Thursday, August 25, 2011

Father and Mother Were Movie Stars: Leatrice Gilbert Fountain Remembers

Just over a year ago, as Turner Classic Movies prepared to honor silent screen legend John Gilbert with a day of his own for the first time during “Summer under the Stars” 2010, I interviewed Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, daughter of the actor and his second wife, silent screen star Leatrice Joy. Leatrice Fountain and I had become acquainted several months earlier and it seemed a perfect idea to publish a discussion of her father’s career on the same day TCM fĂȘted him.

Leatrice and I have stayed in touch ever since, and over this 4th of July weekend we spent more time talking about her memories…

Leatrice’s story has its origins in 1918, when John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy met on a Peralta Studio picture called One Dollar Bid. He was kind to the nervous actress who hadn’t worked for a while and was preparing for a scene. He was also taken with her - and she thought he was the most attractive man she’d ever seen.  Their romance began when they met by chance months later.

Leatrice Joy
From their early days together and throughout their marriage, Joy had the bigger career and salary. In 1922, the year she married Gilbert, she signed with Paramount to be groomed for stardom by Cecil B. DeMille. She had been working for Goldwyn and when that contract ended, her brother Billy, then her agent, got in touch with DeMille knowing C.B. had lost his great star Gloria Swanson and was looking for a replacement.

John Gilbert was on his way up, but during his time with Joy he hadn’t yet made the films that firmly established his stardom. The couple’s relationship was always tempestuous, and they were apart as often as they were together. For his part, DeMille would have liked the pair to part permanently. Their daughter recounted this story:

“Father had drinking problems, the two would quarrel, and sometimes mother would show up at the studio looking sleepless and unhappy. DeMille finally told her that she must move out of her home until the picture was finished and stay with her mother who lived nearby. This of course infuriated Jack and they fought bitterly. A few days later she was driving on Hollywood Blvd. and saw him ahead of her. He stopped, parked, and walked into a barber shop. She parked behind him, walked into the shop and got into the chair next to his. Neither spoke. When the barber asked her what she wanted she said, I want a haircut just like his (in those days women did not enter the sacred masculine environs of the barber's). It did not cross her mind that this might interfere with the film she was shooting with her long flowing curls. Poor DeMille...”

Some have called Joy a forerunner to Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell because her leading roles were often as emancipated women (and she became famed for her boyish, close-cropped haircut). She was one of Paramount’s top stars and the best known of her films is DeMille’s first version of The Ten Commandments (1923) in which she had one of the featured roles.

Young Leatrice was born in September, 1924, just as her parents were divorcing. Her uncle Billy tried hard to keep Gilbert away from mother and daughter, and her father played virtually no part in the girl’s life for many years; she remembers that she called Billy Joy “Uncle Daddy.”

John Gilbert
Baby Leatrice arrived as John Gilbert’s career was about to skyrocket. He had co-starred in the newly formed MGM’s first production, He Who Gets Slapped (1924), with Lon Chaney and Norma Shearer. But it was in 1925, the year his divorce from Joy was finalized, that Gilbert achieved the heights. He starred in MGM’s production of Erich von Stroheim’s opulent The Merry Widow and also starred in the film that established MGM’s reputation, King Vidor’s smash hit The Big Parade. Just over a year later, not long after the demise of Rudolph Valentino, Gilbert and Greta Garbo co-starred for the first time - in Clarence Brown’s sensual Flesh and the Devil (1926), a runaway success. John Gilbert was now Hollywood’s top romantic lead, adored by millions and in the midst of a great romance with Garbo.

Cecil B. DeMille
At just that time, Leatrice Joy’s career began its decline. In 1925, DeMille departed Paramount, Hollywood’s reigning studio, to create his own production company. When he left, his agreement with Adolph Zukor and Jesse Lasky allowed him to take his stars with him - if they were agreeable. Joy was one of those he took. According to Leatrice Gilbert Fountain, this was at a critical stage of her mother’s career, “she hadn’t yet reached ‘name above the title’ status, but she was being built up.” Joy didn’t want to leave the studio, DeMille’s new company hadn’t yet worked out a distribution deal, and she had been happy at Paramount but, she said later, she was under the impression Zukor and Lasky didn’t want her because they agreed to let DeMille have her. When she realized this wasn’t true, she reacted, according to her daughter, “childishly.” She begged DeMille to release her, but he refused. After that she would not speak to him, “even when they were walking together.”  Joy’s success was modest with the DeMille company; she was assigned to program pictures and DeMille never directed her again. Her daughter mused, “She was a subtle actress who deserved more.”

At one point, Joy was off the screen entirely for about 18 months. During that time she toured the country on the vaudeville circuit, performing scenes and singing with an accompanist (her daughter recalled that she was awarded a gold medal as the most popular entertainer on the tour).

