by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the recent SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) strike reminds us, there is a huge contingent of workers in the entertainment industry who are almost always outside the public eye and whose working conditions are not generally known until such disputes arise.
The work of crew members from set builders to makeup artists to location scouts to editors and so many others typically goes unnoticed by the average moviegoer and the featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection for this post takes us back 85 years to just one of the unheralded studio staffers whose job was important but mainly unrecognized.
The object is a 4 October 1928 letter to Walter P. Temple, owner of the Homestead, from Helen Gladys Percey, head of the Research Department for the Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation, operators of Paramount Pictures. On a tangential note, Temple constructed, seven years earlier, the Temple Theatre in Alhambra, his first real estate building project, and that venue was originally contracted to screen Paramount films.
Percey (1887-1970) was born in Pennsylvania to William L. Percey and Helen Wilson and moved with her family, which included two other girls, to Pasadena in 1898. Her father became a bookkeeper with Southern California Edison and rose in the ranks to assistant treasurer, treasurer and, finally, vice-president. Frequently known as Gladys, Percey attended Stanford University, where she was a member of the Delta Gamma sorority.
One of her sisters in that order was Gertrude Workman, daughter of Maria Boyle and former Los Angeles mayor and city treasurer William H. Workman, who went on to have a stage career locally and in New York before marrying Walter Furman and leaving the business. Through that connection, Percey then became friends with Gertrude’s sister, Mary Julia, who was very prominent in the social welfare world of early 20th century Los Angeles, particularly through her nearly two-decade presidency of the Brownson Settlement House.
Percey, who was a talented singer, performed at a Brownson charity fundraiser in May 1914 and may have been involved in other social events with the Workman sisters during that period. She went to become a librarian in the Angel City’s burgeoning library system, first in Hollywood, where she (who remained single) resided with her parents and where she also was associated with a community theater, and then at the main library downtown.
By the early 1920s, she established connections in the rapidly growing film industry, participating, for example, in an early 1921 special course offered over a six-week period by the library “to prepare for work in the libraries of motion picture studios.” The Los Angeles Record of 3 January added,
The course is the first of its kind in the country and will consist of lectures on books, pictures and pamphlets, and methods of indexing by Eleanor Caruthers, principal of the art department of the Los Angeles public library; Helen Gladys Percey, secretary of the Hollywood community theater, and Elizabeth O. Williams, registrar of the Los Angeles library school.
Percey was also affiliated with the library school during this period, but, within a short time, joined Paramount and its research department, where she was initially an assistant of Elizabeth McGaffey (1875-1944), who founded what was the first of its kind in the movie business in 1914. McGaffey was a journalist, actor, and play reader before moving to Los Angeles to become a script reader for Jesse Lasky’s production company.
Because of her excellent memory and organizational skills, McGaffey was an obvious choice to open the research department, but she also wrote a scenario in 1916 for Lasky that mainly comprised an all-Asian cast, including future film star, Sessue Hayakawa, whose life was covered in a recent talk at the Homestead.
As filmmaking became more sophisticated, with longer running times, more detailed and complex stories, and locations in far-flung areas, the importance of the research department grew and it was vital for such important directors as Cecil B. DeMille. While she continued to be associated with the impresario until his contract with Paramount ended in 1931, McGaffey moved to R.K.O. as its research director and remained in that role until her death.
Percey was in her position as head of the Paramount research department for a short time when she wrote her missive to Temple and explained,
At the suggestion of my friend Miss Mary Workman I am writing to as if you have relics of the days when your grandfather [William Workman] lived in Taos, New Mexico? We are about to make a picture of Taos in 1840.
The picture was Wolf Song, based on a novel by Harvey Fergusson (1890-1971), a native of New Mexico who was a journalist before becoming a writer, with Wolf Song his fifth novel when it was published in 1927. The work was considered his best and was based loosely on Christopher “Kit” Carson (1809-1868), a Kentucky-born trapper, guide and scout, who achieved mythical fame during and after his lifetime. This mountain men ventures from trapping into Taos and incurs the ire of the señorita’s father and leaves, only to return when he is shot by a native American ad is nursed by her back to health.
There was a notable Workman connection to Carson as he was apprenticed to William’s brother David at Franklin, Missouri before running away in 1826 to New Mexico, where he ended up in Taos, just after William settled there. Carson was long a resident of the pueblo and, during the Mexican-American War, when William Workman was a negotiator between the Californios and the invading Americans, the two met up again when Carson served as an Army scout and, on one trip back to the east, he camped on Rancho La Puente near Workman’s house.
Percey added to Temple that
There are so very few authentic details, and we are anxious to have things as correct as possible. Of course the things we need most are sketches or pictures of any kind which would give us information in regard to the houses, costumes or the town itself, but if you have any other material which you would be willing to let us photograph I should be glad to know about it.
