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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone

Featuring: BILLIE DOVE

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1920's Billie Dove 5x7 Fan Photo1920's Billie Dove Picturegoer PostcardBefore there was American Beauty - the smash 1999 Kevin Spacey/Thora Birch/Mena Suvari hit that bowled audiences the world over and made red roses the symbol for sensuality all over again - there was the 1927 film that transformed silent film star Billie Dove into the legendary diva she is remembered as today. Billie Dove may not be the starlet that rolls fastest off people's tongues today, but at her peak, she was the box office draw to beat - and several of our most famous icons, from Colleen Moore and Clara Bow to Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo - couldn't come near her. In fact, if pressed to come up with the star that shone the brightest towards the end of the silent era, one wouldn't do badly to think of Billie Dove.

Like Mena Suvari, Billie was thought of as the perfect symbol of beauty. With her flawless skin, hazel eyes - which were striking when rendered both in black-and-white and color - she exuded an unparalleled sexuality on screen, and was sought after by all the studios when color cinematography (Technicolor) became a viability starting in the late 1920s. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Billie was born Lillian Bohny, to Swiss immigrants on May 14, 1903, in New York City. She was certainly in the right place, New York being a hub for the pictures long before Hollywood acquired this status. Perhaps Billie was hyper-sensitive to the sensational world of the movies burgeoning in her midst - from an extremely young age, she knew she wanted to act before the cameras, unlike many of her peers who started their careers in the far more established theatre scene. She became an extra while still young, and got a lot of bit player work at relatively young studios in New Jersey (New Yorkers don't like to admit this, but New Jersey was actually a film center before New York took center stage, so to speak.)

Though little Lillian was nicknamed Billie as a child, she officially took it on as her professional name once she started acting in the movies. She was well-liked by studio heads during the years she toiled as a bit player, but she really proved her acting chops and appeal as a star in 1919, when she appeared in the  Ziegfeld Follies as  "glorified American Girl." While she followed many of her peers by doing the Follies, she had more Billie Dove Trading Cardsuccess with this route than most, and happened to be Movie Land Keeno Game Card featuring Billie Dovethere at the right time, when the Follies was introducing some of its greatest numbers. A star was born.

But she still had to segue into film leads, and this started happened for Billie over the next few years, when shorts and features were beginning to be made in New York. By 1922, she considered a strong enough player to be brought out to Hollywood on a year's contract with Metro, this time as a bonafide leading lady. A year later, she married an action film director and was more than entrenching herself in the Hollywood scene. Over the next four years, Billie, now out of her Metro contract, starred in films for all the major studios, and was well-respected for her work ethic and her ability to attract legions of fans with her name alone. Some highlights from this era include: All the Brothers Were Valiant (1923), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924) and The Fighting Heart (1925).

Another element of intrigue that contributes to Billie's legendary status is that she was one of the first stars chosen, as mentioned above, to star in Technicolor films. Technicolor, in the early twenties, was just going through its experimental stages, and when a color film would come out, the color was as sensational element of the film as were its stars. Billie starred in two Technicolor extravaganzas, one of which would forever put her down in the history books - 1926's The Black Pirate, considered the first full-length color film, and co-starring Douglas Fairbanks. Her performance in that film would set the standard for beauty, voluptuousness and charisma on the color screen.

In addition to starring as the sex symbol in many silent films, Billie worked hard to build her credentials as a serious actress and, to that end, sought out the best directors working in Hollywood. She found a female director, Lois Weber, for whom she would always hold extreme respect. Billie Dove postcard with Tom MixIn 1926, Weber cast Billie in The Marriage Clause, co-starring Francis X. Bushman, as an actress who almost suffers a fatal breakdown, and this role cemented her position in the pantheon of great, serious actresses. As the Jazz Age bloomed, Billie emerged alongside it, as a new symbol of freedom, modernity and feistiness.

Billie also worked with renowned director Alexander Korda, on films such as Yellow Lily and Night Watch (both 1928), both of which garnered tremendous critical praise, primarily for Billie's performances. At this time, Billie separated from her husband as the devotion Billie was receiving by 1920's Billie Dove 5x7 Fan Photonumerous men cast a strain on their relationship. One of her biggest fans was Howard Hughes, and for awhile they were the Hollywood couple de jour. On again, off again, their romance was heated and ultimately ended, but Hughes was allegedly captivated by her for the remainder of his mysterious life.

Towards the end of this era, sound too was coming to and end. For Billie, this posed no problems - she ventured into the talkies as though nothing had changed, and she did have a great voice to carry her into the sound age. She did no less than 11 talkies between 1929 and 1932, and remained a respected actress throughout - in fact, if anything, her versatility as an actress increased. Not only did she continue to do dramatic roles, but Hughes brought out the comedienne in her, casting her in the screwball picture Cock of the Air (1932). A very risky film, it went through the wringer with the Hays Office censorship board, but the film, after many edits, was finally released in 1932.

In a way, it was another Hollywood heavy hitter, William Randolph Hearst (the same man who almost brought 1931 Billie Dove Jasmatzi Tobacco Carddown Orson Welles for Citizen Kane) who finally brought down Billie's seemingly unstoppable career. She was cast in Blondie of the Follies (1932), opposite Hearst's big star, Marion Davies, and Hearst demanded that Billie's role be minimized once he saw that she was outshining Marion with her performance as a gutsy showgirl. Her performance was remarkably gifted, especially considering the obstacles she faced while making this film - but in the end, this would prove to be Billie's last performance.

It seems like it wasn't career troubles that led to her acting demise, but her desire to have a family. There doesn't seem to be any reason to dispute this theory; she was at the peak of her career for an astonishing number of years, and her dedication to her craft - and to finding the right roles - did not abate once. In fact, she was even offered the role of Belle in Gone with the Wind, but turned it down, so adamant was she to leave the business.

Billie wound up marrying again, to a real estate investor named Bob Kenaston, in 1933. They had a son and a daughter, and moved to the Pacific Palisades to have a quiet life. They stayed married for 37 years and ended up divorcing; Billie had a third marriage, but returned to Bob's last name after he passed away. Billie, after moving to the Motion Picture Country House in the early nineties, died on December 31, 1997. One hundred percent embedded in the birth and growth of cinema, from the silent black-and-white days to the era of color and the talkies, Billie's ethereal charm is matched only by the wonder she inspires as an actress who quit while she was at the top of her game. Perhaps immortalizing herself on the silver screen was enough for Billie Dove.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles and Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at stonetamar@hotmail.com with any questions or comments on her column.