Phillips Holmes: An American Tragedy

The actor Phillips Holmes (1907-1942), both of whose names are so infuriating in the possessive case, came by them honesly, being as he was the son of the actors Edna Phillips and Taylor Holmes.

Blessed with extraordinary good looks, Holmes was destined to follow his parents into the actors’ trade. After some time at Cambridge and Princeton, he was cast as a college boy in Frank Tuttle’s comedy Varsity (1928), fourth billed to Buddy Rogers, Mary Brian, and Chester Conklin. This silent film is now lost. Holmes’ subsequent screen career was destined to last precisely one decade and four dozen films. Notable pictures he appeared in include The Wild Party (1929), The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1929), An American Tragedy (1931, as the lead character, Clyde Griffiths), Night Court (1932), Dinner at Eight (1933), and Great Expectations (1934, as the adult Pip).

Holmes’ career suffered a couple of setbacks in 1933 and 1934. In ’33 he was at the wheel in a drunk driving accident. His passenger, Mae Clarke suffered several bad injuries that adversely affected her career. She sued for damages but eventually settled out of court. The failure of the 1934 screen adaptation of Zola’s Nana is said to have also hurt his standing. His last Hollywood film was General Spanky (1936) starring Spanky MacFarland of The Little Rascals. He then went to London where he starred in the British films The Dominant Sex (1937) and Housemaster (1938).

In 1939, Britian went to war with Germany. Holmes enlisted in the Royal Candian Air Force. Sadly, he died in a mid-air collision in Ontario, a death eerily reminiscent of that of Vernon Castle’s in the previous World War. Philips Holmes was 35 when he died. If he hadn’t we almost certainly have remembered him as a middle aged character actor from the 1950s’ and ’60s!

For a time, Holmes was romantically linked to singer Libby Holman. Later, his younger brother Ralph, also an actor, married Holman. He, too, joined the Royal Candian Air Force. When he returned to her after the war, she had moved on and the pair separated. He took his own life with sleeping pills soon thereafter.

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