Sally Eilers: Bad Girl

Gorgeous Los Angeles local Sally Eilers (1908-1978) started out as an extra (often as flappers and chorus girls) in major movies like The Red Mill (1927, directed by Roscoe Arbuckle as “William Goodrich”, and starring Marion Davies), Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928). Her school friend Carole Lombard helped her get work with Mack Sennett, resulting in her first co-starring role, in The Goodbye Kiss (1928) opposite Johnny Burke. For Sennett she also appeared in comedy shorts like The Campus Vamp (1928) and Matchmaking Mama (1929) while simultaneously getting her feet wet in supporting parts in features for major studios like Dry Martini (1928) at Fox. Getting voted one of the prestigious WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1928, sealed her fate as an up-and-comer.

Trial Marriage (1929) at Columbia was early dramatic starring role for her. Broadway Babies (1929) cast her in a vivacious Jazz Age trio with Alice White and Marion Byron. The Long, Long Trail (1929) cast her opposite western star Hoot Gibson, whom she would marry the following year. She was also one of many who appeared in the all-star Show of Shows (1929). While she did appear in severals westerns, Eilers might be better known for comedies. Her classic comedies of the ’30s included She Couldn’t Say No (1930) with Winnie Lightner, Doughboys (1930) and Parlor Bedroom and Bath with Buster Keaton, Reducing (1931) with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran, Disorderly Conduct (1932) with Spencer Tracy and El Brendel, the original nonmusical State Fair (1933) with Will Rogers, Sailor’s Luck (1933) with James Dunn, Three on a Honeymoon (1934) with Zasu Pitts, Carnival (1935) with Jimmy Durante and Lee Tracy, and Strike Me Pink (1936) with Eddie Cantor. 

Notable pictures outside the western and comedy fields included the crime drama Quick Millions (1931) with Spencer Tracy and George Raft, and pre-code melodramas Bad Girl (1931), and Second Hand Wife (1933).

Meanwhile, Eilers had divorced Gibson in 1933 and married western producer Harry Joe Brown just a few days later, remaining with him for a decade, which as it turns out would be just amount of time she had left as a movie star. She continued starring in several films a year through the end of the 1930s, including Lady Behave (1937), Everybody’s Doing It (1938) and They Made Her a Spy (1939). In the ’40s. She appeared in nothing at all in 1940, then I Was a Prisoner on Shark Island (1941), nothing in 1942, and just one public service short, First Aid in 1943. She divorced Brown that year and married navy pilot Howard Barney, who became a venture capitalist after the war. Meanwhile, Eilers got back in the game briefly in the service comedy A Wave, a WAC and a Marine (1944), and the low budget crime thriller Strange Illusion (1945). She divorced Barney in 1946.

Eilers got back in the saddle for two last westerns, Coroner Creek (1948) and Stage to Tucson (1950), and those capped off her movie career. In 1949 she married prolific television director Hollingsworth Morris, with whom she stayed hitched for almost a decade. She was to appear on television twice, both times on This is Your Life, once for Mack Sennett (1954) and once for Richard Arlen (1961). After her times in film, Eilers acted in summer stock and regional theatre. Her son, Harry Joe Brown Jr, co-wrote the screenplay for the film Duffy (1968), starring James Coburn. 

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville FamousFor more on early film, especially classic comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.