Hearts and Spurs (1925)

1925 was a momentous year for a number of our heroes – William Powell’s output virtually doubled, Ronald Colman cemented his Hollywood career and his heartthrob status, Richard Barthelmess consolidated his already enormous fame and Myrna Loy was recognised and brought to the forefront thanks to Natacha Rambova.

We can add into this good fortune the beginnings of a career for 16 year old Jane Peters. We’ve covered her post accident work in Carole Lombard’s Mack Sennett days, and this seems a good time to have a look at the first major feature she appeared in. Now as we know when Jane Peters was 12 years old she appeared in the film A Perfect Crime with Monte Blue which provided her with the impetus to follow a movie career. Various acting classes and auditions followed during her teens, but like any other teenager in Hollywood Jane was drawn to the nightclub and party lifestyle and it was at the Cocoanut Grove’s regular dance competitions that Jane started to get really noticed.

With Edmund Lowe in Marriage in Transit (1925)

In 1925 Jane Peters was signed to the Fox Film Corporation and Carole Lombard was born – an amalgam of a family friend’s last name and the result of Elizabeth Peters’ liking for numerology – although a consistent spelling of Carole Lombard wouldn’t settle until around 1931.

Carole’s first substantial role came in 1925’s Marriage in Transit, but her lack of experience was apparent and the film was seen as lacklustre despite Carole’s admitted over-emoting!

“Poor Eddie Lowe! They told me to tear him to shreds! To this day Eddie can’t see me without ducking.”

And this then led to Hearts & Spurs, a now lost Western melodrama starring Buck Jones and coincidentally directed by W S Van Dyke, who of course was the director of The Thin Man. 

Needless to say Carole’s role as Sybil Estabrook although substantial involved nothing more than a lot of simpering while Buck Jones did the inevitable manly stuff with horses and fighting and the like. Carole was starting to become frustrated with the limitations of her roles which felt two dimensional and merely served as fragrant wallpaper for the all action hero.

However, a year later Carole’s fateful and horrific entanglement with a Bugatti would, due to her ties to Fox being cut, put her in the sights of Mack Sennett who would enable Carole to beef up her acting skills and cinematic presence.

References/Recommended Reading:

Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star – Michelle Morgan



Too Many Kisses (1925)

Too Many Kisses marked Harpo Marx’s debut in motion pictures. Considered to be lost, a copy was found amongst the collection of director Irvin Willat, a friend of Richard Dix, and clips from the movie have appeared in Marx Brothers documentaries. 

Harpo said “…it seems the cutters had been at work on the film and they hadn’t figured my acting amounted to much…” but in his first film appearance you can see he is already recognisably Harpo!

Richard Dix had become a major Hollywood star after appearing in Cecil B Demille’s The Ten Commandments in 1923, indeed in 1926 he was voted above Rudolph Valentino in a Motion Picture Magazine popularity contest.

Too Many Kisses is another of those movies where it seems a shame that it hasn’t been released to the public – as you can see from Mordaunt Hall’s review and others, the picture was generally reviewed as a diverting evening’s entertainment, maybe nothing special but worth a see nonetheless. The film is about a rather Twenties preoccupation – a boy with too many girls at his disposal! In this case Richard Dix’s lead character is sent away by his father to the Basque Country to cool off – not such a random location as the father is lead to believe that the ladies over there are only interested in their local menfolk. 

Needless to say, that isn’t quite the case when Richard Gaylor Jr turns up, and his popularity with one señorita in particular is not appreciated by her boyfriend, Julio.

‘William Powell is excellent as Julio. It is a part which fits him like the proverbial glove. He is jealous, cowardly, vengeful, affectionate in a perfectly natural way.’

‘Too Many Kisses,” in spite of its queer title, is a constantly amusing light entertainment, just the thing to make one forget the cold wind and changeable weather.’

