Jacqui (jacqui) wrote,

Here's another Alfred C. Johnston Ziegfeld gal, but this time I'm including the story that goes with it, it's so fascinating, I started thinking I might be this woman reincarnated. On my first photo shoot with this amazing photographer who I love (he shoots like Hurrel) I brought along my chickens and had pictures of myself taken with them. I thought I must be the only actress ever to have had a glamour (but it actually looks kind of white trashish) photographer take a shot of her with a chicken. I was certainly the only one who'd done it with Allan, but here is this woman. It could happen.

Must see, vintage portrait, silent actress/Ziegfeld girl Martha Mansfield by Alfred Cheney Johnston, official photographer for the Ziegfeld Follies, stamped, 1920s, 10 1/4 x 13 1/2", light stain. Something about Ziegfeld Girls seemed to invite tragedy in a "beautiful and damned" scenario. Olive Thomas poisoned herself in Paris. Allyn King threw herself from a window. Hilda Ferguson died of heart failure at 30. Edith Carper died of carbon monoxide poisoning on the eve of her first show. Bessie Poole died in a bar fight. Lillian Lorraine, May Day, Jessie Reed, Kay Laurell, and others died broke and alone. But perhaps the most horrific finale was that of poor Martha Mansfield, who burned to death at the dawn of a promising film career. She was born Martha Ehrlich in Mansfield, Ohio (thus her stage name) on July 14, 1899. It's not clear if her father, Morris Ehrlich, died or was divorced, but by 1911 or 1912 Martha and her mother, the former Harriet Gibson, were living on 158th Street in the Bronx, north of Manhattan. "When I was 14 years old, I made up my mind that I should become an actress," Martha said in 1920, "and therefore, immediately went to see Mr. [William] Brady, who was at the time casting for Little Women. He poked fun at me because I was so young and earnest and finally told me that I would receive notice at the end of the week if he wanted me." Eventually, Martha was cast in the 1912 Broadway show (which starred Brady's daughter, Alice), but in a small role as a boy. Martha also began getting work as an artist's and photographer's model, becoming quite successful in the mid-1910s. Commercial photographer Alfred Cheney Johnson took more than 300 photos of her, and she was a favorite of illustrator Harrison Fisher. Speaking of her modeling career, Martha said that "I tired of this within a year's time. It was so inactive and did not call for the use of one's facilities. I wanted to be more than a mere doll. So, I got a small part as one of Hop's brothers in the pantomime Hop o' My Thumb (1913, starring DeWolf Hopper). Martha continued working on Broadway, in such shows as The Century Girl (1916) and On With the Dance (1917). "I was at the Century Theater when Hazel Dawn told me that a girl of just my type was wanted for a star part in a new picture," Martha later recalled. French comic Max Linder had just come to the U.S. and signed with Essanay to make three films. He'd wanted Dawn to appear with him, but she was unable to break previous contracts. She recommended her friend Martha. Billed as Martha Early, she co-starred with Linder in the comedies Max Comes Across, Max Wants a Divorce, and Max and His Taxi (all 1917). The films received a polite reception but not enthusiastic enough to keep Linder in America. In 1919, Martha told Motion Picture Classics that filming with Linder "really was lots of fun. We had many a picnic out of it -- and much exasperation too" (due to Linder's lack of English skills and Martha's equal ignorance of French). Linder had been directing and acting in films since 1905, and despite the language problem, he and Martha clicked. Getting her feet wet in films, Martha noted that "I learnt then and have seen since that a good director is everything. You can rave a great deal about a movie actress' beauty and charm and vivacity, but if she is without intelligence, a spark of imagination, and a sympathetic director to bring it all out, she is nothing and will never get anywhere on the screen." In the meantime, though, she returned to the stage. She finally became a glorified Ziegfeld Girl with the "Follies" of 1918, also appearing in Ziegfeld's rooftop Midnight Frolic of 1918 and both the "Frolic" and the earlier Nine O'Clock Revue in 1919. Martha would get off work at 2:00 AM and -- 42nd Street stage door Johnnies notwithstanding -- take the subway home to the Bronx. She also made the occasional film, such as the Northwest drama Broadway Bill (1918, with Harold Lockwood), The Hand Invisible, Should a Husband Forgive?, and an unknown Fox film with Miriam Cooper. There may have been others; her shifting billing -- Martha Ehrlich, Early or Mansfield -- makes her hard to pin down. Martha was still appearing in the "Frolic" when she cast in the Paramount production Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring John Barrymore. Filmed in late 1919 and