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June 26th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Temperamental silent star did it her way

This Week in Texas History:
A column
by BARTEE HAILE

Madge Bellamy, future star of the silent screen, was born at Hillsboro on Jun. 30, 1900, but the name on the birth certificate read “Margaret Philpott.”

The talented tyke, whose father coached at the local college, learned to dance before she learned the three R’s.  “I had a stooped way of walking, and the doctor told my parents to send me to dancing school.”  She appeared in amateur musicals in Denver as a little girl and later as an accomplished adolescent in San Antonio after the family moved back to Texas.

Attracted by the bright lights of the Great White Way, Madge decided to run away from home soon after turning 17.  She did not go alone to New York City.  “My mother said, ‘I’ll run with you,’ so I took her along.”

Madge had hardly unpacked her bags, when she won a place in the chorus line of a Broadway production entitled “The Love Mill.”  Theater owner Daniel Frohman came backstage one evening and announced with convincing confidence that her future was in acting not dancing.  He took his new protegee under his wing and, over her objections, changed her name to Madge Bellamy.

Madge Bellamy

Madge Bellamy

While working on the dramatic stage in New York, Madge made her first motion picture, which was shot in New Jersey.  Her 1920 film debut led to a screen test with bigtime Hollywood producer Thomas Ince, who quickly signed her to a four-year movie contract.

The ambitious actress hit the ground running in Tinsel Town with prominent parts in six features in 1921.  Her fourth film that busy year was “Hail the Woman” starring Florence Vidor.  “I looked up to her and admired her.  She was from Texas, and one would think she had been to the finest finishing schools in Europe.”

The breakthrough part for the rising star was the title role in the 1922 version of “Lorna Doone.”  The next year, Ince lent his hot property to Mary Pickford for a picture with her brother Jack.  “Jack was very sweet to me, and, of course, I was always in love with Mary.”

To Ince’s dismay, Madge began to show her quirky side.  She turned down a major role in the epic “Ben Hur” because she refused to work with horses.  The fact that Louis B. Mayer remained seated when she entered his office was reason enough for her to storm out of the room screaming, “I don’t want to be in your picture anyway!”

After Thomas Ince’s mysterious death in 1924 aboard a yacht owned by publisher William Randolph Hearst, Madge found a new home at Fox Studios.  The relationship was rocky right from the start.

In 1925 the pugnacious prima donna butted heads with director Frank Borzage on the set of “Lazybones.”  He got even three years later by choosing Janet Gaynor over Madge for the female lead in the hit “Seventh Heaven.”

Madge had a hot-and-cold love affair with a Fox executive, until she learned he was two-timing her with another actress.  She retaliated by eloping to Tijuana with a stockbroker, but her first and only marriage lasted less than a week.

Madge came unglued in 1929, when Fox informed her a first-time director would be in charge of her next picture.  She demanded one of her own choosing but was told instead that she could pick her leading man.

Madge self-destructed.  She told Fox to tear up her contract and walked off the lot. The studio bosses promised to pay her $25,000 more a year if she would only come back, but she said nothing doing.

Madge repeatedly refused to return telephone calls from Fox, while also telling both MGM and Columbia studios to go fly a kite.  After a year without a cent of income, she was forced to auction off her home, a copy of a Spanish castle, and her personal belongings.

In dire need of money, Madge returned to Hollywood in 1932.  She earned $5,000 for 11 days work in the cult horror film “White Zombie” with Bela Lugosi.

Madge Bellamy (right) and Bela Lugosi in "White Zombie".

Madge Bellamy (right) and Bela Lugosi in “White Zombie”.

By 1934 Madge was again under contract to Fox but restricted to low-budget B movies like “Charlie Chan of London,” “Daring Young Man” and “The Great Hotel Murder.”  Frustrated and humiliated, she quit for good.

Madge made front-page news in 1943, when she used a wealthy ex-boyfriend for target practice.  She wound up with probation and, according to one source, a multi-million dollar settlement from her intended victim.

After World War II, Madge bought a junkyard in Ontario, California.  She avoided the altar like the plague and lived alone the rest of her long life.

Madge Bellamy bared her soul in a telephone interview three months before her death in January 1990.  “I’m not very proud of anything,” she admitted with unmistakable regret.  “I had great expectations, but they gave out way before my years gave out.  That’s too bad, isn’t it?”

Ten different column collections are available at the “General Store” on Bartee’s new web site barteehaile.com.


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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