Quotes

BETTY BLYTHE: QUEEN OF SHEBA

The silent film star Betty Blythe is little known today, yet she appeared in some 161 films, from Slander (Fox) in 1916 to My Fair Lady (WB) in 1964.  She was dressed nearly topless in The Queen of Sheba (Fox, 1921), where she drove her own chariot of four horses in a chariot race. She played opposite Lon Chaney in Nomads of the North (1921), and starred in Darling of the Rich in 1922 under her own production company. She earned a million dollars a year at her peak and bought a large swath of Hollywood Boulevard, sold it for a $3.5 million profit, then lost it all in the stock market crash of 1929. She went from headlines to obscurity in a decade, but she never gave up on films. In 1951 she starred as herself in the movie The Hollywood Story.

She was born Betty Blythe Slaughter in Los Angeles on September 1, 1893 to Henry S. Slaughter, a lawyer, and Kate Blyth.  Her father died when she was only two. Blythe attended the University of Southern California and studied vocal music in Paris.  Her mother encouraged her pursuit of singing and the stage.  She appeared in the Los Angeles opening of the play, So Long, Letty in 1915, where she and three other actresses were selected to be costumed in the scandalous “un-skirted” bathing suits, displaying bare legs.  “We decided then to pick a costume which would make it possible for women to have a chance to swim without taking the risk of being tangled up in unnecessary skirts and stockings,” Blythe said. * At 5′ 8″ tall she made a statuesque and athletic model.

A young Betty Blythe on a European voyage. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

After touring with So Long, Letty, Blythe was without a job when she accompanied a friend to  the Vitagraph Company in Brooklyn. Blythe was spotted by director William P.S.  Earle, and after an interview, she was offered the role of Lady Thorne in His Own People (1917). The following year, A Game with Fate  became her first starring role. She had played in several secondary roles, mostly as a wealthy woman, leading up to that role. Blythe made 14 films in 1918, three of which were shorts. Beauty-Proof in 1919 broke the mold for Blythe, where she plays the sister of an accused murderer, out to vindicate her brother. She was also the beauty a Northwest Mounted policeman falls for.

Fox had been making a series of popular “Vamp” films from 1915-1919 starring Theda Bara. The vamp moniker came from Rudyard Kipling’s book The Vampire about a woman who preys on men. But  The  Lure of Ambition in 1919 was Theda Bara’s last film.  She had also starred as Cleopatra in the Fox film Cleopatra (1917). With the epic films being huge hits, a new star for the role of The Queen of Sheba was needed, one that was bold enough to wear even skimpier costumes than Theda Bara. Betty Blythe was perfect for the part. As I related in my new book, Blythe quipped she could wear all twenty-eight of her costumes at the same time and still not keep warm. Indeed, many were made of net and see-through fabrics adorned with strings of pearls. The images showing the most exposure were reportedly distributed only in Europe.

Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba

The film’s director was J. Gordon Edwards, grandfather of director Blake Edwards.  The epic 12-reel film took a year to make and cost $700,000, with a cast of 2000 plus 500 horses and camels. Blythe was excited at the big production, “The whole mighty pageant stirred my blood and made me feel like I really and truly was the Queen of Sheba, riding like Boadicea, in the forefront of battle to deliver my people.” **

The Queen of Sheba also featured what was probably the first chariot races produced for an American film. In one scene, Blythe as the Queen of Sheba races Nell Craig as Princess Vashti for the affections of King Solomon. The two actresses were racing their own chariots, “…it was the most difficult thing I have ever been called upon to do in pictures. I knew if we rehearsed the scene once more I should never have been able to endure the strain. Nell Craig, who drove the other chariot, was so overcome that she fell and broke three ribs just as we were finishing the last scene. There was terrific excitement, with the extras yelling and all of us frightened and trembling with fear that Miss Craig was seriously injured. My arms are long, and I am strong. Miss Craig is weaker and she simply could not hold those wild animals a moment longer. Fortunately it was the very last scene. I am sure neither Miss Craig nor myself would be willing to go around those sharp curves again.” *** The Queen of Sheba was a big hit, Blythe’s biggest. Unfortunately, the film is a lost silent classic, one of the many thousands of silent films and one no doubt burned in the Fox Films vault fire of 1937

French poster for The Queen of Sheba depicting her in the chariot race.
Betty Blythe photographed in the chariot

