Book Review: Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films

Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films by Cliff Aliperti.

Even to die hard film buffs Helen Twelvetrees is not the most familiar name. She had 3 to 4 years of stardom and was important and talented, yet she faded from memory, many of her films were overlooked or fell out of mainstream circulation, and her unique name, when recalled at all, became a punchline. The bright side of the mockery was that at least it kept her familiar and helped stir the curiosity of fans, film historians and even her family. The grandson she never met started the imprint Twelvetrees Press and was led to a fascinating career as a result of looking into her life story, and as recently as a few years ago, poets and playwrights have been inspired to create works about her mystique.

How did she become such a forgotten and overlooked figure needing rescue from undeserved obscurity? In this book Cliff Aliperti looks at some reasons: she was at the “wrong” studios (affecting TV and release rights and availability) and had no huge film to immortalize her. She costarred with big names but wasn’t in their big or cool movies. She was a fan magazine fixture, her marriage troubles (and one mystery marriage) the subject of gossip, and she died tragically young, but nothing juicy or shocking enough to draw lasting attention from those angles.

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This book also nicely presents all the reasons this “perfect ingenue” should be remembered. She was a good actress with projects, friends and coworkers of interest to any movie buff, especially those who love the pre-Code years. A chronicle of her personal and career ups and downs reveal a lot, both about her specific era and the perennial problems a young star faces in landing the right roles and handling fame while guarding privacy. From Brooklyn roots she dabbled in art and modelling and then acted, first on stage and then in movies by 1929. She struggled to establish herself and almost went back East before landing a contract, during which her affecting and expressive presence was featured in many weepies and melodramas. Building on her image as a tragedienne, she rose quickly, appearing in such films as Her Man (1930) with Phillips Holmes, and The Painted Desert (1931) with William Boyd. She reached a peak with Millie (1931), which made her a respected talent and star attraction on the level of Ann Harding and Constance Bennett. She starred with John Barrymore but then was passed over for the leads in a couple (or three) big films that might have lifted her to diverse, deeper, meatier starring roles with more prominent filmmakers. She also took time out to have a baby, which further slowed her momentum, and after returning to work with Maurice Chevalier, Chester Morris, Robert Young and Spencer Tracy, she steadily slipped from the top rank.

There are many more intriguing things to learn, ranging from the unusual fate of Twelvetrees’ first husband, to her part in a big Hollywood fashions line sold in department stores. Cliff outlines her post-film work in radio (including a gossip show) and as a TV movie hostess. She tried to block a movie made by her one-time studio RKO because it so closely resembled her life and second marriage to former stuntman, Lone Pine guide and bit player Jack Woody. She did USO work, and continued to act on stage but into the 1950s suffered from alcoholism and died of an apparent suicide at age 50.

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Despite her decline, this is not a sad or bleak book but an enjoyable history. Before reading this, the most I knew about Twelvetrees came from an article on her life that, it turned out, was by Dan Van Neste, who wrote the foreword for this book. He’s right in his high praise for Cliff’s work, dedication and writing style, all of which make for a richly detailed and highly readable book that sheds light on so much about Twelvetrees’ life and place in Hollywood, and inspires you to see more of her movies. Any fan of the collectible Citadel “Films of” book series will appreciate the modern twist on that format, a full biography followed by an expanded filmography. In the e-version this is especially well-structured and interactive since the first mention of each film links directly to that movie’s individual chapter and then back to where you stepped out of the bio. It’s a convenient way to present the in-depth background, plots, reviews and analysis of each movie and present so much information in the interesting Helen Twelvetrees story. 

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Many thanks to Cliff Aliperti for providing a review copy of the book. Read more at Cliff’s site Immortal Ephemera

 

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Helen Twelvetrees, Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films”

  1. Great review! I’ll be posting a review as well, next week, and I’ll link to yours.

    I really wasn’t familiar with Helen T. before reading Cliff’s book. He’s done an astounding amount of research!

    1. For sure, and so well presented, I learned a lot and will be looking for her more now, (only seen 2-3 of her movies). Interesting story and on a formatting note, I really liked the option of going back and forth to the movie section. Thanks!

    1. I never knew much about her either and it was great to learn more. Interesting life and nice writing that tells you a lot about the era, more than just her movies. I know you’re a fan of Citadel style books too and this is a neat way to update that format.

  2. Excellent review. I recently read this book too and really enjoyed it – Cliff is a mine of information. Have also enjoyed watching some of Helen’s films since reading. I do love her with John Barrymore in State’s Attorney and also with Eric Linden in Young Bride.

    1. Yes– so much research and so well written, a joy to read and learn when it’s done this way. I have Young Bride here and want to see it soon. Thanks!

  3. I’ve seen only a few of Twelvetrees’s movies but have always found her quite fascinating. From what you say, this book is an absolute must-read. I must try to lay hands on a copy.

    1. Yes, she was fascinating, talented, beautiful. The story is very interesting, and goes to show how many once-famous faces you’d expect would last, end up “lost,” overshadowed, neglected for random reasons. Really nice read and enjoyed learning about her.

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