of Buckingham and stuffing them in her voluptuous bosom or wrestling with Fairbanks in her nightclothes, Barbara was a sensation. In this film, there is a comic touch to her vamping which later appeared to full advantage in such films as The White Moth and The Heart of a Siren. During the filming of The Three Musketeers, Barbara quietly separated from her drunken fourth husband Ben Deely who promptly departed for New York and the vaudeville stage.
With The Three Musketeers in wide release, Universal Studios released Barbara's first starring role, Cinderella of the Hills (1921) to good notices and enthusiastic fans. Again La Marr had scored.
Her next film, Arabian Love (1922, Fox Studio) was her first acting job at the studio that had produced most of her screenplays. She co-starred with the dashing John Gilbert, the congenial Barbara Bedford, and her future White Moth friend and cohort character actor William Orlamond. The popular fan magazine Moving Picture World stated that Miss La Marr in Arabian Love made "the forlorn lovesickness of the sheik's daughter unusually effective."
Throughout her meteor-like career, Barbara received great reviews and fantastic personal notices. Mary Philbin told me in 1988 that "Barbara La Marr was not only the most beautiful woman (she) had ever laid eyes on but also one of the most accomplished and underrated actresses in motion pictures." Miss Philbin's opinion was shared by many luminaries of the day. Charlie Chaplin was a great admirer, as were Gloria Swanson, Ben Lyon, Betty Blythe, Wallace Reid, and Mae Murray. Recently at Buster Keaton's 100th birthday party (held at Laurence Austin's fabulous Silent Movie theatre on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles), Keaton's lovely widow, Mrs. Eleanor Keaton, informed this writer that the "too beautiful girl" Barbara La Marr was Buster's favorite film beauty and that he considered her "the most gorgeous creature in the world."
The great film director Rex Ingram also shared Buster's admiration for Barbara. Ingram, famous for selecting and grooming embryonic superstars, selected Barbara and hot, Latin newcomer Ramon Samaniegos (soon to be known worldwide as Mexico's Valentino, Ramon Novarro) to support his lovely wife, silent star Alice Terry, and the well-loved and respected Lewis Stone in the epic The Prisoner of Zenda.
Zenda was a huge worldwide success, and the careers of both Barbara and Ramon were made. Millions of females copied Miss La Marr's famous hairdo, wrapped around her lovely head and then piled high. Numerous new Barbara La Marrs appeared on the streets of the world and, alas, even on the motion picture screen. Her supporting role in the film as a mysterious and glamorous lady from Paris, Antoinette de Maubin, had an impact far beyond its small size. Moving Picture World exclaimed, "Barbara La Marr is one of the most beautiful women on screen and an actress of uncommon ability." The L.A. Examiner, The New York Times, Photoplay Magazine, and Motion Picture Classic all agreed.
Next in line for Barbara's motion picture career was Preferred Pictures' (soon to be merged with Paramount Studios) Domestic Relations (1922). This film was produced on a small budget and became what is known in show business as a "sleeper." It proved to be a real moneymaker and starred two beauties, both "The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful" and Katherine MacDonald, known far and wide as the "American Beauty." Photoplay Magazine thought Barbara "vivified a drab role in Domestic Relations and was most earnest and convincing."
The hit movie Trifling Women was written by Rex Ingram especially for Miss La Marr. Silent superstar Alice Terry (I met the humorous and delightful Miss Terry at the L.A. County Museum and was privileged to have a telephone relationship with her for over four years) told me, "At first I was almost a little jealous of Barbara La Marr, but after working with her and getting to know her while on The Prisoner of Zenda, I became quite fond of her. She was as lovely in her personality as she was in her ravishing looks. She was always cast as a vamp in pictures, and she played that part well because she was a superb actress. The truth was, even though she enjoyed a good party and a good highball, she was far from a vamp. She was very big-hearted and generous and loved to please people. I never really believed all the trash people used to say and print about her. She was a wonderful person and my friend."
Trifling Women (1922) reunited her with Ramon Novarro. The two shared a special screen magic and a close personal friendship. Even though fan magazines of the day proclaimed the two a hot item, Novarro was a decided homosexual and simply delighted in his too-beautiful friend's company. Trifling Women was a worldwide financial success, and LaMarr found her lovely face featured on the covers of magazines around the world. Her salary escalated to $6,500 a week, and in the popularity polls she found herself in a neck-to-neck race with another 1920s' superstar, Miss Gloria Swanson.
