Helen Twelvetrees: Pre-Code Star
By Susan Doll
The pre-Code era produced a number of female stars who did not transition to the post-Code industry after 1934. While much has been made of silent-era stars who did not make it in the “talkies,” few historians have chronicled the pre-Code actresses whose star images as tarnished ladies did not fit into the Production Code’s archetype for the ideal female lead. Helen Twelvetrees, who is spotlighted on TCM on Monday, October 24, was one of those stars who faded away in the mid-1930s. Because her fame was short-lived, and her films relatively unknown, information on the actress tends to be erroneous, as though written by a press agent.
Twelvetrees was born Helen Jurgens in Brooklyn in 1908. Young Helen discovered a passion for acting while attending high school at the Brooklyn Heights Seminary. Though she appeared in various school productions, she did not play roles on the New York stage at this time, as is claimed by some sources. Upon graduation, she opted to attend the Arts Student League, a famous art school in Manhattan, because she also exhibited a talent for drawing. She had just transferred to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, one of the oldest drama schools in the western world, when producer Stuart Walker offered the fresh-faced 19-year-old a position in his stock company.
While touring in Ohio in Walker’s company, she met fellow actor Clark Twelvetrees. Two weeks later, they were married without consulting her parents. Twelvetrees proved to be an unstable young man. The following year, he attempted suicide by jumping out a window while Helen was rehearsing to play the lead in An American Tragedy on Broadway. Clark survived the fall, but not the marriage. Helen paid her husband’s hospital bills, but she divorced him in 1930, claiming Clark was drunk when he married her. Helen’s success as an actress combined with Clark’s professional failures created a toxic marriage. He died under tragic circumstances in 1938.
An American Tragedy garnered critical and popular acclaim for Helen Twelvetrees, who opted to keep her ex’s name. She also received good notices for The Cat and the Canary, a highly popular stage play during the Roaring 20s. By 1929, she was in Hollywood, one of the hundreds of stage actors imported from New York to stake their claims to careers in the talkies. The press noticed Twelvetrees in her first film, The Ghost Talks. One columnist wrote that the “good voice” she developed on the stage would certainly translate as a good voice for the big screen.
Like many stars under contract in the early sound era, Twelvetrees was assigned to film after film with no break in between. Within a year, she had costarred in her sixth film, Her Man, in a role that cemented her star image. Twelvetrees starred as a Parisian bargirl who loses her virtue to the wrong man. When the right man comes along, she can’t escape her mistakes. The studio consistently cast her as fallen women who had been seduced into sin, but unlike pre-Code stars Jean Harlow or Mae West, Twelvetrees’ characters never enjoyed or reveled in it. The titles of her movies reflected the plights of her characters: Love Starved, Bad Company, A Bedtime Story, Disgraced, Unashamed, Woman of Experience, and My Woman. The latter three air on Monday, along with Is My Face Red?, Panama Flo, and Hollywood Round-Up. The actress was adept at crying on cue, which the studios (first Fox, then RKO) used to their best advantage. In a 1955 interview syndicated in newspapers around the country, it was clear she resented how “they turned me into a weeper.”
Unashamed is a perfect example of Twelvetrees’ star image. Helen stars as society girl Joan Ogden who falls for a greedy reprobate. After he seduces her, he attempts to extort money from her family in exchange for his silence, but her father and brother refuse. Joan’s brother, whose affection for his sister is just this side of incestuous, shoots the blackmailer. In court, most of the family, including the loyal maid, deliberately lie on the witness stand, though none of them suffer any consequences. Like many pre-Code melodramas, the moral order of the world that the characters inhabit is out of whack. The rich, beautiful protagonists rarely pay for their sins.
In the mid-1930s, after the adoption of the Production Code, Twelvetrees experienced several personal and professional problems. No longer under contract to RKO-Pathe. Twelvetrees attempted to escape her “weeper” image by starring in an Australian film called Thoroughbred in which her character helps restore a racehorse to top racing form. In 1936, Twelvetrees divorced her second husband, Frank B. Woody, a former stunt man turned real estate broker. In another highly publicized court case, Twelvetrees claimed Woody humiliated her among her friends and interfered with her ability to land movie roles because of his quarrelsome nature. While some attribute her decline to these difficulties, her star image as the fallen women was no longer relevant in Hollywood under the Code. Mounting personal problems and a passé star image proved a disastrous combination for Twelvetrees. By the end of the decade, she was the butt of a joke: Who is Rin Tin Tin’s favorite actress? The “trees” part of her last name provided the humor in the answer.
Twelvetrees made only three films after Thoroughbred, including Hollywood Round-Up opposite B-cowboy actor Buck Jones. In the 1940s, she returned to the theater, though not necessarily to the Broadway stage. While touring Germany in a play sponsored by the USO, she met Major Conrad Payne in the officers’ club. The two married in 1947, and Twelvetrees retired to be an officer’s wife. Whenever she was interviewed about her past as a movie star, Helen was less than enthusiastic. In 1955, reporter Cynthia Lowry asked Twelvetrees if she missed the movies. Lowry noticed a hint of bitterness when Helen responded “no” in a manner described as “almost violently.” Three years later, Helen Twelvetrees was dead from a drug overdose, likely prompted by a long-standing kidney ailment.
Hollywood’s star-making machine had accelerated in the early talkie era to construct images for an influx of actors and actresses imported from the stage. Some of these stars, such as Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell, and Bette Davis, tweaked their images to survive the changes in women’s roles due to the Production Code. Others, such as Twelvetrees, Dorothy Mackaill, Ruth Chatterton, and even Mae West, did not, losing direction and then momentum in their careers.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).