Hugh’s Little Sweetheart

By Michael G. Ankerich

In 1925, Mary Pickford was not only America’s Little Sweetheart; she was Hugh Allan’s as well.

The handsome youth had played bit parts in films for the past several years, when in the spring of 1925, Mary plucked the 23-year-old from the ranks of an extra to play her leading man in Little Annie Rooney. Hugh had become what was thought impossible: an instant star.

Hugh Allan, the silent hunk, in 1925.

The path was clear for him to become the newest star in the celluloid heavens.

His hometown newspaper, The Oakland Tribune, sang his praises.

In an interview from his home in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1992, Hugh Allan told me the story of his instant success.

A dashing Hugh Allan.

Mary Pickford had requested a number of screen tests be sent over to Pickfair for her to review. She had little trouble selecting the handsome hopeful. Hugh was introduced to the star on the set of Little Annie Rooney.

“I was flabbergasted,” Hugh told me. “Totally overwhelmed.  She was the goddess of the world.”

Mary, while she didn’t mean to be, was intimidating.

“This was my first big part,” he said. “I had no experience at all. I was completely raw material.”

Mary did her best to put her leading man at ease.

“”They started taking scenes and I realized I couldn’t do them,” Hugh said.  “I was as stiff as a wooden soldier. I couldn’t even walk straight.”

Mary’s brother, Jack, who was frequently on the set, didn’t help matters.

“He was a grade-A, son of a bitch.  A real bastard,” Hugh recalled. “He was on the set making wisecracks while I was trying to do something. I finally got a little annoyed and said to him, ‘One more wisecrack and I’ll put the nose on the front of your face on the back of your face.’ He left the set.  He got his ass out of there.”

After several days, it was obvious that Hugh would be unable to complete the film. Mary, almost as disappointed as Hugh, provided a cover that allowed him to leave the picture without the chance of permanently damaging his fledgling career.

The studio issued a release, stating that Hugh had broken an arm after falling from his roof and would be unable to finish his commitment. Hugh was brought back to the set, where the prop department placed a cast his arm. Mary insisted a photograph be taken for the press.

Hugh (with his fake cast) and Mary Pickford on the set of Little Annie Rooney

The press took the bait. Hugh’s reputation was saved.

The press writes about Hugh’s “accident”.

Hugh never saw the finished film–William Haines took over his role, but he remained in touch with Mary over the years.

“Mary was a very gracious lady,” he said. “She would invite me to parties after the Little Annie Rooney experience.”

Hugh was proud of his telegram from Mary Pickford.

Free from Little Annie Rooney, Hugh Allan got out of town. “I went to Tijuana for two or three weeks. It was a town full of howling, drinking and prostitution.”

Back in Hollywood, Hugh connected with a drama coach, an actress of the stage, who gave him acting lessons for four or five months.

First National took notice and signed him to a contract.

Hugh worked steadily for the next four years, playing leads opposite such actresses as Jean Arthur, Priscilla Dean, Bessie Love, Helene Costello, Jeanette Loff, and Lois Wilson.

With Jean Arthur and George Chesebro in The Block Signal.

To his fellow actors, he was an all-American boy.  To his leading ladies, he was irresistible.

“Priscilla Dean was a nice girl, a good-looking woman with a good-looking figure,” Hugh said. “They used to kid us about the way we were kissing. They thought it was pretty real.  It was!”

Hugh Allan and Priscilla Dean in Birds of Prey.

Hugh Allan and June Marlowe in Wild Beauty.

Hugh Allan and John Mack Brown in Annapolis (1928).

Hugh did two serials with Gladys McConnell: The Tiger’s Shadow and The Fire Detective. “Gladys was a charming lady who always had her mother with her. She was not a promiscuous female. She had a high opinion of herself and she was right.”

The two serials, he said, were his best pictures. He liked the action.

Hugh Allan and Gladys McConnell in The Fire Detective (1929).

Hugh left films in 1929, following a failed film project in Hawaii. The director had taken the cast to Hawaii, ran out money, due to the stock market crash in October, and tried unsuccessfully to raise the needed funds from the locals. Hugh discovered he was filming scenes without film in the camera.

The shenanigans in Hawaii spoiled his opinion of the movie industry. Hugh disappeared from the screen. Over time, he became a successful businessman in the elevator industry. He was dubbed Memphis’ Howard Hughes.