Joy’s partnership with DeMille ended unhappily in 1928 and he reportedly held a grudge for years. She signed with MGM and made the last of her silent films for that studio.  The coming of sound effectively ended the film careers of both Leatrice Joy and John Gilbert. Her strong southern accent was considered a detriment, and his voice was called, by some, unsuitable.  Joy freelanced for a couple of years for lesser studios and then left movies for nearly a decade. Meanwhile, John Gilbert struggled to revive his waning career until he died suddenly in 1936.

Marilyn Monroe
Joy’s final film was Love Nest (1951), one of Marilyn Monroe’s early films. She told her daughter that Monroe had an effect similar to Jean Harlow’s. She wasn’t talking about her onscreen persona so much as her stunning impact on men - who stopped in their tracks and stared the moment they caught sight of her.

Leatrice Gilbert Fountain remembers Jean Harlow. Her family was linked to the ‘platinum blonde’ on both sides. Members of her mother's family were Christian Scientists, as was Harlow, “…my family was very fond of her. My grandmother was Jean's Christian Science Practitioner (like a healer). She was a really lovely person who always paid attention to a scruffy little girl hanging around [Leatrice].” She remembers the young actress as “a warm, friendly, easy-going girl. She didn’t push herself, others pushed her.” Leatrice’s ‘Uncle Daddy,’ Billy Joy, was Harlow’s first agent and arranged for her initial screen test – for which she wore a dress lent to her by Leatrice Joy. At that time Harlow was under contract to Howard Hughes, an agreement she discussed at length with the more experienced Joy.

John Gilbert (right) at Jean Harlow's wedding
On the other side of the family, John Gilbert was the best man at Harlow’s wedding to her second husband, Paul Bern, in 1932. Bern was a writer, director and producer at MGM, and a close friend of Irving Thalberg. Bern had at once shared a bachelor pad with John Gilbert and Carey Wilson, an MGM screenwriter Oscar-nominated for Mutiny on the Bounty (1935). Leatrice chuckled as she recalled that many years later silent screen star Colleen Moore referred to the place, a house above Sunset Blvd., as “a circus” for all that went on there.

Leatrice Gilbert's first film
Leatrice remembers getting to know the children of other stars, Harold Lloyd’s daughters went to school with her at the Westlake School for Girls; she knew Maria Riva, Marlene Dietrich’s daughter, also born in 1924. Riva, who had a brief career as an actress and appeared on TV in the early ‘50s, seemed to Leatrice a “quiet, withdrawn child” very unlike her illustrious mother.

Leatrice also got to know child actors like Freddie Bartholomew and Judy Garland once she made her own foray into ‘the family business.’

At 13, she portrayed Ann Rutherford (‘Annie Hawks’) as a child in Of Human Hearts (1938), starring Walter Huston, James Stewart and Beulah Bondi (Oscar-nominated for her supporting performance). Around the same time she made a screen test for Hunt Stromberg and was cast as the lead in MGM’s upcoming production of National Velvet. The test, she told me, was a scene set the day before the Grand National, in which Velvet and Mi have a talk. Stromberg was planning to shoot the picture in England, but the advent of World War II in Europe and other issues at MGM put the picture on hold for years…

Ava Gardner
As an MGM contract player in the early ‘40s, Leatrice appeared in several films, including Random Harvest (1942), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Kismet (1944) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944). During this time she knew all the other young hopefuls on the MGM lot, liked many and became friends with some, including future star Ava Gardner. She recalls of Ava that she was “beautiful, down-to-earth and warm when so many were distant and aloof…she was so personable.”  Leatrice thought back to an evening when she, Ava and another friend went out on the town to one of Old Hollywood’s great night spots, the Mocambo. She remembered that all eyes in the room followed Ava...and Ava took it in stride, paying little attention to her devastating effect on others.

In 1944 Leatrice joined the war effort by becoming a WAC. She was a clerk-typist for just a year when the war ended.  Out of the Army, she went to New York and for two years attended the school of Tamara Daykarhanova, formerly of the Moscow Art Theatre, source of “the method” approach to acting. Daykarhanova had been with Maria Oupenskaya’s New York acting school before Ouspenskaya relocated. At the studio Leatrice met her first husband, a fellow student.

Many years later, Leatrice became interested in the life and career of her father and eventually wrote his definitive biography, Dark Star (St. Martin's Press, 1985). Her exhaustive research on his life put her in touch with many luminaries of Hollywood’s ‘golden age.’  She interviewed the likes of Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Colleen Moore, Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, John Ford, Howard Hawks, King Vidor, Clarence Brown and many others. She came to know and was assisted in her journey to learn more by esteemed film historian/filmmaker Kevin Brownlow (winner of an Oscar in 2010, the Governor’s Award). Along with taking part in silent film festivals world-wide in her continuing effort to restore her father's professional reputation, Leatrice became an oft-quoted source for books and documentaries about Hollywood icons as well as Hollywood itself. In the last few months I’ve come across her comments in biographies of Jean Harlow, Louis B. Mayer and Cecil B. DeMille. Charlotte Chandler’s 2011 biography of Marlene Dietrich quotes Leatrice at length so I asked Leatrice about Chandler, the somewhat enigmatic author of several Hollywood bios…

Leatrice Gilbert Fountain
“...I knew her and ran into her continually at MOMA in the heyday of the film department (there was nothing like it anywhere except for Langlois in Paris). And she seemed to know everyone. How she has kept herself a mystery is one in itself.”

I could’ve asked Leatrice to reminisce for days, but her two visiting sons returned from a fishing expedition and it was time for us both to return to the 4th of July weekend and our daily lives. We agreed to talk again soon…

Click here to view my original interview with Leatrice. Click here for my piece on the fabled history of her father's house in Hollywood.


  1. Eve, your first interview with Leatrice was so fascinating, who would have imagined she had so much more to give! Fascinating history of her mother and father, the people she met. I always liked Of Human Hearts and never realized that was her. Wonderful, wonderful interview, Eve. This lady is just a rushing waterfall of incredible movie history!

  2. Fabulous, Fabulous, fabulous. I love John and I love Leatrice Just adored this post ♥

  3. Fabulous post LadyEve. Both John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy deserve additional recognition - the reasons for which you so nicely explain. Your continued conversation with Leatrice Fountain would be very interesting to hear about. I have a costume sketch for Leatrice Joy from 1923 that I especially like - very flapper, very stylish. Thank you for writing about her.

  4. Thank you all. Leatrice is a most fascinating woman who has had an amazing life and is a delight - so eloquent, generous and with wealth of history to share.

  5. great story, patty!!!
    well done!!

  6. Good to know you enjoyed it, doc, hopefully there will be future installments. Each time I speak with Leatrice I realize how much more there is to her story.

  7. This post is a great example of why this is one of the best classic movie blogs on the web. Fascinating material, and a lot of things I didn't know. Hope you can do another one soon.

  8. Fascinating tales and so well told. You interviews are so professional and classy. Well done, Eve!

  9. Kevin - Once I'm sure Leatrice has safely weathered the storm (Hurricane Irene) I'll be checking in with her to see when she'd like to talk again. And thank you for very high praise, it means a lot to me.

    John - Thank you! I've tried hard to do justice to the stories of those who've shared their lives with me.

  10. What a lovely lady and a fascinating life journey. Thank you for sharing her story. Well done!

  11. Amazing interview! This is why your blog is one of my favorites.. I can not wait to read your next story.

  12. Eve, I left the following as part of my response to a comment you left at The Movie Projector but thought I'd repeat it here:

    I should also mention how much I enjoyed and admired your follow-up to the Leatrice Gilbert Fountain profile from last year. How fortunate you are (and how enterprising) to have access to a primary source of information, and such a fascinating one at that!

  13. Eve, your latest interview with Leatrice Gilbert Fountain was a fascinating treat! It's "must" reading for anyone who's fascinated by silent film stars and Old Hollywood in general. I also enjoyed the TO TELL THE TRUTH episode you included on your blog post; the contestants sure gave the viewers and panelists a run for their money! :-)

  14. Many thanks to Kiwi, Dawn, R.D. and Dorian.

    I do feel very fortunate to have gotten to know Leatrice - it really was a bit of a fluke, but I'm crediting Fate. And I realized when we originally spoke about her father last year that there was more to her story than her rediscovery of him and the work she did to restore his reputation (as if that weren't enough). I know there is more still and hope to share it here.

    I thought the "To Tell the Truth" segment was a lot of fun. I didn't recognize Leatrice Joy at first, but as the questioning went on she seemed to me to carry herself most like one who had once been a star.

  15. Wonderful story. Love the "To Tell the Truth" segment. I envy your ability to interview these wonderful people who are connected to Hollywood's past. You are a natural at it and I hope you continue to do so in the future.

  16. Thank you, Filmboy, and I'm working on my Irene reply, I promise...

  17. How wonderful! This was such a great read, and its great to know children of famous people who are so open and inviting, and eager to talk about their experiences in the spotlight. Thanks so much for sharing, Eve!

  18. Kendra - Leatrice's is a most interesting life and she enjoys sharing it. She's quite a raconteur, intelligent and articulate, so our conversations have been both fascinating and stimulating - I learn a lot and as I do, I realize there is really much more to ask. Very glad you enjoyed this.

  19. Leatrice is a real gem, whom her father would be extremely proud of! I met her several years back when she brought some of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren here to Utah, to visit her father's birthplace of Logan, which is 25 miles from me. It was a wonderful experience! Her dad never had a family that he felt a part of, but she has raised a wonderful family in his honor!