If you ever wondered what became of silent film actress Sally Phipps, you’re in luck. Bob Harned has written a thorough and revealing biography of one of the cutest flappers to ever grace the silent screen. Bob is not just any writer; he just happens to be her son!
A little about Sally and then I will introduce you to Bob and bring you into the conversation we had about his book, Sally Phipps: Silent Film Star.
Her real name was not Sally Phipps, but Nellie Bernice Bogdon. When she came to Hollywood and signed with Fox Studios, she became Sally Phipps, a name that seemed to fit a care-free Jazz baby.
Sally was born in 1911 in Oakland, California. A brother, Lane, came along in 1913. Her father, Albert E. Bogdon, was a professional magician and quite easy on the eye (He later became a lawyer). Her mother, Edithe, a commercial artist, later worked at First National Studios coloring black and white photographs.
When Albert and Edithe’s marriage fell apart, Sally went to live with her maternal grandmother, Nellie Lane. When she was not quite two, Sally was placed with a foster family, Warren and Eva Sawyer. Warren and Eva were employees at Essanay Film Corporation in Niles, California.
Sally’s career began as Bernice Sawyer at age four when she made three Broncho Billy films at Essanay: Broncho Billy and the Baby, The Western Way, The Outlaw’s Awakening, all 1915 releases.
A stagecoach accident ended Sally’s career at Essanay and sent her back to Nellie, her grandmother.
Edithe, Sally’s mother, began a new life in the 1920s and wanted Sally and Lane to be part of it. Edithe married Albert Beutler in 1922. In 1924, The family moved to Los Angeles.
Danny Borzage, a family friend, saw potential in 14-year-old Sally. Danny’s brother Frank, a director at Fox, gave Sally a screen test and the rest, as they say, is history.
After several uncredited roles, Sally began playing leads. The studio considered her image as that of a happy-go-lucky flapper and used her in comedies, often opposite Nick Stuart.
Sally was named a Wampas Baby Star in 1927, along with Patricia Avery, Rita Carewe, Helene Costello, Barbara Kent, Natalie Kingston, Frances Lee, Mary McAlister, Gladys McConnell, Sally Rand, Martha Sleeper, Iris Stuart, and Adamae Vaughn.
In 1928, while filming None But The Brave with Charles Morton, , Sally developed the dreaded Klieg Eye, a eye irritation caused by the powerful lights used on studio sets.
After her recovery, Sally went on vacation. She was away from the cameras for nine months, an eternity in filmdom.
Nick Stuart was soon making films and making out with Sue Carol. The actress grabbed onto Nick and wouldn’t let go. They were married in 1929.
In March 1929, 17-year-old Sally sued her mother and stepfather for the misuse of her money — she was earning $225 a week.
Soon after, Fox dropped Sally from its rolls. She tried Broadway, appearing as a starlet in the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman hit Once in a Lifetime.
I will save the rest of her life for your reading pleasure. In short, she was briefly married to a Gimbel department store. By the mid-1930s, Sally was living in a one-room apartment in Manhattan and making $25 a week as a secretary.
She lived in India for a time and studied Eastern religions. At a séance, she met Alfred Harned, whom she married in 1941. A daughter, Maryanna, was born in 1942, followed by Bob in 1944.
It would be another 17 years before Bob saw his mother. Sally moved to New York and worked as a secretary. After Bob moved to the East Coast in 1967, the two saw each other at least twice a year.
Sally Phipps died of cancer in 1978.
After I read Bob’s fascinating book, you know me, I had questions.
Michael: So many film actresses from the 1910s and 1920s came from families where the father was absent. This was Sally’s case. Her father, a magician and vaudevillian, was pretty much out the picture, as was her mother, who was a commercial artist. What impact did this have on her life, do you think?
Bob: Although Sally’s biological parents were frequently absent from her life, Sally lived full-time with her widowed grandmother, Nellie C. Lane from age three to age eleven. Nellie, whom Sally adored, was an intensely active civic leader during all the time Sally lived with her, and drove her own car as early as 1911. Nellie was the major stabilizing force in Sally’s life, was as a strong role model, and, although not a father, served as a good parental substitute during Sally’s critical growing years.
Michael: Sally and her mother moved to Hollywood in 1924. Given that Sally had worked in the Broncho Billy films in the mid-1910s and performed in plays in school, it seems she was destined to become a film actress, doesn’t it?
Bob: According to interviews Sally gave, all she ever wanted to do was become a lawyer just like her father. However, Sally’s destiny was that she was too beautiful to live a normal life. When a family friend set up a screen test for her at Fox, which proved successful, Fox rushed to capitalize on her beauty and youth by immediately putting her under contract.
Michael: Tell me a little about your mother’s lifestyle after she went under contract to Fox and became a star.
