Louise Lovely

Louise Lovely’s career spanned stage melodrama, vaudeville, and early film in both Australia and the United States. She was creation, and victim, of the Hollywood star system: both fortunate and unfortunate in her similarity to Mary Pickford, who was overwhelmingly the most popular female star of the time. Like a number of other female stars, her natural resemblance to Pickford was further highlighted through her hairstyles, makeup, costumes, and publicity photographs. And not only was she was featured in roles similar to those played by Pickford; in fact, many of her films had plots that mimicked Pickford’s vehicles.

Of course, “Louise Lovely” wasn’t her real name. Nor was there any truth to the much-repeated publicity story that, on seeing her 1915 screen test, Carl Laemmle, head of the Universal Studio company, gasped: “She’s lovely in herself and her work. Call her Louise Lovely” (“Louise Makes Good”, Theatre, April 1 1916, p.27).

As will be explained, the situation was much more prosaic than that, and indicates the ruthless business strategies of film companies in early Hollywood—companies which all Australians in early Hollywood dealt with more or less successfully.

Louise Lovely made approximately 50 films in Hollywood between 1915 and 1922, and has been described as “Australia’s foremost international screen star” (Andrée Wright, Brilliant Careers: Women in Australian Cinema, Pan Books, Woollahra, 1986, p.29 However, while her story undoubtedly confirms a degree of success, it also reveals struggles and disappointments.

Born in Sydney in 1895, the young girl was raised single-handedly by her French-Swiss mother, Elise Louise Jeanne Lehmann. Although Louise’s mother referred to herself as Madame Carbasse, she seems not to have been married to the child’s father. When the girl was 9, her mother married prominent Italian professional musician Ferrucio Alberti, who—the day after the wedding—was registered as Louise’s father. But Signor Alberti soon afterwards returned overseas, and Louise moved with her mother to a series of seemingly up-market boarding houses run by Madame Carbasse-Alberti, as Elise Lehmann now called herself.

At the age of 9, “Little Louise Carbasse”—as the program listed her—made her stage debut as Little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, staged by Walter Sanford’s American Company at Sydney’s Lyceum Theatre. With her pert face and petite build, she was the quintessential sweet and plucky heroine. Her golden ringlets created the required dramatic contrast between Little Eva and the blackfaced Topsy, and her aura of shining innocence was used again that same season, in Sanford’s production of Ten Nights in a Barroom.

During 1910, Carbasse toured in minor roles with the company of one of Australia’s leading theatrical ladies, Nellie Stewart. Carbasse absorbed many lessons from Stewart, and two years later, she was compared to her role model: “Miss Stewart and Miss Carbasse, in appearance and in speech, were as alike as two peas” (Theatre, August 1 1912).

After leaving the Stewart company, Carbasse joined George Marlow’s touring troupe, playing lead roles. It is likely that she met comic actor Wilton Welch, her first husband, while with Marlow. They married in 1911, when she was still 16; he was 27.

Carbasse first performed for film in the same year she was married—1911—when she accepted an invitation to join the newly established Australian Life Biograph. Late in her life she spoke of how she admired the movie star she knew as Dolly Nicholson, the name under which Mary Pickford was publicised in Britain:

I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be marvellous to be like her …” I got this telegram … to ask me if I would like to play in films and I wired back quickly … “Yes, I would.” (Louise Lovely interviewed by Ina Bertrand, November 23 1978, p7)

The Australian film industry was well established by 1911, making feature-length productions on a regular basis well before the United States industry was doing so. The years that Carbasse made films in Australia—1911 and 1922—were boom years, the output of which was not surpassed until the “renaissance” of the 1970s (Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years, Currency, [Sydney], (first ed 1983) 1989, p.24). The approach was cheap, crude and decidedly unglamorous—but so was the US industry at the time.

