Gwen Lee (1904-1961) appeared in nearly 70 pictures over a dozen years. She was a supporting player, usually about sixth in the billing for the vast majority of them, as high as third in a small handful, and during the final year or two, was a mere extra or bit player. Ironically, it was one of these turns that is best remembered today. She is the young lady who is dining with Groucho in the first scene in A Night at the Opera (1935), when he is supposed to be meeting with Margaret Dumont. But as you shall see, that brief sight gag is the tip of the iceberg in a substantial career.
Born Gwendolyn Lepinski, she started out as a department store model, or mannequin, in her native Nebraska. She won some beauty contests, became a print model and moved to Hollywood with a supportive mother and grandmother. Director and producer Monta Bell spotted her performing in a play and cast her in Lady of the Night (1925) with Norma Shearer. In this film, she was cast in the kind of part that would be her mainstay (while it lasted): the sexy flapper best friend of the heroine. In her next film, Pretty Ladies (1925), she joined Shearer, Zasu Pitts, Ann Pennington, Lilyan Tashman, Myrna Loy, and Dorothy Seastrom in a fictionalized version of the Ziegfeld Follies. Other early credits include roles in His Secretary (1925) with Shearer, The Plastic Age (1926) with Clara Bow, The Boy Friend (1926) with Marceline Day, The Lone Wolf Returns (1926) with Bert Lytell and Billie Dove, Upstage (1926) with Shearer and Oscar Shaw of The Cocoanuts, Heaven on Earth (1927) with Renée Adorée, Orchids and Ermine (1927) with Colleen Moore, Twelve Miles Out (1927) with Joan Crawford and Ernest Torrence, After Midnight (1927, in which she is second-billed to Shearer), and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928) with Lon Chaney and Loretta Young.
Being named a WAMPAS Baby Star in 1928 brought her at best a brief boost. She was second billed to George Jessel in Lucky Boy (1928), and third billed in pictures like The Actress, A Thief in the Dark, and A Lady of Chance (all 1928) and The Man and the Moment (1929). She played Alice White’s sister in Show Girl (1928). But she quickly returned to her usual spot, somewhere around fifth or sixth down in the credits. She’s in Fast Company (1929) with Jack Oakie and Evelyn Brent, Untamed with Joan Crawford (1929), The Hollywood Revue of 1929, Chasing Rainbows (1930) with Bessie Love and Charles King, and Lord Byron of Broadway (1930) with Ethelind Terry.
West of Broadway (1931) was one of Lee’s last decent roles at MGM, where she had been since the beginning of her film career. The studio had begun to bump her down to bit roles during the talkie era. In Buster Keaton’s Free and Easy (1930), which is set at a Hollywood film studio, she plays an actress in a movie within the movie. In Caught Short (1930) with Marie Dressler, Polly Moran, and Anita Page, she plays a manicurist; in Our Blushing Brides (1930) with Crawford she plays a department store mannequin. She has a walk-on in Meet the Baron (1933). To keep afloat, she took roles in B movies for smaller, independent studios, where she managed to land parts of the size to which she was accustomed, things like The Galloping Ghost serial (1931) with Red Grange and Broadway to Cheyenne (1932) with Rex Bell. One of the last of her decent roles was in One in a Million (1934) by Chesterfield Pictures. She’s also in the Educational short Boy Oh Boy (1932) with Andy Clyde and James Finlayson.
The loss in status took a toll on Lee’s lifestyle. In 1932 she was sued by two department stores for the price of clothes she’d bought on credit but couldn’t pay for. Her mother sued for guardianship that year, hoping to get control of her finances. After A Night at the Opera, she appeared in a dozen additional films, always as a bit player. Some of the better known of these are The Great Ziegfeld, Fury, Libeled Lady (all 1936) and Mannequin (1937). The latter would have been an appropriate note for her to have gone out on given her origins, but a few more pictures followed. Her last film was the B movie Paroled from the Big House, released in mid-1938.
Gwen Lee was only 56 and living in Reno, Nevada when she passed away in 1961. The young age and the resort location suggest that there is much more to the story, but I’ve not yet uncovered the details. For further reading, I refer you to Bizarre Los Angeles which shares extensive quotes from the actress, who comes across as appropriately humble and self-effacing about her career.
For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film and classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.