Josephine Earle was an American actress who made a name for herself at Vitagraph in a series of Vamp movie roles from 1915. She then made herself thoroughly at home in England during the 1920s appearing in British silent films, legitimate stage shows and cabaret.
She was born in Columbia Heights, Brooklyn on 23rd February 1892 near the spot where the Pilgrim Fathers are said to have made their first settlement. Her real name was Josephine MacEwan (sometimes listed as McEwan) and she was of Scottish descent. At an early age she told her friends that she would make a good actress. They laughed at her so she got herself an engagement to prove them wrong and became the Beauty in Henry W. Savage’s production of Everywoman (1911-1912) staged in New York and, with her soprano voice, played a season singing the prima donna roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operas.
Thereafter she drifted into film and became a featured player for the Vitagraph Film Company from 1915-1917. She described her roles ‘everybody in the company had to play whatever was on the programme for that day. One day it might be a vampire role in a feature drama and on the following day the unhappy wife in a domestic drama or a slapstick comedy character.’ At one point she did say ‘I prefer cinema acting to the stage.’ Despite her vampire roles she was thought of as a loveable and charming person with red gold hair, blue eyes and although she spoke with an American expression there was a hint of an accent that betrayed her Scottish blood.
In late 1917 she accepted an invitation from J.L. Sacks to go to England and appear in the stage production of Lilac Domino. After a very stormy passage she arrived mid December with bombs dropping on London ‘I was really surprised when I arrived to find London was not nearly so black as it was painted in New York.’
The British version of the operatta Lilac Domino was presented in London, with revised dialogue by S. J. Adair Fitzgerald, opening at the Empire Theatre on 21st February 1918 and running there until 27th September 1919. After a brief break, the production transferred to the Palace Theatre in October 1919. The piece ran for a total of 747 performances, closing on December 13, 1919, an extraordinarily long run at that time. Josephine played the part of Leonie Forde along with R. Stuart Pigott, Vincent Sullivan, Frank Lalor, Edwin Wilson, Jamieson Dodds, Dallas Anderson, Clara Butterworth and Andrée Corda.
During the run of the Lilac Domino, in 1917, she met and then married Captain James Alpheus Glen in September 1918 at Newport, on the Isle of Wight. Glen was a Canadian air force pilot who flew with the RAF during the First World War. He was born in 1890 on a farm near Turtle Mountain, Manitoba and attended high school in Enderby, British Columbia. He joined the Royal Naval Air Service in 1915. Flying the Sopwith Pup, he became an ace during the summer of 1917 but was ill in August and went home to Canada to recuperate. In January 1918, he returned to active duty, scoring nine more victories with the Sopwith Camel. Strangely, for whatever reason, Josephine kept her marriage a secret for two years and it was finally revealed in the summer of 1920.
At some point in mid 1919, she was snapped up by the Gaumont Film Company that was revitalizing its film production after a post war lull and the departure of their prime director George Pearson. Run by the Bromhead brothers it was established in 1898 focused on distribution and renting from the French company but later went into film production with a studio at Shepherds Bush and Lime Grove. In early 1919 they engaged two new directors Will Kellino, a former circus clown and Captain C.C. Calvert and two brands of film – Westminster and British Screencraft were created for the two directors.
Although described by Rachael Low as ‘a sophisticated former Vitagraph star, now fading a little’ Josephine, playing the part of Countess de la Merthe, was the star of Kellino’s thriller The Fall of the Saint (January 1920) in which she made a point of stressing the importance of being well gowned with sixteen different outfits. She appeared with Gerald Lawrence, H. Heaton Grey and Dallas Anderson (with whom she appeared in Lilac Domino). In October 1920 Bioscope announced ‘Josephine Earle has, I hear, the honour of being the first British screen actress to be announced in electric lights in the theatrical centre of New York. The Fall of a Saint, in which she plays lead, commenced its run at the New York Theatre on September 13th.’
Next, she appeared in four Calvert films in the British Screencraft series: Walls of Prejudice/Break Down the Walls (April 1920) with Dallas Anderson Pat Somerset, Cecil du Gue and Zoe Palmer; The Edge of Youth (June 1920) with Dallas Anderson, Cecile du Gue and George Bellamy; Branded (September 1920) with Dallas Anderson, Nora Swinburne and Francis Lister and The Way of the Man (January 1921) with Cecil du Gue, Lewis Dayton, Philip Anthony, George Bellamy and Cyril Smith.
In the summer of 1920, when her marriage to Captain Glen was announced, it was also revealed that he was to return to Canada on a three-year visit to help in the establishment of the Canadian Air Force, although subsequently, he hoped to settle permanently in England.
