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.

Dove Tails — Meeting Jean Harlow and other Adventures of a Fan Club President

Not long after Lee Heidorn took over the running of Billie Dove’s fan club, she met one of her all-time favorite movie stars.  Living in Chicago afforded Lee the opportunity to meet many who were making personal appearances along with the opening of their pictures. Said Lee,  “It was surprising to find that very few of them refused to see you when you went backstage to see them. Those I met on personal appearances were people like John Boles, Mary Brian, the Boswell Sisters, Jackie Cooper, Esther Ralston, Bing Crosby, Buddy Rogers, and Mary Pickford, who had a group of us up to her hotel suite for tea!”

Lee had written to Jean Harlow after seeing her in Hell’s Angels. The blonde bombshell wrote back almost immediately and enclosed a signed portrait. A few weeks later, Lee received a telegram from Jean, asking her to visit her when she was making a personal appearance at the Oriental Theatre in Chicago.

The ever-gracious Jean Harlow

“Nervous I was when I was escorted to her dressing room while she was on stage,” Lee recalled. “As soon as she came off stage, she rushed up to her dressing room to see me. We had a grand visit and when it came time for me to leave, she came down with me and the doorman took pictures of us. Later, every time she and her mother came through Chicago, I would get a telegram from her and while our visits were necessarily short, I’ll never forget them.

“After one of our visits, Jean went on to New York. She sent me a beautiful white-beaded evening bag from Magnin. She even wrote a letter on the day she married Paul Bern, and later, sent me a piece of her wedding cake. After Jean died, her mother would call me and send me gifts when she’d pass through Chicago. Jean is one of my fondest memories.”

In the meantime, Lee got business with Billie’s fan club, which was operated much like the other fan clubs of the day, said Lee.

Lee operated Billie Dove's fan club from her little home office in Chicago

 

“Most of them were sponsored by the stars. They would provide an autographed photo and would usually write a letter to go along with a club letter or magazine. Since this was the Depression, these magazines were not on a regular basis since the president usually had to pay for them.”

A 1932 issue of Dove Tales, the official organ of the Billie Dove Fan Club

 

Letters from Billie and Lee to fan club members

“In my day,” Lee remembered, “running the club was usually at the expense of the club president, helped by minimal  dues (usually a couple of dollars a year) and sometimes the star would make a small donation. At that time, the stars were proud of their clubs and I found proof in that, not only in my association of Billie Dove, but of those other stars whom I became acquainted with at that highlight time of my life.”

Billie graciously added photographs to Lee's collection

In 1933, a group of clubs that were located in Chicago formed the Movie Club Guild. “We published a beautiful magazine called The Audience. Billie and her new husband, Robert Kenaston, were on the cover of our first issue. Presidents of the clubs wrote articles about their ‘stars’ and had interviews with others when they were in Chicago. For a couple of years, we had a so-called fan club convention, and presidents from clubs around the country came.”

After that first convention, Billie wrote Lee a letter congratulating her on the accomplishment and inviting her to visit her in California.  That invitation from Billie started Lee to seriously consider a trip West to meet her favorite Hollywood movie stars.

Billie congratulates Billie on the First Annual Convention of movie fan clubs

Billie offers Lee a personal invitation to visit her in Hollywood

In my next post, Lee recounts her adventures in Hollywood!