Billie Dove - Silent Star of May 1997

by William M. Drew

Dubbed "the American Beauty" from the title of one of her films, Billie Dove at her peak in the late 1920s ranked with Colleen Moore and Clara Bow as among the most popular actresses in the cinema. Indeed, for a time, she surpassed Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo at the box-office. She was renowned for her physical perfection, her complexion so flawless that she was a natural choice for some of the earliest films in Technicolor. Her sensitive mouth and large, expressive hazel eyes communicated emotion with an electricity that made her a world-wide symbol of glamour and romance in the silent era. Although successful in the talkies, she chose to retire at the height of her career. Billie Dove today is a serene survivor, the last of the movie queens who reached their peak of popularity when sound was only a distant glimmer in a technician's eye.

Lillian Bohny was born the daughter of middle-class Swiss immigrants in New York City on May 14, 1903. Determining at an early age that she would have a career in motion pictures, she became one of the army of extra and bit players working at the film studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the American cinema's first "capital." Nicknamed "Billie" as a child, she added "Dove" when she began appearing in films. It was, however, her appearance on stage as one of Flo Ziegfeld's "glorified American girls" in the Follies of 1919 that first brought her fame. The Follies became the gateway for many of the silent screen's loveliest stars- Olive Thomas, Mae Murray, Marion Davies, Dorothy Mackaill, Jacqueline Logan, Louise Brooks. None would prove more popular than Billie Dove, the living embodiment of Irving Berlin's perennial "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," fortuitously first heard in the edition of the Follies that introduced Billie.

On the strength of her work with Ziegfeld, it was not long before she was given leads in films made in the New York area, first shorts and then features. In 1922, she was brought out to Hollywood on a year's contract to Metro and soon garnered feminine leads in a variety of films. In her second film produced in Hollywood, All the Brothers Were Valiant, she worked with Irvin Willat, a prominent director of action pictures whom she married in 1923.

For four years, Billie played leads for all of the major studios in Hollywood, proving herself a hard-working, capable actress with an ideal "movie star" name that was immediately recognizable to the public. Two of her films were shot in two-color Technicolor, the 1924 western, Wanderer of the Wasteland, and Douglas Fairbanks's 1926 classic adventure, The Black Pirate. As a princess rescued by Doug from captivity on a pirate ship, Billie with her soft, voluptuous femininity complemented her leading man's energetic virility.

Billie also appeared with a very young Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in several films. He recalled: "I was as smitten as any male of any age would be. She was not only lovely to look at but perfectly charming to work with. However, there was an added obstacle to my expressing myself: The director, Irvin Willat, was her husband!"

Despite her exposure in prestigious productions such as The Black Pirate, Billie still needed to work with a director who could bring out her full potential as an actress. That director turned out to be a woman, Lois Weber, whom Billie calls "the best director I ever had." In 1926, she chose Billie for The Marriage Clause which she scripted and directed for Universal. In the film, Billie played an actress who suffers a nearly fatal breakdown to be saved by the love of a theatrical director (Francis X. Bushman). In so many films, Billie had been primarily decorative, a beautiful image to be sought and won by such heroic leading men as John Gilbert, Tom Mix and Doug Fairbanks. But now under Weber's sensitive, intuitive direction, Billie blossomed as an actress. So effective was the combination that the two quickly reteamed for Sensation Seekers, another film produced for Universal, in which Billie portrayed an emancipated young woman of the Jazz Age.

The two films with Weber, as Myrtle Gebhart noted in a contemporary profile of Billie in Picture Play, proved to be "the turning point in her career. She played interesting, womanly characters in both films, and the sympathetic understanding of the woman director, Lois Weber, made her feel more at home, at ease in her work than ever before." Suddenly sought after by all the big studios, Billie signed a contract with First National which created star vehicles for her. Now she was central to the plot, her name above the title and box-office dynamite.

Several of her films were directed by Alexander Korda including Yellow Lily and Night Watch. In Night Watch, Billie, in the role of a French naval commander's wife caught up in a shipboard romantic intrigue during World War I, demonstrated, in the words of The New York Times' critic, Mordaunt Hall, that she was an actress of "rare ability," performing with "considerable charm and intelligence." Yellow Lily has been preserved by the National Film Archive in London but like so many early films, has not yet been released by them to the public.

