It continually astounds this author that so
many of the stars who first graced the silver screen – before sound, before
color, when the cameras were massive and awkward and no one knew whether or not
the movies were just a passing fancy – have been all but forgotten. Imagine the
future writers of film history doing their research and digging up someone like Meryl Streep, whom they had never heard of before. Imagine they started reading
her biography, only to discover she was one of the greatest actresses of the
latter half of the 20th century. These are the sort of discoveries
one is privileged to have access to as a writer about eras gone by. And Madge
Bellamy is one such discovery.
Born Margaret Philpot on June 30, 1899 in
Texas, she started performing for an unusual reason: she had a posture problem.
Luckily she started really young, because she immediately fell in love with
acting and dancing, and before long she was working with a stock company in
Denver. Her theatrical debut, made when Margaret was only nine years old, was as
a slave in the famous production of Aida. A feisty little personality, she had a
showdown with the authorities when she was called into court for violation child
labor laws, and told the judge that she violated no law since she wasn’t getting
paid. What a performance!
By the time she was 17, Margaret had a lot
of stage acting behind her, and she was ready to move on to the Big Apple. As a
stunning, talented dancer, the roles kept coming, notably in another Broadway
production of “The Love Mill”. The owner of that theatre, Daniel Frohman, was
soon smitten with Margaret and through these rose-colored glasses, he wanted
nothing more than to see her succeed as an actress. He recommended that she
focus on acting instead of dancing, and that she change her name. Madge Bellamy
As with so many of our favorite silent film
starts, Madge has been given a label, and Madge’s was a little less flattering
than some of the others. From the start, she was zealous in her ambition, but
also extremely proud, hotheaded and reckless. Before long, she was “that actress
who is just too hard to handle.” But handle her they did, as they had to if they
wanted the money to keep rolling in – she was soon becoming a popular actress
indeed, largely due to her talent. In fact, her first speaking role under
Daniel’s tutelage, the stage role of “Pollyanna”, got her into bad favor with
the rest of the troupe because little Madge was getting all the good reviews as
a completely unknown actress.
The stage roles continued, and her speaking
parts got bigger and bigger. Soon she was called upon to replace Helen Hayes in
the Broadway production of “Dear Brutus”, which she enjoyed, but she was also
just beginning to dabble with the motion pictures. She became a player in one of
Geraldine Farrar’s last films, The Riddle: Woman – a rarity in terms of
the female role behind the camera. But a stage actress she still was, and after
“Dear Brutus” finished its run, Madge went to Washington, D.C., to join a stock
company there. Her acting chops were getting wet indeed.
If we’ve gone on at length about Madge’s
stage career, it’s because her mentor Daniel Frohman believed she should remain
on stage, where she really belonged. But Madge did do a screen test for a man
named Thomas Ince, a member of the board for Famous Players, and it wasn’t long
before Madge had her first four-year movie contract with Ince. Off to Hollywood
she went. From the start, there were many men in Hollywood who wanted her to
“put out” for her roles (some things never change!) but as a great beauty, she
held some leverage, and eventually the big boys left her alone, knowing she
would be a tremendous asset to the company.
While under this contract, she made several
notable films, including her debut, Passing Through, and The Hottentot;
The Cup of Life, Hail the Woman (with Florence Vidor), and Love
Never Dies, directed by the great King Vidor, whom Madge loved working with.
By 1922, she was becoming a bona fide star, landing the extremely sought-after
title role in Lorna Doone, which would ultimately become the role she
would be remembered by. A year later, she was hand-picked by
none other than
Mary Pickford for the film Garrison’s Finish, the best part of which was
collaborating with her idol Mary, and learning more about the art of make-up
design and capitalizing on her already gorgeous good looks.
Even though she was still under contract,
it was possible to circle around her obligations, and other studios eagerly
sought her out on a loan basis. She worked at both Universal – which she loved –
and at Louis B. Mayer’s new MGM studios – where she wasn’t quite so happy. But
she was a diva, and may have been a little ungrateful and melodramatic for her
hostility toward the great Mayer, whose biggest crime was failing to stand up
when she entered a room. Perhaps her most rewarding experience was working at
Fox, where in 1924 she co-starred in John Ford’s The Iron Horse, worked
for months on end, and learned a great deal. Her diva-esque ways continued when
she was offered a plum role in MGM’s Ben-Hur, considered one of the great
classics of all time; she turned down the role due to her animosity with Mayer
and because (as it is rumored) there were too many horses in the production.
This decision could be one of the great Hollywood mistakes!
When her contract with Ince ended (Hearst
had something to do with the closure of that studio), Madge immediately signed
on with Fox for another four year contract, but her flamboyant personality would
cause her to make more mistakes – she had a turbulent relationship with director
Frank Borzage, for whom she refused to be shown onscreen with dirty nails in
Lazybones. For his next film, he cast Janet Gaynor, despite William Fox’s
pleas that she be the chosen actress for the gig. It never happened, and next,
Madge made Sandy, for which she made herself over with a short bob and a
blond dye job; at around that time, the ever unstable Madge married a
stockbroker named Logan Metcalf, a marriage which lasted less than a week.
And then came the talkies, usually the make
it or break it period in a silent film star’s career. She was in top form, and
surprising many, she got rave reviews for her performance in Mother Knows
Best. For some odd reason, her next few films were silent – Fox should have
had better foresight. Or maybe it was a good thing that they didn’t rely on her
to carry them into the sound age. When they didn’t let her choose the director
for an upcoming film project, she ranted and raved about tearing up her
contract, and left the set. When she returned, expecting to be fired, she was
shocked to learn that they wanted to extend her contract and pay her more
money. Ever the diva, she said no and left for good.
She shouldn’t have been so quick to take
flight; her career never recovered. After three dry years, she returned to
Hollywood and made what became a cult horror classic with
Zombie, after which she took her best offer from Fox and began acting again.
But this time around, she couldn’t reclaim her stardom, and appeared in several
low-rate B films, such as Charlie Chan in London, The Daring
Young Man, and Under Your Spell. She couldn’t stand the mediocre
entertainment she was producing, and turned her heels on Fox and movies, this
time for good.
The story doesn’t end here – Madge lived to
the ripe old age of 89! In this vast interim, she spent money like mad, went
broke, and in 1943, was back in the tabloids, this time as a would-be criminal.
An old flame decided to leave her, and instead of letting him go, she aimed at
him with a gun. The rags had a field day with that one. But feisty Madge didn’t
let that, or anything, get her down. She rightly decided that her life story
should be put to paper, and spent many of her latter years furiously writing
away at an autobiography. She sadly died before it was published, but she was
right – this was a story worth telling.
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 ASTOS.
Tammy invites you to write her at
with any questions or comments on her column.