Posted by Susan Doll on June 3, 2013
Recently, I was reminded of the tragic story of an aspiring starlet named Julia Ann Graham. I was visiting family near Sistersville, West Virginia, which was Graham’s hometown. And, while I was there, I caught an episode of the sensationalist but always entertaining Paranormal Witness on the Syfy Channel in which four people claimed to have been terrorized by the ghost of actress Peg Entwistle near the Hollywood sign. Entwistle is infamous for committing suicide by jumping off the letter “H” of the Hollywood sign, because of her supposed failed career. Since then, Peg has come to symbolize the dark side of Hollywood, which can smash the hopes and dreams of aspiring actors and actresses—like those of Julia Ann Graham. While Entwistle has become more famous in death than in life, poor Julia remains completely unknown.
Sistersville was a tiny but thriving hamlet along the Ohio River when Graham was born in 1915. The teenaged Graham, who was christened Juliann after her prominent grandmother, reminded me of those ultra-popular small-town girls who are on every page of the high-school yearbook: She was editor of the school newspaper, art editor of the yearbook, and salutatorian of her graduating class. She also worked in the Sistersville Library, performed in productions in the Little Theater, and sang in the choir at the Presbyterian Church. (The latter became a key detail of her life story used repeatedly to paint a certain image of her.) In her spare time, she watched movies regularly and read the movie fanzines religiously. Graham was a big fish in a little pond when she graduated from high school in 1933, and she must have thought her amateur experiences were enough for her to make it in Hollywood. Or, perhaps she was encouraged by the ads and contests in the fanzines of the time, which enticed hundreds of young girls to come to Hollywood with the promise of a career in the movies. After Christmas, Juliann withdrew her life savings of $200 from the bank and took a bus to California, where she adjusted her name to Julia Ann. It is not hard to guess what was in store for her.
By March 1934, Julia Ann had not caught a break, and she had run out of money. As reported in a Los Angeles newspaper, her grim situation supposedly prompted her first suicide attempt. The headline blared: “West Virginia Girl Near Death. Failing in Movies, Takes Sleeping Powders.” And yet, I found it difficult to believe that two months in Hollywood without success provoked such dire action. The article paraphrased her suicide note: She confessed that at age 19, she was tired of living and hated life—strong reactions for only two months of bad luck in Hollywood. I suspect there may be an additional reason for her despair, though I have not uncovered it. And, this is not the only part of Julia Ann Graham’s story that does not ring true to me.
As the adage goes, there is no such thing as bad publicity. Newspaper articles about Graham’s suicide attempt drew the attention of legendary Earl Carroll, producer of Broadway’s Vanities, which was a musical-variety stage show famous for its scantily clad showgirls. Carroll, who was staying in Hollywood during the film production of Murder at the Vanities, a backstage musical mystery, visited Graham in the hospital. After her release, he arranged for Paramount to give her a screen test. An AP photo of Graham and Carroll, who was no stranger to publicity, circulated in the major newspapers with a caption noting the would-be actress’s new fortune. She became an extra in Murder at the Vanities, appearing as one of the chorines. With luck and connections, this break could have led her down the path to stardom as it did for Lucille Ball, Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, and Alan Ladd, who were also in the chorus.
Lovers of pre-Code movies might want to check out Murder at the Vanities. Released at the end of May 1934, just a few weeks before the censorship system known as the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced, Vanities makes the most of the chorines’ ample cleavage, among other vices. My favorite production number is “Sweet Marijuana,” in which chanteuse Gertrude Michael sings the praises of marijuana accompanied by mariachis strumming guitars in front of cardboard cacti sporting topless Carroll cuties in each cactus flower. Though a surprising number of film stills can be found for this movie, Graham is difficult to spot in them.
Graham appeared as an extra in other films, including a George Burns and Gracie Allen vehicle titled Many Happy Returns, released in June 1934—the month the Production Code was enforced. She next appeared as an extra in Shoot the Works, released in July 1934. Like Murder at the Vanities, Shoot the Works stars comic actor Jack Oakie, who plays a Tin Pan Alley songwriter trying to keep his big band afloat among the hustlers and show-biz folk of 42nd Street.
