Seiter House Rules: Movietown Baby Grows Up

william-seiter-1938Nixon, Marian_03

 On July 13th, 1934 the madcap RKO comedy We’re Rich Again was released, the sixth collaboration between director William A. Seiter and star Marian Nixon.  They married soon after, and five years later they collaborated in the birth of Jessica Seiter (now Jessica Seiter Niblo), whose Movietown Baby Grows Up is a breezily entertaining memoir of her upbringing in Hollywood. Published at an Espresso Book Machine at her local bookstore, it was intended as a gift for her family, but she is also selling it through Facebook for those interested in the careers and personalities of her talented parents.  Seiter Niblo has a warm conversational tone, relating her parents’ romantic foibles and career bumps as if she were flipping the pages of a family album with you over a mug of Irish coffee.

william-a.-seiter-05William A. Seiter was the heir to a silver, crystal and china shop in NYC before he found his first wife in bed with another man, whereupon he “flew out the door, onto a train, and headed for Los Angeles to start life anew.”  He paid the bills as a Western stuntman and a Keystone cop in Mack Sennett comedies before working his way up the ladder, directing his first silent feature, The Kentucky Colonel, in 1920. Seiter Niblo relates that “Bill’s private life moved along at a reckless pace, trying marriage again with Jill (I was never informed of her last name) who chased him around their cottage with a meat cleaver.” Maybe that harrowing slapstick experience informed the movies  he would later make with comedy teams Wheeler and Woolsey and Laurel and Hardy.

Following the more amicable split with third wife Laura LaPlante, Seiter tied the knot for an even number with Nixon, who at the time was dubbed “The Nicest Girl in Hollywood”. She was born in Wisconsin “in a year she would never reveal – but most likely 1904″, to a family of poor Finnish immigrants, and showed a talent for dance, taking lessons in ballet and tap. She joined a touring group at a young age, and was abandoned in L.A. when tour director Paisley Noone absconded with “some handsome young man in Hollywood.” Nixon refused to return home, and tried her hand at acting, getting her first break with a casting director noticed her “threading a needle with ‘notable vigor’”. She earned her first leading role in the Buck Jones Western Big Dan (1923) directed by a young William Wellman.nixon

Nixon had her own lovesick blues, with a short-lived marriage to boxer Joe Benjamin, who made the gossip rags by popping two bullets into Nixon’s home after a spat. She climbed the social ladder for her second marriage, to Chicago department store heir Edward Hillman, Jr., who never held down a job, but simply “drinks and plays polo”.  His alcoholism cracks up the marriage, and Seiter and Nixon get hitched mere days after both their divorces are finalized.

This one sticks, and a family sprouts up. Seiter Niblo relays the whirl of being a Hollywood brat, moving from house to house ten times according to the curve of her Dad’s career. As a 2-year-old she sings “Dearly Beloved” to Jerome Kern, and Delmer Daves gives her a book of his calligraphy. Nixon curtails her acting in order to raise a family, but remains fascinated with the business, sending her daughter Mike Connolly’s column from the Hollywood Reporter every week through Jessica’s four years at Stanford. Nixon is essential to maintaining the loose community Seiter created on set, delivering “personal Christmas gifts from my father to his ‘staff’, especially Glen Tryon and Sam Mintz, his right hand men.”

Dave Kehr discusses this communal spirit in his Film Comment essay (Jan/Feb 2012) on William A. Seiter, which is re-printed in the back of the book. He emphasizes that “the thrust of his work is not to dominate his performers but to enframe and enhance them”. He uses Ginger Rogers as an example, as her non-nonsense persona is perfected from Professional Sweetheart (1933) through In Person (1935).  Seiter Niblo has learned to do the same for her family, letting their lives and personality emerge through her tough and loving portrait of two charismatic Hollywood talents.

As she proudly notes, her children have continued the family’s string of success in Hollywood. Ted Griffin is a screenwriter whose worked on everything from the cannibal thriller Ravenous (1999, a personal favorite) to the broad Brett Ratner comedy Tower Heist (2011). He collaborated with his brother Nick on Matchstick Men (2003) and the short-lived but much loved TV drama Terriers. So while the Seiter name has long been absent from silver screens, his family still knows how to entertain.

12 Responses Seiter House Rules: Movietown Baby Grows Up
Posted By Richard B : February 5, 2013 1:41 pm

‘Tower Heist’ was the only Ratner movie to get a rave from Roger Ebert, so Kudos to the Seiter clan. (I rather enjoyed it myself.)

