Thursday, May 28, 2009
Silent Movie Comedienne
Her name seems to be inextricably tied to electricity. She was born in a city named for an inventor of electrical appliances, named for a steam engine which produced electricity, and sought and found the bright lights of Hollywood in the glory days of the silent movies. Seventy five years ago she was near the top of ranks of Hollywood’s leading silent movie comediennes. One hundred years ago on July 25, 1902, Corliss Palmer was born in the southwest Georgia town of Edison, which was born the same year and named after the inventor Thomas Edison. Her father Luther Palmer brought the family to Dublin, where he worked as an engineer in the power plant on the lower edge of town down by the Oconee River. He named her for the Corliss engine, an engine which incidentally powered the plant where her father worked. She enjoyed minor success in Hollywood in the “Silent Movie” days, only to see her career fade away with the coming of “talking pictures.”
In the early 1920s, Corliss Palmer left home to follow her dreams to Hollywood, which was a far more different place than it is today. Her first credited role came in 1922, when she appeared in the silent movie, “Farm to Fame.” Corliss again appeared in the credits of a movie, when in 1926, she starred in three movies, including her most famous picture, “Bromo and Juliet.” The short film starred Charley Chase, a Pittsburgh born actor, who got his start in Hollywood working with “Silent Movie” legends Charlie Chaplin, Max Sennett, and Fatty Arbuckle. Corliss played Madge, a scheming bon vivant, who entices her suitor into performing the role of Romeo in a charity event. The twenty four minute short film featured a fellow Georgian by the name of Oliver Hardy, who hailed from Harlem. The picture was produced by Hal Roach, the king of comedy producers in the 20s and 30s in connection with Pathe’ Studios. Corliss’s other movies in 1926 were as “ Nancy” in “Her Second Chance” and with Anna Q. Nilson as “ Mrs. Gorman” in “George Washington Cohen,” which starred George Jessel in the lead role. That same year, Corliss married Eugene Brewster, a little known screenwriter.
Corliss reached the pinnacle of her success in 1927 and 1928. In 1927, she appeared in four comedies. Corliss played “Mrs. Fremont Cage” in a movie about a marriage gone bad, “Honeymoon Hate.” In “A Man’s Past,” Corliss portrayed the role of “Sylvia Cabot” opposite the well known character actor, Conrad Veidt. Her third role of 1927 came with a performance as “ Lisa Smith,” in “Polly of the Movies,” which starred the lesser known father of the well respected actor, Jason Robards, Jr.. Her last role of that year was in “The Return of Boston Blackie.” Corliss played an attractive blonde, Sylvia Markham, a daughter of a wealthy couple who steals her mother’s necklace. She draws the eye of “Boston Blackie,” a paroled jewel thief, to aid in her escape only to find that her mother wants the necklace to help her father out of a financial crisis. Blackie recovers the jewels for himself but is wounded in the process. This is where the bad guy steps in and takes them. Blackie, with the aid of his faithful German Shepard Strongheart, recovers the necklace, not once but twice. With the necklace back in the rightful owner’s possession, Blackie, Madge, and Strongheart hold hands at the end of the movie and live happily ever after.
Most of Corliss Palmer’s movies were seen by her fellow Dubliners at the Crystal and Rose Theaters. In the mid 1910s, Mrs. Genie Hightower and her son Bob Hightower, Sr. opened the Crystal Theater. The Crystal Theater operated for many years in the building now occupied by Top of the Line Reruns. Today the projector and the stage area still remain in the rear of the building. As the popularity of silent movies began to explode, many new theaters sprang up. Smaller theaters began to die out as the bigger ones like the Crystal and the Rose began to squeeze out the low budget theaters, which were not much more than a room with chairs, a screen and a projector. During the Twenties, the Rose Theater rose to prominence. The Rose Theater overtook the Crystal and was the first theater to run true talking pictures. "The Jazz Singer," shown at the Rose, was the first talkie shown in Dublin. In its early years, the Rose was located in the old Schaufele Building at 210 West Jackson Street. Shortly thereafter the Rose moved next door to the eastern end of Jackson Square, at or where the Crystal had later moved. The Rose Theater closed in 1938 and was reopened as a Friday and Saturday only theater in 1940.
