With the passing of several Hollywood greats over the past few months, as well as my recent acquisition of some autographed photos of Silver Screen stars, I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the forgotten stories and scandals of the early days of cinema.
For this list, I’m not going to include those who died tragically young of natural causes; Jean Harlow, Rudolph Valentino, Harold Lockwood. I’m also going to omit the cases where it is generally agreed that the death was caused by an accidental overdose, like in the case of Judy Garland, or Marilyn Monroe, reason being that there are simply too many of those, and they could easily make an entire list of their own (that may be one we do soon). For this, I’m going to focus on the bizarre, the types of tales that fed the tabloids and imaginations of millions of star-struck fans. So, in no particular order, here we go…
1.Olive Thomas (1894-1920)
The beautiful Olivia R. Duffy started her career as a model in 1914, before quickly moving on to become one of the celebrated Ziegfeld Follies girls. By 1916, she had started a career in silent films, and would go on to appear in over 20 features in a short 4-year span. While she found success during her short career, her early life had been troubled; she lost her father in 1906 when he died in a work-related accident. At age 15, she left school to help support the family, and by 1915 she had already been married and divorced (on the grounds of “desertion and cruelty”). But in late 1916 it seemed her fortunes would change, when she met and married the younger brother of silent film star, Mary Pickford; Jack Pickford.
The marriage was a passionate but tumultuous one. In her biography, Mary Pickford described it as such;
“She and Jack were madly in love with one another but I always thought of them as a couple of children playing together.”
The couple’s marriage was strained when, in 1920, they took a vacation together to Paris. After a night on the town, the couple returned to their hotel suite, and Jack either fell asleep or passed out drunk, with Olive in another room. The heavily intoxicated woman found a flask of her husband’s, and mistaking it for either water or medicine, ingested its contents; sadly, this turned out to be mercury bichloride, a poison prescribed to Jack to treat his sores from syphilis. Apparently she immediately realized her mistake, and screamed out “Oh my god”, prompting Jack to rush to her side. She was taken to hospital where she died of poisoning 5 days later.
While her death was ruled an accident, it was the subject of media speculation, and became one of Hollywood’s first heavily publicized scandals. Some believed that she had committed suicide, devastated by Jack’s numerous affairs. Others pointed the finger at her husband, speculating that he had tricked her into drinking the concoction so that he could collect on her insurance money. Neither these nor any other rumours held much weight, and her death was almost certainly accidental, however it goes to show the power that the tabloids hold over stars’ careers. By 1923 he was making only a single film a year, and during his brief life he married 2 more times, both to other Ziegfeld girls. Both marriages ended in divorce, apparently due to his abusive behaviour. In 1933 he died, at the young age of 36, from progressive multiple neuritis, a result of his alcoholism.
2. Carl Switzer (1927-1959)
You may not know the name, Carl Switzer, but you almost certainly know the face. Switzer was a child star known for playing the character Alfalfa in the popular depression-era shorts, Our Gang (Little Rascals). While he had a number of bit-roles in films and on television in his later years, he found it difficult to find sustaining work due to typecasting.
In 1954 he married the heiress daughter of grain elevator empire Collingwood Grain. The pair lived for a time with the woman’s mother, but by 1956, wife Diantha was pregnant, and the couple was nearly out of money. Switzer’s mother-in-law gave them a farm in Kansas, and their son was born shortly after. Despite having been born in Illinois, Switzer was not made out for the farming life, and the arrangement didn’t last long; they were divorced in 1957.
In 1959, a series of unfortunate and frankly, petty arguments built up and eventually lead to his death. Essentially, Switzer had offered to train a hunting dog for a man named Moses Samuel Stiltz. The dog ran away and was lost, and so Switzer offered a $35 reward for its return. Several days later, a man found and returned the dog, and Switzer paid him the reward, as well as bought him $15 worth of drinks. A few days later, Switzer and his friend, Jack Piott, decided that Stiltz, the owner of the dog, should be responsible for paying the reward, and so in the early evening of January 21, 1959, the two went off to the home of Rita Corrigan, where they knew Stiltz was staying, to collect the $50 they felt they were owed.
What happened next has been a subject for debate for years. Originally, the story went that the pair entered the home and Switzer and Stiltz got into an argument which escalated violently when Switzer struck Stiltz with a glass clock. Stiltz then retreated to his bedroom to fetch a gun, which Switzer tried to wrestle away from him, causing it to shoot at the ceiling. Switzer then forced Stiltz into a closet and pulled a knife, before screaming “I’m going to kill you!”. Fearing for his life, Stiltz shot Switzer in the groin, causing massive internal bleeding. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. At the time, the death was ruled justifiable, as it was self-defence, however, in 2001 a new witness stepped forward with evidence that has since changed the popular view of the case.
Tom Corrigan, 56 year old son of Western star Ray “Crash” Corrigan, and stepson of Moses Stiltz, was present the night Switzer was killed. He claims that a drunk Switzer appeared at the door complaining of a month-old debt, and threatened to beat up Stiltz. Stiltz confronted him with a .38-caliber revolver, which Switzer did try to wrestle away, causing it to fire at the ceiling. A fragment struck young Corrigan in the leg, and his sister’s ran next-door for help. He recalls Switzer saying, “Well, we shot Tommy, enough of this,”and turning with Piott to leave. Corrigan followed out the front door and heard a shot come from behind him. When he turned, he saw Switzer sliding down the wall, shot and surprised. A closed penknife lay at his side, presumably having fallen out of his pocket. Stiltz shoved Piott against a counter and threatened to kill him too, while a the terrified man begged for his life. At this point, they heard sirens approaching, and the man was let go. To put the whole night simply, Corrigan stated, “He didn’t have to kill him,”. Moses Stiltz died in 1983 at the age of 62
3. Virginia Rappe (1895-1921)
Sadly, model and silent film actress Virginia Rappe is not remembered for her career or life so much as for her death, and the way it ended the career of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Rappe had more than her fair share of tragedy in her short life. She was born to an unwed mother who died when Virginia was only 11. She started a modeling career in Chicago at age 14, and by 1916 had relocated to San Francisco to pursue her career. There she met dress designer Robert Moscovitz, and the pair became engaged. However, shortly afterward, Moscovitz was killed in a streetcar accident; this prompted Rappe to make the move to LA.
In LA she was hired by director Fred Balshofer and given a prominent role across from Harold Lockwood, in the film Paradise Garden. Her personal life continued to be troubled, and in 1918 she gave birth to a child that was promptly put into foster care. She stared in a film titled Over the Rhine with newcomer Rudolph Valentino, for which she was awarded the title of “Best Dressed Girl in Pictures”. By 1919 she was engaged again, this time to director/producer Henry Lehrman.
The exact circumstances that lead to Rappe’s untimely death are not clear, but were the fuel of media fire at the time. In 1921, Rappe attended a Labor Day part at the home of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a popular film comedian. At some point during the party, Rappe allegedly suffered a trauma that caused her ruptured bladder and secondary peritonitis; her cause of death. It was alleged at the time that this was caused by a violent sexual assault by Arbuckle. The accuser was Maude Delmont, a new friend of Rappe who attended the party with her. While Delmont was quick to point the finger at Arbuckle, she was not present for any of the events she described, and was barred from testimony at the following three trials due to her own extensive criminal background that included extortion. More likely, Rappe’s cause of death was a result of cystitis, a condition that could be aggravated by alcohol. Various witnesses also testified that she suffered from venereal disease, and so it is more likely her death was a result of poor health, rather than assault.
After 3 manslaughter trials, Arbuckle was acquitted, but that did nothing to save his career. Another case of media frenzy having a greater impact than truth and justice. Despite his acquittal, his films were banned for a year after the trials, and he was publicly ostracized. He worked only sparingly through the 1920s, but made a brief return to acting in 1932 when he made short two-reel comedies for Warner Bros. He didn’t get the chance to make a Warner feature, as he died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1933, and the young age of 46.
4. The Horowitz Brothers aka The Three Stooges
The blue-collar, Jewish brothers from Brooklyn were “born without an ounce of theatrical blood in their veins” but, nonetheless decided to try their hand at showbiz in the height of the Vaudeville days. Moses and Samuel, better known by their stage names, Moe and Shemp, had moderate success in burlesque shows before getting their break in 1922, when they met up with old friend, and current Vaudeville hit, Ted Healy. He brought them together with comedian/musician, Larry Fine, and Ted Healy and His Stooges were born. While their style of comedy may be dismissed by many today, they essentially invented the form of brutal slapstick that made them popular, and comedy greats such as Bob Hope and Milton Berle credited them with inspiring their careers.
There was so much tragedy surrounding the Stooges, that I’m going to break them up individually here, starting with the man who pulled them together, Ted Healy.
Ted Healy (1896-1937)
In the early 1930s, Ted Healy’s Stooges made a film for Fox, and while The Stooges impressed the execs, they weren’t fans of Healy, and decided to cut him loose. Incensed, Healy tried to demand that the Stooges not use any of their old routines, and even went so far as to threaten to bomb the theatres where the group performed. But by 1932, with Moe now working as the group’s manager, Healy and the Horowitz brothers managed to reignite their partnership. Unfortunately, Healy’s erratic behaviour and heavy drinking was too much for the skittish Shemp, who decided to leave the group and start a solo act. With one man down, Moe suggested his young brother, Jerry, but Healy dismissed him as untalented. Eventually, after a impromptu walk-on in a stage act that proved insanely popular with the audience, the most famous of the Stooge brother’s was born; Curly Howard.
Larry, Curly, Moe and Healy signed an MGM contract and made several films through the 1930s, but when it wasn’t renewed, the group broke up and went their own ways. Healy, not coping well with this change or life in general, made a series of stupid choices that eventually lead to his death; he angered mobster “Lucky” Luciano by trying to rob one of Capone’s safes, and flirted with actress Thelma Todd while she was still married to Maffia man Pat DiCicco. In 1935, now married to a UCLA student named Betty Hickman, Healy went out to celebrate the birth of his first child. Drunk, he ran into DiCicco again, as well as character actor Wallace Beery. The three got into a fight, and Beery and DiCicco beat Healy so badly that he fell into a coma, and died a day later. Officially, the death was ruled accidental, with the cause being acute alcoholism. Of course, this was performed after the embalming, when the organs would have been soaked in alcohol. No one took much interest in Healy’s death, and when his widow complained to MGM, where she was working as a contract player, she was promptly fired.
Meanwhile, the Three Stooges were working for Columbia Pictures, and were on the brink of their greatest success…
Jerry “Curly” Howard (1902-1952)
The Stooges spent a remarkable 23 years with Columbia, but were kept on 12-month contracts the entire time. While they made the company enormous amounts of money, and took them from Poverty Row to being a major player, they saw very little of this financial success. By 1942, the physical strain of playing a human punching bag was getting to Curly. Apparently, many of the hits were “as real as they seemed”, and that, combined with his alcoholism, was taking a toll on his health. Doctor’s insisted that he take a break, but the studio wouldn’t allow it, so he stayed on, until, in 1945, he suffered his first major stroke, at the age of 42. He was back to work in a month, despite clearly not being up to it. They attempted to hide this by using old footage, and focusing more on Moe and Larry, but eventually even this was too much of a strain, and at the age of 45 he suffered a paralyzing stroke. It was later found that, from enduring blows to the head, he had suffered several brain haemorrhages. He died in 1952.
Samuel “Shemp” Howard (1895 – 1955)
Shemp re-joined his brothers after Curly’s death, in an effort to save their careers. Sadly, he was dead a few years later, from a heart attack at age 60.
Moses “Moe” Howard (1897 – 1975) & Larry Fine (1902 – 1975)
After 23 years of service, in 1957 the remaining troop was unceremoniously fired. Moe returned to the studio lot after a couple weeks to say goodbye to old friends, and was refused entry by the security guard.
On the verge of a comeback, Larry suffered a stroke and died in 1974, at the age of 72. Around the same time, Moe was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and died in 1975, making him the oldest Stooge at age 78.
5. Thelma Todd (1906 – 1935)
Being a mobster’s girl can be bad for health, as was the case with actress Thelma Todd. Known for her comedic roles in Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Laurel & Hardy flicks, she died under suspicious circumstances at the age of 29.
She was found dead in her car, in a garage, having asphyxiated from carbon monoxide poisoning; it was speculated this was either a suicide, or an accident, and that she had been locked out overnight and was seeking refuge in the warm car. However, earlier in the evening she had had a brief, but unpleasant exchange with her ex-husband, mobster Pat DiCicco. The autopsy ruled that it was an accident with suicidal tendencies, however there was no suicide note, and nothing to suggest that she had been planning to end her life. Were the suspicious aspects pointing not to suicide, but to a hit? Murder? We may never know.
Stay tuned for part 2!