That autumn along with Walter Passmore, George Hassall, Fred Tooze, David Miller, Aimee Bebb and Hilda Guiver, Josephine appeared for three weeks in the touring production of The Purple Lady opening 18th October at the Grand, Blackpool and then visiting Bournemouth and the Royal Brighton. It was muted to then appear in a West End theatre but seemingly this did not happen.
Eventually Josephine and Captain Glen left the UK for Canada in January 1921 arriving in St John Brunswick, but her stay in Canada did not last long and she returned to England nine months later departing Montreal, Quebec and arriving in Liverpool 22nd October 1921. The marriage did not last.
Josephine was swift of the mark and seemingly gained an engagement at Ciro’s, one of London’s leading nightspots, where as part of her performance she gave a sort of monologue called The Language of the Fan. Later, the Stage would comment ‘Jo Earle was one of the very first, first class artists to go into cabaret and the first to introduce the much copied big fan.’ Her act was so popular that Gaumont filmed her for their popular Around the Town serial released in January 1922, where she showed some beautiful fans and did a Spanish dance.
At about the same time she appeared in the short lived Albert de Courville show Put and Take, a gesture to a popular game of the time. Originally staged as Fantasia at the Queens Theatre on 1st December 1921, it was abandoned after a few days and after quick rehearsals Put and Take replaced it as a disconnected vaudeville entertainment with Anita Elson, Jack Morrison, Charles Brooks, Mary Brough (a fine comedienne), Rebla and the Palace Girls. Josephine had one of the prettiest songs in the production called April Showers. But even the new line up did not work and the show closed after merely twenty performances.
In mid February 1922, Josephine joined forces with the well-known author and composer Arthur Klein and made her vaudeville debut at the Glasgow Pavilion, which then toured the provinces and London venues. Their little ‘drawing room act’ with pleasant duets, featuring new songs by Klein, found much favour. Josephine’s voice was described as ‘a dainty and pleasing, if scarcely ‘big’ soprano’ opened the proceedings with a clever rendering of ‘All By Myself’. She then sang a snappy little new number by Klein called ‘Not Tonight Josephine’ and finished on the melodious waltz time number ‘Love’s a Game of Chance’ all accompanied by Klein at the piano.
In the autumn of 1922, she stepped into the new, spectacular and ambitious cabaret show at Murray’s nightclub in Beak Street. With eight numbers staged at dinner and supper, Josephine starred with the American dancer Hazel Shelley, Ernest Marini and a chorus of ten. Josephine sang several songs and danced with Marini, with specialty dancing from Shelley. It was a huge hit and rivaled the success of other shows at the Hotel Metropole and the Queens Hall Roof.
Her successes in cabaret and vaudeville prompted a visit to Paris and she joined forces with the famous Trix Sisters. In early February The Trix Sisters Blues Room opened on the first floor of the legendary establishment of the Abbaye de Theleme in the Place Pigalle and Josephine appeared with the Trix Sisters, Flora Lea and Simonne Mirat.
Back in London she signed a two-picture deal with G.B. Samuelson and appeared with Lillian Hall-Davis, Rex Davis, Tom Reynolds, Julian Royce and Mickey Brantford in Alexander Butler’s The Knockout (June 1923) and Fred Paul’s The Hotel Mouse (July 1923) with Lillian Hall-Davis, Campbell Gullan, Warwick Ward and Morgan Wallace. But her piece de resistance was filmed in the summer of 1923. Graham Cutts’ Woman to Woman (November 1923) has been regarded as one of the most important movies from the British silent era but sadly lost. Based on the Michael Morton play and starring the American star Betty Compson in the lead it became a smash hit with Josephine in a supporting role as Mrs. Anson-Pond along with Clive Brook, Henry Vibart and Marie Ault.
In October 1923 Josephine was added to the cast of the successful C.B. Cochran musical Little Nellie Kelly. George M. Cohan’s song and dance show had been premiered at the New Oxford Theatre on 2nd July 1923 and starred Sonnie Hale, June, Maidie Hope and Anita Elson with specialty dances from The Forde Sisters, Terri Storey and Santry and Norton, with dances by Edward Dolly.
Given that Josephine had been described as being one of Britain’s best-dressed movie stars it is no surprise that she opened her own couture establishment in Savile row in October 1923. ‘What pluck to invade the quarter sacred to tailors’ exclaimed The Era before describing her collection as ‘being suitable for the average woman and I noticed many new ideas on them.’ The walls of her rooms were painted white and had vivid wooden silhouettes hung with tassels instead of pictures and glowing incense burners. Her first mannequin display was accompanied by a Hawaiian musician hung with garlands playing the ukele. Marion Forde (one of the actresses from Little Nellie Kelly) acted as one of her mannequins.
Her success was confirmed when the costume designer Dolly Tree (who had dressed her in Woman to Woman) used her services to create all her modern gowns in the stage productions of Leap Year at the London Hippodrome in the spring of 1924 and The Punch Bowl at the Duke of Yorks Theatre also in 1924.
