Clothes, Legs and ‘I’m no Beauty’ – Betty Blythe gets her finger burned
The 1926 adaptation of the Rider Haggard novel She by G.B Samuelson starring the American actress Betty Blythe proved to be a fiasco, ended up in court and, as a result of the ensuing press coverage, provides us with a fascinating insight into the film business of the time.
One of the pioneers of British Silent film, G.B Samuelson had been very active as a producer during the post war period from a base at Worton Hall, Isleworth. However, despite some gems, his output was over ambitious, he continually over stretched himself financially and it was observed that there was a general carelessness in his overall production values. From the end of 1921 he was bought out and changed companies like a yoyo. At the end of 1924 he became part of Reciprocity with a capital of a mere £1,000. One of the first films for the new company was another screen adaptation of Haggard’s novel She.
Samuelson engaged an expensive American star (Betty Blythe) as lead and decided to use the UFA film studios in Berlin following in Herbert Wilcox’s footsteps who had filmed the successful Chu Chin Chow (released late 1923) in Berlin with Betty Blythe. Samuelson had already used some minor American starlets in his productions and was following the trend of other British producers like Graham Cutts who had also employed Mae Marsh and Betty Compson.
Betty Blythe (real name Elizabeth Blythe Slaughter and married name Mrs Paul Scarden, 1893-1972) was born in California and went to school there but spent sometime in Paris learning music before turning to the stage. After appearing in such plays as So Long Letty and The Peacock Princess she toured Europe and America and then entered films in 1918 for Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, New York. Later, she joined Fox Studios in Hollywood. She was as famous for her revealing costumes as her dramatic skills and was particularly well received in the oriental fantasy The Queen of Sheba (1921). She signed her contract in Los Angeles on 31st December 1924 at a salary of $1,500 per week plus all transportation costs, wardrobe and living expenses. Presumably provision was also found for her maid as well who accompanied her on her trip.
Arriving at Le Havre in early January, Betty took to Paris for a spot of shopping before moving onto Berlin and the Eden hotel where she was to be based while filming at the studio. The attraction of the UFA film studios for Samuelson, like others before him, was their incredible range of services and expertise.
The film itself was a fantasy adventure directed by Leander de Cordova from a screenplay by Walter Summers and G.B Samuelson and filmed by Sydney Blythe, a Samuelson man. The plot revolved around Leo Vincey (Carlyle Blackwell) who learns from an ancient relic that he is a descendent of Kallikrates, loved by an immortal Queen called Ayesha (Betty Blythe). He resolves to unearth the truth of the legend and taking his friend Horace Holly (Henry George) and servant Jon (Tom Reynolds) they travel to Libya. They find the apparently ageless Queen ruling a catacomb city and Vincey is hailed as her reincarnate lover for whom she has waited for a thousand years. Ayesha repels Ustane, a young servant girl (Mary Odette) who loves Vincey, and conducts him to a perilous underground chasm where a pillar of fire is to invest him with perpetual youth. She agrees to test the flame and is consumed leaving Vincey to await her promised return.
For some the film was ‘crude and old-fashioned’ and others thought it ‘a phoney, cheap looking production’ with ‘absurd over acting’. And yet, the Stoll Herald thought it a ‘film worthy of the original novel’ and Kineweekly a ‘fairly faithfully and acceptable version’ and added that it was excellently mounted with vivid atmosphere and that full use of the exceptional studio resources had been made with splendid scenic and lighting effects and good camera work. Betty Blythe was admired in her characteristically daring undress and her performance was regarded as statuesque rather than fiery. Classic Film Collector on reviewing the film many years after its release said ‘it is remarkable that Betty Blythe does preserve a great deal of the beauty and mystery of She. There were moments when I was astounded by literal line-for-line interpretations from the novel appearing in the performance. Of all the cast Miss Betty Blythe alone seems to have read the book.’ The film was finally released in the USA on State Rights basis by the Lee-Bradford Corporation in 1926.
The filming must have been swift because after a few weeks in mid February a public altercation emerged when Betty Blythe told a journalist that Samuelson was a thief. Later in April 1926, Betty Blythe took Samuelson to court claiming her salary and expenses and Samuelson issued a counter claim saying she broken her agreement and contract and demanded damages for libel and slander for calling him a thief.
At the trial Betty declared that the screen star’s lot was not always a happy one and she told a tale of the trails and tribulations she had encountered in the practice of her profession for Samuelson that had made her to issue her statements and court case. Her major criticism that led her to call Samuelson a thief was phantom salary checks placed in banks that never existed, According to Betty Blythe, when she arrived in Paris she tried to find the bank where she had been told her salary had been deposited but she found no such bank. She admitted that despite the confusion over the bank in Paris she eventually received $4,500 after she had pressed Samuelson.
For her, the worst insult and outrage, was about her dresses. This precipitated press headlines such as ‘Betty and her dresses’ and the court proceedings provoked some rather comic outbursts since it would appear that her issues with her dresses were more to do with showing off her ankles, legs and waist.
When she arrived in Berlin to start filming Betty discovered that although she was due to have twelve gowns to wear in the film only three had been made. She explained her disgust by saying ‘I am no beauty and I have only a certain amount of histrionic ability, which I must add to other abilities, one of which is to wear clothes and design them.’ To make her point Betty Blythe provided a daily sensation at court each morning by wearing sensational outfits that were described in great detail such as a light fawn coat frock with ornate frillings and a yellow rose in the lapel and a bright toque with brown bands or a dark blue serge model trimmed with satin and small hat to match with a posy of camelias pinned to the left shoulder to give a note of colour. However, her modest assessment of her charms destroyed forever the illusion that film stars were people who think not wisely but too well of themselves.
