Imagine that, at age 16, you’re cast as a lead in a major Hollywood film. The studio likes what it sees in you, and puts you under contract. You’re living a fantasy millions would envy.
This is what actually happened to a girl in the 1920s –- and while that sounds like Carole Lombard's story, that's not whom we're referring to here. In this instance, instead of cashing in on it and embarking on a movie career, the girl gave it all up.
It’s one of the many undercurrents to the fascinating story of a film being shown tonight at 7 at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville.
The film is called “Stark Love,” a purported story of life in the Appalachians. It was shot in a semi-documentary style by Karl Brown, a man who had a long career as a cinematographer and director. (He began as an assistant to D.W. Griffith.)
The story itself isn’t much and clings to hoary mountaineer stereotypes that by today’s standards seem close to laughable, but it’s nonetheless a valuable artifact. Filmed on location in western North Carolina, it provides images of a remote region that largely hadn’t changed in decades.
That such a project would come from the glitzy Paramount studio was in itself unusual. Moreover, Brown refused to cast established actors, fearing their affectations would compromise the feel of the film.
Mountain folk appeared in supporting roles, but for the leads he looked to nearby areas. The male lead was a young man named Forrest James, who was a four-sport letterman at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). He comes off well in the film, particularly the action sequences, and Paramount sensed it might have an “answer” to Johnny Mack Brown, the former University of Alabama football star under contract to MGM. Such was not to be, though, as James declined their offer, returned to college, and became a high school teacher, coach and businessman. (One of his sons, Fob James Jr., would become governor of Alabama.)
For the female lead, Brown ventured to Knoxville, Tenn., and found a 16-year-old Knoxville High student who earlier had filled in for an injured dancer when “George White’s Scandals” came to town. Her name was Helen Monday, though for some reason the name was altered to Mundy for the film. (One of her Knoxville High classmates was James Agee, who would later become one of the top film critics and writers of his time; whether they knew each other is uncertain.) Here's Monday, in costume, in a still promoting the film:
Monday plays Barbara Allen (a name borrowed from a fabled mountain tale), and, like James, she also won rave reviews. Not from Brown, though, as she regularly walked off the set, came back when she felt like it, and showed a lack of professionalism throughout.
Many years later, Brown called her “the most difficult person I ever had anything to do with," adding, “She learned very early in the game that she was the only girl in the picture, that without her the picture could not be made…It was virtually a case of blackmail.”
In fact, Monday was so uncooperative that when the film made its Knoxville premiere in February 1927, she was a no-show.
Perhaps the word about the havoc she caused on the set never reached Paramount, or the studio felt a dose of Hollywood would change her. Whatever, Paramount, which had paid her $30 a week during filming of “Stark Love,” boosted her salary to $100 a week and brought her out west.
It didn’t change her. She said of the film business at the time of the movie’s release, “I don't care for it myself…You might, but I can't see anything appealing about it.”
While she was in Hollywood, Monday enjoyed the nightlife; one senses she may have been more interested in dating than acting. One of those dates was a Paramount up-and-comer named…William Powell. (At the time, Powell was technically married, but his on-again, off-again relationship with Eileen Wilson was apparently off again. They finally divorced in 1930, a year before he married Lombard.)
Meanwhile, even a number of good reviews couldn’t save “Stark Love” at the box office; it wasn’t the type of film audiences wanted to see, especially those who cared for Paramount's normally glossy product.
It's interesting to compare Monday's situation to what Lombard experienced at roughly the same age; a few years before, in 1925, 16-year-old Carol had the female lead in a Fox film, "Marriage In Transit." While she clearly needed seasoning at the time, she was gaining that in subsequent films until being sidelined in an automobile accident.
Monday, blessed with an opportunity comparable to Lombard's, might have established a career of some sort -- if not as a star, possibly as a character player. Or she might not have been able to survive the change to talking pictures. Either way, we'll never know, for as it turned out, Monday never made another film for Paramount, or anyone else for that matter. And from her perspective, it was apparently just as well.
“It may all seem like roses and honey, but it's awfully hard work and awfully dull sometimes," she said. "I don't believe I want one of those 'careers' you hear about. I believe I'd rather get married.”
And that she did -– marrying a Michigan bandleader named Don Barringer. They had four children, and Monday lived in Michigan until her death in 1987 at age 77.
“Stark Love” has an intriguing post-release history as well. In the 1950s, Monday attempted to secure a copy from Paramount, which didn’t have one; it was feared the film was lost. However, in 1968, film historian Kevin Brownlow found a copy in Czechoslovakia, with Czech title cards. They were translated back into English, and copies were made for the Museum of Modern Art and Library of Congress.
The film was shown in Knoxville in 1979, and Monday was invited, but ill health prevented her from attending. Her sister, Janet Monday Warters, showed up instead.
For more on “Stark Love,” which Brownlow has called “one of the most unusual films ever made in America,: see http://www.knoxnews.com/news/2007/nov/11/no-love-lost/