Monday, March 16, 2015

Film Actresses from Alabama before 1960 (1): Lois Wilson


One of the earliest actresses from Alabama to find success in Hollywood, Lois Wilson is probably unknown to most state residents today. Although born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on June 28, 1894, her family soon moved to Birmingham where she grew up. 

We can find some interesting information about the family in the 1910 U.S. Census. Her father is A.K. Wilson, a Canadian native. Her mother Constance was born in Pennsylvania. Also listed are three other daughters, all younger than Lois, and grandfather William Wilson. The family lived in the city's 15th Ward. 

She graduated from Alabama Normal College in Livingston, which is now the University of West Alabama. Apparently Wilson just missed the era of famed educator and reformer Julia Tutwiler, who directed the school from 1881 until 1910.

By 1915 Wilson was teaching school. We can assume her ambitions ran beyond that; she entered a Miss Birmingham contest sponsored by the Birmingham News and Universal Pictures. By winning she received a trip to Hollywood for an audition. After a brief period in Chicago, she won her first film role--a small part in a short, The Palace of Dust. She made four other films in 1915 alone. By the time she more or less retired from the movies in 1941, Wilson had acted in more than 100 silent and sound motion pictures.

Wilson appeared with various established or up-and-coming film stars of the silent and early sound eras: Pola Negri in Bella Donna [1923], Rudolph Valentino and Bebe Daniels in Monsieur Beaucaire [1924], Louise Brooks in The Show Off [1926], Bette Davis in Seed, Davis' second film [1931] and Tom Mix in Rider of Death Valley [1932].

She worked with Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova in The Dumb Girl of Portici in 1916. Wilson played heroine Molly Wingate in one of the most popular westerns of the silent era, The Covered Wagon [1923]. In that same year she appeared in Hollywood, one of the earliest films using cameos by a parade of stars--in this case ones such as Gloria Swanson, Douglas Fairbanks, Noah Beery, Mary Astor, William S. Hart and Alan Hale. She played Shirley Temple's mother in Bright Eyes [1934].

In 1922 Wilson was in the first group of WAMPAS Baby Stars of actresses expected to be major stars. That campaign was a promotional effort by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers and ran annually until 1934.

In 1926 she played Daisy Buchanan in the first film version of The Great Gatsby released just a year after the novel was published. Like so many silent films, this one has not survived but a one-minute trailer does exist. Thus we have an Alabama actress playing a character based on Alabama native Zelda Fitzgerald

Wilson made other films with Alabama connections. In 1921 she played the title character in Miss Lulu Bett; her male co-star in the film was Milton Sills. You can read a long review of the film by Fritzi Kramer here. A few years later Sills would star in Men of Steel, a picture filmed mostly in Birmingham. In 1922 she appeared in Manslaughter with Thomas Meighan. Two years later Meighan would be in the Birmingham area to film Coming Thru

After 1941 Wilson made only one more movie, The Girl from Jones Beach in 1949. The comedy starred Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo; Wilson played the mother of Mayo's character. She did not completely retire from acting, however. She had a couple of roles in Broadway productions and did network television work on the soap operas The Guiding Light and The Secret Storm.  

Wilson was a good friend of silent film star Gloria Swanson and made an appearance on the 1957 episode of the television series This Is Your Life when it profiled Swanson. In 1950 Swanson had played former silent star Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd., one of the great films about Hollywood. 

Wilson died at 93 on March 3, 1988, in Riverside Hospital in Reno, Nevada. She is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. She never married. Whether she ever returned to Alabama after leaving in 1915 is currently unknown. 

Picture-Play Magazine December 1918
In the section titled "Favorite Picture Players" she follows Mary Pickford and Alice Joyce

Wilson made the cover of Picture-Play in 1923.

Motion Picture Studio Directory for 1919
Wilson's entry is in the right hand column, 3rd down

1 comment:

  1. Actors and Actresses perform, creating new worlds on the stage or in front of a camera.