Her next known credit was in the Grafton Galleries cabaret called Hello Grafton that then became Dolly’s Revels staged by Edward Dolly and dressed by Dolly Tree that ran from the summer through the autumn of 1924. She was one of the principals along with the dancer and singer Edna May, Fayette Perry, Doris Bransgove and Tom O’Connor and her song ‘What’ll I do? Was greatly admired.
In the early part of 1925, Josephine was cast in William J. Wilson’s production of Sometime at the Vaudeville. A musical comedy in two acts and 7 scenes she played Phyllis Grey and sang more songs in support of the leading lady Desiree Ellinger and the comedian Frank Tinney.
With no more film roles and fewer stage and cabaret roles over the next few years she slipped form view with the exception of a stint at the Mirador nightspot in Paris (35 Rue Pigalle) in January 1926 opening and the Imperial cabaret also in Paris in November 1926. At some point she also returned to America because she arrived in Southampton aboard Tuscania from New York on 18th October 1927.
A year later in October 1928, the Stage was curious about her absence from London ‘on many occasions during this last two or three years I have been asked ‘Where is Jo Earle?’ and I have always been unable to answer. I have asked the same question myself and have had a variety of replies from which I have gathered that she was playing in America, running a cabaret in Paris, a nightclub in Berlin or something or other in Vienna. But she is now back in London and has been spending the greater part of the last years back in America and has not been running nightclubs in any city.’
It was noted that ‘with neither her voice nor her appearance impaired’ she was about to reappear in London both in theatre and cabaret and perhaps a projected film production after seasons in New York, Berlin and Paris. The cabaret turned out to be at Nunky’s, a club at 177 Regent Street that had opened at the end of 1928, where she was the leading player from December 1928 for several months. She was described as ‘an artist of exceptional experience for cabaret’ who had run a West end dressmaking establishment, a beauty parlour and was an expert cocktail maker.
Although a theatre engagement did not materialize two film parts did. She played the rich mother of a young man (Harry Lorraine) in A.E. Coleby’s war time drama Unto Each Other (International Cinema January 1930) ‘a part requiring little but sitting either in smiles or tears and wearing smart clothes and jewellery.’ It was thought to have a hackneyed theme, showed little imagination and had poor continuity. She fared better in the cast of the Walter Summers Raise the Roof (BIP February 1930) with Betty Balfour that was a big success and regarded as the first sound British movie musical.
There were no more stage or screen appearances. In September 1932 she married John T. Matthews in Hanover Square, London and at some point moved to Stratford Upon Avon where, with her husband (Mr Matthews or a new husband) she bred Alsatians and opened a flower shop in Sheep Street and Henley Street. But after her husband died she could not cope and became an alcoholic. On 23rd April 1961 she had finished arranging the flower orders for Shakespeare’s birthday but became ill and died 26th April 1961.
All images and text © copyright Gary Chapman / Jazz Age Club and must not be re-used without prior consent
Chicago Tribune, Variety, Tatler, Sketch, Illustrated Sunday Herald, the Bioscope, Kinematograph Weekly
The Secrets of the Cinema
British Film Studios by Patricia Warren
The History of British Film 1918-1929 by Rachael Low
The Footlights Flickered by W.Macqueen-Pope
Personality file (scrapbook) held at the British Film Institute
Thanks to Janice Healey for certain sources
A film showing behind the scenes at Gaumont film studios in Shepherds Bush, London.
which includes a sequence showing C.C. Calvert directing a close up shot of Josephine Earle
A film of the Pan Ball at Covent Garden Opera house
includes a sequence with Josephine Earle dressed as Spanish Bird of Paradise (featured in Gaumont’s Around the Town serial, early 1920s)
See Woman to Woman
See Murray’s Nightclub
See the Trix Sisters
See Edward Dolly
1930 Raise the Roof
1929 Unto Each Other
1921 Walls of Prejudice
1921 The Way of a Man
1920 Fall of the Saint
1920 The Edge of Youth
1917/I The Awakening
1917 The More Excellent Way
1917 A Hungry Heart
1916 The Dollar and the Law
1916 The Blue Envelope Mystery
1916 A Vampire Out of Work (short)
1916 The Scarlet Runner
1916 There and Back (short)
1916 Romance and Roughhouse (short)
1916 Hesper of the Mountains
1916 The Shop Girl
1916 She Won the Prize (short)
1916 The Two Edged Sword
1916 The Writing on the Wall
1915 A ‘Model’ Wife (short)
1915 The Gypsy Trail (short)
1915 Mrs. Jarr and the Beauty Treatment (short)
1915 The Return of Maurice Donnelly (short)
1912 Three Girls and a Man (short) (unconfirmed)