J’s Celluloid Dreams: Publicity or Reality?

When J was born in 1900, film was still in its infancy. She grew up with the “new” medium. By the time she graduated high school (1918), it was a true cultural phenomenon. Since starting this project, I’ve often wondered about her attitude toward the movies. Her love affair with stage theatricals, especially operettas, was lifelong and deep. Her scrapbook, although largely of a professional nature, contains a few pieces of “just for fun” memorabilia in the form of programs for musical shows whose casts she was not in. In other words, she went to operettas when she wasn’t studying or working. This makes sense, as she had great theatrical ambition. To be the best, learn from the best.

One of the first tasks I performed at the start of this project (eight months ago, lo!) was checking to see if J had film credits of any kind. No. (This isn’t written in stone, of course. I’ve already turned up more surprises than I ever could have anticipated. In Biographyville, never say never is the most useful mantra to keep on repeat.) If the answer truly is no, which is the assumption I am working with unless I find out otherwise, the question that must follow is why?

Was it by choice or circumstance?

Let’s move forward in time, to the years 1920-1927. This period in J’s life must have been a whirlwind for her. For purposes of consolidation, those seven years went something like this:

1920: Studies singing from a once-famous and still-esteemed Memphis opera singer. Graduates. Appears in numerous amateur theatrical productions around the city. Is lauded every time, but that is the hometown press for you. Auditions for an eminent theatrical producer, R. She is selected for the chorus of one of his many touring companies.

1921: Is quickly promoted to a prominent supporting role. Her character has an important solo song. Travels the country in the first of numerous musical comedies. Becomes a press darling wherever she goes. Sits for her first professional portraits.

1922-1924: J continues performing across the United States, all in productions for R. Most critics agree that she is a talented singer, dazzling actress, and charming personality. She is now the Prima Donna of R’s organization. It is not unusual for the same newspaper to cover some combination of J/the production three or four times in one week. Twice a day, sometimes. She makes her radio debut during the medium’s earliest months.

1925: R has closed his main company. J spends a successful season in vaudeville.

1926: J tours the United States in a critically acclaimed roadshow of The Student Prince. She marries R.

1927: J is the soubrette of a notable opera company.

That’s a pretty fantastic seven years, by any measure. Why, then, would a young woman of her skill, ambition, and looks not have a go at the film biz? It wasn’t particularly difficult to break into movies during the 1920s, relatively speaking. Why didn’t she?

My initial hypothesis was the simplest one: she didn’t have a movie career because she didn’t want a movie career.

As a singing stage actress, her voice was an integral part of every characterization. It wasn’t the whole shebang, as most critics also mentioned her fine acting ability. Yet, for someone who loved singing as much as J, what artistic appeal could motion pictures offer?

Famous singers (Geraldine Farrar, for example) took the plunge, becoming silent film stars in the process. Movie studios adapted stage musicals during this period, as well. Maybe J preferred the theatrical stage for reasons I’ll never discover.

Or, maybe I was wrong.

J gave a cute interview to a reporter from an Ohio paper in March 1926, while she was starring in a roadshow production of The Student Prince.

Here’s the relevant excerpt:

J expressed another great desire–you guessed it. It was to crash the movies, to be a star of the silver sheet and to have a corps of secretaries continually plying rubber stamps inscribed, “Yours sincerely, J.”

“I may get there some day,” she said hopefully, “although I don’t know whether I photograph well.”

It is our personal opinion that one look at J will suffice to make any photographer try this picture on his camera with success. Even a cameraman, now and then, knows his vegetables.

Cute, but how truthful were her sentiments? It made for good publicity. Beyond that? I will need a more reliable source before I am convinced this is anything but pabulum for the masses. Until then, it remains an intriguing possibility.

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