The Movies of Monta Bell

Though Monta Bell (1891-1958) was a protege of Charlie Chaplin and even worked with the Marx Brothers, we are late in treating of him, as his comic movies were more in the sophisticated tradition of Lubitsch, as opposed to slapstick and vaudeville, our traditional beat. And most of Bell’s movies have been forgotten, though that gives us all the more reason to explore him.

Born in Washington DC, Bell had a background in both theatre and journalism. As an actor he is known to have appeared in only two films, both by Chaplin: The Adventurer (1917) and The Pilgrim (1923). Chaplin enlisted him to ghostwrite his account of his first trip back to Europe since coming to America a decade earlier, entitled My Trip Abroad. Bell also worked as an assistant director and editor for Chaplin on such films as A Woman of Paris (1923).

This excellent resume caused Bell to be hired by Paramount producer Walter Wanger to direct pictures at Astoria Studios in 1924. His pictures of this period thrust him amongst an impressive array of top stars. They included Broadway After Dark (1924) with Adolph Menjou, Norma Shearer, and Anna Q, Nilsson; The Snob (1924) with Shearer, John Gilbert, Phyllis Haver, Conrad Nagel, and Hedda Hopper; Lady of the Night (1925) with Shearer in a dual role; Pretty Ladies (1925), a thinly veiled send-up of the Ziegfeld Follies starring Zasu Pitts; and The King of Main Street (1925) with Menjou and Bessie Love. He stepped out in 1925 for the honor of directing Marion Davies in a dual role in Lights of Old Broadway (1925) for Hearst’s Cosmpolitan Pictures, then went to MGM to direct Greta Garbo in her first American picture Torrent (1926), and Marceline Day in The Boy Friend (1926), which he also produced. returning to Astoria, he helmed Upstage with Shearer and Oscar Shaw; After Midnight (1927) with Shearer; and Man, Woman, and Sin (1927) with Gilbert and Jeanne Eagels.

This track record got Bell elevated to head of production for Paramount’s east coast division, and this is how he came to oversee the Marx Brothers first movie vehicle The Cocoanuts (1929). (He is sometimes mentioned as the authority figure who suggested that Groucho replace his greasepaint mustache with something more realistic looking). Bell directed a few more films, including The Bellamy Trial (1929) with Leatrice Joy and Betty Bronson; Young Man of Manhattan (1930) with Norman Foster and Claudette Colbert; East is West (1930) with Lupe Velez, Edward G. Robinson, and Lew Ayres; Downstairs (1932) with Gilbert; and The Worst Woman in Paris? (1933) with English star Benita Hume, who later married Ronald Colman. Some of his credits as producer during these years include Applause (1929) with Helen Morgan, The Big Pond (1930) with Maurice Chevalier; and Richard Boleshawski’s adaptation of Sidney Kingsley’s Men in White (1934). Student Tour (1934), directed by fellow Chaplin disciple Chuck Reisner, starred Jimmy Durante and Charles Butterworth.

From 1931 through 1937 Bell was married to English actress Betty Lawford, Peter Lawford’s cousin. Like many of his era, he preferred silent pictures to talkies, and his own work in the field was of higher caliber in the earlier period. He aptly described the overnight transformation of the industry as “hysteria”. Bell’s hands-on work in the movie business evaporated in the mid ’30s, but he produced three films in 1941: the all-star West Point of the Air; Aloma of the South Seas with Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour; and Birth of the Blues, with the appallingly white cast of Bing Crosby, Brian Donleavy, and Mary Martin (don’t they mean “Theft of the Blues”?). His last movie as a director was China’s Little Devils (1945) with Harry Carey and Paul Kelly for low-budget Monogram Studios.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy, don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube