Bessie Love was born in Midland, Texas in 1898 and moved to Hollywood with her family in 1911. After graduating from high school in 1915, she was introduced to D.W. Griffith, who was always on the lookout for pretty young girls for his films. He renamed her (she was born Juanita Horton) and although she had no acting experience, gave her small roles. She made her debut in a 1915 serial called Georgia Pearce when the Pearl White serials were all the rage. Her co-stars included Constance Talmadge and Carmel Myers. Love continued to get small roles in films for Griffith’s Fine Arts Company. By 1916 she had already moved up to “leading lady” status in The Aryan with William S. Hart and three popular films with Douglas Fairbanks (then in his comedy period). She is especially good in Reggie Mixes In as the bewildered saloon girl Fairbanks rescues and marries. Love first worked with Griffith in 1916 in Intolerance, playing the Bride of Cana in the Judean arc of the film. It was the only time they worked together.
As the teens waned, Love joined the Vitagraph Company and enjoyed a period of success in comedies and dramas, working with many of the major actors and directors of the day. She was an original WAMPAS Baby Star of 1922 (along with Colleen Moore). In 1921 she played an island castaway with long hair in The Sea Lion with Hobart Bosworth and Emory Johnson. In 1923 she starred with the fast-rising John Gilbert in St. Elmo. In 1924 she starred with Blanche Sweet in Those Who Dance. In 1925 she starred in the hugely ambitious sci-fi film, The Lost World, a film that still amazes with its special dinosaur effects and volcanic eruptions. In it she plays a young woman on an expedition with a slightly deranged explorer (Wallace Beery), who is intent on proving his wild claims of discovery. An older man (Lewis Stone) is in love with her, but he has competition from a young hotshot (Lloyd Hughes) for her attentions. Together the four trek through the jungles of South America. The film is the forerunner to so many subsequent adventure films that placed the personal dramas of the main characters against the real drama to come: in this case, a lost world.
Also in 1925 Love starred with superstar Richard Barthelmess in Soul-Fire and is credited with dancing the first on-screen Charleston in The King on Main Street, an honor usually given to Joan Crawford for Our Dancing Daughters. In 1927 she starred in Young April as an American student forced to take her place as a European princess and marry for political reasons. In that same year she also starred with Harrison Ford and May Robson in the cute cross-country car comedy Rubber Tires. She gave solid performances in Cecil B. De Mille’s Dress Parade (1927) with William Boyd and in Frank Capra’s The Matinee Idol (1928), an early Sullivan’s Travels type of film with Love falling for the guy who has joined the traveling show, unaware that he’s a big star on Broadway. Love’s final silent films were: Sally of the Scandals and Anyone Here Seen Kelly? in 1928. Neither film was a hit.
When the sound era arrived, Bessie Love didn’t have a studio contract and was working the vaudeville circuit. When MGM came up with the idea of making The Broadway Melody as its first “all talking, all singing, all dancing” production (a decision based largely on the huge box-office receipts for Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool), they built the film around the talents of the Duncan Sisters, vaudeville superstars. But the sisters were booked solid and could not break away to make the film. So MGM frantically searched for replacements. MGM had tall, blonde Anita Page under contract and assigned her to the Vivian Duncan (also tall and blonde) role of “Queenie”. The Rosetta Duncan role was harder to fill. When studio officials learned that Bessie Love was on stage, singing, dancing, and playing a ukulele, she was summoned for a screen test, but Love refused to test. She surmised that after 75 films, they certainly knew her film work. Luckily, she relented and was hired for the part of “Hank”; although it was really the starring role, she received third billing behind Charles King and Anita Page.
MGM got it right. One of the marvels of Love’s performance is that she is loose, relaxed, and exciting. She sings and dances to “The Boyfriend,” “Harmony Babies from Melody Lane,” and the title song; she also gets to sing slang that most audiences had never heard before. Bessie Love is exhilarating. So many performances in early talkies were stiff, hammy, and over-enunciated. Even seasoned stage actors often didn’t come off well because they simply repeated what they had done on the stage. But Love attacked the new medium with gusto. Indeed, her breakdown scene in which she relinquishes her love for King to save her sister from the clutches of a cad earned Love a best-actress Oscar nomination. She lost to none other than Mary Pickford for Coquette, but The Broadway Melody won the Oscar for best film and was a blockbuster hit. More importantly for Love, the success of the film earned her a contract with MGM, where for the next few years she was the busiest actress on the lot (if not in Hollywood). Talkies revived her sagging film career, but not for long.
MGM got it wrong. Including The Broadway Melody, MGM featured Love in a series of ten films through early 1931. Love scored again in the smash-hit, all-star Hollywood Revue of 1929, trading quips with Jack Benny, getting a solo spot in “I Didn’t Know I Could That,” and teaming with Marie Dressler and Polly Moran in a few numbers, including their hilarious send-up of the Brox Sisters in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Unfortunately, the initial craze for musicals was short-lived, and by the time Chasing Rainbows (which also boasted Marie Dressler and Jack Benny) and Good News (based on a smash Broadway musical) came out in 1930, most of the musical numbers had been stripped away, leaving a few songs and some big plot holes. Chasing Rainbows again gave Love a “big scene” when she thinks she’s lost the boy (Charles King again) to some floozy but instead of tearful drama, she gives way to hysterical laughter. The film is missing its big Technicolor finale in which Love sang a reprise of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” Good News exists in a partial print, also missing the finale. The film flopped and was Love’s last picture for MGM.
Love fared better in the comedies. The Idle Rich (1929) is a droll little film based on a stage play. She plays the kid sister in a middle-class home where the older sister (Leila Hyams) has snagged a rich husband (Conrad Nagel). The kicker is that he decides to give up his fortune and live like “ordinary” people. Once again Love is given a hysterical scene when she learns Nagel is relinquishing his millions. The Girl in the Show (1930) saw Love once again as a trouper in a traveling show. They Learned About Women (1930) saw Love teamed with Vaudeville stars Van and Schenck (who specialized in ethnic humor). See America Thirst (1930) found Love teamed with Harry Langdon (struggling in talkies) in a B-film for Universal. Morals for Women (1931) was Love’s last starring film in Hollywood (and for the skid row Tiffany Productions). She moved to England in 1935 and worked on stage and in occasional films. In 1936 Love starred in her final film, a musical called I Live Again with John Garrick and Noah Beery.
Bessie Love never went away. For the rest of her life she appeared on stage and TV and in small film parts (sometimes in big films). She retained her Hollywood friendships and connections (she had been married to Howard Hawks’ brother) and appeared in films like No Highway in the Sky with Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich, The Barefoot Contessa (with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner), The Story of Esther Costello (with Joan Crawford), Nowhere to Go (Maggie Smith’s film debut), The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (with Vivien Leigh and Warren Beatty), Isadora (with Vanessa Redgrave), Sunday, Bloody Sunday (with Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch), and in 1981, 66 years after she made her film debut) appeared in Ragtime (with James Cagney) and as a “witness” in Warren Beatty’s Reds. In most of these (and many other) films, Love had bit parts and was usually unbilled. But now and then she got a real role.
But it’s undoubtedly The Broadway Melody for which Bessie Love will be remembered. This 1929 talkie provided the prototype for all those determined, stage-struck heroines who followed Love, with their combination of guts, talent, and plenty of wisecracks to go around.