Noted stage director Gaston Mervale directed all the Australian films in which Carbasse appeared. Her fellow performers were all veterans of the stage. The films themselves were cinematic versions of popular theatrical melodramas (The Colleen Bawn, 1911, and Conn the Shaughran, 1912, based on plays by Dion Boucicault; Hands across the Sea, 1912), stories with Australian themes (horse racing in A Ticket in Tatts, 1911; convict tales in One Hundred Years Ago, 1911; gold mining in A Daughter of Australia, 1912), sometimes based on true events (A Tale of the Australian Bush, also known as Ben Hall, the Notorious Bushranger, 1911; The Wreck of the Dunbar, 1912). The Ticket of Leave Man (1912) sounds as if it too might be a convict drama, but was advertised as a “Sensational Detective Drama” (Referee, September 20 1911, p.16).

Carbasse summed up her ambivalent feelings towards her first motion-picture experiences in a 1911 interview:

She likes picture work; but bright, boyish parts in comedy-drama, with plenty of light and shade, are what she thinks she could do best in. “Without music, without lights, and without an audience”, says Miss Carbasse, “the player in pictures is under a big disadvantage. You have to work up your own emotion. Moreover, besides the fact that your voice is wholly lost a great deal of one’s finer acting must also be sacrificed.” (Theatre, November 1 1911, p.37)

Following Australian and New Zealand vaudeville tours with her husband, Welch and Carbasse left for the United States. Photographs show Carbasse at this time looking very much older and sexually sophisticated than her later, girlishly innocent, Mary Pickfordesque image.

When Welch and Carbasse reached Los Angeles in late 1915, she somehow arranged a screen test at Universal, perhaps with the help of Arthur Shirley, another Australian stage actor who employed at the newly opened Universal Studio. In fact, many Australian expats found work at Universal, possibly because it was renowned for its low wages and therefore had a high staff turnover.

Carbasse was assigned to the “company” of director Joseph deGrasse. Her first released film was the short (two reels) Stronger than Death, with Lon Chaney and Arthur Shirley; she was billed as Louise Carbasse Welch. Next came Father and the Boys; her billing was Louise Carbasse. Then came The Grip of Jealousy, and her new name: Louise Lovely.

Lovely claimed all her life not to have liked her new name, and not to have known about the change until she saw “Louise Lovely” on a cinema marquee. However, conflicting publicity stories, and the known tactics of companies such as Universal, strongly suggest the name change was a condition of the contract offered by Universal.

At the same time she received her new name, Lovely’s appearance was altered, in order to emphasise her resemblance to Mary Pickford. Her hair, for instance, seems to have been lightened to its youthful golden tones, and styled once more into ringlets. Gone was the haughty, sexual awareness of her vaudeville persona, and in its place was a be-ribboned pretty innocence, which almost inevitably needed rescuing by a protective male.

The Grip of Jealousy, a costume drama set in the Deep South prior to the Civil War, was released by Universal as a Bluebird Photo Play. Bluebird was a newly set-up “prestige” division, and Lovely was promoted as a new “star.” Her Bluebird films were melodramas that one reviewer dismissed as “cheap, poor-quality, mushy” (Theatre, September 1 1916, p.50). There are other costume dramas: Bettina Loved a Soldier (1916), set in nineteenth-century France; and another Civil War story, The Field of Honor (1917). Sirens of the Sea (1917) was one of a popular “sea sprite” genre which showed young women cavorting on the shore in very little, often transparent, clothing. In The Gilded Spider (1916), Lovely plays a double role, mother and daughter, both Italians preyed upon by a rich American lothario; in Bobbie of the Ballet (1916), she is an orphaned ballet dancer courageously raising her younger siblings. There are a number of outdoors adventure stories, such as The Measure of a Man (1916), The Wolf and his Mate (1917), and Nobody’s Wife and The Girl who Wouldn’t Quit (1918), set in north-western lumber camps or western mining communities.

Other feature-length productions are dramas or comedies which can be broadly described as narratives exploring the moral dangers to young women in the big city: The Gift Girl and The Reed Case (1917); Painted Lips and A Rich Man’s Darling (1918).

