Monday, September 16, 2019

Bertha Kirk - a Studio "Extra" Mystery

In September 1928, a gentleman named H. J. Pepper, 60 years old, retired hotelkeeper from Manitoba, Canada, and now eager silent movie "extra," met character actress Bertha Kirk at a studio while working on a film.  Though married, he became infatuated with her, but stalked her and shot her, then turned the gun on himself.  She was 50 at the time. 

I recently received a request for info on this subject by a researcher named Scott who wanted to know if I could help him find the titles of the movies Bertha Kirk might have played in, or obtain a photo of her.  Unfortunately, I knew of only the bare facts of the case.

It's an intriguing mystery, and Scott adds a hypothesis from his research (his remarks are slightly abridged by me for brevity and clarity):

"Halsey James Pepper was promoted to “Gas Officer” during the First World War and joking, attributed his promotion not to skill but to his tolerance for high-fume gas. And in June of 1928 just 3 months before the shooting a short film was released titled “A background Extra” full title being “The Life & Death of 9413, a Background Extra” and the working title from the studio being “The suicide of a background extra.” Unlike most experimental films of that time, it was not shown in the living room of a producer or home audience, it was promoted by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, who saw the genius behind the film's portrayal of Hollywood and the never-ending loops you must jump through only to be disregarded altogether as background material. Nothing more than a prop. So it was shown in 300 select theatres across America that summer. The story is almost uncanny to the real-life event that unfolded...most bizarre is a small scene near the end where a “Captain” character is seen laughing at background extra 9413 in his grave. This character has no credit nor does he appear in any other scene. I’ve tried to find a reference to his meaning but nothing comes up about him. This to me is almost supernatural and I feel something more was at play but to conclude my current hypothesis, Captain Pepper was suffering from some form of brain deterioration caused by years and years of exposure to high-fume gases. The fact that he went 50 years living a relatively normal life managing hotels seems bizarre to up and leave for Hollywood and in his mid 50’s at that. The short film that came out right before this event unfolded could be the key that unlocked the insanity manifesting inside Captain Pepper." 

The newspaper blurb above is from a wire story printed in an Australian newspaper, so while it must have gained some notoriety at the time, the headlines were probably short-lived since the police case would have been closed due to Pepper's committing suicide.  Had they arrested the murderer and put him on trial, there would have been daily reporting and possibly some photos and more background on Bertha Kirk.

I'd like to turn this over to our classic film fan community and see if anyone can come up with any more info on Bertha Kirk or the story, especially those among you who know more about the silent film era.  Feel free to leave your comments on this post, or email me at, and I'll pass the word along to Scott.

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