released in April of 1920, it was Martha's big break -- she portrayed the innocent, menaced fiancee of Dr. Jekyll, while fellow showgirl Nita Naldi played the more colorful vamp role. "I'll tell you something funny," Martha said to a reporter during filming. "I have been kissed in the first scene of every picture I have made. I thought that record would be broken in the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde picture. But no -- in the very first part Mr. Barrymore had to kiss me." Immediately on finishing Jekyll and Hyde, Martha followed up at Paramount playing a Salvation Army lass in the war drama Civilian Clothes (1920), co-starring Thomas Meighan. While filming in Cuba, she worked in mud-filled trenches and said that "if this is the sort of life the soldier boys had to live through during the war, then God bless them for coming out of it." In June 1920, Lewis J. Selznick signed Martha to be groomed as an "understudy" for his biggest star, Olive Thomas (ironically, Thomas would be dead within two months). Martha Mansfield seemed like star material. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, she had soft, almost childlike features, rather resembling contemporary stars Mary Miles Minter and Marguerite Clark. She gave typically fluffy starlet interviews to the press: "I like work, and even if it is rough, I enjoy it just the same," she said prettily. "I am very fond of all kinds of sports, especially horseback riding. I am a very poor swimmer, which I do not like to admit, and sometime I am going to sneak off by myself and learn." For Selznick, she appeared in four films: she co-starred with Eugene O'Brien in Gilded Lies and The Last Door (both 1921) and The Wonderful Chance (1922) and played a supporting role in The Man of Stone (1921). For some reason, Selznick decided not to mold Martha for stardom; she was loaned out and freelanced until being signed by Fox in late 1923. Still, Martha kept busy. She made only three films in 1922, but one of those was a star part: as "The Queen of the Moulin Rouge," she played an unusually flashy role. She had also given up on her theatrical career and moved west ("California is my heaven," she exulted). Enthusiastic about her future in films, she told a reporter, "I care for pictures -- good ones -- a great deal. Oh, there is no excuse for some of the pictures we see nowadays. There is not a reason in the world, at this late cinema date, for a bad picture." Keeping all bases covered, she added that "I believe in throwing my heart and soul into everything. There's no success in any line of work without spontaneous enthusiasm. It's the whole secret ... I am aiming for the legitimate stage, of course, although I find picture making absorbing work." Despite her troubles at Selznick, Martha worked steadily, making eight films in 1923. She starred again in The Little Red Schoolhouse, for Arrow, but most of her roles were supporting ones in small, independent films. She worked for such second-string studios as Lee-Bradford (Is Money Everything?), Amalgamated (The Woman In Chains), the ailing Vitagraph (The Levenworth Case), and Hodkinson (Youthful Cheaters, with Glenn Hunter). One of Martha's bigger successes was in the lowbrow ethnic comedy Potash and Perlmutter (First National, 1923), which also featured newcomer Ben Lyon in a small role. Finally, her hard work paid off, and at the age of 24 she was signed to a long term contract by Fox. Her first film was The Silent Command, in a small role supporting Edmund Lowe and Bela Lugosi. In the fall of 1923, she was cast as the female lead in The Warrens of Virginia, from the popular Broadway show. She played the Confederate fiancee of a Union soldier in this romantic, big-budgeted costume picture; the role might have made her a star. But disaster struck while the company was filming in San Antonio, Texas. Martha was sitting in a car on the set when a smoker carelessly tossed a match in her direction. Her voluminous 1860s' costume went up in flames, despite the frenzied efforts of co-star Wilfred Lytell to smother the fire. She was rushed to a hospital with severe burns; in the days before antibiotics there was virtually no chance of survival. She died at noon the following day, November 30, 1923. When The Warrens of Virginia was finally released late in 1924, Martha's role had been edited down, and Rosemary Hill was promoted as the female lead. It's difficult to tell what direction Martha Mansfield's career might have taken had she lived; not enough of her work survives to judge her talent. She might have been overtaken by the jazz babies about to appear on the horizon: Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Colleen Moore. As it stands, Martha was part of that brief transition period between the becurled, girlish actresses of the 1910s and the sleek flappers of the late '20s.

God, what a sad story, and I've never heard of her before this.

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