In the year 1928, the last great year of the silent movies, Corliss appeared in no less than six comedy films. She played “Mrs. Harding” in “Into the Night” and “The Blonde” in the Reginald Denney comedy, “Night Bird.” One of her most well known leading men, Walter Pidgeon, appeared with Corliss in the 1928 comedy, “Clothes Make the Man.” Corliss appeared with Richard Barthemless and Thelma Todd, an early queen of short comedies, in the “The Noose.” Her final two movies of 1928 were as the lead actress in “ Trial Marriage” and in an unnamed role in “ Scarlet Youth.”
Silent movies ended in 1929. Many actors and actresses, who did not have to worry about the tone and inflection of their voice, or their pronunciation skills, found it difficult to survive in the world of the revolutionary talking pictures. Her sole role in the last year of silent movies was as “Lila” in “Broadway Fever.”
In 1931, the country was mired in the depths of the Great Depression. Movies were one of the few ways of escaping the trials and tribulations of daily life. Corliss appeared in her first and last “talking picture” when she played the role of “Betty Royce” in “Honeymoon Lane,” a movie which starred Noah Beery, Sr. and Raymond Hatton. Playing a minor role in the picture was a young actor, who shared the same birthday as Corliss. You know him from hundreds of movie and television appearances as Walter Brennan.
As her movie career ended in 1931, so did her five year marriage to Eugene Brewster, who produced “The Eternal Two,” a romantic film featuring Corliss. Corliss married a second time to William Taylor. Her life ended too soon, when in 1952, she died at the age of fifty.
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN THE WORLD
Love At the End of the Rainbow
Corliss Palmer - An Epilogue
She was dubbed "the most beautiful girl in the world." Corliss Palmer, a one time resident of Dublin, left Georgia to find her dreams in the land of Hollywood. She found fame, fortune, and love in Tinsel Town, or at least she thought she did. Her triumphs in the Roaring Twenties, as documented in a previous column, were obliterated by the cruelness of the movie business. Her personal demons plunged her to the depths of utter despair. Left nearly all alone, she turned to within her own soul to discover that love is more important than money and popularity. After enduring agony after agony, Corliss ultimately discovered that true love is not based on how beautiful you are or how many films you have made, but it is much less complex. At the end of her vacillating life, Corliss found the real love, the love she had been looking for.
Corliss Palmer was born in the southwest Georgia town of Edison in 1902. Her father, Luther Palmer, who later brought the family to Dublin where he worked as an engineer in the power plant on the lower edge of town down by the Oconee River, named her for the Corliss engine, an engine which incidentally powered the plant where her father worked. The Palmers moved to Macon, where Corliss began working as a receptionist in a lumber company office at the age of fifteen. The sight of her blond hair, warm eyes and graceful figure drew the attention of the male customers as they came into the office. Within a few months, Corliss doubled her salary when she accepted an offer from the management of the Palace Hotel. Her job was to sweetly smile and talk to hotel guests as they stuffed their pockets with cigars. Twenty years later, Corliss lamented that it was the first time she traded her beauty for an easy job and a good salary. It wouldn't be the last time.
Corliss saw an advertisement announcing a contest to select "The World's Most Beautiful Girl." She shyly sent them a picture and then waited. Months went by. Then when she had given up nearly all hope of winning the contest, a congratulatory telegram arrived. Corliss boarded a train bound for New York, never to return to the simple and comfortable life she had known. The young ingenue trembled as she stood in front of the judges including the legendary Mary Pickford and a host of Hollywood producers, directors and actors. Corliss, overwhelmed with joy, was congratulated by the other girls, including Mary Astor, who became a famous actress in Hollywood during its Golden Era. Corliss' story was told over and over again in scores of publications around the world.
Eugene Brewster, the promoter of the contest, invited Corliss to come live with him and his wife in their Long Island, New York home. Brewster sought to capitalize on Palmer's beauty by forming Corliss Palmer Productions, Inc. He created a line of cosmetics endorsed by Corliss and profusely spread her picture on the inside and back covers of dozens of movie and women's magazines. Corliss was admired by hundreds of thousands of adoring fans, both men and women. Her biggest fan was Eugene Brewster, who controlled all of her activities and arranged frequent appearances in silent movies. Corliss came to expect all of the adulation that was heaped on her. So she was not surprised when Brewster announced his love for her. Brewster divorced his wife, married Corliss and bought her a fourteen room Hollywood mansion, filled with the finest art and antiquities that money could buy. Picture roles became even more frequent. Money, gifts and praise flowed in. Corliss had no cares. She had realized her dream. But had she?