While he wasn’t particularly nostalgic about Hollywood, he was interested in the various ones he worked with while in films. In 1937, he reconnected with Lois Wilson when she came to Memphis to appear in a play.

In 1992, Hugh was the perfect host.  He put me up at his country club and cleared a day so we could talk about his years in Hollywood. At noon that Saturday, Hugh drove me (with a glass of wine in his hand) to a local eatery.

Hugh and Michael, August 1992.

We ran out of time before he ran out of stories. Read the full interview in The Sound of Silence. He talks about a wild party at the home of Serge Mdivani and Pola Negri and the day he ran into Rudolph Valentino in the showers at the Santa Monica Swimming Club.

Sadly, Hugh passed away in February 1997.

Holiday Greetings From Yesteryear — And Today!

Before there were cell phones and instant messaging, before there was Twitter and Facebook, there was only the mailbox. It was through that little box that I kept in touch with friends who lived in other parts of the country and world. One of the best parts of the holiday season was going to the mailbox every afternoon in December to see if there were cheerful greetings coming my way. I loved to see the card they chose, the greetings they selected, the familiar handwriting.

After I interviewed someone for my books or for my column in Classic Images, I wanted to stay in touch. That included Christmas cards.  As the years passed, I received fewer and fewer holiday greetings from my silent film buddies. Sadly, there weren’t any cards in my mailbox this year from those who made their livings before the movie cameras in the 1910s and 20s. I suppose that my last Christmas greeting from someone in that era came from Dorothy Janis, who died a couple of years ago.

I make it a practice every year to pull out my files and look through the cards from years passed. It fills me with nostalgia, but also a bit of sadness, realizing that the era that feel I connected to has passed into history.

I want to show you some of my favorites.  Oh! I saved a few surprises for the end.

Greetings from Esther Ralston

One of my favorite Esther Ralston photos.

Esther by the pool

I didn’t have much correspondence with Muriel Ostriche after our interview in 1988 for my book, Broken Silence. She died in 1989.

Greetings from Muriel

Hard to believe that Muriel Ostriche started her career in films in 1911, a hundred years ago!

I made a trip to Memphis, Tennessee, in 1991, to spend the afternoon with Hugh Allan. What an interview!  What a guy!

Holiday wishes from Hugh Allan

Hugh Allan, a handsome leading man of the mid to late 1920s.

Read my interview with Pauline Curley in The Sound of Silence. Like Muriel, her career started in 1911!

Christmas greetings from Pauline Curley

This was one of Pauline’s favorite portraits.

Pauline Curley

You may remember I told you about the gorgeous Ethlyne Clair in a previous post ( I recounted her wedding to Ernest Westmore and the fiasco that happened on the steps of the church when the happy couple emerged from the ceremony only to find his previous wife and their child begging for money.

Ethlyne loved sending holiday greetings.  She had a unique signature. The little curl at the bottom of her signature was an expression of love, she said.

Ethlyne's unique signature

The ravishing Ethlyne Clair, who got her start in a Barbara La Marr film, hated playing in Westerns near the end of her career. Her idea of being a film star was playing the vamp. “I thought I was above all that (serials and Westerns). I wanted to do more than ride horses through the desert.”  Want to know about her run-in with Louise Brooks? Check out Broken Silence. Her story is there.

Ethlyne Clair, my idea of a vamp!

Okay, I promised you a surprise at the end.  Here it is, courtesy of Benjie Wood, perhaps the most avid Olive Borden fan there is.  He treasures this 1927 Christmas card from the lady herself.

Merry Christmas from Olive Borden

The stunning Olive

I would be remiss if I didn’t offer holiday cheer from the Sheik himself, Rudolph Valentino.

Rudy's holiday card

Finally, I close with holiday greetings from Charlie and me. The Santa hats aren’t photoshopped. We took them thousands of miles in a suitcase  just to put them on at the opportune moment. I couldn’t wait to get to the Sphinx to see the shadow where Theda Bara was born. Then, I happened to remember Eve Golden’s book that said Theda was no more born in the shadow of the Sphinx than I was!

Anyway, I wish all of you the best holiday season ever and a year filled with peace, love, happiness, and prosperity.