However, Universal was ambivalent about making feature films at all, and persisted in making short films and serials long after other studios were fully committed to features (Richard Koszarski, An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1990, p.2). In fact, during 1916 and 1917, Lovely appeared in nine unpretentious short films, including westerns with Harry Carey, who was on the brink of establishing his fame as a western star in John Ford productions. Lovely saw these as low-status films, and complained to studio executive Henry McRae, who advised her: “Just go ahead and do it. Don’t worry. You’ll love it” (Louise Lovely interviewed by Ross Cooper, August 22 1970).

Universal’s attitude towards “stars” was—like its attitude towards feature-length productions—contradictory. While “stars” were promoted, they were seen as no more important than any other element: “Uniform quality and even distribution in all matters of scenario, production, and the player employed is the policy that the Bluebird company has adopted …” (“Standard set for Bluebirds”, Motography, March 4 1916, p.527).

Yet Universal exploited the star system by releasing films branded with the stars’ names. At the end of 1917, a “star cycle” was announced; Louise Lovely Productions was part of this series. Four films were made under Lovely’s brand name, although it seems unlikely that she had any real authority in “her” company.

Universal had, between 1916 and 1917, opened branches worldwide, and the Bluebirds were cheap enough to be shown in Japan, which could not afford features from the major studios (Thompson p.74), and Lovely received fan letters and gifts from Japanese fans (LL/IB p.45).

Lovely discovered in 1918—when her contract ran out and she wanted to work for a different organisation offering a higher salary—why her name change had been a condition of her contract. Universal contractually owned her “Lovely” name, and threatened legal action against any studio that used the name. In 1917, another Universal star, Mary MacLaren (real name Mary MacDonald) took the company to court, suing for the right to use her new name with a different company. The case revealed “a provision in her contract that if she left the company, she could never use her name with another concern” (Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History, New York, Teachers College Press, (first ed. 1929) 1968, p.162).

Lovely’s salary dispute resulted in her departure from Universal when three of the four Louise Lovely Productions had been released. The fourth, A Rich Man’s Darling, was released after her departure as a Bluebird.

The break could not have come at a more difficult time. The economic stringencies following the entry of the United States into World War I in April 1917 greatly affected the film business. By January 1918, Universal had laid off 1,500 staff out of a workforce of 2,100, and Variety announced two months later, that “Universal is about to abandon its Bluebird trademark” (April 12 1918, p.46).

But by then, Lovely had already left the studio, having made approximately 28 films, both short and feature length, for various divisions of Universal during the two years she was there.

Her face disappeared from the cinema screen until early 1919—a long hiatus from which her career never fully recovered. She was “blackballed” for most of 1918, although she did make five individual films for a range of companies. Finally, she signed a new contract with another less-than-prestigious company, Fox Film Corporation, for whom she made 13 films in two years. She was teamed with rugged he-man actor William Farnum for seven productions, of which five were westerns and two others shipwreck films.

Farnum was one of the biggest stars of the Fox organisation. Lovely’s films with him were overseen by senior directors such as Frank Lloyd, who had previously directed Farnum in “prestige” productions such as A Tale of Two Cities (1917) and J. Gordon Edwards, supervising director of Fox and who had directed many of Theda Bara’s films. Lovely, however, was a supporting player, not a star in her own right.

Furthermore, for audiences, both she and Farnum were relics of the past, left behind as ideals of male and female stars transformed in the post-war world. Douglas Fairbanks and even Rudolph Valentino provided sleek new types of masculinity that contrasted to Farnum’s “bare-fisted”, blue-collar burliness; female stars were more likely to be in the mould of the worldly Gloria Swanson-type fashion-plate. Acting styles were simultaneously adjusting to the medium, melodramatic overstatement being replaced by more subtle “psychological” performances captured in close-up. Even Mary Pickford was, by the early 1920s, “tired of playing little-girl parts” (Picture Show, March 1 1923, p.8).