Following The Queen of Sheba, only secondary roles were offered to her by film companies.  So, Blythe started her own production company, B.B. Productions, and produced films in 1922 and 1923 that featured her in leading roles. Then came Chu-Chin-Chow in 1923, another period costume drama set in Baghdad. The film was an English-German co-production filmed in Berlin. Blythe starred as Zahrat, a slave woman. Blythe followed this with a film for Samuel Goldwyn, The Recoil (1924), set in Paris and the Riviera, featuring the first ever filming inside the Casino in Monte Carlo. Blythe made several more movies in 1924 starring as “louche” women, the stereotype she couldn’t shake from Sheba. These included: Christy Cabanne’s The Spitfire and B.P. Schulberg’s production The Breath of Scandal. And Vitagraph brought her back for Folly of Vanity, the poster promoting “A 1925 Queen of Sheba in a dazzling Dramatic Fantasy.” Blythe was called back to Berlin to star in a real dazzling dramatic fantasy, She, (She who must be obeyed) based on the H. Rider Haggard novel and for which he wrote the intertitles for this silent film. Blythe starred as Ayesha, and was again dressed in fantastic costumes, several in see-through fabrics. Her director for The Queen of Sheba, J. Gordon Edwards had wanted to star Blythe as Mary Queen of Scots, a role that might have broken the stereotype of exotic roles in flimsy costumes, but alas, he died in 1925.

When Betty Blythe was in London she went to the famous Lady Duff-Gordon of the House of Lucille to have a gown made as a costume. Duff-Gordon was experienced in designing for movie stars needing gowns with sex appeal, as well as dressing her regular customers from high society. At this time, however, Duff-Gordon was in the latter stages of her career and was seeing clients in her own house. As she described the encounter, when Betty Blythe came in for a fitting, a distinguished client was mistakenly shown into the same room, “When I reached the door, I was just in time to see her make a hurried exit. With some agitation she told me that the occupant of the room had been a young lady whose only clothing consisted of a pair of stockings!” After Duff Gordon explained the situation about the actress’s fitting. Her distinguished client remarked that Blythe did have a beautiful figure.****

 

Betty Blythe in Chu-Chin-Chow, 1923

When does it happen that a big star is no longer in demand? The roles are no longer big, studios become small independents, the star’s age now has them playing married women in supporting roles, and worse, they are no longer credited in the roles they do play (common in classic films). All this happened to Betty Blythe in the late 1920s and 1930s.  She did not suddenly become popular as an older actress in the 1930s, 40s, or 50s, as did May Robson, Marie Dressler, or Charlotte Greenwood. Or fade away completely like Evelyn Brent, Gretta Nissen, or Jetta Goudal.  But Betty Blythe kept playing parts in movies for decades, no matter how small. This was not for lack of anything else to do – she had married film director and actor Paul Scardon in 1919, and they remained married until his death in 1954. Blythe just loved the movies and being on the set.  Her filmography astonishes.

In 1935 she appeared as a spectator in an opera box in Anna Karenina. In 1936 she appeared in The Gorgeous Hussy as Mrs. Wainwright, in 1937 she was uncredited in Topper, and the same year in Conquest as Princess Mirska. She played the small role of Mrs. South in The Women in 1939, then in 1941  Honky Tonk as Mrs. Wilson. In 1943 she played a dowager in Presenting Lily Mars, and as an officer’s wife in They Were Expendable in 1945. She appeared as a customer in The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946, as the floor manager in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in 1947, and as Frau Kohner in the tear-jerker Letter from an Unknown Woman in 1948.  In 1949 she appeared as a lobby guest in The Barkleys of Broadway, then starred as herself in The Hollywood Story in 1951.  Some years later she popped up again as a dowager in Lust for Life, then as a party guest in The Helen Morgan Story. She made her final movie appearance in full formal party attire in My Fair Lady in 1964.

Betty Blythe died April 7, 1972 from a heart attack at the age of 78.  Blythe would have made such a great story-teller about Hollywood and its filmmaking lore, and such a shame she passed before oral histories and silent film stars could appear at classic film festivals. And unlike most classic film stars, her most significant work on film is considered lost.  Yet she still has fans, and her image in stills and posters attest to the power and bravery she had as a dynamic female movie star.

Betty Blythe photograph after The Queen of Sheba, 1921

 

*The Sacramento Star, August 10, 1915, p 3

** John Mackie. “This Week in History: 1921 – A Biblical epic gets the Hollywood treatment in the Queen of Sheba.”  Vancouver Sun,  Dec 21, 2018

*** Interview in FlammableNitrate, Sun Sep 06, 2015 Taylorology #63. https://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?t=20871

****Lady Duff-Gordon. Discretions and Indiscretions. p378