Posted By Richard B : February 5, 2013 1:41 pm

‘Tower Heist’ was the only Ratner movie to get a rave from Roger Ebert, so Kudos to the Seiter clan. (I rather enjoyed it myself.)

Posted By Doug : February 5, 2013 6:01 pm

I was just looking over Mr. Seiter’s IMDB page and among the many, many films he made, my favorite must be “Sons Of The Desert”
which is a delight from frame one to the Maggie and Jiggs ending.

Posted By Doug : February 5, 2013 6:01 pm

I was just looking over Mr. Seiter’s IMDB page and among the many, many films he made, my favorite must be “Sons Of The Desert”
which is a delight from frame one to the Maggie and Jiggs ending.

Posted By shadowsandsatin : February 6, 2013 10:57 am

I enjoyed your post! I just happen to have “We’re Rich Again” in my collection — it’s one of those movies that I inadvertently taped while recording something else on TCM — and I really enjoyed it! It’s good to know more about Marian Nixon and her family.

Posted By shadowsandsatin : February 6, 2013 10:57 am

I enjoyed your post! I just happen to have “We’re Rich Again” in my collection — it’s one of those movies that I inadvertently taped while recording something else on TCM — and I really enjoyed it! It’s good to know more about Marian Nixon and her family.

Posted By swac44 : February 7, 2013 3:53 pm

I wish I could say I’d seen more of Marian Nixon’s films, but the only two that come to mind are the silent Raymond Griffith Civil War-era comedy Hands Up! and a recent offering from TCM, the James Cagney boxing picture Winner Take All which I quite enjoyed, and she seemed to have a nice sympathetic chemistry with her co-star, who got a little further into a character role in this instance.

I was going to ask if she was related to another famous Nixon from California, but it turns out her birth name was actually Nissinen (which makes sense for someone born in Wisconsin). And after Seiter died in 1964, she married another celebrity seven years later, comic actor Ben Lyon, who was lucky enough to be married to the sublime Bebe Daniels from 1930 until her death four decades later.

Posted By swac44 : February 7, 2013 3:53 pm

I wish I could say I’d seen more of Marian Nixon’s films, but the only two that come to mind are the silent Raymond Griffith Civil War-era comedy Hands Up! and a recent offering from TCM, the James Cagney boxing picture Winner Take All which I quite enjoyed, and she seemed to have a nice sympathetic chemistry with her co-star, who got a little further into a character role in this instance.

I was going to ask if she was related to another famous Nixon from California, but it turns out her birth name was actually Nissinen (which makes sense for someone born in Wisconsin). And after Seiter died in 1964, she married another celebrity seven years later, comic actor Ben Lyon, who was lucky enough to be married to the sublime Bebe Daniels from 1930 until her death four decades later.

Posted By Doug : February 8, 2013 7:01 am

I pulled “Sons of the Desert” off the shelf and watched it again because of this post-I appreciate all the more the steady hand of
Mr Seiter guiding the boys (and the girls) through all of that fun.
Rather than simply being “the wives”, Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie have their own scenes and interactions,and are quite funny.
Charley Chase shows what he’s made of; I hadn’t remembered, but Stanley, who usually has a mouth full of malaprops (“We’ll catch our death of ammonia!”),at one point concisely describes their situation with perfect erudition.
From the looks of his IMDB page, Mr Seiter also made about 700 other movies-that is a career!

Posted By Doug : February 8, 2013 7:01 am

I pulled “Sons of the Desert” off the shelf and watched it again because of this post-I appreciate all the more the steady hand of
Mr Seiter guiding the boys (and the girls) through all of that fun.
Rather than simply being “the wives”, Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie have their own scenes and interactions,and are quite funny.
Charley Chase shows what he’s made of; I hadn’t remembered, but Stanley, who usually has a mouth full of malaprops (“We’ll catch our death of ammonia!”),at one point concisely describes their situation with perfect erudition.
From the looks of his IMDB page, Mr Seiter also made about 700 other movies-that is a career!

Posted By robbushblog : February 11, 2013 3:58 am

I’m afraid my knowledge of both her father and mother are lacking. The book should be an interesting read though.

Posted By robbushblog : February 11, 2013 3:58 am

I’m afraid my knowledge of both her father and mother are lacking. The book should be an interesting read though.

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