The Sadness of Helen Twelvetrees

Most classic movie buffs — but no one else — know the name of Helen Twelvetrees (1908-1958). The briefness of her prominence reminds me a bit of Harry Langdon’s — from out of nowhere, suddenly she was everywhere, and then she was nowhere again. Twelvetrees’ period of ascendency coincides (though it’s not a coincidence) with the earliest days of talkies, the Pre-Code era. She was especially associated with titillating and weepy melodramas often featuring tales of sex out of wedlock. It is not a shock to hear of the huge amount of tragedy in her life.

Helen Marie Jurgens was born and raised in Brooklyn. When she was ten years old, her younger brother and only sibling died in a fire. And really, nothing more than that would be needed to cast a shadow over your entire life, would it? She briefly attended the Art Students League and then the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She was 18 when she married Clark Twelvetrees in 1927. This interesting surname is English in origin (It might be natural to assume that it was Native American because of the direct reference to nature it contains. It most definitely comes from England though. There are other well-known people who bear the name).

After a brief stage career Twelvetrees appeared in the comedy-mystery film The Ghost Talks (1929) with Charles Eaton, Carmel Myers, and Stepin Fetchit. It was the first of only 32 films she would appear in over the next decade, most of them before 1936. Other early successes included The Grand Parade (1930), Her Man (1930), The Cat Creeps (1930), The Painted Desert (1931), and Millie (1931).

Meanwhile the man who provided her with her unique screen name proved a handful. A severe alcoholic, before the move to Hollywood he had once jumped out a window at a dinner party, falling through two awnings and landing on a taxi cab. Later, he took to beating her. She divorced him in early 1931 and married a stock broker. A steady schedule of Pre-Code mellers followed, things like A Woman of Experience (1931), Bad Company (1931), Panama Flo (1932), Young Bride (1932), State’s Attorney (1932, opposite Barrymore), My Woman (1933), and All Men Are Enemies (1934). Frisco Waterfront, with Ben Lyon and Rod La Rocque, in late 1935 was the last picture from her early period of stardom. By this point, the Production Code had gone into affect, no doubt having an impact on her appeal.

In 1936 there was a period of upheaval. She appeared in one Australian film Thoroughbred, divorced her second husband, and fell ill for several months. In 1937 she appeared in Hollywood Round-Up with Buck Jones and Shemp Howard at Columbia. The following year, Clark Twelvetrees was killed in a street brawl — a tragedy that no doubt affected her in spite of their estrangement and his mistreatment of her. She made her last two Hollywood films in 1939: Persons in Hiding (in which she was fifth in the billing for the first and only time) and Unmarried with Buck Jones (in which top billing was restored).

At this stage, Twelvetrees left film to focus on theatre. In 1941 she appeared in a short-lived Broadway play called Boudoir. Most of her roles in her later years were in summer stock. In 1947, she married her third and final husband, a career Air Force officer, moving with him from base to base. They were living on the Olmstead Air Force base in Middletown, PA in 1958, when she committed suicide by taking an overdose of barbiturates. This was life imitating art — Helen Twelvetrees’ own art. Someone really ought to do a bio-pic about her, in the style of one her own movies. It’s sort of shocking no one has!