Before working with Lois Weber, Billie had found support from her husband, Irvin Willat, who had championed her career. Yet in the wake of her increasing celebrity, the two grew apart and soon separated. Widely regarded as the most beautiful woman in the world, "the Dove" had legions of male admirers. One of her more persistent devotees was the maverick heir to a family fortune who had begun dabbling in movies, a young man by the name of Howard Hughes. At the time they first met, he was starting to make a name for himself as a producer with a succession of remarkable films including his pet project, Hell's Angels. Soon, the Billie Dove-Howard Hughes romance was the talk of Hollywood. Several times they seemed on the verge of marrying but eventually, their relationship, for reasons she would refuse to disclose, came to an end. But like many men who fell under Billie's spell, Hughes remained haunted by memories of her as the one great love of his life. And Billie, for her part, retains warm feelings for the man with whom she shared so much for three and a half years.

Even as the coming of sound created a cinematic revolution, Billie's career continued unabated. A later myth has it that she could not cope with the new medium but, in truth, her voice had a silken quality and recorded well. She played leads in eleven talkies from 1929 to 1932 in a variety of roles that confirmed her versatility as an actress. Still the romantic heroine in her early sound films for First National, she showed she could act with the same restraint and subtlety as she had in silents.

It took Howard Hughes, however, to bring out her talents as a comedienne when he cast her in a madcap role in Cock of the Air. In this screwball World War I romance, Billie played a French actress who gets into a series of slapstick confrontations while leading an ardent would-be seducer, an American aviator (Chester Morris), on a merry chase. The film's bawdy humor outraged the officials of the Hays Office who wrangled with Hughes for months over changes they requested. Finally, after extensive cuts, the film went into release in early 1932.

Powerful forces would also affect the outcome of Billie's next film, Blondie of the Follies. In yet another challenging role, Billie played a gutsy showgirl competing with Marion Davies for the love of playboy Robert Montgomery. This time, it was William Randolph Hearst who weighed in when he feared that Billie was outshining his Marion. He intervened to change the concept of Billie's character, making her more of a heavy and depriving her of a dramatic closing scene. In spite of the fact that Hearst's input did not diminish her part significantly and she gave an excellent performance, it would be Billie's last film. Unlike so many of her contemporaries, she did not fade into the obscurity of Poverty Row pictures or bit parts. She was still in the limelight, her name featured in the main title in 1932. Her retirement, she said, was not due to career disappointments but because she wanted to have a family. Not even a tempting offer to play Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind could lure her back to the studios.

She married Bob Kenaston, a rancher and real estate investor, in 1933. With their two children, a son and a daughter, they made their home in Pacific Palisades and also maintained a winter residence near Palm Springs. Divorced after thirty-seven years, Billie embarked on a short-lived third marriage. But after Bob Kenaston's passing, Billie reclaimed his name.

Billie lived in Rancho Mirage for many years but has recently moved to the Motion Picture Country House in Woodland Hills, California. Now the undisputed "first lady" of motion pictures, the actress whose career began in the pioneering days of feature films welcomes the acclaim she continues to receive from a new generation of admirers. Projecting a radiance coupled with an air of coquettishness, Billie retains the sweetness and charm that made audiences fall in love with her and inspired writer Dorothy Parker to inscribe a book to her: "To Billie Dove, God loves her, I do, too." With the demeanor of a woman conscious she is a lady, Billie nevertheless lacks pretense and, disarmingly informal, laughs easily. Her beauty and her spirit are ageless and in her words: "It is not how many years you have lived that makes your age. I think it's what you have up in your brain and what you have here in your heart." She is proud of her contribution to cinema history but also modest, declaring "I had more talent than I showed and I had more talent than I realized how to take hold of myself." Yet she approached her performances with intense conviction: "When you're up there on that film, you are that person completely all the time. You think the way that person thinks, you do what that person does and you're not acting. You're actually living it." In the 1990s, Billie Dove still possesses the transcendent quality that has established her as a lasting legend and one of the cinema's true goddesses.

The preceding article is adapted from the introduction to my interview with Billie Dove that will be published in a forthcoming book.

For more information, you can write William Drew at his e-mail address:

Copyright © 1997 by the Vestal Press and William M. Drew from the forthcoming book, The Lady in the Main Title: On the Twenties and Thirties.

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William M. Drew /
ISSN 1329-4431
Copyright © 1997 by the Vestal Press and William M. Drew from the forthcoming book, The Lady in the Main Title: On the Twenties and Thirties.