There was a return address envelope affixed to the missive, so it appears that either Temple did not respond, or may have used one of his own envelopes. There was, however, at least one other occasion for which he was asked to loan historical items for a film project. In 1916, the Monrovia Feature Film Company produced The Daughter of the Don, which was based during the Mexican-American War in California and included an American officer following in love with a ranchero’s daughter, who, however, dressed as a man and fought for General Andrés Pico and the Californios. She is nearly killed, but is rescued by her astonished lover and all end’s well as one would expect.
For the picture, the Los Angeles Express of 9 September reported “the collection of antiquities o the early Mexican era loaned by Walter P. Temple, son of F.P.F. Temple, one of Los Angeles’ most prominent pioneers, daily attracts hundreds to the inner lobby of the Majestic theater.” It’s too bad that it was not recognized that Walter was the grandson of Workman, who played a not insignificant role in the events around which the movie was based. In any case, it would be nice to think that Temple replied to Percey and had some material to make available for her research into the production of The Wolf Song.
While it was reported at the beginning of 1928, that the picture was being adapted from the book, it was not until the end of September that the screen rights were finally acquired from Fergusson. Meanwhile, the male lead was signed in May and this was Gary Cooper, who’d attracted a good deal of attention for his supporting role in the smash hit and Academy Award-winning Wings (1927) before becoming a lead in such pictures as The Shopworn Angel and Lilac Time along with other several other 1928 releases from Paramount.
In August, Victor Fleming was hired as director. A native of what became La Cañada-Flintridge, Fleming was an Army photographer during World War I and was the principal camera operator during President Woodrow Wilson’s trip to France to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles and seek to implement the League of Nations, which Congress rejected. He soon migrated to Hollywood and directed his first film in 1919 and worked steadily, though he became famous in 1939 for helming the classics Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, until his death in 1948.
For the female lead of Lola Salazar, it was announced in early September that Lupe Vélez, the Mexican actor loaned to Paramount from United Artists, was hired. The daughter of a singer and an Army officer, Vélez made her first film in 1926 during an era where Latinos were sometimes major starts (Dolores del Rio, Ramón Novarro, Antonio Moreno, and others). She made a big splash opposite Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho (1927) and was named a WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby Star the following year, so she was riding a cresting wave of popularity when she was hired for Wolf Song.
Within a week of Percey’s letter to Temple, the cast and crew of 75 headed north to June Lake on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, northwest of Bishop, to shoot scenes for the picture for two weeks and it was reported by the Hollywood Citizen of 10 October that it was a locale “that has never before been photographed by a motion picture camera.” On 4 November, the Los Angeles Times chose to remark that the area was “the last grim barrier to stem the invasion of an Anglo-Saxon civilization into the territory of the dons.”
Moreover, it was claimed that the scenes would depict “some of the action which wrote in blood pages of the great Southwest’s history” and there was reference to the Donner Party (though not by name), some of the survivors of which which resorted to cannibalism to survive a terrible winter of 1846-1847 and Anglo migrants “rubbed out” by hostile indigenous people. The paper then dramatically invoked images of how
Mountain men, hard-riding, fighting men of strong passions and superhuman strength, found in this region, now a sportsman’s paradise, rich harvests of furs for their traps. From it they descended at intervals to bring terror to the heart of the peaceful Mexican men and sparkles to the eyes of eager senoritas.
Never mind that Wolf Song was based in the Rocky Mountains and New Mexico, the Hollywood image machine dispensed with such historical accuracies and the paper added that Cooper “takes the part of one of these mountain men, advance guard of a virile civilization,” while Vélez “has the role of a lovely daughter of the dons.”
In the typical rush of advance publicity, there was more focus on Vélez than on Cooper, but with a heavy emphasis on her personality rather than her acting skills. The 3 February 1929 edition of the Times, for example, ran a feature titled “Lupe No Hothouse Plant,” beginning with the opening comment that “that wild flower of Mexico, Lupe Velez, doesn’t take to hothouse cultivation.” The piece noted that she was educated at a San Antonio convent school, before becoming a popular figure in México City and then coming to Los Angeles to work on the stage, when she was hired to work in film.
Imputing her rise to film stardom as due to “these strange motivating forces which propel the movie industry,” the article added that she had a four-year contract with United Artists, though she’d recently finished a picture for MGM (East is East with Lon Chaney) as well as Wolf Song. It was also reported that, during an interview, Cooper “hovered solicitously” as he and his co-star were in “one of Hollywood’s current budding romances” and Vélez remarking, “do you think I speak good? I have been in this country only two years . . .” before trailing off to ask where Cooper was. She then rather dramatically attributed a cold to the temperatures at the mountain location shoot before the unnamed interviewer “got up and left hurriedly.”