Furthermore, Lovely’s misgivings about appearing in westerns—beginning when she was at Universal—were correct; reviewers frequently criticised them. One wrote about The Orphan: “You will rub your eyes to learn if you are seeing correctly … It is many a day since such a picture has reached the screen” (Motion Picture News, May 8 1920). Another wrote dismissively: “At best The Orphan may make an impression with the youngster still in knee pants whose heart throbs over the miraculous adventures and inhuman feats performed by his hero” (Variety, April 30 1920).

Nevertheless, Lovely did achieve a certain surprising satisfaction from her western films:

I used to ride my horse very hard … and desert-broken horses are beautiful, you know, they swing through the desert … like this, through the prickles … I used to love that. I remember one time I wanted to get my horse to go home to the desert inn where we all lived, and I had no horse … They said, “You’ll have to get home the best way you can.” I said, “What’s the idea?” They said, “You hurt the horses. You’re too hard on them.” Anyway, … the next morning they came in and apologised. They said, “You’ve got to treat a horse like a human being. You can’t go and do that to the thing.” So from that time I treated the horse very well. I used to love the swing through the desert, and they used to love it too.” (LL/IB p.40)

By 1920, Fox seems to have tried to place Lovely in different, more modern settings. For instance, she featured in aviation film The Skyway Man, with war hero pilot and barnstormer Ormer Locklear, who was killed during filming. The Little Grey Mouse was a 1920 romantic drama that Fox advertised as “Louise Lovely’s first starring picture” (Motion Picture News, November 13 1920).

In 1921, Lovely played lead roles in two highly publicised Goldwyn “domestic dramas”, The Old Nest and Poverty of Riches. She then went on to two films made in San Francisco by a new studio called Quality Film Productions: Heart of the North and Life’s Greatest Question, both north-western dramas. These were distributed by CBC Film Sales, a forerunner of Columbia Pictures, which itself was founded in 1924. Lovely claimed she had turned down an invitation to join the board of the company (Kathy Kizilos, “Focus on the Stars of Yesterday”, Age, February 6 1981, p.14), which was established by Jack and Henry Cohn along with Joe Brandt, at least two of whom Lovely probably met at Universal.

The years 1921 and 1922 were particularly difficult, with scandals, falling attendances, retrenchments, and salary cuts for high-paid stars (Picture Show, August 1 1922, p.29). Many film stars found alternative work on the vaudeville circuits, and Lovely credits Harry Cohn as the originator of her next career move: a vaudeville act in which she and husband Wilton Welch conducted “screen tests” on stage, using real lighting and camera equipment (LL/IB p.53). Large numbers of movie-struck aspirants in small and large towns across the US, Canada and—from 1924—Australia, volunteered to be directed by Lovely and filmed by Welch. The act was highly successful, because the proceedings provided humour for audiences, who returned to the theatre the following week to watch the developed films of their friends’, neighbours’ and relatives’ screen tests.

Lovely’s final film was Jewelled Nights, based on a sentimental novel by best-selling author Marie Bjelke Petersen and filmed in Melbourne and northern Tasmania. Louise Lovely Productions vowed to make a number of films “along Hollywood lines”, and to re-establish the Australian film industry.

It appears that Lovely herself worked on the script, editing, design, and contributed to the direction, officially handled by Welch. The film tells the story of a young society woman who runs away from her wedding to a rich, eligible bachelor. Disguising herself as a boy, she flees to the osmiridium fields of Tasmania, and there, in the wilderness, discovers true love. Lovely spent much of her time cross-dressed, and had her hair cropped for the role.

The film didn’t prosper—perhaps due to difficulties in getting it shown in theatres that were, by 1926, aligned with US interests, as she claimed in her evidence to the 1927 Royal Commission into the Australian Moving Picture Industry. Another possibility was that the directorial board was either negligent or actually criminal.

Lovely retired from the screen, divorced Wilton Welch and remarried immediately, to Bert Cowan, manager of Hoyt’s Regent Theatre in Melbourne. Later, the pair moved to Hobart. Lovely died in 1978, living long enough to see the renaissance of the Australian film industry.

Jeannette Delamoir