Next on the La Marr nitrate agenda was Metro's Quincy Adams Sawyer, 1922. Again she scored big at the box office and with movie reviewers. She shared the screen in Quincy Adams Sawyer with the brilliant Lon Chaney, early movie pioneer actresses Blanche Sweet and Louise Fazenda, her old friend John Bowers (who was married to Marguerite de La Mott), and the first movie Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln.
After Quincy, she filmed two movies at the same time, one in the daytime and one at night. The first, The Hero (1922) co-starred Gaston Glass, John Stanpolis, and beloved character actress Martha Mattox (Miss Mattox went on to portray Garbo's mother in her MGM debut, The Torrent, 1923).
The next film was Poor Men's Wives (not released until 1923), an important film for La Marr because she played a non-glamorous part of a wife and mother. Photoplay Magazine, April 1923 (which featured her on the cover) stated "Barbara La Marr is not so gorgeously impressive in shabby frocks as she is in her usual velvet and brocade. Although she's an eyeful under any circumstances and as the discontented and rebellious Laura Maberne, wife of a poor man, she does some excellent acting. And she gets a chance to wear some real clothes after all. Zasu Pitts does a wistful bit as 'Apple Annie'."
While working on this critically successful hit, Miss La Marr began a close friendship with famed comedienne and versatile character actress Zasu Pitts, who would eventually adopt Barbara LaMarr's son, Don Gallery, who lives today on beautiful Catalina Island.
Barbara's thirteenth film proved both lucky and unlucky. The film is the celebrated flick about Hollywood, Souls For Sale, written by the prolific Rupert Hughes (Uncle to Howard Hughes and great grandfather to actress, writer, literary representative Kimberly Cameron). Rupert Hughes also co-directed with the help of the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch. Barbara played a part not unlike herself, a famous movie vamp who offscreen is kind and loving and eventually tragic. She shared the screen with newcomer Eleanor Boardman, plus Richard Dix, talented Mae Busch, suave Lew Cody, and energetic William Haines. There were also numerous cameo appearances by the likes of Charles Chaplin, Aileen Pringle, Erich Von Stroheim, Zasu Pitts, Louise Fazenda, and Fred Niblo.
During a dance sequence, La Marr badly sprained her delicate ankle. Goldwyn producers urged her to take a little something to dull the pain and keep the movie on schedule. Studio doctors administered morphine, cocaine, and some say even heroin to the pained movie vamp. At first the "doctors" did not tell the too-beautiful actress what they were giving her. The film was delayed time after time and shooting went on much longer than anticipated. By the end of filming, Barbara was hooked. Like Wallace Reid before her and Alma Ruebens after, La Marr became part of the Hollywood drug world. Mixed with her fondness for "highballs," this proved to be terribly destructive.
Souls For Sale proved to be another box office winner. The La Marr name was growing internationally. The popular vamp's next film was First National's The Brass Bottle, 1923. Directed by cinema genius Maurice Tourneur, this expensive and beautiful film was about a man and a beautiful scantily-clad genie from a bottle played by Miss La Marr. 1920s' audiences were certainly "dreaming of genie" when the beauteous vision of LaMarr graced the screen. This picture really filled the coffers at First National. La Marr had scored big again.
Barbara's 15th film reunited her with John Gilbert. John and Barbara had an intense sexual affair during the filming of Fox Studios' St. Elmo in 1923. In Leatrice Gilbert Fountain's brilliant book about her famous father, matinee idol John Gilbert, titled Dark Star, this exchange of words transpired between La Marr and Leatrice Joy, Gilbert's second wife: "That night the phone rang about two in the morning. I answered it, and it was Barbara La Marr. She said, 'Oh, Leatrice darling, may I speak to Jack, please?' (John Gilbert was known as Jack to his friends). I said, 'Of course, dear,' and then threw the phone under the bed and went back to sleep."
St. Elmo's talented cast also included Bessie Love, Warner Baxter, and Nigel de Brulier. Barbara's next film assignment turned out to be yet another monster hit in the manner of The Three Musketeers, The Prisoner of Zenda, Trifling Women, and Souls For Sale. Metro's Strangers of the Night, based on the hit Broadway play Captain Applejack found Barbara La Marr as an irresistible Russian spy. Frolicking with Matt Moore, La Marr was never more gorgeous.
