Florence Gilbert: Jilted, Jolted and Jetted

Silent film actress Florence Gilbert’s career only lasted eight years, but was significant from beginning to end. Gilbert (1904–1991) was originally from Chicago, but began making films in Hollywood in 1920, at age 16. Her career was unique in that she simultaneously made comedies, melodramas and westerns.

From 1920 to 1923 Gilbert was a frequent leading lady comedian Monty Banks in shorts. She was also in the legendary comedy The Lucky Dog (1921), the first time Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were in a film together (six years before they became a team). She was also in Larry Semon’s 1924 comedy feature The Girl in the Limousine. From 1924 through the end of her career she also co-starred in a series of comedy shorts with Earle Foxe for Fox Studios. 

Florence Gilbert also co-starred in western features with the likes of William Fairbanks, Jack Hoxie, and Ashton Dearholt, the last of whom became her husband in 1926. She co-starred in the early disaster film The Johnstown Flood (1926) with George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor, and had a supporting part in Belasco’s The Return of Peter Grimm later that year, indications that she was beginning to broaden her appeal. But after the comedy short A Hot Potato in 1927 she retired to raise a family with Dearholt. Her children were born in 1929 and 1931.

In the late ’20s Dearholt transitioned from acting to producing. His most notable venture was a deal with Edgar Rice Burroughs to co-produce Tarzan movies. This relationship eventually produced a fairly racy example of Hollywood wife swapping. In 1934 Dearholt returned from location shooting for The New Adventures of Tarzan with its beautiful leading lady Ula Holt by his side. Gilbert was unreceptive to Dearholt’s suggestion that Holt move in with them. The pair were divorced, and the following year Gilbert went on to marry Edgar Rice Burroughs (!), who was almost 30 years older than she. Burroughs had recently left his first wife and had three adult children at this stage. The pair moved to Hawaii, where they lived for six years — until the advent of Pearl Harbor. The couple had already grown apart at this stage, and they divorced. Burroughs became a war correspondent. Gilbert returned to Hollywood and remarried a third time. 

For more on silent film and classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,