Alma Rubens – Silent Snowbird

As a child, Alma Rubens knew she would be famous. Her ambitions often came at the expense of her parents, John B. and Teresa Hayes Reubens, who worked hard to support her dreams, emotionally and financially. Around the age of ten, Alma’s schooling was sidetracked by the infamous San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which ravaged the area and leveled The John Swett Grammar School, where she had been a student. During that time, Alma spent the majority of her nights in bed, fantasizing about stardom and trying to decide between two stage names for her career: Grace Howard and Rosa La France. She chose La France.

As a teenager, Alma attended a public school in close proximity to The Grauman Theatre. The theatre was owned by Sid Grauman and his father, and one day while hanging around outside, Alma suddenly got the impulse to apply for a part in a show. Before she could say anything, the senior Grauman asked her how much she thought she was worth; Alma stated she wouldn’t work for less than $10 a week. Before long, she was running home, giddy with the prospect of having her own stage act. Nevertheless, Alma’s excitement was short-lived; she never heard from the Graumans. Her disappointment led her to various mundane jobs, all of which she disliked and eventually lost.

Alma had another brush with opportunity, auditioning for an extra role in a G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson production. Anderson called her too young and too fair, and suggested she fry powder in a pan and smear it on her face, and then lay on the beach to cook into her skin. Alma did as instructed, causing herself to look more foolish than driven. Despite the unorthodox regimen, it caught the attention of two fellow beachgoers named William Rock and Maude Fulton, who were scheduling a show called The Girl At the Gate and told Alma to report to the stage the following morning. Though her audition was somewhat embarrassing, she won a part in the show at $35 a week.

Life on the road, though hard at times, brought Alma into the path of Roland Sturgeon, a famed director with Vitagraph Studios. Sturgeon offered her the part of Lorelei in the 1915 three-reeler The Lorelei Madonna. She accepted a contract which looked better on paper than it did in reality. A period of hardship followed; and despite a brief interaction with Mack Sennett, Alma’s career looked to be on the way down.

Recently released, Alma Rubens, Silent Snowbird tells the story of the budding starlet in her own words. The book is mainly comprised of Rubens’s autobiography, which had been published as a serial in the New York Daily Mirror in 1931 and then republished in an abbreviated form in Real Detective Magazine. Editors Gary D. Rhodes and Alexander Webb took the serialized text, which include the big break with D.W. Griffith that finally jumpstarted Rubens’s career, and added their own newly-written biography and filmography, thus making this the definitive resource on Alma Rubens. A good portion of Alma’s writing centers on her drug addiction and mental decline. As stated in the introduction: “By 1918, actress Alma Rubens was a noted screen personality. By 1920, she was a major star. By 1929, she was hospitalized for drug abuse. By 1931, she was dead from its effects.”

Rhodes and Webb dealt with numerous inconsistencies in the original text, which they attribute to the possibility that Rubens dictated memories to an outside source, or that various edits were made in the publication process. They note a change in voice, between formal and informal, and mistakes characteristic of facts being lost in translation. The combination of the autobiography and its preface results in a brutally honest tale of hope and loss, using many inside stories to illustrate a woman who became a victim of the very industry she loved.

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