Madge Bellamy and the Stranger Inside

Madge Bellamy told me that she had spent her life trying to understand the stranger inside of herself.  During our conversations, the subject was never far from her thoughts.

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In Madge Bellamy: A Friendship Cut Short, Madge talked about her childhood and how she got into show business. In this concluding installment, Madge talks about Hollywood, the Hollywood she remembered. Note: Madge’s quotes are in italics.

Madge's Barbara La Marr pose

Madge’s Barbara La Marr pose

Your first film was The Riddle: Woman with Geraldine Farrar.

She was my idol, but she ignored me completely. I remember her gestures. I remember her great happiness when Lou Tellegen (her husband) would come on the set.

 

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You started working in films in New York.

I was appearing on the stage in New York and I would take the train to Fort Lee to be in this movie because filming in those days started very early in the morning. I’d get the train, and when I’d get home, I’d have to be in a matinee or evening performance of the play. I remember I was always so tired. I think,  for success, what you need more than anything is energy. If I had had more energy, I’m sure I would have been better, but I was always so tired.

Did you plan for a motion picture career or was it supposed to be a one picture deal?

After I came out here, I got ambitious to get better pictures. I had very little success. I didn’t have control over the picture I was to be in. I would cry. I think now, to become a big success, you have to be a smart business woman and know how to make your own pictures or at least have a say so in it.

How did you get to Hollywood?

Thomas Ince sent a man to New York to find actresses for him. They took actresses from all the different plays and a few from the Ziegfeld Follies. They made about 12 tests, and I was notified that I was selected. Mr. (Daniel) Frohman said, ”I’ll never see you again.”

First impressions of Hollywood?

I was frightfully disappointed. I had it built up in my mind that it was as large as New York.  You can imagine coming from those tall buildings to a street of one-story buildings.

Madge Bellamy

Madge Bellamy

You got over your disappointment.

Yes, but the lifestyle was very bizarre and wild. I remember thinking nothing of having liquor all around. We all learned to smoke. No one told us it was bad for us. We had parties that would last from morning through night and then we’d go on to another house and end up in a house with somebody we didn’t even know. Yet, in a way, it was an innocent time. 

With Douglas MacLean in Passing Thru (1921)

With Douglas MacLean in Passing Thru (1921)

Your first day on the set in Hollywood. You walked out of Douglas MacLean’s office and almost off the lot.

I can’t imagine what I was going to do. That impluse I had to walk out has followed me through my life. It practically ruined me. Instead of staying and fighting over something, I would walk out. I would say, “I won’t have it,” and then just shut it off. That’s very wrong. I should have stayed and argued. I have that impulse now.  I don’t know what that is. I have sometimes thought that it goes back to my lack of energy.

I’ve always said that the trouble with most Texans is that they think things can be solved with a gun. Nothing can be solved with gun!

What was the trouble with Douglas MacLean.

We didn’t personally synch with one another. He would stand by the camera and say, “Don’t make her look too pretty. It detracts from the comedy.”

Madge

You were with fellow Texan Florence Vidor in Hail the Woman.

I looked up to her. I admired her. She was a very elegant person. Although she was from Texas, you would have thought she was from the finest finishing schools in Europe. She had an innate sense of elegance about her.

Her husband, King Vidor, directed you in Love Never Dies.

King Vidor was a very quiet man on the set. He would come over and whisper instructions. He was so different from those directors who had megaphones and would shout at you.

You were with Jack Pickford in Garrison’s Finish.

Jack was very sweet to me. I had always been in love with Mary Pickford. I just adored her. I remember a strange thing after the picture was finished. Mary sent her chauffeur over to my house to get a pair of gloves I had worn in the movie. I will never forget how strange I thought that was.

With Jack Pickford

With Jack Pickford

You say you were selected for a role in Ben Hur, but that you refused the part.

I think I was just ignorant. I can’t imagine why I was so rude. I remember saying at the time that I didn’t want to be in the picture became there would be a lot of horses.

Do you have regrets about Ben Hur?

I don’t think it would have helped me very much. They went to Europe and it took about a half a year to make it. It didn’t do May McAvoy much good. 

Talk a bit about The Iron Horse.

It was filmed on location in a prairie . Lots of pictures were made on the back lot of Universal. The old man, Carl Laemmle, used to say. ”A rock is a rock and a tree is a tree.”

Madge in the Iron Horse

Madge in the Iron Horse

A coach car was given to me. I lived in great style back there. I thought it was wonderful of Jack Ford (the film’s director)  to sleep in an upper berth with the extras. It shows what a unusual guy he was.  George O’ Brien was also an adorable person.