In 1923 Barbara married again (her fifth), this time to cowboy star Jack Dougherty, who was both good-natured and reliable. It has been said that Barbara, before her marriage, slipped off to Texas and gave birth to a son. Alice Terry completely believed this and so did screen star and former lover Gilbert Roland, the fine actor and handsome playboy who counted Barbara La Marr, Norma Talmadge, Clara Bow, Mae West, Lupe Velez, Tallulah Bankhead, Constance Bennett, Bette Davis, Dorothy Dandridge, and Lana Turner among his romantic conquests. Mr. Roland told this to me one evening at Silent Movie in L.A., where we held many conversations. At any rate, LaMarr went back to Texas on a personal appearance tour and adopted little Marvin Carville LaMarr from Hope Cottage orphanage.
Little Marvin is today the wonderful Don Gallery, whom I am pleased to call my friend. Don Gallery has had an exceptional life. He was the son of Barbara La Marr, was adopted by Zasu Pitts and Tom Gallery, was the godchild of Paul Bern and later unofficially Jean Harlow. He also dated Elizabeth Taylor who has often been compared to Barbara La Marr and "pinned" gal pal Shirley Temple. Mr. Gallery is indeed fascinating and most kind, like his too-beautiful mother, Barbara La Marr.
Barbara, husband Jack Dougherty, and son (whom Barbara nicknamed Sonny for his sweet disposition) went to Italy to make one of the first Hollywood productions shot on location. The film was the motion picture masterpiece The Eternal City. The impressive cast included Lionel Barrymore, Bert Lytell, Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan Bennett), Montague Love, and Ronald Colman. The king and queen of Italy made a cameo appearance and were said to have adored Miss La Marr.
Europeans seemed to appreciate Barbara even more than her American fans. She had legions of fans in England, France, Germany, Spain, the Scandinavian countries, and Italy. It has been rumored she met some of her royal relatives in Italy (remember, folks, she was a foster child).
She also met and supposedly had an affair with Mussolini. Mussolini, being the ham he was, appears in the film. Barbara La Marr co-produced the film uncredited and added much to the screenplay. With Mussolini under her thumb, she convinced him to have his Fascist movement troops film a memorable scene in the ancient Colosseum. I have an English program (Pavillion Lavender Hill program) announcing The Eternal City a modernized version introducing Signor Mussolini and the Fascist movement. The worldwide response to The Eternal City was thunderous. Miss La Marr they said "had never been seen to such advantage and so magnificently beautiful," Picture Play Magazine. Indeed, La Marr was gowned by Max Ree, Erte, Madame Frances, and Elsa Schiaparelli, four great designers working for the vamp. Critics heaped glorious praise upon the picture and its players. Picture Play, Feb. 1924: "Barbara La Marr has never been more strikingly beautiful than she is in a few scenes of The Eternal City where she dons a white wig."
From the English magazine Movie Weekly, December 1923: "Barbara La Marr is a vision of loveliness in her role of Donna Roma in The Eternal City. She is one of the most beautiful women of the cinema and let her but once flicker across the screen, and it becomes instantly vital with beauty and glamor." Photoplay Mag recounted, "This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful pictures ever filmed. It is also one of the most interesting, and no lover of the best in pictures can afford to miss. Barbara La Marr as Roma has the best role of her career and does by far her finest acting. She is very beautiful as always and plays with a skill and spirit that she never before has equaled."
Barbara followed with a film considered to be the pinnacle in her remarkable career. The film was Fred Niblo's perfect Thy Name Is Woman, Metro 1924. Fred Niblo, who went on to direct the silent Ben Hur and Garbo's The Temptress, Metro 1926 (Garbo had many of the same co-stars and directors as Miss La Marr). The Eternal City was helmed by George Fitzmaurice who went on to direct Garbo with Barbara La Marr's favorite co-star Ramon Novarro in Mata Hari. He always said Thy Name Is Woman was one of the most underrated of all silent films. Again Barbara co-starred with her friend Ramon Novarro.
I have seen the film three times, and Barbara La Marr's acting is very delicate, in turns sad and introspective and then intense and energetic. Kevin Thomas said in the Los Angeles Times February 14, 1994 in its release at Silent Movie, "La Marr plays the unhappy wife of an important old smuggler, he orders her (La Marr) to divert Novarro's naive, wet-behind-the-ears frontier guard while he and his henchman clear the cellar of contraband. As seductive as La Marr is, she does not come on to Novarro as an ordinary vamp, for he quickly perceives her misery. Just as quickly, however, they fall in love. The world-weariness, the pervasive sadness that La Marr brings to her role seems palpably real, especially in her single startlingly revealing closeup.
