HelenTwelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films by Cliff Aliperti, is a new book on the career of an actress whose reputation after death slipped into a puzzling state of a punch line. She deserves better, and Mr. Aliperti has championed the cause of Miss Twelvetrees’ career—remembered, and for the right reasons.
This post is part 2 of 12 of my monthly series this year on the current state of the classic film fan. (Part 1, "A Classic Film Manifesto" is here.) With self-publishing and with small publishers like Bear Manor Books and others, there seems to be a new trend in writing film star biographies: one, exploring the lives and careers of lesser-known actors rather than the mega-stars; and two, writing about them in a scholarly and less sensationalist manner than what is usually published by large commercial publishing houses. We’ll discuss that issue more in later posts, but Cliff’s book is a prime example of a classic film fan taking the reins to produce a scholarly study of a neglected figure from the Golden Age of classic films in a way that I feel is refreshing, infinitely helpful to fans and students of old movies. It fills a void left by large commercial publishing companies that seem more interested in books of a topical or salacious or controversial nature.
In an interview for this post, Cliff remarks:
I like it—I’d like to be part of it. Some of the major Golden Age stars could still use a modern biography because previous efforts have been in that sensationalist manner you mentioned, but many of them have been done to death. Maybe I’m selling myself short, but I’ve always operated under the assumption that no one really needs me to write about Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, or stars of their ilk, the legends. That said, I’ve covered aspects of these stars—my post about Gable and the undershirt still draws traffic—and I do cover some of their movies, though I’m more attracted by the obscurities. I’ve even considered doing a book about Gable’s movies from the thirties, but cutting it off just before GWTW. Still, there was no Helen Twelvetrees biography, and it took quite an effort to piece together enough information to create one. Even then, only half of the book is straight biography; the other half takes a look at each of her 32 films, the wide majority of which nobody has bothered with either. Does everybody deserve a book? Well, no, there’s a line to be drawn, but the ease and cost of getting something to market today means that a much wider net can be cast.
To be sure, there were elements in Helen Twelvetrees’ life that could be viewed as sensational and could fit the bill for someone wanting to treat the subject salaciously, but Cliff demonstrates laudable restraint and respect for Helen. He examines both her life and career with an intellectual curiosity and a sensitivity that this actress needs to be really understood.
Twelvetrees, that unusual moniker, was her first husband’s surname, which she kept after their divorce. Jurgens was her own surname. Cliff explains in his book:
To revert to Helen Jurgens could only cause confusion. Plus the Twelvetrees name has a strong resonance that makes it stick once you hear it. It’s memorable and all at once a bit exotic while still sounding familiar. Even today, people who aren’t classic film fans often recognize the name. They just have no idea who it belonged to.
I had never thought about that before, but I immediately recalled what I think was my introduction to her: a gag line by announcer Gary Owens on the old Laugh-In TV show when I was a child. I didn’t know who she was, but I assumed (and I can’t tell you why) that she was an old movie star. I must have been in first grade at the time, but I knew enough to surmise this. I don’t know how many times he made the reference in a joke, but it evidently made a strong impression on me. Years later as an adult, I came across a novelty LP of Laugh-In audio episode clips, and wouldn’t you know, a Helen Twelvetrees remark was on it.
Cast regular Joanne Worley sang a brief takeoff on “Havah Nagilah,” and Gary Owens chimed in from the “radio studio” set: “That, of course, was the delightful Helen Twelvetrees, and turning another musical page in our album of memories, here is the delightful Lamont Cranston.”
It only took me a few more years, probably by the age of ten or twelve, to discover who Lamont Cranston was.
The biography is thoughtful, detailed, and Cliff shows here, as he does regularly in his blog, Immoral Ephemera, his familiarity with lesser-known stars, character actors, and the studios of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He utilizes many reviews and newspaper articles of the day to form the foundation of his perspective on Helen Twelvetrees’ career. In the book, Cliff describes Helen’s film persona:
It didn’t matter what studio Helen was working for, or who was her boss, during her peak years she was almost exclusively cast in films calling for her heart to be broken. But there’s always a touch of Brooklyn tinging her voice that makes her seem not quite as fragile as first suspected…The little helpless girl usually managed to roar loudly before her films ended, finding peace, redemption, or sometimes just settling on the right man.
Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue is divided into two parts: a biography of her life and career, and second, a synopses of her thirty-two films, some of which are “lost” or otherwise not available for viewing.
Helen was named as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1929, in the impressive company of Jean Arthur and Loretta Young, among others. The peak of her film career was Millie (1931), which Cliff describes:
Millie provides Helen Twelvetrees with a showcase the likes of which she never enjoyed before or since. Variety drew attention to her surprising versatility stating, “she takes in all angles of a part that calls for a dozen different moods and situations during the 15 years or so this picture passes through.” Beyond Madame X and all the mother-love, despite the decorum demanded, even by a looser set of censors, Millie somehow emerges as the biography of a woman’s sex life, from maidenhood through numerous disappointing partners, who never manage to tame her. Millie isn’t unique, but it isn’t easy, and Helen handled every bit of nuance required through Millie’s turbulent years.