How did you like John Ford as a director?

He saw the picture as a whole, instead of a series of static pictures, which was like most directors directed. He brought a movement, a narrative form to the picture. He was really a genius.

Madge and Thomas Ince

Madge and Thomas Ince

Were you still under contact to Thomas Ince when he died?

I think my contract was up with Mr. Ince when he died. It was very shortly that I got a call from Fox telling me they wanted me. Ince was having a hard time financially when he died. He was going to star me in First National pictures, but that didn’t come off because of his financial difficulty. At Ince’s studio, nobody seemed to take charge. He was so busy with the money side of it.

Ince’s death was rather mysterious at the time. Did you ever get the inside scoop?

I have never been able to find out. I have heard so many different versions of what happened. I knew Mickey Neilan and he said that nobody shot nobody. He had a stomach ache and they took him off the ship and he died. It may have been no mystery at all.

What about the rumors that you were hard to work with?

If I had that been hard to get along with, all these directors would not have wanted me. I made seven pictures a year and I only had trouble with one or two. I was late one morning for Lorna Doone, but that wasn’t my fault. My chauffeur didn’t show up. I was kind of bossy when I was with Ince, but when I got to Fox, they said, ‘You can’t select your picture and you can’t select your director, but you can select your leading man.’ I never had any trouble with anyone there.

Madge in Lorna Doone

Madge in Lorna Doone

You bobbed your hair for your role in Sandy (1926).

Yes, and I never knew what to do with it after that.  I had rather pretty hair. It was dark in the shadows and gold in the sunlight. When they made me cut it off and dye it blonde, I think it detracted from me.

Madge bobs her hair

Madge bobs her hair

Was your mother the stage mother she was rumored to be?

When I came out here, mothers were in disrepute. Everybody said that mothers came on the set and bossed everybody. My mother never came on the set. In fact, she was not particularly interested in my career. She never either complimented or criticized me.

Did you experience any rivalry with any of the other leading ladies at Fox?

I didn’t feel any. I know that Maurice Tourneur (the director) wanted Barbara Bedford for Lorna Doone because she was his sweetheart. You can’t blame him for perferring her.  I didn’t feel any rivalry with her.

What was the atmosphere like at Fox with the advent of talkies?

Everybody was very excited and I was so excited.

You have been listed among the actresses who failed to make a transition to the new medium.

They still say that. I just read a book that said it was too bad that Madge Bellamy’s voice didn’t come over, but I think it did.  They made a test at Fox to see which star would make the first talking picture at Fox. After the tests, who did they choose?  Me! I had notices that I had a very fine voice. Arthur Hopkins, a famous New York producer, said that even my whisper carried. So it was a shock to read that I couldn’t talk. 

It didn’t help your career when you turned down a second Fox contract that would have paid you $25,000 more a year.  Why did you refuse the offer?

I have tried to figure that out for many years. I can only say that it was a streak of insanity. I don’t know why. I didn’t care for Mr. Sheehan very much. I know that that was the end of my career. I did the same at MGM. They called me and I said I’d make a picrture for them, but that I didn’t want any businessman on the set.  You can’t talk like that.

At Fox, I didn’t want to do The Lady from Hell with an actor that was going to be the director. I refused to do it. I said I was quitting. The bosses told me to go away and think about it. I said I was going to quit. I don’t know why I did it or what I was thinking. I think maybe the fire had gone out of me. I wish you could solve it for me becaue I’m still trying to figure it out.

You lost your home, career, and belongings in 1929. How did you get through it?

It was an almost unbearable experience for me. I think the secret of my survival is that I have always been interested in the rest of the world. How can you cry about yourself when you’re worried about Guatamala? I have always been interested in what’s happening in Germany or in England. I could take these troubles because I was worried about world conditions as much as I was about myself.

Also, if I had a book in front of me that I was intereseted in, I didn’t care where I was or what was happening to me. 

"The Cedars," Madge's home

“The Cedars,” Madge’s Hollywood home

You returned to films in 1932.  Why?

I suppose it was to make some money.

White Zombie, now a cult classic, was your comeback film.

I was very fond of the two young men (Victor and Edward Halperin, the director and producer) that made the picture. Of course, Bela Lugosi was quite a gentleman. I think he was a fine actor. I wish they wouldn’t show it so often on TV. If they show it one more time, I’m going to scream.

Madge in White Zombie

Madge in White Zombie

In the film, you are transformed into a zombie by an evil voodoo master.

I think it’s a good story. They say it was a true story. In those days, they doped up the workers and worked them until they died.