References/Recommended Reading:


Mordaunt Hall Review in the New York Times, 3 March 1925


Motion Picture Magazine, June 1925, p.65 

Photoplay Magazine, May 1925, p.44


Romola (1924)

Romola gives us another opportunity to admire William Powell’s cracking pins encased in Renaissance tights whilst putting his all his efforts into a plum villain role, that of Tito Melema, a con artist on his uppers looking for his one chance to attain power, fortune and glory. That opportunity comes via the aristocratic Romola, played with customary ethereal grace by Lillian Gish, who falls in love with him. 

William Powell and Lillian Gish as Tito Melema and Romola

In the meantime a peasant girl, Tessa, is also falling in love with Tito, and he does everything to encourage her, including participating in a fake wedding! The dirty dog eventually gets his comeuppance but as William Powell pointed out years later:

“[Tito]… married the woman he loved and because he found her cold, he took the little peasant girl… and had with her the simple peasant-like life he craved. But he didn’t go around making fools of women just because it was easy, or he could.”

Dorothy Gish as Tessa

Although the picture did provide an excellent villain role for Powell I have to concur with the fan mag reviewers that Romola does lag in the middle, an issue which plagues even modern movies (La La Land being a good example). It certainly doesn’t have the energy, pace and melodramatic confidence of The White Sister and Ronald Colman’s part is rather flat in comparison.

Henry King describes Romola as a difficult picture to make as its scale and scope was much larger and more complicated than The White Sister, if you can imagine that. The set was in Florence and involved the construction of ships and 274 foot replicas of the Duomo and Campanile! Despite all this great care and attention taken, it does mean that the actual story does get somewhat lost, as well as the fact that the characters of Romola and Carlo are a bit wet, Powell’s characterisation of Tito Melema leaves him with no redeeming characteristics whatsoever, which leaves Dorothy Gish as the sparky peasant girl Tessa as the one character who has a bit of zip, but ends up betrayed. As it’s difficult to empathise with the characters and be swept along by their journey, Romola ends up feeling rather flat.

Ronald Colman and Lillian Gish as Carlo Buccellini and Romola

This wasn’t helped by the fact that unlike The White Sister I watched a poor quality print of the film which was difficult to view and as a result perhaps lost a lot of context. While watching The White Sister I was able to immerse myself in the sumptuous glory of King’s location filming in Rome, Sorrento and Capri, whereas with Romola it was impossible to gain any appreciation for King’s aesthetic vision, the time and effort taken in the art direction as you can see in the photograph below.

Lillian Gish and Bonaventure Ibañez play Romola and Bardi

The photographs I’ve included here give a much better account of how the picture should look and the potential of a fully restored print. Indeed, the addition of a more sympathetic soundtrack would make up for the paucity of the story and move the action on more effectively. I have to say though, I did watch The White Sister without a soundtrack which I thought would be a challenge as it’s quite a long movie, but the pace of the action means that the picture motors on at a fair lick with the dramatic tension fully maintained throughout. In the finish up I was so engrossed in Angela and Giovanni’s story that I forgot there was no music!

It just goes to show how silent movies are a far more immersive experience than the talkies and if elements are missing how disappointing they can be!

The filming of Romola is also notable for one significant episode in William Powell’s personal life. Powell and his first wife, Eileen Wilson, by this time had been separated for many years, however as their son, William David Powell recounted:

“Unknown to one other (both being romantic) they decided to go to the same place to forget – Italy. They ran into each other in Venice. It was midsummer. A full Italian moon was riding the skies – music floated up from the gondolas gliding along the Grand Canal. I made my debut in 1925.”

Father and Son

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow


Photoplay Magazine, February 1925, p.56

Motion Picture Magazine, March 1925, p.47


The White Sister (1923)

Now it would be remiss of me before I move on to the film that truly introduced William Powell to Hollywood as a star without first looking at The White Sister, a movie that links up two of our three amigos, Ronald Colman and Richard Barthelmess.

As outlined in my birthday message, Ronald Colman had toiled away in the British theatre since the Armistice as well as making a few pictures for the Hepworth company, but in 1920, not having found much success in London, Colman went to New York. The White Sister was his first feature film, made in Italy by Inspiration Pictures, and it was the success of this picture that introduced him to the world as a new Hollywood star. 

