Priscilla Bonner: Accidental Movie Star

February 17 is the birthday of Priscilla Bonner (1899-1996). Bonner’s career as a silent film actress co-existed almost precisely with the decade of the 1920s: 1920-1929. Our main point of interest came because she’s a distant relative of mine through my great-great grandmother, and she’s in two Harry Langdon features The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants, and in the Sydney Chaplin comedy Charley’s Aunt (1925). And she’s in many other major features as well, including It (1927) with Clara Bow, the John Ford western Three Bad Men (1926), Shadows (1922) with Lon Chaney, The Man Who Has Everything (1920) with Jack Pickford, April Showers (1923) with Colleen Moore, and the controversial prostitution expose The Red Kimono (1925), directed by Mrs. Wallace Reid (Dorothy Davenport). She was slated to co-star opposite John Barrymore in The Sea Beast (1926) but Barrymore replaced her with his paramour Dolores Costello, over which Bonner sued.

Bonner mightn’t have been a film star at all if not for a wrong number. The story goes that someone from Chicago Photoplay magazine called her house about a photo shoot. Bonner wasn’t in the business at all, she was the daughter of an army officer stationed in Chicago at the time. Rather than disabuse anyone of the notion, Bonner went and had the photos done and used them to gain entry in Hollywood. Her first film was Homer Comes Home in 1920 with Charles Ray. She married Dr. E. Bertrand Woolfan in 1928, just as talkies were coming in so she decided to call it quits. Her last film was the silent Girls Who Dare (1929). The Woolfans continued to socialize with film folks over the years, however, and were said to be particular friends of Preston Sturges.