Howell was born in Kentucky on October 14, 1897 [some sources say November 14]; various sources list the place as Bowling Green. Her parents were John Eli and Clara Howell. By the time the 1910 U.S. Census was taken, she and her family were living in Moundville. Howell's father reported his occupation as operator of a lumber mill. Lottice had an older brother Ottis and two younger brothers, Harry and Ely. She is listed in that census as "Lottis Howel." The family lived on Market Street in Moundville.
After graduating from high school in Moundville around 1913, she entered Huntingdon College. That school, founded in Tuskegee in 1856, had just relocated to its current Montgomery campus in 1910. Howell graduated with a degree in music and remained at the school as an instructor until she had saved enough money to move to New York City in 1918 to study under voice instructor Sergei Klibanski.
We can assume a couple of things from this narrative of Howell's life so far. Her family must have been fairly well off if they could afford to send the one daughter out of four children to a private college. And Lottice's soprano voice must have been good enough for her to have the confidence to move to New York to study.
When her money ran out, Howell returned to Alabama and taught school long enough to save funds for a return. By 1920 she had joined the cast of Irving Berlin's "Music Box Revue", and soon appeared in shows alongside Fannie Brice and the Marx Brothers. She played a role in a production of Verdi's opera "Rigoletto", and then the lead in Mozart's "Impressario". She appeared with Charlie Chaplin in an RKO vaudeville show. In 1926 she was in the play "Deep River" at the Plymouth Theater on Broadway, and after that in the musical comedy "My Maryland" produced by Sigmund Romberg. In 1927 she acted and sang in the musical comedy "Bye, Bye Bonnie".
After such success in New York, Hollywood began to notice. She accepted an offer from MGM and moved to the west coast in October 1929. An early film role is apparently an uncredited one as "Vocalist" in Estrellados with Buster Keaton. Perhaps she was able to mingle with some of the other stars of the day in the film, including Jackie Coogan, Robert Montgomery, Fred Niblo, Anita Page and Lionel Barrymore. The film was released in July 1930.
A few months previously Howell made the film with her biggest role, In Gay Madrid. Heartthrob Ramon Navarro was the male lead, but as the poster below indicates, Howell got equal billing with the other female star, Dorothy Jordan. Howell plays Goyita, the former love of Navarro's character. Released in May 1930, the musical comedy is set in Spain and based on a novel by Alejandro Perez Lugin.
That film is Howell's only major appearance in a full-length Hollywood production. She did appear in some shorts, such as 1930's The Flower Garden and the 1933 Nertsery Rhymes noted below. Another Buster Keaton film, the 1930 Free and Easy, featured Lottice in a musical number, "It Must Be You," with Robert Montgomery and Anita Page. You can hear her sing in a video on YouTube.
MGM apparently considered her an up and coming star for some period; her dressing room on the studio lot was between those of Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. Perhaps they did not know what to do with a woman who had both a wonderful soprano voice and smoldering beauty.
Although MGM refused to loan her to other studios, they did allow her to continue her singing career when not required to be on set. She had a regular program on NBC Radio and toured widely, including an appearance at the London Palladium. The 1940 U.S. Census lists her as living in a house with two other women at 28 East 56th Street in New York City.
When World War II, started, Howell toured the South and gave half the proceeds to the Red Cross. Her father had died in the mid-1930's and by 1942 her mother was too elderly to run the family cattle farm in Hale County. Howell moved home, kept the farm and continued her musical activities locally until her death on October 24, 1982. She died in Tuscaloosa's Druid City Hospital and as noted below is buried in Moundville. She has been inducted into the Alabama Women's Hall of Fame.
Howell in In Gay Madrid
Source: Dr. Macro's
Howell made an uncredited appearance in this 1933 short film featuring Ted Healy and His Stooges, soon to become known as the Three Stooges.
This compilation film was released in 1974 to celebrate MGM's 50th anniversary. Howell's musical number from Free and Easy is included.
Source: Alabama Women's Hall of Fame