Madge with Bela Lugosi and Robert Frazer in White Zombie

Madge with Bela Lugosi and Robert Frazer in White Zombie

Is it true that you tested for the part of Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind.

They called me in to do a test, but when they saw tme, they said I looked too young for the part. It didn’t turn out to be much of a part anyway.

A Darling of the Twenties stops after 1945.  What happened?

That’s the part of my life I don’t want to talk about. The publisher wants me to do an epilogue and I have written one, but they don’t know whether to use it or not. They said all they wanted was just to let the readers know that I’m well and happy, but I don’t know how to write a well and happy epilogue.

Madge at home in the 1980s

Madge at home in the 1980s

Louise Brooks called the movie business the roughest, toughest, most humilatting and degrading job in the world. Do you agree?

I don’t think it is. I didn’t find it that way. It was humiliating there at the end of my career when I wasn’t offered fine parts or any good parts at all. That happens to nearly everybody in life.

The cover of Madge's memoir.

The cover of Madge’s memoir.

Would you be an actress again if you could turn back the clock?

I think I would have become a libriaian, because then I would have lived my life with books. I guess books have been my great love in life. It’s a strange thing about books. I love words. It’s the use of words that I am interested in. The words that I put together in an interesting way are what interest me.

What did you learn about yourself in writing your memoirs?

I’ve learned that subconscious memories flair up in you and cause you behavior that is unexplainable. What it is, I don’t know. I don’t think even a great psychiatrist would know what makes a person what they are.

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What do you want readers to learn from your book?

I want them to learn to conserve their energies, take care of their bodies and their minds, and believe in life and believe in never giving up on the progress of the human being. It’s hopeless when you give that up. I want heaven on earth, as we all do.

What are you proud of?

I’m not proud of anything. I’m kind of proud of my ambition, although it gave out too soon. I lost my ambition, but I’m proud that I had it. I had great expectations, but they gave out before my years gave out. That’s too bad, isn’t it?

Madge (L) with Gloria Stuart

Madge (L) with Gloria Stuart

Do you feel that your true talent and potential were ever realized in Hollywood?

No, not at all. I don’t think that I ever had a part that suited me or ever had an expression of what I felt or wanted to express.

Do you keep in touch with any friends from the old days?

Dorothy Revier is a friend. I can almost say that she was the prettiest woman I ever saw. She was really gorgeous.

Dorothy Revier

Dorothy Revier

The last time I saw her was at a party for the Whatever Became Of? books. We laughed and laughed because we both had the same singing teacher, Howard Hughes’ uncle. He was deaf as a post. The more we studied with him, the worse our singing voices became.

What do you think about the rerelease of the films you and your contemporaries made.

I think it’s wonderful. Through this, people’s imaginations will be fired again. What you see on the screen now kills the imagination. Everything is solved with a pistol shot or a car chase instead of by imagination or vision.

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Have you read A Darling of the Twenties?  If not, get it!  Read it! Let me know what you think.

Madge with

Madge with Charles Morton in Colleen

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4 thoughts on “Madge Bellamy and the Stranger Inside

  1. Hi Michael, I was very fortunate to purchase and read Miss Bellamy’s book during the mid 1990’s. It was quite a read. Although a lot of it was heartbreaking, I was glad to learn more about her life and career. I too thought it was very candid. During my teen years I had admired her photographs in two John Kobal books dedicated to Hollywood stars and photographers. One of the photographs(with frizzy hair and flower) you reproduce here. I also thought her name was so cool. It is a shame that she was misused and unappreciated toward the end of her movie making career. I somehow find similarities in her with Louise Brooks and Evelyn Brent. Talented women who finally hit their stride in the late 1920s and who had no trouble speaking on film but through various circumstances ended up troubled, financially and also mentally depleted within a few years. I thank you for shining the spotlight on Miss Bellamy, for you have honored her spirit well.

    You Are The Best!

  2. Terrific interview, Michael! It’s too bad you didn’t know her sooner, because you would have been a great co-author with her; her autobiography would have been better than it already was. Congratulations for a great job! =D

  3. Thinking selfishly, it breaks my heart to know I lived around the corner from Madge’s business for years – and never had a clue.

  4. I am thrilled to have come across this blog, and I am especially overjoyed to have stumbled upon your interview with Madge Bellamy. She was my paternal grandfather Don Burger’s first cousin (making her my first cousin twice removed, a tiny bit of shared DNA, but a seeming kinship, nonetheless, with her indomitable spirit 🙂 ) Thank you for sharing, I look forward to perusing more of your truly intriguing content!

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