The next week, though, the Times issued a piece that called the actor the “champion gloom dispeller” while in the Sierras. With boundless energy, it was reported, Vélez entertained the cast and crew with hours of singing and dancing that gained her fame on the Mexican musical-comedy stage” before she burst onto the Hollywood scene. After coming back to Los Angeles, Fleming, known to be an exacting taskmaster on set, was quoted as saying, “she is the best morale doctor imaginable. Gloom and that girl imply could not stay in the same vicinity.”
Upon its premiere in New York early in March, however, the Times recorded that the Wolf Song “proved a disappointment to many, if not all, who attended” what was deemed “a distinctly dull picture.” Vélez was scored for “a thin, monotonous voice” and the over-repetition of one of the songs written for prominent inclusion in the picture, while the “colorful and interesting acting” she delivered in The Gaucho was replaced by a portrayal that was “artificial, unconvincing and always suggests a figure in a fancy dress party rather than the Spanish heroine of the story.” As for Cooper, he “falls below the standard he set for him in ‘The Shopworn Angel,'” and that he belied the “gay Lothario” of the film’s titles in what was a “miscast” role.
Wolf Song opened in Los Angeles at the end of the month at Paramount’s Publix Theatre on Hill and 6th streets and Ken Taylor of the Express accounted it as “just a good old-fashioned silent picture,” punctuated by songs, which marked the template of the Paramount productions as the transition to talkies was underway. Calling Cooper’s work “histrionic,” Taylor suggested that his pairing with Vélez was such that “the enthusiasm of their amorous moments may indicate the inception of another popular screen team.”
Noting an already obvious trademark in Cooper’s taciturn screen presence, the critic observed that the role “calls for the just the sort of inanimation of expression that falls so easily to him.” Taylor briefly praised Fleming’s direction, noted that the freshness of the first two reels was followed by an overabundance of the leads locking lips and added that the Vélez showpiece tune, “Yo Te Amo Means I Love You,” the sheet music for which is in the Museum’s holdings, “probably will be whistled more than anything else.” Oddly, the review says nothing about the female lead’s performance.
Llewellyn Miller’s assessment for the Los Angeles Record, on the other hand, began with the observation that
Lupe Velez is such an enchantingly picturesque little [she was five feet tall] star, with such a brilliant charm, and such a vivid flair for pantomime that she almost triumphs over what is, possibly, the slowest picture released this year.
On the other hand, her co-star was panned as, despite likely being a good actor, having “an unhappy faculty of making every part he plays distastefully half-baked.” Generally, Miller seems to have felt that the film feature some excellent camera work, but, otherwise, had little to say to recommend the picture to readers.
The Times’ Marquis Busby was non-committal, opining that Wolf Song “is just another motion picture” and was “not bad, and certainly not good,” though he did praise the panoramic location scenes and “the native color” in what stood in for Taos. Another complaint was that “there is no conversation in the picture, but the characters break into song at any and every old time,” while Vélez was given too many opportunities to vocalize, even though she “is decidedly attractive . . . in the graceful costumes of long ago.”
Cooper was deemed “eminently satisfactory,” though his hairstyle was not to the critic’s liking and Busby pointed out an egregious editing error editing in which Cooper walks unshaven and covered with some dirt into his rough dwelling and immediately departs “immaculately clean.” After 1929’s The Virginian, however, Cooper was propelled to a superstardom lasting many years. Incidentally, among the opening live acts of music, a revue and comedy, there was a performance by the Stanford Glee Club and one wonders if Percey had a hand in that booking.
A possible hint that Temple might have responded to Percey and provided some material comes from a Ventura County Star article from June 1930, in which it was noted that a post-filming party was held at Port Hueneme after wrapping of shooting for the Western picture The Spoilers, directed by Edwin Carewe. Among those in attendance were Carewe, stars James Kirkwood, Betty Compson, Kay Johnson and the lead, Cooper, along with Vélez and other crew. As to the five “civilians” listed, these included Walter P. Temple, Jr., his cousin Charles P. Temple, Jr. and his wife, and Anthony Bassity, the son of Walter, Sr.’s companion, Maud (Modesta Romero) Bassity. The gathering was just a couple of months after the Temples vacated the Homestead due to financial problems.
Whatever the result of Percey’s letter to Temple, it is an interesting tidbit relating to the family and the film industry in the late 1920s. Those interested in knowing more about the tempestuous relationship of Vélez and Cooper, which ended in 1931, can check out friend of the Homestead Hadley Meares’ 2018 piece from Los Angeles Magazine.
With respect to Percey, she continued to work for Paramount for many years, and was on the AMPAS board of directors, as well as the board of trustees for the Motion Picture and Television Relief Fund, earning an award of appreciation for her service when she retired in 1969. Outside of the film industry, she was an active Stanford alumni as well as for her sorority, was an original member of the Pasadena women’s auxiliary of Boys Republic institution for troubled young men in what is now Chino Hills and remained close with the Workmans, hosting a tea for Gertrude Workman Furman on the latter’s 1965 visit to Los Angeles. Percey died in 1970 at age 82 and is buried in a mausoleum at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena.