The Descent of Thelma Hill: The Mah Jongg Bathing Girl

Thelma Hill (Thelma Hillerman, 1906-1938) was on a very promising trajectory as a comedy star until booze derailed the whole thing. Very often in these annals we encounter supporting players whose portion was always to be obscurity. Hill briefly enjoyed more than that, and may well have continued to do so, if not for her fatal alcohol problem.

Hill was from a broken home in Kansas. Her parents had gotten divorced during her infancy; the father, a railroad worker, died on the job eight years later. Thelma and her mother moved to the Los Angeles area, where her mother opened a diner just a few blocks from the Mack Sennett Studios. Part of Hill’s legend is that when she was a waitress at her mom’s cafe she dropped soup on Fatty Arbuckle’s lap and that is how she came to the attention of Sennett, but frankly that sounds to me like a public relations invention. Not just because of the conveniently slapstick nature of the interaction but because Arbuckle had already left Sennett by the time such an encounter would likely have taken place. But soup or no soup, Arbuckle or no Arbuckle, the fact remains that Hill managed to crash the gates somehow and get a try at Sennett.

One important thing to note — and I’ve not seen this pointed out anywhere — is that at the time of her first movie credit (1919) she was only 13 years old. She was a total, literal kid when she started out in movies. It wasn’t unusual at the time, by the way, it was quite common for both screen stars and chorus girls to start work during their teenage years, but 13 was getting close to the bottom end. Another point of interest is that she had an extreme body type that made her stand out in a group. She was very petite, never getting above 5’0″, 100 lbs. Her friends nicknamed her “Pee Wee”.

Her first part was that of a Mack Sennett Bathing Girl in Up in Alf’s Place (1919), directed  by Richard Jones, and starring Charles Murray. She was one of the key Bathing Girls for the next several years. She was nicknamed the “mah jongg bathing girl” on account of the mah jongg bathing suit she wore. In a 1924 interview Sennett called her “ideal bathing beauty of her time”. In addition to her many swimsuit turns, she also played bit roles, gradually working her way up to bigger parts by 1926 and 1927. Some of her earlier films include Picking Peaches (1924), His New Mamma (1924), His Marriage Wow (1925) and The Seq Squawk (1925) with Harry Langdon; Yukon Jake (1924) with Ben Turpin; and Lizzies of the Field (1924) and Super-Hooper-Dyne Lizzies (1925) with Billy Bevan. She also occasionally worked outside the Sennett studio, as when she supported Stan Laurel in Pie-Eyed (1925) for Joe Rock. Love’s Sweet Piffle (1924) with Ralph Graves, directed by Edgar Kennedy, was one of her first principal parts in a comedy short. She also had a nice role in The Prodigal Bridegroom (1927) opposite Ben Turpin. It’s also frequently stated that she doubled for Mabel Normand during these years.

Hill’s highwater mark was the very last days of silents. From 1927 to 1929 she starred in comedy shorts for FBO, including their screen adaptations of the Toots and Casper comic strip opposite Bud Duncan (1928-29). She also a supporting part in Marion Davies feature The Fair Co-Ed (1927) and was paired with Ruby Blaine as Laurel and Hardy’s dates in Two Tars (1928) . The Sennett short The Old Barn (1929) with Johnny Burke, Daphne Pollard, and Andy Clyde, was Hill’s first talkie, followed by others such as The Golfers (1929), Two Plus Fours (1930), which featured the Rhythm Boys with Bing Crosby, and The Naughty Flirt (1930 with Alice White. 

It was Hill’s flapper lifestyle, rather than the challenges of sound, that appears to have overtaken her just as talkies were coming in. Her director on the Toots and Casper shorts was St. Elmo Boyce, a former Sennett cameraman. The two ran around together and were engaged to be married. Boyce had several DUI’s on his record. In 1930 he died after drinking poison, apparently deliberately. His most recent project had been cinematography on Frank Capra’s Dirigible (1931). Hill had a small role in Capra’s next film The Miracle Woman, with Barbara Stanwyck, later that year.

But Boyce’s death apparently hit her hard, and she increased her drinking during this period. She managed to get supporting roles in just a few shorts at this stage, including Sunkissed Sweeties (1932) with Andy Clyde; Officer Save My Child (1932) with Slim Summerville; Her short waiting room scene in W.C. Fields’ The Dentist (1932) wound up on the cutting room floor. She is just an extra in the films Wild People (1933) with Jans and Whalen; and Merrily Yours (1933) with Shirley Temple; and she has a bit part in Mixed Nuts (1934), a Roach short directed by James Parrott. This was her last movie.

In 1934, Hill married W.C. Fields cohort John West Sinclair. Sinclair was an actor, stuntman and gagwriter who worked on Fields’ films Two Flaming Youths (1927), Million Dollar Legs (1932), The Barber Shop (1933), It’s a Gift (1934), Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935), and Poppy (1936).  Being in Fields’ orbit, as you may have deduced, was not conducive to sobriety. Sinclair was also a drinker. As a housewife with time hanging on her hands, Hill became a hardcore alcoholic, to the point where she became seriously malnourished. She was checked into a sanitarium in 1938. She died of a cerebral hemorrhage one month later. She was only 31.

As for Sinclair, he was to die in 1945 of cirrhosis of the liver. Some of his last work was for another hard drinker in the comedy field, Preston Sturges, working on the films Sullivan’s Travels (1941) and Hail the Conquering Hero (1944).

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