In Motion Picture Magazine, movie critic Lamar Lane stated in the January 1924 edition, "Here is one of the most human and absorbing photoplays of a twelve month. No more fascinating figure has ever been viewed on the screen than that presented by Barbara La Marr as the wife of the old smuggler. She is a revelation of beauty and artistry, and she does it all without the aid of fine feathers. Thy Name Is Woman is one of the very few films I have ever wanted to view a second time."
Thy Name Is Woman was and is a brilliant film. Producer Louis B. Mayer spared no cost. Set designer Howard Grive truly gives the feeling of that mystical borderland between Spain and France. One can almost taste the atmosphere of the unique Basque region inhabited by La Marr at her soulful best.
The next feature Barbara was offered was The Shooting of Dan McGrew, based on the world famous poem by Robert W. Service. Louis B. Mayer once gain produced this classic under the banner of Metro-Goldwyn Sawyer-Lubin (1924). Barbara portrayed the shady prostitute with a heart of gold, "the lady known as Lou," with grace and realism. The New York Herald Tribune crowed, "We have never seen Barbara La Marr act better or look so well. She seems to be getting more soulfully beautiful as time goes on."
Barbara was under contract to the Sawyer-Lubin Corp. They negotiated a lucrative deal for Barbara at First National Pictures (the home studio for Corinne Griffith, Norma Talmadge, and the bouncy Colleen Moore). Barbara did her first motion picture at First National and also appeared in The Brass Bottle and The Eternal City for the world famous studio. She had mixed emotions about leaving the brand new MGM and Louis B. Mayer (it has been said that Barbara was the favorite and most beloved star of Louis B.; he openly wept at her funeral), but First National offered more perks and more money for the too beautiful star with her extravagant lifestyle, escalating drug addiction, and family obligations. Barbara left Metro and went on to become one of the queens of First National Studio.
Under her new contract, La Marr's first opus was a Ziegfeld-type drama titled The White Moth (1924) based on a poem by Barbara. She received no credit for writing the exciting screenplay (in the 1920s the public did not want their vamps to be cerebral) advertised as "The sensational romance of the French Theatre." Maurice Tourneur's production was a story of nightlife in Paris.
As the film opens, we see a down-and-out American dancer, Mona Reid (Barbara), about to commit suicide by flinging her lovely self into the river. Charles de Roche (America's favorite French silent star) saves her and convinces her to be part of his act. Next we see a beautiful Art Deco set complete with a large cottony cocoon. Barbara La Marr, in a glitzy costume complete with wings and a two-foot high hairdo reminiscent of Marie Antoinette's, emerges from this cloud-like cocoon and does a dance that pre-dates Madonna's vogue dance movements by 66 years. She is vibrant, fun, and a trifle campy, which is perfect for this larger-than-life character.
Moving Picture World gleefully stated, "The story concerns a young lady who becomes the sensation of the Parisian stage because of her beauty, the gorgeousness of her costumes, and the stage settings she uses. Barbara La Marr fits perfectly into this role, and her costumes are about as elaborate and striking as any seen on the screen." Conway Tearle and the young and handsome Ben Lyon co-star with Barbara. In a letter from Ben Lyon he states (July 13, 1976), "I had the privilege of co-starring with Barbara La Marr in 1925 (it was actually 1924). The film was titled The White Moth. She was gorgeous, and I fell hook, line, and sinker for her and was proud to be seen in her company. Unfortunately, she became a 'drinker' and died at a very young age, but she was one of the top rated stars of that period." Indeed, Barbara's drinking and drug use had increased, but one could not tell from her lovely face or graceful form.
Barbara next (without a much-needed rest), completed two more star vehicles for First National Studios' Sandra, a romance piece about a beautiful, troubled young lady, and the melodramatic Heart of a Siren. During the production of Sandra, poor Barbara gained about 35 pounds on her small, delicate 5-foot 3-inch frame.
Over-indulgence in food, alcohol and drugs had begun to show their ill effects. Barbara reacted by going on a starvation diet of cocaine and liquids (including those potent Barbara La Marr highballs). She quickly lost the pounds but ruined her health and she never fully recovered. It was even rumored that she digested sugar-coated tapeworms because she was so desperate to lose weight.
