Bessie Love: 70 Years of Onscreen Love

Bessie Love

Bessie Love (Juanita Horton, 1898-1986) deserves a shout-out. I had known her primarily for the early leg of her career, but was astounded to discover that unlike many, she managed to remain before the cameras long after her period of great fame — her professional career lasted nearly 70 years.

Thanks largely to her fetching beauty and her small size (which allowed her to play younger characters) she started out just about at the top in 1916, in movies like D.W. Griffith’s IntoleranceThe Aryan with William S. Hart, and Reggie Mixes In and The Mystery of Leaping Fish, both with Douglas Fairbanks. Other notable films of the silent era included A Yankee Princess, which she wrote herself (1919), the early sci fi classic The Lost World with Wallace Beery (1925), Frank Capra’s The Matinee Idol (one of his first at Columbia, 1928), and Sally of the Scandals, in which she played Sally Rand (1928).

The peak of her career was the early sound era, and this seems to be what she is best known for today: The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Broadway Melody, for which she was nominated for an Oscar (1929), Chasing Rainbows (1930) with Charles King, Jack Benny, Marie Dressler, and Polly Moran, and They Learned About Women, with Van and Schenck (1930). Also in 1929, she married Howard Hawks’ brother, William, a Hollywood agent.

Her star seems to have fallen rapidly, however. Her last couple of films from her peak period were the comedy See America Thirst with Harry Langdon and Slim Summerville (1930) and a grim sounding drama called Morals for Women (1931). After that, nothing for several years.

For many this would be the end, but she always kept her hand in, and starting around the 1950s she began to have something of a career renaissance in smaller roles on both film and television. Her list of turns in notable films in her later years is impressive: The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Story of Esther Costello (1955), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), The Ritz (1976), Ragtime (1981), Reds (1981) and her very last film , the stylish vampire thriller The Hunger (1983).

To learn more about early film history, please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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