Louise Lovely: Early Australian Import

I briefly contested a claim I saw which described Louise Lovely (Nellie Louise Carbasse, 1895-1980) as being the first Australian actress to become a Hollywood star. After all, Annette Kellerman had preceded her onto the silver screen in the U.S. by at least three years. But then I realized that the keyword was ACTRESS. Kellerman, while a star, was really a champion swimmer who had wended her way into show business. Yes, I won’t be a TOTAL snob — an actress acts no matter how she came into the business, and we call Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller actors, so there’s that. But Louise Carbasse had acted on stage in Australian stock companies since childhood, and had appeared in numerous Australian films prior to her move to Hollywood. Her parents were also showfolk, who’d come to Australia from Europe with Sarah Bernhardt’s company. Acting was what she always did, primarily; it wasn’t just some means of wringing additional spondulix out of an athletic career.

Carl Laemmle signed her to Universal in 1914 and it was he who dubbed her Louise Lovely. She costarred with Lon Chaney in many of his early films. In 1918 she left Universal and went over to Fox, where she appeared in numerous William Farnum westerns among other pictures. By 1921 she was slipping down the pecking order in the billing, down to smaller supporting parts. Her last Hollywood movie was Shattered Idols (1922) starring Margueritte De La Motte, in which she was 7th in the billing. For the next four years she toured with a live show called “A Day at the Studio”, where audience members were invited onstage and given a real time “screen test”. This culminated with a return to Australia, and a nationwide talent search that resulted in her self-produced film Jeweled Nights (1925), produced with her husband, actor Wilton Welch. The movie did moderately well but did not make back its expenses. The Australian film industry dried up shortly around this time, and she found no more work as a screen actress, nor could she any longer afford to bankroll her own projects. She’d made over five dozen films in a career spanning two dozen years. Almost all of her films are lost.

She and Welch (who was gay) divorced in 1928, and she immediately married Bert Cowan, a Melbourne theatre manager. Lovely spent the rest of her life assisting in the running of Cowan’s theatres — the best conceivable job for a retired actor I can possibly think of.

To learn more about show business, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.