According to popular columnist Harrison Carroll (no relation to Earl), Julia had received a contract from Paramount with a modest salary after she passed her screen test. In an interview for Robin Coons’s column of May 14, Julia noted that she did not expect to be playing “atmosphere” (doing extra work) much longer. She anticipated news of a speaking role every time the phone rang. However, if she were on contract, the studio did not seem anxious to build her career by easing her into bit roles or grooming her with acting classes.
In September or November of 1934, Graham reportedly attempted suicide again, this time while living with friends. They supposedly discovered her in the nick of time. I am skeptical of this second suicide attempt, because I could find no evidence of it in the newspapers at the time. Perhaps it did occur, but studio execs did not want the bad publicity, considering Paramount was part of the fairy tale spun about her earlier rescue from despair. Studio publicity departments were notorious for squelching potentially harmful stories, distracting columnists and reporters by dangling scoops and exclusives in front of them. Or, perhaps Graham lied about the second attempt in order to elicit sympathy or to land more work. Or, perhaps it did not happen at all.
In the spring of 1935, Graham finally received a speaking role in a Burns and Allen comedy called Love in Bloom. She played a waitress in a scene with Joe Morrison and Dixie Lee in which Morrison talks about his struggle to make it in show business—an ironic coincidence, considering Julia’s story. But, the new year proved eventful for another reason, because Graham took up with veteran cinematographer Ben F. Reynolds, sometimes credited as Benjamin Reynolds. A respected Hollywood cameraman of the silent era, Reynolds had worked for the likes of John Ford and Frank Capra, though he is best remembered as Erich von Stroheim’s cinematographer. Von Stroheim depended on cameramen Reynolds and William Daniels throughout his directorial career, and the trio worked closely together on Greed, Blind Husbands, The Merry Widow, Foolish Wives, and more.
In retrospect, the caliber of Reynolds’s 1930s films may not have matched those of the silent era, but he was still a valuable cinematographer. While Julia was at Paramount, Reynolds was working with directors like Eddie Cline on Paramount’s comedy vehicles, including those starring W.C. Fields. In Frank Capra’s autobiography, The Name Above the Title, the director insinuated that Reynolds had problems adjusting to the sound era partly because his weight made it difficult for him to fit inside the new soundproof booths. Some have suggested that the cinematographer’s career subsequently declined after the coming of sound. But, those booths were long gone by the mid-1930 when sync-sound filmmaking improved, and a contract at Paramount was definitely not a step backward. He was considered a member of the “colony,” that exclusive community of stars and studio personnel who were privileged, clannish, and protected by the industry. Reynolds, a 360-pound married man in his mid-40s, was not the most attractive suitor, but his connections undoubtedly improved his appeal.
Reynolds claimed he met Julia on the set of Rose of the Rancho, which was in production in the late spring of 1935. He escorted the 20-year-old girl to the hottest night spots for a few weeks, before asking her to go to Catalina Island for a weekend. Adelaide Reynolds, the unfortunate wife in this sordid tale, was apparently back east visiting friends or relatives. Feigning sickness, Graham left the set of Rose of the Rancho early on Saturday, May 13, to cruise over to Catalina with Reynolds. The two registered in a hotel under assumed names and proceeded to drink heavily. According to Reynolds, Julia continued to drink long after he had stopped, so she was quite intoxicated when the pair returned to Hollywood on Sunday evening. Versions of the story vary, but Graham was either too drunk to return to her room at the Hollywood Studio Club, a boarding house especially for aspiring actresses, or she was past the curfew.
Only Reynolds knew the truth of what happened to poor Julia Graham that weekend, and his recollections of what happened grew fishier as events turned ugly. According to the philandering cameraman, he refused her request to stay at his home because his wife was out of town. However, she was so drunk that she collapsed on his sofa in the living room and fell asleep immediately. With the decision out of his hands, he retired to his bedroom upstairs. In the wee hours, Graham found a gun and shot herself in the left temple. Reynolds raced downstairs to find Julia on the floor. He rushed to the telephone, telling the operator, “For God’s sake, send the police”— a line that belongs in an old melodrama. Julia lived for about an hour after she was rushed to the hospital before she died. In other versions of his story, Reynolds admitted that she had entered his room, disrobed completely, found a gun, and shot herself in front of a mirrored dresser at the foot of the bed. He claimed he did not hear anything until the gunshot, because he was “a heavy sleeper.” Whichever version of the story is more likely, you don’t need to be psychic to know that the two were having an affair, and they had clearly retired to the same bed that evening. And, her decision to kill herself had more to do with her relationship with Reynolds than he admitted, making every aspect of his story open to debate.
The police let Reynolds go after District Attorney Buron Fitts determined her death a suicide without an inquest. It was only after her death that news of Julia Graham’s second suicide attempt was revealed. Reynolds may have been the source of this information, perhaps at the advice of Paramount; if not, he wasted no time in lending it credence. A UP story circulated immediately around the country, including in the Charleston Gazette back in West Virginia, in which Reynolds mentioned that Julia had tried to kill herself twice. He informed authorities that she told him repeatedly that “the third time will be the charm.” And, being the humanitarian that he was, he had convinced her to give up such thoughts and concentrate on her work. Apparently, he was no better at convincing than he was at lying.
Followers of famous Hollywood scandals might recognize the name of District Attorney Buron Fitts, because he investigated the 1932 death of MGM producer Paul Bern. The bookish Bern had wed sexy star Jean Harlow, then committed suicide two months later, leaving a cryptic suicide note. In his 1990 book Deadly Illusions, Samuel Marx accused Fitts of accepting a bribe from MGM studio execs to accept a fabricated version of the suicide to avoid scandal. The year before Graham’s suicide, Fitts was indicted for bribery and perjury for taking money to drop a rape charge against a wealthy real-estate promoter, who was later acquitted.
Julia’s father, Harry Graham, did not believe his daughter ended her own life and demanded an investigation. Fitts reopened the case, but it was clear that he had little intention of changing his determination. After the case reopened, accounts of Graham’s second suicide attempt became very detailed, and newspaper articles began to quote an alleged suicide note, though no reporter bothered to question who had saved the note for all those months. The note supposedly read, “Had I known what faced an inexperienced girl without dramatic training, I would never have left home for Hollywood. The fight is terrific. It forced me to choose death rather than carry on. ” I can’t imagine a 20-year-old turning a phrase like “an inexperienced girl without dramatic training.” People just don’t talk that way—except in press releases and fanzine articles ghost-written by studio press agents.
Even more unbelievable was the discovery of Julia Graham’s diary on July 29. In an undated entry that sources described as a scrawled note, she allegedly wrote, “Soon I shall die . . . I just miss therefore I’m illusive. I can’t even grasp myself. I can’t live, but I’m too confused. . . I know what fiendish thing I shall do. I’ll steal Ben’s gun, and—.” The tell-tale diary entry that conveniently spelled out her specific intent was labeled conclusive evidence by Fitts, who reiterated his original conclusion that she had killed herself over her “failed” career. Case closed, again. Reynolds’s participation was reduced to that of innocent bystander, meaning he was no longer at the center of the story, which must have pleased both him and the studio. Reporters turned their attention away from Reynolds to focus on exaggerated accounts of Julia’s misfortune and her inability to overcome it. Information about the diary was released immediately to the press. Headlines reinforced the new spin on the story: “Diary Shows Choir Singer Killed Self” and “‘Soon I Shall Die,’ Julia Ann Graham Wrote Before Death.”
In my years as a film historian, I have researched many sordid stories, tragic events, and scandals. There is a pattern to them: A sensational event is reported in the newspapers, then re-interpreted by the studio who spins the story for an eager press looking for explanations. A patsy—usually someone who is dead or already ruined—is produced to shoulder most of the scandal, while those with marketable careers are re-positioned as sympathetic victims or innocent bystanders. Any touchy legal issues are generally taken care of by certain studio execs who reach out to L.A.’s law enforcement or judicial community, often bribing them via the studio’s “widows and orphans fund.”
Much can be ascertained from Graham’s tragedy. It is the story of the exploitation of extras and hopeful actors by industry personnel; it is the story of the fine line between news and publicity and the finer line between news and spin. Most of all, it is a reminder that L.A. is a company town, where the city’s institutions serve and protect the industry at the expense of individuals.
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