Remembering the short career and life of Phillips Holmes for the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Forgotten Stars Blogathon.
Beautiful screen stars who die young tend to be immortalized at their peak and in some cases are elevated beyond a level that the work of their brief careers deserve. Others lost too early are completely forgotten despite a run of fairly substantial fame and fine work, and Phillips Holmes is one such actor. Though he had going for him the lineage of an acting family, gorgeous matinee idol looks, and talent that was put to good use by several top name directors and demanding roles, Holmes seemed never to attain superstar stature. He should have been huge, but through bad timing, unfortunate choices and events beyond his control, he saw his movie stardom diminish even before he was killed at 35.
The son of actors Taylor Holmes and Edna Phillips, Phillips Holmes was born in Michigan in 1907. Some stories tell of him being discovered by director Frank Tuttle on campus during the filming of Varsity (1928). It’s just as likely he entered the industry through family connections, and experience gained from bit parts and a year’s work on stage. Either way, Varsity got him a Paramount contract, but the studio didn’t cast him in anything for so long that he begged for a role, which came in the form of a stage production of The Silver Cord (later a movie with Irene Dunne, Joel McCrea and Frances Dee). Holmes found the combined demands of that part, efforts to prove himself, and the rigors of the schedule, all too much and suffered a nervous breakdown that required hospitalization for six weeks. He had to ramp up once again to film studio work and finally in 1929, Holmes seemed to be on his way, appearing alongside such names as Clara Bow, Jean Arthur and Clive Brook, William Powell and Fay Wray in films like The Wild Party and The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
In 1930 Holmes was off to a prolific start with eight movies, including Edmund Goulding’s The Devil’s Holiday and Tay Garnett’s Her Man. The good reviews he earned in that year seemed a sign that 1931 would be his breakthrough, and it started out big with Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code (which you might also by know by its remake Convicted, where Holmes’ character was played by Glenn Ford). Appearing there with Boris Karloff, Walter Huston and Constance Cummings, Holmes played a man wrongly convicted, crushed by his years in prison, but who finds reason to live again when he meets Cummings, the daughter of Huston, the D.A. who put him away, and now his Warden.
Holmes’ last movie out in 1931 was Josef von Sternberg’s adaptation of An American Tragedy (which you might also know by its “remake” A Place in the Sun, where Holmes’ character was played by Montgomery Clift). Here Holmes was the cold ambitious man who disposes of his inconvenient pregnant lower class girl (Sylvia Sidney) when a more appealing rung on the social ladder appears, a rich well-to-do beauty played by Frances Dee. He was mainly hailed for a good performance to which he brought needed ambiguity and a disturbing dark side, as he reveals himself a coward, a schemer, a climber and, though a momentarily reluctant one, a murderer nonetheless.
In 1932 Holmes made four movies including Broken Lullaby, Ernst Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed, and Woody Van Dyke’s Night Court, where Holmes, again appearing with Walter Huston, had several juicy scenes. By now Holmes had proven he was more than just a handsome young man; he was as good at putting across the charm and shining smile of a dashing romantic lead as he was pouring out the tortured soul of a sensitive, yearning, brokenhearted victim or frustrated and troubled young miscreant. As the year ended his Paramount contract ran out and he went to MGM.
1933 was a busy one with nine movies, starting with The Secret of Madame Blanche, where he played the aristocratic young lover of singer Irene Dunne. Denied his inheritance for marrying her, he commits suicide, leaving Dunne a single mother. Holmes also did Penthouse, an excellent mystery with Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy, had a small role in Dinner at Eight (as Madge Evans’ boyfriend), and played in WW1-themed movies Men Must Fight and Storm at Daybreak. His MGM contract ended and he was next seen in Sam Goldwyn’s poorly received Nana (1934).
He was beginning to slide career-wise, pushed aside by studios who handed big parts to the likes of Gary Cooper, Fredric March and Clark Gable. Holmes also didn’t help his reputation by being involved in real life scandals. Mae Clarke sued him for damages after the car he was driving hit a tree and she broke her jaw (the settlement came when he paid her medical bills, and they remained friendly). During his engagement to one woman he was seen dating others, and Sylvia Sidney was one co-star who recalled him as a “poor baby” struggling with depression and alcohol. Holmes was appearing in lesser, even totally ignored films, a couple or three movies per year, a bit of a nomad, working in England, at Universal and RKO. Some of his 1934 credits can be read as a commentary on his career: from being in Million Dollar Ransom, to No Ransom, with Great Expectations (as Pip).
After 1936’s General Spanky, an Our Gang film, he made no more American movies, and ended his film career with two UK movies released in 1938. Remember that he’s only 31 at this point, such a young man with looks and talent to spare but no movie prospects. He tried his hand at producing a play in England, but it made no waves, so he returned to act on stage in the States. Now he was dating Libby Holman, singer and actress who was already known for the scandals of her romances with both men and women, and was to become known for a bit of a curse, bringing bad luck and early demise to some of her loved ones. In the early 30’s while Holmes was at his peak, Holman was embroiled in a mystery surrounding the shooting death of her husband, Reynolds tobacco heir Zachary Smith Reynolds. Now, while Holmes worked hard to stay relevant on stage, Libby Holman became involved with Phillips’ younger brother Ralph–they eloped in 1939 (Ralph died of a drug overdose at age 29 in 1945). Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., in his autobiography Salad Days, wrote how, during these years, he lost track of his good pal and schoolmate Holmes. When Fairbanks, Jr. married in 1939, he wanted Holmes to be his best man, but heard rumours that Holmes was in Rome, jailed for the offense of drunkenly (and motivated by a good deal of patriotism apparently) “relieving himself” off a balcony, right on Mussolini’s procession.
Phillips Holmes continued in theater until the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, at which point both Phillips and Ralph joined the Royal Canadian Air Force (mother Edna Phillips was Canadian). After some ground training in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Phillips and several other fresh graduates were sent on transfer to Ottawa. Their plane collided with another aircraft in Armstrong, Ontario (near Thunder Bay) with no survivors. Holmes was 35.
Though in his short career he made fewer great movies than you’d think would be in the cards for an actor of his looks and skill, he did leave many fine performances for us to seek out and enjoy. He deserved better than to be forgotten in the crowded passing parade of faces, so look for his movies and remember him and his work.
This post is part of the CMBA FORGOTTEN STARS BLOGATHON- click here to see all the other stars being remembered