Bessie Love Tells Her Untold Tale (1929) 🇺🇸
You've probably seen "The Broadway Melody" by this time. If you haven't, drop everything and run to the nearest theater. Don't even wait for the ice-man. If, on the other hand, you have seen it, then you've met "Hank."
by Gladys Hall
You know all about her. Big ideas. Fatter of the sticks. The Broadway bug. Laundry m the basin. Heart like a sturdy prayer. Two she-loves. Loyal and square. Grin clapped on over a breaking heart. Grease-paint and game forever — that's Hank. Well, I've a notion and it's this: Hank is really Bessie Love. Bessie Love is Hank. The two are one, at heart. Given the same circumstances, they would react in precisely the same way. I know they would, because Bessie told me so. In fact, you can rest assured that when you meet Hank you will also meet Bessie. When you know one you will know all that is essential for you to know about the other.
A first-rate trouper — that's Bessie's rank in the industry. So is she known to her friends, and they are legion. The life of any party, game when the breaks are against her, grinning and hugging herself when, as now, the breaks are with her. Singing her raffish gay songs, doing her jazzy dance steps, strumming her gay ukulele, calling life white no matter how yellow the face it turns to her, blaming nothing on anybody but herself, hating to rake up what is past and gone, one eye on the dollar, feet on the flowery earth, taking the good with the bad — that's Bessie Love.
And such being the case, Bessie Love would, and has, covered her confessions with a shrug and a smile. You have to read between the lines more than is customary. Bessie Love, queen of good troupers! (Author's Note)
"My name is not Bessie Love at all. D. W. Griffith named me that. He thought it fit.
"My real name is Juanita. Juanita Horton.
"When I was a child, we were desperately poor. We lived in a tiny clapboard house — not much more than a shack, really — on the other side of the tracks. The wrong side.
"We were really pretty beastly poor. I hate to dig up that sort of thing. It's over. It did me good, not harm. You have to work for what you get. And that's that. Besides, there's nothing picturesque about poverty— unless you have slept on a park bench or picked coals. I never picked coals — quite. Poverty does better in books than in real life, there's not much romance to it. Debts and duns and sometimes not enough to eat and never enough to wear and never being quite warm enough and always afraid to answer the doorbell for fear — oh, well.
"The point is that I didn't pick coals and I did live through it. Dad was a chiropractor. In those days very few people had even heard of a chiropractor. Which meant that our doctor's bell rang with a painful infrequency, if at all. Days and days when it didn't give a tinkle. Pretty dark days, those, when we held our hands to our sides and prayed that it would. Sometimes it did but the patient was seldom the paying kind.
More Prayers than Play
We were an optimistic trio, though, Mother and Dad and I. Irish on both sides, I believed that the luck o' the Irish would stand by us one of these days. And while we were waiting for this great break. Mother worked like a slave and Dad hoped and I prayed at my altar and played tag and things in between whiles. I didn't do very much playing.
"I've always had an altar in my room. Yes, there's a religious streak. I try to see things through. Anyway, I kept an altar up to about three years ago. Sometimes it was only an old soap box decorated tastily with a sheet, but it was an altar just the same, with a candle and some flowers. I used to pray there for our ship to come in. That was my childhood fairy tale. And the ogres of that fairy tale were called by the hard, unlovely name of worry; and then there was debt and the beastly burden of doing without. We did do without — almost everything.
"Tom Mix is responsible for my being in the movies.
"He doesn't know it, doesn't remember it, of course.
"It happened very amusingly and rather incidentally. Dad is a Texan. So is Mr. Mix. That is all they ever had in common, but for Dad that was enough. He believed — and still believes—that all Texans are blood-brothers and glad to shake one another by the paw, sah.
"My Dad was very proud of me. He liked to take me about with him and show off my long curls and call me, 'My daughter.' One day he took me to a location spot where Tom Mix was working. He thought he and Tom might pass the time of day as two good Texans should. They didn't — but Mr. Mix did say to me, 'Why don't you work in pictures?" And the seed was sown. I believe that thus casually are the great events of our lives precipitated.
Dad Was Indignant
"Dad, I remember, was furiously indignant. He had been insulted. He had the old parent-complex — anything to do with the stage was sin; and sin might be, and probably was, all very well for other men's daughters but for his daughter — he sputtered and threatened and probably had his faith in all good Texans shattered.
"I never breathed a word to Dad. But I knew what I would do. Mother was my confidante. She was more lenient than Dad, took things more easily, didn't get excited about a stray boy-friend or my possible 'roonation' if I should get into pictures.
"I had to have money. And I was getting old enough to know that the only way I'd ever get it was to earn it. The next fall I was to enter high school — if I could. Which didn't seem very likely. Funds were growing lower and lower. The doorbell never rang. I felt that I had to have an education. I can say now that I have no regrets about any of my screen experiences, there was nothing else for me to do about it, anyway — but I do feel having had no formal education. you pick up a lot here and there, of course, by contacts and experiences, but never quite what you get from conventional schooling. I've always thought that maybe, some day — but I guess not, now.
"Anyway, I 'd heard of a man who worked in pictures. His name, they said, was David Wark Griffith. That was all he meant to me at the time. A man who worked in pictures by the name of Somebody. I had no idea of his real importance. And it probably wouldn't have mattered to me if I had. I may as well confess here that the one thing, the one asset, I have is nerve. Plenty. It has kept me going when all else has failed. If anyone tells me they will do anything for me, or if I hear of anyone doing things for someone else, I horn right in on the party. And I think, 'Well, why not? If they promise so and so, or if they are doing things for others, why not for me?' That's my motif in life.
Calling John's Bluff
"It reminds me of John McCormack, the singer. I met him one night at a party in 'Frisco. I was strutting my stuff and he asked me if I had ever taken vocal lessons. I said no. He said, 'You should.' I said 'All right, but who from?' He said, 'I'll give you some lessons when I'm in Los Angeles.' He probably forget the words the moment they left his lips. I didn't. When he came to our city, I presented myself on his doorstep and I took vocal lessons. I was terrible and he thought so, too, I suppose, but I stuck it. He'd said he would.
"Well, to get back: I went over and asked for Mr. Griffith. He saw me and I told him I'd heard how he made stars out of people. I had heard, I said, about Blanche Sweet and the Gish girls. And a lot of others. I wanted to know what I must do to be made a star, too.
"He was probably amused. Whatever his reaction, he signed a contract with me that very day. And he looked at me and said, 'We must find you a name to fit you. Let me think. Bessie. Bessie, love.' "For quite a time things looked pretty slick to me. I began to earn money. Then more and better money. Big money, or so it seemed.
"I bought a ranch, a swanky car, furniture, clothes, all the things I felt a young person in my position should have.
"People kept on discovering me. I am about the most discovered person in pictures. And I've lived through several sorts of incarnations. And of course I believed that each discovery would mean something. Would give me my big break. They never did. Things have always been bad until now. Awfully bad.
"Griffith discovered me first, of course. I played gingham girls with roses and' gingham loves. Nothing much happened. I just kept on while others climbed over my head and made big names.
"Then Tom Ince discovered me. I played in a picture with Mrs. Wallace Reid. A picture in which I took dope and lived hand in hand with death and horror. I thought, 'This will put me over with the well-known bang. For now they'll see that I am one big tragedian.' They didn't. Nothing happened.
"Along came Famous Players with 'The Song and Dance Man.' I had a dance routine in that and once again I thought that this discovery — Bessie Love as a gifted danseuse — would lead to something big. And again — nothing happened.
"Nothing happened but this: the tide began to turn.
"Money was scarce. It grew scarcer, The awful ogres of my childhood days began to leer at me from forgotten corners. The pictures I made were of no particular consequence. I was going down hill. And I was going with a sickening rapidity. I knew it.
"They talk about breaks. I don't know. I rather think I don't believe in them. I think I blame myself for everything that has ever happened to me. I look back now and see what I might have done, a lot I might have left undone. Parts were offered to me and I wouldn't play them. I wanted to break away from the ingénue. I wanted so badly to do something forceful and unforgettable. There didn't seem to be any place for me.
"Finally, a short time back, I went into vaudeville with the idea of acquiring some stage training. I thought it very likely that I was through in pictures. I figured that I was almost certain to be able to get some stage work. And I believe that you have to know your job if you want to get anywhere, no matter what the job may be.
"And then came The Broadway Melody. It's my big break, at last. It's my ship come in. The ogres aren't leering at me now. They may again. I have sense enough to realize that no one stays on the crest of the wave forever, but oooh! while he does, it's great.
"I've never been in love in all my life. Nor is it a case of 'Mother Knows Best.' My mother is the type who takes me, life, love and work very casually. At our lowest ebb she used to say to me, 'Times will change. They always do,' If I had wanted to marry I could have done so with no more than a wave of the hand and a 'God bless you' from her. I could still. I have never wanted to.
"I've thought I was in love here and there, now and again. For an hour or a day it would be tragic, terrible. I've even had moments so grim and desperate that I've thought, 'Suicide is preferable to this.' But the point is that I have forgotten, today, what 'this' was.
"When you are really in love you never get over it. I know enough about love to know that.
"I think I 've worked too hard. I haven't had time to give to other emotions. The pursuit of the dollar has drained my heart and brain and hand. And when they've come to me, these other emotions, they have bloomed and faded too rapidly.
Aigrettes and a Little Anguish
"The one that came the nearest to reality happened to me some years ago. I had been thinking, 'This is the genuine thing,' One night he broke an engagement with me. He had to work — he said. That was all right with me. Some other boy took me to a cabaret. And there was the gentleman who had had to work. With him was a lady. The lady wore aigrettes. I never saw him again. I suffered, but I was through. And that would be my procedure now. I would probably suffer, but I would be through. I cannot stand a double-crosser. And more than all, a trivial one.
"I believe that I am very much the same caliber as Hank in The Broadway Melody, I know her. I would have done what she did, given the same circumstances. And I know what she would do with her life, taking it at the point where the picture ends. She would have kept on working in the sticks. She might have seen her sister again, by some arrangement, but she would never have seen the fellow again. She loved him too much. Some day she would marry. Because she was, first of all, a practical person and would know that it is not well for woman — or man — to live alone. She was a jolly little soul and she would need companionship even though love and romance were behind her. Practical, first of all, that was Hank. No time for retrospecting or grouching or wishing for things to be other than they are. That's me, too.
"I have one great ambition in life; it's this; a great big house and a whole lot to eat and lots of company and a great big man and a whole lot of children.
"That's Life. Living. And for that ambition, for that privilege of living, I would exchange any career in the world if I had to."
Life with her, so Bessie Love says, is just one instance of being discovered after another. She holds that her biography should be printed in the lost and found column.
Photo by: Ruth Harriet Louise (1903–1940)
Collection: Motion Picture Classic Magazine, June 1929
Confessions of the Stars series: