Silent Star of November 1996

Madge Bellamy

Ever since Margaret Philpott began dancing as a young girl to correct a posture problem, she dreamed of being a stage actress and dancer. The determined little girl made her theatrical debut as a slave girl in a production of Aida. When called into child labor court, the 9 year old replied that she was not in violation of the law because she wasn't getting paid.

At the age of 17, Margaret decided to run away from home and try her luck in New York City. It didn't take long for the beautiful young dancer to land a role in the Broadway production of The Love Mill. Not long after, she captured the attention of theatre owner Daniel Frohman, who, struck by her beauty, offered to aid her career, encouraged her to act, rather than dance, and changed Margaret Philpott into Madge Bellamy.

Proud, defiant, stubborn, and impetuous, Madge Bellamy became known as the actress who was too hard to handle.

On Frohman's letter of introduction Madge obtained her first stage speaking role in Pollyanna for the princely sum of $100.00 per week. According to Madge's autobiography, Darling of the Twenties, she was ostracized by the rest of the troupe by her good reviews while a virtual unknown.

After Pollyanna finished touring, Madge went on to replace Helen Hayes in the stage production of Dear Brutus. During this time she made her debut in motion pictures, as a player in one of the last films of Geraldine Farrar, The Riddle: Woman. When touring of Dear Brutus ended, Madge joined Monta Bell's stock company in Washington, D.C., performing in a new play every week.

Over Frohman's objections, Madge accepted an offer to make a screen test for Thomas Ince. While himself a member of the board for Famous Players, Frohman felt that Madge belonged on the stage. But Madge was hooked, and signed a four-year contract with Ince and left for Hollywood.

Her arrival in Hollywood was less than overwhelming. Upon entering Thomas Ince Studios, she was greeted by Douglas MacLean, who informed her that she was to be his Christmas present, but a little too thin for his taste. Incensed, Madge ran out the door, only to have Ince himself run after her, begging her to stay.

Madge stayed, and co-starred with MacLean in her first film Passing Through and later The Hottentot. MacLean, Madge wrote, was jealous of any girl appearing too pretty in his pictures, and discouraged the cameramen from favoring the young actress.

During her time with Ince, she made The Cup of Life with Hobart Bosworth and Tully Marshall; Hail the Woman with Florence Vidor; and Love Never Dies with Lloyd Hughes, directed by King Vidor. She adored working with Vidor, and he became one of her favorite directors.

In 1922 Madge won the coveted role of Lorna Doone, directed by Maurice Tourneur. The story of the British aristocrat kidnapped by thieves became one of her most famous roles. In 1923, Madge was personally chosen by Mary Pickford to co-star with her brother Jack in the film Garrison´s Finish. She worshipped Mary, who taught her how to make the most of lighting techniques and shared some of her beauty secrets.

While under contract with Ince, Madge was loaned out a great deal to other studios. She was happiest at Universal studios, with its extended family of Laemmles, but despised Louis B. Mayer and B.P. Schulburg. She never forgave Mayer for not standing up when she entered his office. While on loan to Fox Studios in 1924 Madge co-starred with George O´Brien in the John Ford-directed epic western The Iron Horse. Shooting lasted four months, but to Madge, awed by Ford's genius, it was the experience of a lifetime.

In 1925, Madge was sent over to MGM to discuss a part with Irving Thalberg, the studio's production executive. When told that he and MGM wanted her for the role of Esther for their epic Ben-Hur, the impetuous Madge replied thanks, but no thanks - too many horses!

Later that year, Ince mysteriously died -- some said murdered -- aboard the yacht of William Randolph Hearst. With her contract up, Madge signed another 4-year contract, this time with Fox. While at Fox, Madge clashed with director Frank Borzage, with whom she was filming Lazybones. Because she was portraying a poor girl, Borzage insisted that her nails be dirty. She furiously refused. He never forgot the slight; when filming began for Seventh Heaven, Borzage chose Janet Gaynor for the role of Diane over William Fox's choice of Madge.

The film Sandy began a series of flapper films for Madge, who bobbed and blonded her hair for the role. Madge's tumultuous life took a strange turn when, in a fit of pique, she married stockbroker Logan Metcalf. The marriage lasted six days.

Madge made her talkie debut in Fox's first real dialogue picture, Mother Knows Best, also starring Louise Dresser. While Madge received tremendous reviews, her next film, Fugitives, was silent. In 1929, she was also set to star in another silent film, The Lady From Hell, when she demanded to select her director. The studio refused, she demanded that her contract be torn up, and she stormed off the set. Madge returned the next day to find that instead of being fired, the studio executives were willing to offer her an extended contract at a higher salary. Still proud, she turned them down and left the lot.

Fox, in a last-ditch effort, offered Madge the lead role in The Trial of Mary Dugan, but to her everlasting regret she turned them down.

For the next three years Madge was broke and unemployed, returning to Hollywood to star in the cult horror classic White Zombie with Bela Lugosi. She again signed with Fox in 1934, and appeared in low-prestige B films: Charlie Chan in London, The Daring Young Man, Great Hotel Murder, and Under Your Spell. Embarrassed and humiliated, Madge turned her back on Hollywood for good.

Her life remained as tempestuous as ever; bad investments and outrageous spending during her heyday left her financially destitute. In 1943 she made headlines once again, this time for shooting at her former lover Stanwood Murphy, who had jilted her.

During the last years of her life, Madge turned to writing. Her dream was to see her autobiography in print, but tragically she died January 24, 1990 of a chronic heart ailment, before her book was published.

Glen Pringle /
Kally Mavromatis /
Copyright © 2013 by Glen Pringle and Kally Mavromatis
ISSN 1329-4431