Inspiration Pictures had been founded by Richard Barthelmess, Charles Duell and Henry King, who had made the runaway success Tol’able David in 1921. The success of that picture enabled the company’s next big feature, The White Sister, to be made on location in Italy. Director Henry King utilised the most dramatic locations in Italy, including Rome, Sorrento and Mount Vesuvius itself! However, he also made full use of the expertise of his Italian crew, even down to small details such as ensuring that the original French blinds used on the sets were changed to Roman ones. 

Indeed, one of the most emotional scenes in the picture, the ceremony whereby Angela Chiaromonte becomes a nun, was in fact designed and directed by a priest who was the head ceremonial director at the Vatican. Henry King, who was to later convert to Catholicism, wanted to ensure that this scene, which carried enormous spiritual significance, was accurate and credible to the Catholic Church in every detail.

The review in Photoplay Magazine describes The White Sister as ‘another personal triumph’ for Lillian Gish, the performance more nuanced than in her collaborations with D W Griffith. Gish brings a mixture of vulnerability and vitality to the role of Angela Chiaromonte that feels genuinely real. Her legendary ability to convey emotion through the camera is apparent here although to my modern cynical self, it seems a shame that being thrown into poverty by her jealous and vengeful sister results in Angela Chiaramonte turning into a bit of a tedious, pious bore. I did have to wonder why Giovanni Severi was still bothered for her once she’d made it plainly clear that she was going to remain wedded to the church and not leave it for him.

However, I fully recognise that this type of overwrought Victorian-style melodrama was very popular in the 1920s and that the strictures of mega-institutions like the Catholic Church were powerful enough to control the thoughts of entire populations. To transgress would be to invite shame and isolation. It certainly doesn’t lessen the impact of a fantastic drama and a remarkable debut for Ronald Colman, who is sensitive and sweet and gorgeous throughout. Colman, Gish, Henry King and Inspiration Pictures were soon back in Italy in 1924 to make Romola, an adaptation of a novel by George Eliot. The plot had a nice villainous character, and this role was awarded to William Horatio Powell.

References/Recommended Reading:



Photoplay Magazine, October 1923, p.74

The Parade’s Gone By – Kevin Brownlow

Dangerous Money (1924)

For this week’s lost film we’re having a look at a vehicle which starred a lady who was going to be a regular co-star for William Powell – Bebe Daniels. As noted in this month’s Memorabilia of the Month, I’m leaving any in-depth discussion of Bebe Daniels’ life and career for my entry ‘Bebe Daniels – Silent Screwball’ in Paul S‘s Addicted to Screwball Blogathon, starting 23 May. 

As it is the review of Dangerous Money in Photoplay Magazine describes the picture as ‘flabby’, yet another tale of a ‘boarding house slavey’ who inherits a fortune. However William Powell is highlighted as the ‘scoundrel, who runs away with the entire opus.’ Playing a gold digger in his smarmy git oeuvre, can you see the pattern forming here? 

Also worth noting is that this was the first film that William Powell made for Paramount Pictures, although not under contract. He must’ve made quite an impression because, as outlined in William Powell’s Silent Villains, in 1925 Jesse Lasky signed Powell to a contract with Paramount – what an achievement after only three years in motion pictures. 

In and amongst my research for this film I happened upon an auction for these negatives (referenced below): 

The listing states that these pictures were taken for Dangerous Money and were Powell’s first sitting for Paramount Pictures.

I think Bill looks quite sublime in these pictures – the smile in the photo above is cheery but quite enigmatic also – as he stared down the camera, on the cusp of success, I wonder what was going through his head? Certainly, once he signed on the dotted line with Paramount, his financial pressures would be much alleviated. Indeed as I have alluded to elsewhere on this blog, Bill’s penury as a young actor lead to his reputation in Hollywood for being excessively careful with his money. That’s a smile as bright as his future!

