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Book review: “Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue”

Helen Twelvetrees
author

Biography and Filmography of a forgotten star

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In one of the most interesting and important film books of the young year, historian Cliff Aliperti examines the life and career of an actress who is not as well known. Thus, the documentation is original and significant.

Calling Helen Twelvetrees a perfect ingénue is a rather lofty description. One can initially accuse the author of hyperbole, of toppling into blathering fandom. In fact, Aliperti does a thorough job of backing up the title’s claim, so that after we’ve read his book, we realize that Ms. Twelvetrees does not rattle around such a prestigious adjective as “perfect.”

Not content with merely writing a biography, the author also includes a complete, annotated filmography. It is like two books in one, the first half being a detailed biography discussing the actress’s life, and the second examining her films. There are introductory chapters, and in one of these the author explains that many of the films he discusses in the filmography are among the maddening lost films of the silent and pre-code era. This is unfortunate. Imagine how intriguing it would be to see “Words and Music” (1929) in which John Wayne gets his first billed role (as Duke Morrison), or “The Ghost Talks” (1929), an early horror-comedy blend that was the portent for many movies to come. There is a real disadvantage to discussing movies that can not be screened, but Aliperti’s research is so extensive, we learn as much as we possibly can about movies we sadly are unable to see.

Ms. Twelvetrees had a personal life that was often difficult. Her death in 1958 was after a decade of alcoholism. Her final film, “Unmarried,” was released in 1939. The author writers that Helen Twelvetrees was, “a fiercely independent, plainspoken woman, who revealed little about herself while employed in an industry whose public demands to known as much as possible. Helen Twelveltrees is a distant subject, a private woman who gave more of herself to her portrayals than to her publicity and whose life often seemed to follow her most melodramatic scripts.”

One of the most insightful, intelligent film historians and best writers on early cinema, Cliff Aliperti has given us a book that offers a real understanding and inspiring look at one of pre-code cinema’s unfairly forgotten stars. The book is recommended to libraries and research centers with the understanding that they also purchase a few representative titles featuring the actress. And the book is a must for admirers of pre-code cinema.

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