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