References/Recommended Reading:



Photoplay Magazine, December 1924, p.53

Under the Red Robe (1923)

I hadn’t expected to write much more than a synopsis of Under the Red Robe – as you can see William Powell is billed 10th so his must’ve been quite a minor part. The notices are lukewarm to say the least, Photoplay Magazine describes the picture as ‘a bit draggy’ and Picture Play says that Cosmopolitan ‘spent too much money’ on the film, considering that the cinema going public are now ‘pretty well fed up with the Court of France’.

However, I hadn’t reckoned with the life story of star Alma Rubens – a story that is cautionary in extremis. I wouldn’t be surprised if E! Channel hadn’t made an E! True Hollywood Story about her. By the time Under the Red Robe was released at the end of 1923 Alma was two years into a multiple drug addiction that would see her descend from the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom into the violent desperation that dependency on cocaine, heroin and morphine often causes and which ultimately led to her early death in 1931. 

Her story, which you can read more fully from the references below, was very reminiscent of Barbara Payton and even to a certain extent Amy Winehouse, and I found it both incredibly sad but also very troubling insofar as the entertainment industry continues in this circular pattern of encouraging vulnerable artists to destroy themselves without much evidence of a duty of care other than a very generous cash remuneration. I accept I’m possibly being a little unfair and judgemental here, being a mere civilian, but Alma’s story is incredibly relevant to today and her experience seems sadly familiar.

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Picture Play Magazine, January 1924, p.55

Photoplay Magazine, February 1924, p.17

Screenland Magazine, April 1924






Tol’able David (1921)

While I’m on the subject of Richard Barthelmess I thought now would be as good a time as any to have a look at his classic drama Tol’able David, the story of a real sweetheart of a lad who shows real courage when facing up to a crew of bullying crooks. 

Tol’able David is often written about in terms of its whimsical and quaint Americana but don’t be fooled into thinking that the film gushes over into cloying sentimentality – what makes Tol’able David special is the film’s authenticity, particularly the attention to detail in the photography, it’s setting and even in its depiction of emotional, sexual and physical violence. The film is based on a magazine short story by Joseph Hergesheimer and as the film’s director, Henry King, was a Virginian who related strongly to some of the descriptions in the tale he was insistent that filming should take place on location in Virginia. 

Henry King, is also worth a mention as he formed the production company Inspiration Pictures with Richard Barthelmess and Charles Duell. Tol’able David was the company’s first movie and probably their greatest success, however he also directed a string of movies in the 1920s starring Richard Barthelmess as well as Ronald Colman’s first US movie, The White Sister, in 1923, Romola, with Ronald Colman and William Powell, and Stella Dallas and The Winning of Barbara Worth also starring Ronald Colman. 

Of course in reality there wasn’t much authenticity when it came to casting Richard Barthelmess in the role of the sweet natured country boy David Kinemon – the Photoplay Magazine review describes Richard Barthelmess as a ‘real city slicker’ in comparison to the sweet natured country boy David Kinemon. Additionally Barthelmess was 27 at the time of filming, playing an 18 year old. But when you have acting of this quality, obviously that’s immaterial as Barthelmess perfectly conveys a nice young boy, the pride of his family – in fact in my fevered imagination I’ve thought of Henry King holding up prompt boards for Barthelmess with ‘CREDIT TO HIS MOTHER’ written on it in big letters. Barthelmess brings to the screen the frustration of being the baby of the family, but then terror mixed in with reckless courage when faced with the reality that being an adult means getting into situations that we might find disconcerting, even frightening. I think most of us whichever era we grew up in can empathise with that, it’s a pretty standard experience for teenagers and young adults. Although obviously not involving being beat up by the 6’4 Ernest Torrence. Well not necessarily. 

Henry King filmed Greenstream as a beautiful idyll, to an urban Twenties audience this must have looked incredibly peaceful. However peace is shattered by the arrival of the three black sheep of the Hatburn family, escaping justice by stepping over the state line. Ernest Torrence makes a thoroughly convincing villain, his huge frame dominating the screen. 

