by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been mentioned here several times, Josephine Marie Workman (1882-1977), granddaughter of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman through their son José Manuel and his wife Josephine Belt, was a highly successful silent film actress under the stage name of Princess Mona Darkfeather from 1909-1917 with her peak popularity being in the years 1912-1915 or so.
With that moniker, obviously, she was a specialist in playing Indian maidens in one-reel melodramas for several studios including Selig, Bison, Kalem and Universal with her career beginning, she once said in an interview, because she answered an ad in a Los Angeles newspaper. Josephine was an early participant in the local film industry, which was largely centered in Edendale in modern Echo Park and Silver Lake as was her husband, director and business partner, Frank E. Montgomery.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the museum’s collection is a studio portrait of Montgomery, probably dating to about 1914, and which was donated to the Homestead by Josephine’s great grand-nephew Doug Neilson. Montgomery is another long-forgotten name from the early days of Hollywood (or the local industry), though he was widely known in his day.
He was born on 14 June 1877 in Petrolia, Pennsylvania, which was, as you might have surmised, in the midst of that state’s booming oil region, where the nation’s petroleum industry was launched. His mother Effie McKee was from Scotland and his father George, born in New York to German immigrants, was a barber. The family moved west to Omaha, Nebraska when Frank was very young and later lived in the Pacific Northwest, including the Seattle area and Portland.
Frank took to the stage as an actor and stagehand and adopted the surname of Montgomery. In 1899, he married a fellow actor, Myrtle Powell, though they soon separated and divorced. A decade later, he was in Los Angeles and, while he continued doing live theater, appearing, for example, with the Girton stock company in the title role in A Ragged Hero at the Grand Opera House, which was built in 1884 by Ozro W. Childs, he had a hand in one of the first films made in the city.
This was a film made by the Selig studio called The Roman and which starred Hobart Bosworth, another stage actor who became a major early motion picture star. Bosworth recalled in a 1929 Los Angeles Times article and subsequently that he was enticed into film by producer/director Francis Boggs, who, it was reported, set up at Edendale “the first permanent motion-picture studio of Los Angeles.
Bosworth noted that the studio “was a little frame hall used by a local improvement society with little cubicles for dressing-rooms, a barn at the back for props and scenery and in front of it a little 16×20 platform of asphalt or cement with two by fours laid laterally to nail the braces to. Great things spread from that little source, great things for Los Angeles, greater for the world.” Not only was Montgomery in the film, a Times feature from 1934 about the filming of The Roman included a still photo of Bosworth, Montgomery and other actors. A bit part was allotted to Roscoe Arbuckle, who went on to fame as comedian Fatty Arbuckle.
It was the Selig studio in Edendale that Frank met Josephine, who quickly became a star as Princess Mona Darkfeather with Montgomery her director and partner in a production company built around her burgeoning career. The two, with she going by the name Mona, also wed in 1912, it being his third marriage (his second wife was also an actress) and her second (she wed musician Harry Knill and they had a daughter—tragically Harry and young Josephine died within a short time).
Those few years in the early to mid 1910s were heady ones for the pair, but changing tastes for genres and Josephine perhaps becoming too old to play an Indian maiden as she got into her mid-thirties led to a quick decline in her career. She made one full-length picture for Universal, The Red Goddess, in 1917.
Montgomery continued to act on occasion, with half of the thirty films listed in his IMDB profile coming between 1914 and 1919, while he directed his wife and helped manager her career including his performance in a theatrical piece called Little California in 1914, in which the Times stated that “the work of Frank Montgomery as the greaser [a derogatory term for a Latino] is remarkably truthful and realistic.”
In 1916, as his wife’s career waned, Montgomery was one of several directors working under lead director Raymond Wells who participated in a charity performance for the Actors’ Fund of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in a natural amphitheater at the end of Beechwood Drive in the Hollywood Hills. In fact, the site was donated for the evening by that thoroughfare’s namesake Albert H. Beech. Actors included Lillian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, Sr., and Constance Collier.
The next spring, he appeared as “Faro Black” in The Call of Her People, a Metro Pictures film released in late April 1917 and which starred Ethel Barrymore, one of the famed acting family and a major stage and film legend. This movie has survived the ravages of time, most of that era have not, and may well be one of the very few films in which Montgomery’s acting can be seen.
A month later, Montgomery was hired as director-in-chief of the newly created California Feature Film Corporation, which purchased eight acres at the end of the streetcar line in Edendale and built its studio. which included a fully-lighted 18,000 square-foot stage “making it one of the largest electric-lighted indoor studios in the State.” Known commonly as “Monty,” he was to be responsible for all two-reel comedies, five-reel features and other projects and he acquired a large amount of stock in the company.
While it was announced that California Feature Film Corporation was starting work on its first picture within ten days and had contracts with large distributors, Montgomery plunged into another venture when, in June, he joined forces with four other men in creating the New Era Film Corporation, though it appears this venture never got further than the incorporation stage.
With the end of his wife’s career and the likely failure of the enterprises with the California Feature Film Corporation and the New Era Film Corporation, Montgomery and Mona embarked on a live tour throughout the West where she appeared in theaters on stage as Princess Mona Darkfeather. By fall 1918, they were living in Seattle, where he’d been involved in live theater years before and Frank registered for the draft during World War I and listed his occupation as “Photo Play Star Mgr.”
The following year, Montgomery was back acting and he appeared in Forest Rivals, which, like The Call of Her People, was written and directed by Harry O. Hoyt and filmed on the East Coast. From 1922 to 1926, he appeared in a dozen films, including the Harry Houdini vehicle, The Man From Beyond, which was screened at the Homestead many years ago. While his directing career, with 123 short films between 1911 and 1917 to his credit on IMDB, was long gone, Montgomery continued to work in the industry behind the camera.
In 1928, he and Mona divorced and, while she married twice subsequently and lived quietly in places like Redondo Beach and Monrovia, Montgomery married for a fourth time. He and Mona, however, reconnected after several years and they married again just before Christmas 1937. A photo in the Times accompanying an article about their reunification shows the couple with Montgomery sporting a broad smile and Mona a bit of a grin.
He was long employed at Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, as well as at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or MGM, which distributed Roach’s movies. When he and Mona remarried, Montgomery was at work on the film Merrily We Live, starring Constance Bennett and Brian Aherne, and a honeymoon had to wait until shooting wrapped. In 1938, the Times’ column “A Town Called Hollywood” noted in a clunky fashion that “Frank Montgomery, leading man in [the] pioneer picture made in Los Angeles (by Selig)— [is a] whistleblower and “Quiet!” caller at M.-G,-M.”.
Two years later, the 1940 census showed Montgomery as “Chief Whistle Man” at the Roach studios and he was still there two years later when he registered for the draft as America entered World War II. In July 1944, at age 67, Montgomery died, leaving Mona as his sole survivor. She remained in their unit in a Silver Lake multi-unit complex for another 33 years, dying in 1977 at age 95.
Sadly, Doug Neilson remembered visiting her there as a child and seeing memorabilia from her film career under her bed, but, when she passed away, she was a ward of the state and it is likely all of her possessions were thrown away.
Frank Montgomery was a notable early figure in our regional film industry as both an actor and director, especially in combination with his wife, who did enjoy a few years of stardom. As is usually the case, though, he faded from view and is a forgotten figure well over a century after he made his debut in one of the first movies shot in Los Angeles. This photograph, though, is a visual reminder of someone who deserves some remembrance for his contributions to the motion picture industry.