December 15th, 2010

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Hollywood examines its tragedies, 1936

As was noted in Sunday's entry at "Carole & Co." (, today marks the 80th anniversary of the death of Carole Lombard's close friend Diane Ellis, who worked with her at Pathe in the late 1920s, then rejoined her at Paramount the following year. Ellis, who had married in October 1930 after completing "Laughter" with Nancy Carroll, took a world tour on her honeymoon, fell ill in India and died in Madras.

That, and other tragedies involving friends of hers, led Lombard to believe she was some sort of jinx, adding an undercurrent of melancholy to her otherwise joyous personality -- a part of her psyche that only amplified after Russ Columbo died in a freak accident on Labor Day weekend 1934.

This week also marks the 75th anniversary of the mysterious, still-unsolved death of Thelma Todd, popular star of many Hal Roach short comedies. The Los Angeles Times' fine blog "The Daily Mirror" has reprinted many Times articles about the incident over the past few days (, and one of them holds particular fascination from our perspective.

It comes from the Times Sunday magazine of Jan. 19, 1936, barely a month after Todd's death and only weeks after 1920s star John Gilbert had died of a heart attack. It led many film fans to wonder whether tragedy and the industry were inherent partners. In "Does Tragedy Haunt Hollywood?", writer Gerald R. Burtnett said no, that such sudden deaths only received such scrutiny because of the victims' fame:

(To read the article at full size, go to and

Burtnett examines an array of mysterious or sudden film-related deaths that had occurred over the past 14 years, beginning with the still-unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor. (Faulty copy editing inadvertently omitted his full name on first reference.) Ellis, a comparatively minor player who had only made a handful of films, isn't mentioned, but other notables are -- Mabel Normand, Rudolph Valentino, Paul Bern, Lilyan Tashman, Will Rogers.

Some observations:

* Not only is Columbo's death noted, so is the ruse used by family and friends to prevent his ailing mother from knowing he had passed on. It's amazing this news was made public, and in today's society of instant mass communication, such an endeavor would be impossible to try.

* Lew Cody, who died unexpectedly in the summer of 1934, had ties to two others who left too soon. He had been married to Normand, who died in February 1930, and his final film, "Shoot The Works," was also the swan song for Dorothy Dell, who died the same month in an auto accident at age 19. (Lombard would replace Dell as the female lead in "Now And Forever.")

* Burtnett repeats the canard about Gilbert's high-pitched voice giving him trouble in talkies; actually, his downfall was tied more to the public's changing styles and tastes than his voice, which was at the very least adequate and suited to his personality. Either Burtnett didn't know, or didn't want to relate, MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer's vendetta against Gilbert.

Whatever, it's fascinating to see how Hollywood viewed itself in early 1936. One can imagine it being read that Sunday by Lombard and good friend Jean Harlow...and both would be added to this tragic list within six years.

Incidentally, Ellis' final film, "Laughter," can be found online at YouTube. Here's part one of eight:

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