Ernest Torrence was born in Edinburgh in 1878, and was actually a trained operatic baritone, however he moved into acting after issues with his vocal chords rendered his singing career redundant. He and his brother David moved to New York in 1911 to work on Broadway, but once he had made his first film, which was Tol’able David, he remained in Hollywood. The character of Luke Hatburn, a dopey psychopath who indulges in violence out of curiosity and warped enjoyment, was a complete contrast to the cultured and well-bred Torrence, and indeed Ernest Torrence also became very good friends with William Powell, Richard Barthelmess and Ronald Colman.

There is no doubt that Tol’able David is a motion picture of sublime quality – the care and thought that went into the storyline, casting and photography allows the film to retain its timelessness. It is shown regularly at silent film festivals, and possibly has particular resonance for a modern audience, as it explores recurrent movie themes as coming of age and the psychopathic hillbilly trope. Of additional resonance are more but contemporary themes like the realistic portrayal of the rural working class without idealising them and the brutalities of working class life and poverty. It also taps into concerns about a homogeneous society being threatened by lawless outsiders.

References/Recommended Reading:

Tol’able David and the American Heritage – Walter R Coppedge



The Parade Goes By – Kevin Brownlow

Photoplay Magazine, January 1922


The Bright Shawl (1923)

“Hello Bill?’ I asked. ‘Yes.’ ‘This is Dick. Bill, you blankity blank! You stole my picture, do you know it?’

“The reply came instantly back: ‘Certainly. I expected to. Goodbye.’ And he hung up.”

So recounted Richard Barthelmess in 1929 about his telephone call to William Powell on the night of the premiere of The Bright Shawl. Richard Barthelmess by this time was a major movie star, having been in motion pictures since 1916 and he’d scored a massive hit in 1921 with Tol’able David, that whimsical and romantic picture of Americana. Filming for The Bright Shawl involved a trip down to Cuba but Dick and Bill couldn’t stand each other on sight! As Bill remembered in 1930:

“I thought he was surly and he thought I was upstage. We went to the boat hating each other.”

The Bright Shawl was the tale of a young American, Charles Abbott, who sails across to assist the war for Cuban independence, while also finding time to fall in love with Narcissa, played by Mary Astor, and be the object of La Clavel’s affections, played by Dorothy Gish. Bill played dashing Spanish officer Gaspar de Vaca, needless to say a villain, but a stylish one.

“I remember the first picture we made together.” said Richard Barthelmess, “It was The Bright Shawl. We went to Cuba to make it and Bill and I formed a friendship that we enjoy to this day. I was the hero, a rather dub part, and Bill was the bold, bad villain who showed me up for fair. It was a great part and he played it splendidly. It was then, I believe, that critics first called him a picture stealer.” Indeed, the review in Photoplay magazine specifically mentions William Powell’s performance as ‘a real hit’ and you can see from the photos above that clearly the Powell charisma was starting to emanate.

Now mercifully The Bright Shawl is still with us, stored at the UCLA Film & Television archive, but hasn’t been released to the public. It is occasionally shown at silent film festivals though. I hope it will be soon because it sounds like an interesting picture and introduces another intriguing element as, on top of this being the picture that introduced William Powell to Richard Barthelmess, this was also Edward G Robinson’s second movie outing.

“Out of that trip came a close friendship and today Dick and Ronald Colman and I are buddies.”

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life & Films – Roger Bryant



Photoplay Magazine, July 1923

Picturegoer Magazine, July 1923

‘Is Bill Powell a Picture Stealer?’ – Photoplay Magazine, March 1929

Outcast (1923)

Here begins my first look at one of William Powell’s lost pictures, Outcast, released in December 1922. This was Bill’s third movie, billed seventh. As you can see below all that’s left of this movie are lobby cards and reviews from newspaper, trade and fan magazines. It’s such a shame as it sounds an intriguing drama with an intriguing love triangle at its centre. The plot revolves around Geoffrey and Valentine, who were in a relationship until Valentine jilted poor Geoffrey for a rich husband. In the meantime, Miriam, played by Elsie Ferguson, is living in extreme poverty. Miriam happens to be passing Geoffrey’s apartment when one of his friends accidentally squirts her with a soda siphon! Needless to say, Miriam falls in love with Geoffrey, who becomes torn between Miriam and Valentine. Now given the circumstances I feel happy to insert a shameless plot spoiler, and in the finish up Geoffrey follows a heartbroken Miriam to Rio where they are married. 