Helen’s real-life party-girl image when first arriving in Hollywood, her being bounced from the Fox studio to Pathe, then on to RKO, where a few prime roles were lost to other actresses, such as the young Katharine Hepburn and Constance Bennett reveals a not untypical story of poor timing or bad luck. The inevitable slide to obscurity began with a supporting role to ZaSu Pitts, who had once played her maid in an earlier film.
Helen moved on to vaudeville and summer stock. Her only Broadway appearance in 1941 was a flop, but she went back to touring in stock, toured with the USO during the war, and interestingly, touched something in her own soul, certainly touched her audience, with a stint as Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Her rendering of the fey character was considered deeply moving.
Helen Twelvetrees died in 1958 at fifty years old of suicide, having endured more disappointment than success in her career, several marriages, and alcoholism.
Then came, oddly, the jokes. Cliff writes:
Before the 1950s were out, columnist Earl Wilson asked Groucho Marx who would play him if his recently published biography, Groucho and Me, were ever adapted to film: “Duke Wayne, of course—or Helen Twelvetrees,” Groucho quipped. Maybe he hadn’t heard, Helen was dead. Her name continued as a punch line, often associated with Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, and even generic Fidos and Rovers, who no doubt sought relief in pastures dotted by a dozen trees. Nobody talked about her films.
Cliff does a great job disseminating the trail of this curiosity, and his empathy for Helen Twelvetrees is very gratifyingly apparent.
But now, a new interest in Helen seems to be growing for this lovely actress. This book is a welcome addition to that second look at the unknown actress with the well-known name.
One of my favorite passages:
The individual and her work are often positioned in the most fascinating time and place. She was in Brooklyn just ahead of Ebbets Field, and around New York City while the twenties roared. She came to Hollywood with sound, and peaked while the studios shuffled in response to the Great Depression. She made her first television appearance before many even owned a set to watch, and chipped in the World War II effort through benefit appearances and USO performances. Whether it was theater, vaudeville, radio, or TV, she kept busy long after everybody thought she was done. She conquered Hollywood before it slapped back, and still had the drive to reach Broadway more than a decade after she had abandoned the theater for movie fame…
I’d like to thank Cliff especially for participating in an interview with me for this post. Here is more of our discussion:
JTL: I was surprised at the rediscovery of Helen Twelvetrees in the plays, scripts that have been written in recent years. Were you surprised by that? What do you make of that?
CA: It’s a strange rediscovery in that, with exceptions, it lacks substance insofar as telling us about Helen Twelvetrees. She’s usually mentioned not so much for who she was or what she did, but as something distant or forgotten except for the pretty label. The Twelvetrees name has an exotic resonance that naturally attracts people to her once it gets into their ear. She married the name, a blessing and a curse, but no doubt far more effective than Helen Jurgens, the name she was born with, when it comes to being remembered in any light. The name worked its magic on me too, but was reinforced by what I saw on the screen, a distinctive beauty possessed with unexpected levels of talent.
JTL: I sense in this book, and always in your blog, a love of research, for the gumshoe detective work of a non-fiction writer, the puzzle that comes together only a bit at a time. Can you describe your research for this book, the trails that you had to follow, the challenges you encountered?
CA: Research included far more genealogy than I anticipated, a lot of old newspapers and magazines, including several paid sources: my credit cards are nowhere near as fond of Helen as I still am! Piles and piles of books, which were largely disappointing for either a complete lack of or totally superficial information. That’s part of what kept me digging. She began to feel like a taboo subject. Sometimes it felt like she was deliberately being scrubbed from film history. I mean, I know she’s not considered a major star, but she was a star. And a top shelf one for a few years that happen to coincide with my favorite film era.
The biggest challenges wound up split between dead ends and, believe it or not, the obvious. Figuring out when her mother died drove me crazy and the information was under my nose the entire time. My mistake came in brushing off one record, the key one it turned out, that placed her in a city I hadn’t bumped into before and had her living into her late nineties. I found it too early, and so I ignored the obvious. I eventually had a “Eureka” moment after I (finally!) decided to look into Helen’s brother. That’s when that unfamiliar city rang a bell and I shot back to Helen’s mother and tied it all together. All of that for a date I mention once towards the end of the biographical portion of the book—but I needed that date!
One bit of new information I never could completely resolve was discovery of a fourth husband (Helen’s third). I never could find a marriage record, and that bugs me. What I did find was the pair living together on the 1940 census with Helen using this man’s last name and, one of my favorite items, a letter Helen wrote to columnist Dorothy Kilgallen that Kilgallen published in her column in full. In the letter, which is a lot of fun because it drips with sarcasm, Helen outright says that she’s married—not that she was ever hiding the fact. The other gossip columnists dropped several references to her and this uncharted husband, but later histories missed it, and so Helen’s established biographies only list her other three husbands.
JTL: What factors went into your decision to choose Helen as a subject for a book?
CA: It began on my site. I had posted a few reviews of her movies on the site and included just a brief bit of biography in one of those. Then along came CMBA’s Forgotten Stars blogathon. I’d been wanting to expand upon the short bio in my Panama Flo review since I’d first posted it early in 2013. So for the Forgotten Stars blogathon I had planned slightly longer, but by no means exhaustive, biographical post, but, again, those movies sucked me in. I wound up covering 15 or so of her films in capsule review before I even got to her biography in a second post. The research for each of those posts got me started and kept me going: I finally posted what I had on the site, but there were too many open ends for me to stop. Plus, Helen had gotten under my skin: I liked her, and I wanted to know more.
JTL: What did you most enjoy writing about or gave you the most satisfaction in discovering?
CA: This goes for almost anybody I write about, but I really love piecing together as much as I can about a star before they became big. In the case of Helen Twelvetrees, even her youth provided me with some fun because she grew up in Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle has a great online archive. It’s not as though little Helen Jurgens was mentioned in there all that much, but the paper allowed me to get a grasp on life in Brooklyn at a very different time.
This is contradictory to how I began my answer, but I also enjoyed the few later published interviews I found with her. In general such later newspaper pieces are much more honest than the fan magazine fluff from when someone was at their peak. You can usually hear the difference in their voices when comparing such pieces and in Helen’s case I got a big kick out of how she presented herself after Hollywood. I found a few goodies featuring Helen from the 1940s and ‘50s that were a big help in piecing together who she was-or at least how I perceived her-and what she was up to. It was satisfying to discover her career didn’t just end after Hollywood.
Finally, for personal reasons, I got a big kick out an obituary (boy, does that sound morbid!) that I found for her father. Helen was already gone, but her parents eventually moved one town away from where I live, something I had no idea about until I was researching for the book. Helen’s father died in the local hospital, the same hospital where I was born, putting an unexpected local twist on what I was doing.
JTL: What is the relationship between your collectibles business and your classic film writing? Does it provide you with inspiration, or research materials? Where, for you, does the merchandise end and the historical artifact begin?
CA: Mostly illustrative at this point. Some items that pass through here are used in posts on my site. I like to think they add a little extra flavor. There was a time when I was more knowledgeable about the collectibles than the old movies though and some of my earliest blog postings developed simply because I wanted to know more behind the faces pictured on old trading cards and photos. I wouldn’t have predicted it, but at this point, despite how I’ve tried, the collectibles and the writing are practically two independent activities.
JTL: What would you like to add or express here about your book, or about Helen?
CA: I know Helen Twelvetrees is considered an obscure topic, so for anyone undecided, but tempted, by the book I recommend watching Millie.
Millie is Helen’s most versatile performance, made during her absolute peak, and has lots of other familiar faces in it to distract you along the way (Just don’t let Joan Blondell distract you too much!). Best of all, it’s easy to find. Millie is public domain, so you can view it online free of charge in several places (Youtube, Internet Archive) and it’s also one of the better DVDs I’ve seen in terms of quality from Alpha Video, who price it around six or seven dollars. I stress Millie because most of Helen’s movies are hard to find and you’re probably not going to think too much of her if you start with The Painted Desert ! (A tempting lure because of co-star Clark Gable. Don’t do it.) After Millie, make your way to State’s Attorney, where she turns in a fine leading lady performance opposite John Barrymore. It gets trickier from there, but the web will help you out and my book will point you to the titles worth searching for.
At this point two of my favorite Helen Twelvetrees movies, both very hard to find, are One Hour Late and Unmarried: I like One Hour Late because Helen shows a flare for comedy, a rarity for her in Hollywood, who preferred to give her something to cry about, but what she spent most of her time performing on stage in the 1940s and so presumably what she enjoyed most. Unmarried is her last film, and that’s a shame because she gives one of her best performances in it. It really leaves you wondering what she could have done if her movie career had continued.
Cliff Aliperti’s excellent book, Helen Twelvetrees: Perfect Ingenue is available here in eBook and print through Amazon.
You can watch Millie here on YouTube.
Next month, part 3 of 12 of this year-long series on the current state of the classic film fan will feature a visit with Kay Noske of Movie Star Makeover. Kay’s image consulting business and expertise in fashion dovetail with her blog and her appreciation of classic films. She also introduces classic films at the Dryden Theater of Rochester, New York—making her presentations dressed meticulously in outfits suggestive of the film. I’m looking forward to Kay’s input on how her love of classic films fits in with so many areas of her professional and private life, and her take on the current state of the classic film fan. Join us Thursday, March 3rd for that post.
Next week, a special look ahead to Valentine's Day with the unique marriage of Alexis Smith and Craig Stevens. See you next Thursday.