Bob: According to Sally, it was all work, work, work. In a quote from a newspaper article, she said, “Hollywood is one of the most peaceful towns I have ever seen. Why, if wild parties and other things go on there, I’ve missed something. Most of us in the movies are too busy to think of anything but our work.”
Michael: Sally became a Wampas Baby Star at age 15, I believe. She must have been one of the youngest to receive this honor. Do you have any sense, based on your research and conversation with your mother, that she thought it was too much too soon?
Bob: Not at all. She loved every minute of it.
Michael: Nick Stuart was Sally’s frequent co-star at Fox. Do you know whether there was a romance between them?
Bob: Sally was aware quite early that Nick and Sue Carol were smitten with each other and that a romance with him would be definitely out of the question.
Michael: Sally’s career in films was basically over by 1930, when she was only 19 or so. Did she have any sense of why her career ended? Was it the coming of sound? Was it that Sue Carol came to Fox and played many of roles that Sally specialized in? Was it the lingering grief over her father’s murder in 1927? (Read the book to learn more).
Bob: Sally was always interested in giving the theater a try and found that the current upheaval in Hollywood gave her a chance to make a graceful exit. In the end, she triumphed by walking into a plum role in the 1930-1931 Broadway Kaufman & Hart spoof of Hollywood, Once In A Lifetime.
Michael: One misconception I had about Sally was that, after her marriage to Ben Gimbel of Gimbels department store fame, she lived on “easy street” for the rest of her life. That was not the case, was it? Without giving away a lot of the story, what direction did her life take after her divorce from Gimbel?
Bob: Sally moved on with her life after the divorce, having chosen to receive no settlement or alimony. She appeared in another Broadway show, did Shakespeare with a travelling company, joined WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, travelled around the world, lived in India for a year, and married again, giving birth to two children, including me.
Michael: One of the most unfortunate parts of Sally’s story was when she vanished from you and your sister’s lives in 1950 when you were youngsters. It’s interesting that Sally, as a child, was shifted back and forth between foster parents, her mother, and her grandmother. Do you think her own childhood experience affected her idea of what it meant to be a parent?
Bob: It certainly seems possible.
Michael: Were you ever able to learn why she suddenly left you and your sister to grow up without their mother? Did she ever talk about it?
Bob: My sister and I were fortunate in that my father and my grandmother never imparted to us any blame or anger toward my mother. We always knew where she was and could keep in touch. Why she left and what precipitated it was never important to us. As for me, the time she spent with me as an adult was very precious.
Michael: Your sister had a bad experience when she was reunited with Sally, but you actually developed a friendship when you and Sally met again in the 1960s. Was it more of a friendship or was it a real mother and son connection? How did growing up without your mother impact your life?
Bob: I was born into a show-biz family with bohemian attitudes. My father, who brought us up, was a musician, former vaudevillian, orchestrator, and composer. I grew up loving all aspects of entertainment. Both my sister and I sang, danced, and acted. Meeting my mother later in life and hearing her stories about her own show-biz life was an incredible experience for a son like me to hear and enjoy. She and I became really good friends, and we spent many happy hours together, which I will always treasure.
Michael: Roi Uselton and I were very close friends when I lived in Atlanta in the 1990s. He made contact with Sally in the late 1960s while researching the Wampas girls. Marion Shilling, another actress who had disappeared into obscurity, credited Roi as her “Christopher Columbus.” Did Sally feel the same way about Roi, that he rediscovered her? She welcomed the attention, didn’t she?
Bob: I remember well the Roi Uselton period in Sally’s life in the late 60s and early 70s. Sally was very excited about being re-discovered by him and with his including her in his upcoming articles in “Films In Review” magazine. I have preserved all the letters from Roi in the Sally Phipps Archive, which I maintain.
Michael: How many of her films are available for viewing? Do you have a favorite Sally Phipps film?
Bob: All of Sally’s films were made at Fox except for the first and last listed (below). All are silent except the final, which is a Vitaphone talkie. I particularly enjoy the Fox comedy short Girls, because she has a chance to show off her comedic talents in physical comedy.
Broncho Billy And The Baby – Essanay – 1915 (drama short)
Light Wines And Bearded Ladies – 1926 (comedy short)
Girls – 1927 (comedy short)
The Cradle Snatchers – 1927 (feature)
Sunrise – 1927 (feature)
A Midsummer Night’s Steam – 1927 (comedy short)
The News Parade – 1928 (feature)
Why Sailors Go Wrong – 1928 (feature)
Where Men Are Men – Vitaphone — 1931 (comedy short
Michael: Is there an outstanding question that you would ask your mother if you could talk with her again? What would it be?
Bob: I feel that I got all of my questions answered during the time we spent together between the years 1967 and 1978.
All photos, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Bob L. Harned.