Motion Picture Magazine, February 1923

By this time Elsie Ferguson was reaching the end of her motion picture career and the four picture contract she had with Paramount. Elsie was an enormous star on the Broadway stage, celebrated for her ethereal beauty, and although she made 25 films in total, theatre was her abiding passion. Her level of superstardom ensured a remuneration of $9,000 a week, generous even today! As such, Elsie could therefore be choosy about the projects she worked on. Her last silent feature was An Unknown Lover in 1925 and she made one talking picture, Scarlet Pages, in 1930, retiring completely from stage and screen that same year. Her success had enabled a Riviera lifestyle and she was able to split her time equally between the South of France and the United States.

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant 


Motion Picture Magazine, February 1923

Picture Play Magazine, December 1922

Exhibitors Trade Review, December 1922

The Lost Films of William Powell

Not surprisingly I appear to have hit an impasse in my silent movie experience – at this point so many of William Powell’s pictures are either lost, or stored in archives and private collections and therefore not publicly available. This is mostly because he made the majority of his silent pictures with Paramount, the dominant studio of the 1920s. Of the 1,222 silent pictures that Paramount made, only 361 remain, a few of which are incomplete or fragmentary.

The list below outlines those films that are lost or unavailable:

Outcast (1923)

The Bright Shawl (1923) – stored at UCLA

Under the Red Robe (1923) – stored at George Eastman House

Dangerous Money (1924)

Too Many Kisses (1925) – stored at the Library of Congress

My Lady’s Lips (1925) – stored at UCLA

The Beautiful City (1925) – not known

White Mice (1926)

Sea Horses (1926)

Desert Gold (1926)

The Runaway (1926)

Aloma of the South Seas (1926)

The Great Gatsby (1926)

Tin Gods (1926)

New York (1927)

Love’s Greatest Mistake (1927)

Senorita (1927) – private collection

Time to Love (1927) – private collection

Nevada (1927) – stored at the Library of Congress and George Eastman House

She’s A Sheik (1927)

Beau Sabreur (1928)

Partners in Crime (1928) – stored at the Library of Congress

The Drag Net (1928)

The Vanishing Pioneers (1928)

Forgotten Faces (1928) – stored at the Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art

I’ll still take a look at each film consecutively though – mercifully there are fan magazines, film stills and newspaper reviews to give us some context. And I’ve still a fair bit to go at, so over the coming months I’ll be giving you my views on Bill’s existing silent films – most of which you can find in varying degrees of quality on YouTube:

Romola (1924)

Beau Geste (1926)

Special Delivery (1927)

Paid to Love (1927)

The Last Command (1928)

Feel My Pulse (1928)

The Four Feathers (1929)

But oh! What a scant amount of work remains compared to those lost! I can only exhibit a mixture of sorrow and frustration because in amongst those lost pictures were some monster hits, and some true classics of the genre. There’s a few duds as well, but wouldn’t it have been nice to have the opportunity of forming our own view of them?

The list also highlights just how much William Powell’s career kicked on from 1926 onwards – he was firing out a prodigious amount of work which would have enabled a pretty decent Hollywood lifestyle. Powell’s early years on the stage were marked by a decade or so of struggle, particularly financial, which had led in part to his separation from his first wife, Eileen Wilson. Once in Hollywood, Bill maintained a reputation for being very careful with his money, assisted by his father, an accountant who also managed his affairs. Indeed, Bill eventually moved his parents to Hollywood and the three shared a flat together until Bill’s marriage to Carole Lombard. 

Bill’s career was transformed by the talkies and this gave him the power to be more choosy over which pictures he worked on and he reduced his output accordingly. He’d made the hard yards in the silent era and it was time to enjoy the fruits of his labour.

References/Recommended Reading:

William Powell: The Life and Films – Roger Bryant

Click to access pub158.final_version_sept_2013.pdf