Bess Flowers: Better Than Extra

With her nearly 1,000 screen credits, most of them non-speaking, Bess Flowers (1898-1984) became known as “The Queen of the Hollywood Extras”. But that’s not a strictly accurate encapsulation of her career. In most of her silent films, Flowers was a full-fledged supporting player (and leading lady in some), and she also had decent sized supporting parts in comedy shorts of the talkie years, as well as the occasional line in features, making her more properly a bit player. Even at that, she wasn’t just some crowd extra. Numerous top directors (Ford, Capra, Hitchcock) knew who she was and carefully cast her in key parts, even when she had no line. (e.g. in The Prisoner of Shark Island, 1936 she was “Woman in the Box with Lincoln“, not a random audience member in Ford’s Theatre). She had beauty and class and she caught your eye. For whatever reason, when sound came in it seems that she chose the easier life of a supernumerary over the harder work of pursuing and playing more prominent parts.

Originally from Sherman, Texas (north of Dallas/Fort Worth), Flowers stole the family rainy day fund and ran away to Hollywood in her early 20s. She made good in 1923 when James Cruze cast her (sixth-billed) in his all-star picture Hollywood, and she married Cecil B. DeMille’s assistant director Cullen Tate. Cruze was to use her in several pictures thereafter. During the silent era she also had good sized supporting roles in The Silent Partner (1923), Irene (1926, with Colleen Moore), The Greater Glory (1926), Laddie (1926), and Blondes by Choice (1927). She was the leading lady in three westerns in 1926: Fred Thomson’s Lone Hand Sanders (1926) and Hands Across the Border, and Lefty Flynn’s Glenister of the Mounted. Always a clothes horse, she can also be seen as a “mannequin” in Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), and Mannequin (1926).

Flowers had good sized supporting parts in a couple of early talkie features in 1929, The Ghost Talks with Helen Twelvetrees and Linda with Warner Baxter (directed by Dorothy Davenport), but after that she dropped down to bit parts. That said, she continued to have better parts in comedy shorts for a time, such as Laurel and Hardy’s We Faw Down (1928) in which she played Mrs. Hardy; The Ladies Man (1928) with Chic Sale; Thicker Than Water (1935) with Laurel and Hardy; Sprucin’ Up (1935) with Our Gang; Tassels in the Air and Mutts to You (both 1938) with The Three Stooges, and Men in Fright (1938) with Our Gang, as Darla’s mother.

Flowers appeared in 23 Best Picture Oscar nominees, and five Best Pictures, both records. If we named all the classic pictures she appeared in, it would be preposterous. It’s like ALL the movies. Starting in the 1950s, of course, she began working in television as well. Among her last appearances, were a half dozen shots on The Lucy Show, the 1964 comedy Good Neighbor Sam with Jack Lemmon and Dorothy Provine (her last theatrical film), and a 1969 appearance on The Red Skelton Hour, her last credit. In 1945 she became one of the founders and earliest officers of the Screen Extras Guild, which later merged with SAG.

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