Betty Blythe insisted that her dresses were a failure and that the dressmakers refused to complete or make alterations and so this forced her maid and her herself to make them up. Carlyle Blackwell said it was the rule when a woman star arrived that she would be given sufficient time to arrange her wardrobe and whenever he went to her dressing room he found her working on her costumes. The counsel for the defense alleged that she made a lot of unnecessary fuss and interfered with her dresses supplied for her. It was odd that no comment was made about her previous experience filming Chu Chin Chow for Herbert Wilcox as her costumes were created by Baruch, a German costume firm aligned to the UFA film studios and presumably the same firm that was to dress her in She.
Samuelson diplomatically declared that female film stars must be handled with kid gloves. He described the alterations to the gowns that Betty Blythe had insisted on making as revealing more of her person that might be appropriate. He explained that Sir Rider Haggard was stlll alive (he died later after filming was complete) and was involved in the production and that he was worried about what Rider would think of such changes.
One of these dresses Betty Blythe said was awful ‘I looked funny in it. It was German and was too big. My role was that of the goddess who lived in the skies. It was necessary to have a particular bodice made. The style in Germany is to wear large breastplates. I couldn’t use them. They made me look like a German prima donna.’
Betty Blythe was reminded by the defence counsel that she had seen images (perhaps the costume sketches) of the dresses prior to commencing work and had made no adverse comment. She argued ‘if you saw a picture of a suit would you take it without trying it on?’
The judge looked at all the photographs and said in his opinion Betty Blythe’s suggestions made an improvement. No mention was given to fact that perhaps the reason why the situation with the dresses became an issue was because Samuelson had not paid the dressmaker.
Detailed her suffering and pain, Betty explained how she was forced to wear a calcium, fake diamond ring or sparkler that was to produce the impression of magic rays emanating from it. This burned her finger. She said she was in great pain but she endured her pain even though it went to her bone.
Betty Blythe then recounted that by 19th February 1925 the production had gone from bad to worse and at some point the production was transferred from Berlin to Staarken. Felix Pfitzner, manager and part owner of the UFA film studio in Berlin who controlled the UFA Film studios at which She was filmed and produced said that he took action against Samuelson in respect of money owed to him and obtained warrants for the attachment of the negative of the film She and all of Samuelson’s personal belongings including his watch, his banking account and his baby’s clothes and food. At this juncture during the court proceedings Mrs Samuelson shouted excitedly and was led out weeping by her husband.
Betty Blythe said that while they were filming bailiffs had continually interrupted the picture and many other people were clamoring for payment from Samuelson, which made the process of filming extremely difficult.
Besides Pfitzner there were about twenty-five other creditors who prosecuted claims against Samuelson including the actor Carlyle Blackwell whose own salary was $500 per week. Blackwell sued Samuelson for a week’s unpaid salary and for finishing She in England without him – employing a double instead.
Samuelson by now had rather hastily and wisely fled Germany but left his production and actors stranded in Germany. Later, Samuelson offered Pfitzner 10,000 gold marks in settlement of his claims and gave Carlyle Blackwell a settlement of £100.
Betty Blythe claimed she was therefore stranded in Germany and had to borrow money. A waiter at the Eden hotel Berlin testified that he had taken three notes to Betty Blythe requesting her to leave if she could not settle her bills (supposed to be paid for by Samuelson). He did state that the bills were in fact paid later.
It must have been about this time that Betty Blythe mistakenly vented her frustration at a visiting press reporter. On 24th February 1925 Samuelson telegraphed her to say that statements she had made about him to the press were untrue and that there was money standing to her credit at a bank. He also said she would not be wanted any more for the film and could return to America.
Finally, at the end of April, the finale of the court case took place with a display of emotion that, according to more cynical observers, could not have been bettered by any film. When the settlement was announced Betty Blythe burst into tears. She then said goodbye to the all the court officials but was dissuaded by one of them from personally thanking the jury. There were no winners as the settlement involved no payment of money, Miss Blythe withdrew her slanderous comments about Samuelson and admitted that she had received no salary in Paris because of her own mistake in going to the wrong bank. The issue of the dresses and the burnt finger were not mentioned.
If her assignment with Samuelson was unpleasant Betty Blythe’s next project was rather adventurous as she went to work for Edward Jose on a movie called Jacob’s Well based on Pierre Benoit’s novel Hagar (released as A Daughter of Israel or Le Puits de Jacob) during May 1925 with filming in Cairo, Damascus, Alexandria and Jerusalem. However, shortly after commencing work, her London agent claimed he had received a cable saying she had been kidnapped by Bedouins and carried off into the desert, that he had applied to American and British authorities to rescue her and that troops had been dispatched. One presumes that this rather dramatic story was deliberately created in order to attract media attention. It certainly made headlines across the world. Reuters swiftly located Betty Blythe safe in Mount Carmel and an investigation showed that there had been no kidnap.
After working on the interiors of the new film in Paris in July she subsequently lingered in Europe and then appeared for Sir Oswald Stoll for three weeks in late 1925 at $3,000 per week in vaudeville at the London Coliseum. Her act amazingly consisted of her singing lullabies. She finally returned to America in the summer of 1926 after nearly eighteen months away in Europe, made her debut in American vaudeville replicating her act in London and then resumed her film career in Hollywood.
Sadly, G.B. Samuelson’s flirtation with Betty Blythe proved to be his undoing and he never recaptured his status in British film production but then Betty fared little better with the onset of sound.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
The Stoll Herald, Kineweekly, Classic Film Collector, The New York Times & Los Angeles Times
The History of British Film 1918-1929 by Rachel Low