At the time Corliss never questioned how or even why she had achieved stardom in Hollywood. Only later did she realize that " it doesn't matter how many pictures there were or how fabulous the wealth or how great the position was." She finally realized "all of these things were dumped into my lap and I snatched them with greedy hands and thought little of what I should give in return." Corliss lamented, " I thought only of myself and how much more I wanted than I already had." The Great Depression obliterated Brewster's fortune and consequently his financial contributions to her happiness. Out of money and out of love, Brewster asked Corliss for a divorce. Corliss consented, admitting that she admired and respected her gullible benefactor, but that she never really loved him truly because of her inability to love anyone except herself.
Then without a hint of a warning the casting calls stopped. Corliss was cast off as a gold digger and condemned to obscurity as a femme fatale. To ease her pain, Corliss succumbed to the soothing comfort of alcohol. "I wanted to make the world which had worshiped me to feel sorry for me. I was blinded by self-pity and I wanted to make them pity me, too, Corliss confessed. She believed, " I thought if someone pitied me, they would again give me the fame, love and fortune that I had let slip through my fingers."
Despite her plunge to the depths of despair, there were still admirers. One man who never stopped admiring Corliss was Dr. Roy Mason. Mason, an internist at Arroya Sanitarium, convinced Corliss to leave the anguish of Hollywood for the serenity of the country, where she could find rest, peace, fresh air and good food. The couple increasingly spent more time with each other. For Dr. Mason, it was total and eternal love. For Corliss, she loved the attention and jumped at the chance to spend some time in the country and receive the adoration of just another one of the hundreds of men who had been in love with her, but had never really touched her heart.
Corliss longed for the attention that Dr. Mason gave her. But there was no love. She went along with Mason's masquerade before his mother that the couple was engaged. Mrs. Mason took Corliss in and treated her with kindness that any future daughter in law would appreciate. Corliss continued to go along with the ruse until it became apparent that the young Dr. Mason could not provide her with the wealth and fame she so deeply desired. Not wanting to hurt Mason's mother, she ashamedly disavowed her love for the doctor and walked away from the Mason home in tears.
Corliss returned to Hollywood to regain her title as "The Most Beautiful Girl in The World." There was no one to greet her at the train station - no fans, no photographers, no reporters. She had no more friends. Hell was only a step away. Corliss befriended Betty Baxter, a failing screen writer. The duo drowned their sorrows in bottles of scotch and gin. Betty introduced Corliss to Rod Demora, a wealthy Arizona farmer and cattlemen. Demora, who recognized Corliss from her days of Hollywood glory, immediately attracted the despondent Corliss, who was still fixated on fortune and fame. The trio frequented all of the glamorous night spots around town. Rod proposed. Corliss, of course, accepted. When Rod's son became terribly ill, Corliss's last chance for her return to Hollywood faded.
Corliss began to look within herself. She was so disgusted at what she saw as if she had been slapped in the face. Her vanity, selfishness and self esteem nauseated her. She sobered up, returned to her mother's home and confessed her life had been a failure. With the unswerving devotion of her mother and her new found selflessness Corliss sought out the life she always needed but never had.
Claire Thomas, a former fan and café cashier, introduced Corliss to Bill Taylor, an awkward, shy and struggling rodeo cowboy. Slowly, but surely, the couple were drawn together. On her thirty second birthday, Bill presented Corliss with a long box of twelve fern stems and single rose - all that he could afford with the last quarter in his pocket. Bill grinned bashfully. Corliss' heart swelled. They kissed, and for the first time in her life, Corliss tingled. "I knew then at last I found honest love," Corliss fondly remembered. The couple led a simple and meager life until Corliss's untimely death at the age of fifty. Corliss never found her elusive pot of gold that she so desperately sought at the end of the rainbow that loomed over Hollywood. She found something much better, love.