Oscar-winning fashion designer Charles Lemaire, who did the gorgeous wardrobe for The Heart of a Siren, 1925, loved, praised, and worried about Barbara. He told me via telephone in the early 1980s that she had a beauty only matched by Ava Gardner. He said she was exhausted on the set of The Heart of a Siren but painfully gave her all for the film. Despite her ever-present fatigue and tiredness, she was always the last to leave the nightclubs. She used to boast, "I cheat nature. I never sleep more than two hours a day. I have better things to do." She also stated, "I take lovers like roses, by the dozen." Sadly, she was on the fast track to destruction.
By now word of the wild drug and liquor-ridden nights had reached producers' ears at First National. Because Barbara still looked so ravishing, they did not care about her health and addiction problems. They rushed her into a lousy film titled The White Monkey, 1925. It received lukewarm notices and bad box office results.
When filming was completed in New York City, First National commanded the ailing star to rush back to Hollywood to begin filming an "A" class picture with friend Lewis Stone titled Spanish Sunshine. (It was later called The Girl From Montmartre, 1926.) It proved to be the too-beautiful star's swan song. Ex-lover, friend, and mentor Paul Bern begged La Marr not to make the picture and to take a long much-needed rest. Bern had long been madly in love with Barbara and had even attempted to kill himself when Barbara married cowboy star Jack Dougherty.
Filming progressed, and Barbara was reprtedly shooting up heroin, sniffing cocaine, and drinking alcohol in her dressing room. New friend and MGM starlet Joan Crawford was saddened and concerned, as were all of the vamp's friends. In the book "Crawford's Men" by Jane Ellen Wayne, Joan states, "God, I loved Barbara La Marr. She was labeled, 'The Girl Who Is Too Beautiful." No wonder she gave up!" Until the day she died, Crawford cherished a black lacy Spanish fan belonging to Barbara, given to her by their mutual friend, Paul Bern.
Finally life and karma caught up with the wild, hectic and sad superstar. She collapsed on the set of The Girl From Montmartre. First National completed the film, and Barbara sank into a coma. When she revived, she gave her beloved son, "Sonny," to the care of her dear friend, Mrs. Tom Gallery, alias Zasu Pitts. She also gave Zasu a large amount of cash to help support her son. For a short while she rallied, but soon tuberculosis entered her life and many suspected that she was still taking drugs. Paul Bern purchased her a small house in Altadena, California, and the "Too Beautiful Girl" retired there to await the angel of death.
Barbara La Marr's vivid and tragic soul departed this earth on January 30, 1926. Forty thousand persons filed by her flower laden open casket, and her funeral turned into a Hollywood circus. In tribute to this fairytale-like person caught up in a storm of drugs and emotion, I shall close with Margaret E. Sangster's too-beautiful poem:
"Somewhere back of the sunset,
Where loveliness never dies,
She dwells in a land of glory,
With dreams in her lifted eyes.
And laughter lives all about her,
And music sways on the air.
She is far from all thought of sadness,
Of passion and doubt and care!
The flowers of vanished April,
The lost gild of summer's mirth
Are wrapped like a cloak about her,
Who hurried too soon from Earth.
And we who have known her splendor,
A beauty that brought swift tears,
Will cherish her vision always,
To brighten the drifting years."
No writer in the 1990s can ever write an article about silent movie history alone. I am so grateful to so many generous individuals both living and deceased who have helped me.
In grateful thanks and with much appreciation, I must first thank those beautiful souls no longer with us: Miss Laura LaPlante, Miss Alice Terry, Mr. Gilbert Roland, Miss Mary Philbin, and Mr. Charles Lemaire.
Also, I must gratefully acknowledge my dear friends and researchers who helped "Barbara La Marr" and me along the path to its completion: Cari Beachman; Linda Frank; Laurence Austin; Mrs. Eleanor Keaton; Matt Kennedy; Christine Chapman; Margaret Burk of Roundtable West Literary Society; Mr. Don Gallery, the son of the late Barbara La Marr; Miss Karen Swensen; Mr. Carl Youngblood; Miss Caroline de Souligny; Mr. Jim Shippee; Miss Vivian Cooper; and the delightful Leatrice Gilbert Fountain. Thank you all.