Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Lost and Forgotten Legacy of Helen Twelvetrees

The following is my contribution to the Gone Too Soon Blogathon at Comet Over Hollywood.

Simply for having such an unforgettable name, one would think Helen Twelvetrees' memory would live on long after the actress herself did.  Granted, she was never in what one could honestly call a hit movie, and her film career faded away long before she did, but still, back in the pre-code days of Hollywood, the woman born Helen Marie Jurgens, was always just a film or two away from becoming the breakout star that RKO contemporary Katharine Hepburn would become right before the actress's jaded eyes.  Sadly for her, and for those of us who have seen her films (the few that fit such a demographic), this breakout would never come.

Our story begins with the birth of Helen Jurgens in Brooklyn on Christmas day 1908, but since little is known about her childhood, let us jump ahead just a bit.  Helen would go on to graduate from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, where incidentally she would meet her first husband, Clark Twelvetrees, and begin a career on the stage.  As the silent era came to an end and many Hollywood stars could not or would not make the transition to sound films, the studios hit the live theaters and would restock their stable of stars with stage actors.  Among those signing contracts with Fox, was nineteen year old Mrs. Twelvetrees.  She would make her screen debut starring in the studio's second talkie, The Ghost Talks, and would fake a lisp during filming (apparently in order to help show off the new sound technology) that was so successful that a rumour went around town claiming the actress had a speech impediment.

After this, Twelvetrees would star in one of the earliest musicals, Words and Music, a relatively forgettable film that is mostly noteworthy for being the first film in which John Wayne received billing (as Duke Morrison).  Following a split with Fox, after just three films, Twelvetrees would sign with Pathé, which would soon be taken over by RKO.  At her new studio, the actress would make several respectable but ultimately failed films.  Her most notable (and my personal favourite) is a film called Millie, where Twelvetrees plays a jaded goldigging woman who must deal with her wanton life.  This film, with its sexually blatant - at least for the time - storyline, and its somewhat closer-to-the-ground moral code, is a perfect example of the pre-code era in Hollywood.

Twelvetrees, along with other RKO players like Constance Bennett, would become the face of the pre-code era, but Twelvetrees days at RKO were limited - and she knew it.  Upon the arrival of Katharine Hepburn at the studio, Twelvetrees knew her days were up and would go freelance hereafter.  Twelvetrees would make another two dozen films throughout the 1930's, but  relegated to small parts in B-Pictures, she would never become the breakout star some thought she would, and in 1939 she would announce her retirement from Hollywood, and go back to the stage she loved so much - but even this would prove mostly unsuccessful, and she would retire from acting all together, save for a well-received return as Blanche Dubois in a 1951 production of Streetcar, in the 1940's.

Twelvetrees' personal life was just as tumultuous as her zig-zag career, which helped klead to a breakdown in her career.  Divorcing her first husband in 1931 (though keeping his name) and marrying her second, stuntman Frank Woody shortly thereafter.  Between drunken feuds and public panning, Twelvetrees and Woody would divorce in 1936.  Twelvetrees would fade into obscurity after her retirement, and would commit suicide in 1958, at the age of 49, and is interred in an unmarked grave in Middletown, Pennsylvania.  The connection between Twelvetrees' death in Harrisburg, PA, and this being my hometown (for a year or so, I even lived just down the street from the very cemetery the actress now inhabits), brought this look at this mostly forgotten actress to cyber-fruition.  On a high note in this sad tale of the lady with the sad eyes, there is currently a movement to get a headstone placed on Twelvetrees' grave.  One can contribute to the fund here.  This will hopefully become a done deal before Summer hits.

Now granted, Twelvetrees was perhaps not the greatest of actresses.  Her fear of competing for roles with a young Hepburn is proof that she too knew this.  Of course, Twelvetrees' talents were never fully explored so perhaps one day, under better circumstances, she could have grown into a great actress.  In the few films I have seen her in, she did a fine job (her performance in  Millie was especially tragic and she more than held her own in a role that could have been played by someone like Barbara Stanwyck), and showed that there probably was quite a bit more than what we were allowed to see.  Sadly enough, we will never know the full extent of Twelvetrees' talents, but if this piece on the long lost actress gets even just one person to check out her films, then it is well worth the writing.  Now go out there and see these films.


Karen said...

I greatly enjoyed your post, and it has made me want to hunt down a copy of Millie. I've heard of Helen Twelvetrees for years and years, but never saw her in a movie until I recently acquired a copy of Bad Company. It was so interesting to learn more about her, but I was shocked to read that she committed suicide. So sad. I think it's lovely that a fund has been started to purchase a headstone. Great post!

Kevyn Knox said...


It is weird that after all this time - the fund was just started a few months back - someone is finally doing something for her grave.

StanwyckFan said...

Wonderful post. You've sparked my interest, now I just have to hunt down the films...

Kevyn Knox said...


Sadly many of her films are unavailable on video. Millie can be found pretty easily, and The Spanish Cape Mystery is available on Netflix streaming. You can probably find some out of print VHS copies of some of her films on Amazon or e-bay or what have you.

Page said...

I apologize for my lateness in getting to your tribute.
You've done such a nice write up on Helen here. I'm a huge fan of hers so when I noticed you had chose her I was thrilled! I finally got her autograph after years of searching so reading more on her was fun.

She certainly had a face like no other! A distinct look all her own which is one of the things I like about her physically. With those bee stung lips and that fair skin she reminds me of my adorable niece.

As far as her acting, she was really good on screen. Sadly, her early films are hard to find, rarely aired or lost completely.

As you've mentioned her, I do think she could have grown to be a great actress. Perhaps if she had been offered the right role, given that one break she needed to take her career to the next level.

A nicely done tribute Kevyn!

Kevyn Knox said...

Thank you Page.

She was definitely a physically unique woman - the saddest of eyes - and like many others of her day - Ann Dvorak comes immediately to mind - she would not play the studio game and therefore her career was ended before it even began.

I am hoping that once the headstone goes up on her now unmarked grave, we can have a ceremony to celebrate Helen's life.

Anonymous said...

For anyone interested, I just watched Millie on Amazon Prime Instant Video. I love the classics and this movie did not disappoint! I hope you enjoy!

Jeff Moreau said...

Hi, I just came across the movie, "Unashamed" and saw her name as the lead name for star credits. Had never heard of her before. Which led me to do a search for her name. Too bad that so many of the early stars are forgotten.

Rock Lancaster said...

I just watched thr film Panama Flo from 1932 in which Helen got top billing over Charles Bickford. Helen died way before her time and is one of my favorite all time actresses.

Raina's Home said...

I came across your blog while watching "Panama Flo" on TCM this morning. Came to find out that Miss Twelvetrees is buried just about 2 hours from my home. Sounds like a summer road trip to me! It's great to read a post from a fellow classic movie fan. Give me an old B&W over modern film any day of the week!

Anonymous said...

Mz Twelvetrees looks so stunning early in Panama Flo where she's sitting at a table with Charles Bickford. She's about 24 but looks like a teenager. So amazingly beautiful I had to research her. She died much too young and its sad that she never found true happiness.

Kevyn Knox said...

Sadly, her grave is unmarked, and apparently her family wishes it to stay that way, as they made those trying to raise money for a marker, cease and desist.

Anonymous said...

It was only just last week I had watched Millie (1931) for the first time. I had never heard of Helen Twelvetrees before then. But after watching Millie I knew I had to find her other films. Its such a shame she took her own life. She was a beautiful actress.