Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Helen “Ollie” Carlyle: Keystone’s Saucy Maid had Pioneering California Bloodlines

In this scene from the Keystone two-reeler THAT LITTLE BAND OF GOLD (1915), Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle—newly married to Mabel Normand—still can't resist temptation to flirt with his maid. However, when he's caught by his mother-in-law (Alice Davenport), he tries to put the blame on the innocent servant girl.

The actress playing the maid in this film is someone whose identity was revealed for the first time in Mack Sennett's Fun Factory: Ollie Carlyle, also known as Helen Carlyle and Helen Hellman. She appears in at least 17 Keystone comedies made from December 1914 to July 31, 1915, and in almost half of those (8) she plays a maid. Often (though not in the above film) her character is a bit saucy and an instigator in flirtation, and also given to bouts of good-natured laughter. Her largest role is as Arbuckle’s leading lady in WHEN LOVE TOOK WINGS (1915) (seen below, with Frank Hayes as her father), which features a payoff gag in which Arbuckle—after much trouble fighting off several rivals—is finally successful in eloping with his sweetheart. However, immediately after the ceremony, he discovers that she is is actually bald and wearing a wig.

In Kemp Niver’s book Early Motion Pictures, he credited this actress as Estelle Allen. Allen was actually a fairly popular dramatic actress of the period, who was playing leading woman parts in the Kay Bee and Broncho productions of Thomas Ince at the same time this actress was playing much smaller roles in Keystone comedies. She is definitely not Estelle Allen (bearing little resemblance other than long, dark locks), and Allen is not believed to have ever worked at Keystone.

My breakthrough in identifying the correct name of the “maid” actress came when I was looking through the March 24, 1915 and April 9 1915, issues of the trade publication Photoplayers’ Weekly, which mentioned that the actress in Arbuckle’s WHEN LOVE TOOK WINGS was named Ollie Carlyle. For the sake of the film's payoff gag, Carlyle is wearing a skull cap over her real hair, with a wig on top of that—giving her a slightly different appearance and hairline than normal (as seen in the screen shots immediately above and below). However, despite that, she is easily identified as the same “maid” actress who appeared in the other Keystone productions.

I also discovered that Hampton Del Ruth, Keystone’s scenario editor at the time, had been married in the 1910’s to an actress named Helen Carlyle, who appeared in Keystone comedies. Helen Carlyle died at age 40 of a stomach disorder on June 30, 1933. Her wire service obituaries mentioned that she had appeared in small parts in several films of then-recent vintage, and that she was the former wife of Hampton Del Ruth. Her obituaries (such as one that appeared in the Oakland Tribune on July 4, 1933) also stated “Miss Carlyle began her screen career in the old Keystone comedy days, appearing with the late Mabel Normand and Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle.” Her Los Angeles Times obituary, also July 4, offered a bigger clue to her real identity when it stated, “Miss Carlyle, a native of Los Angeles and a member of the pioneer Hellman family...” Her July 5 obituary in the Modesto (CA) News-Herald also affirmed her as, “A member of a pioneer Southern California family, the Hellmans; she used the name Carlyle for her screen appearances.”

The Hellman family was one of the most important founding families in Los Angeles. Isaias W. Hellman formed the city’s first successful lending organization, the Farmers & Merchants Bank. He lent the money for Harrison Gray Otis to develop the Los Angeles Times, made investments to such important figures as Henry Huntington and Edward Doheny (responsible for major developments in oil, gas, electricity and railroads in the area), and was also instrumental in funding the continued development of San Francisco via his stewardship of the Wells Fargo Bank. The history and legacy of I.W. Hellman and his family is chronicled in an excellent book called Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California by Frances Dinkelspiel (the great-great granddaughter of I.W. Hellman).

Helen “Ollie” Carlyle was the granddaughter of Isaias W. Hellman's cousin, Isaiah Moses Hellman, who served as Los Angeles’ City Treasurer in the 1870s. Helen's father, Marco Hellman, was born to I.M. and Caroline Hellman in 1870. Marco, however, appears to have been the “black sheep” of the Hellman family. In fact, an October 30, 1894, L.A. Times article actually called him “the black sheep of the name.” While the other members of the Hellman family defined industriousness, Marco—still in his early twenties—was frequently brought into court on various charges of fraud and embezzlement (some involving a failed semi-professional baseball league he had operated). Confusingly, there were several other Marco Hellmans in the family—including Marco I.W. Hellman Jr. (son of I.W.) and Marco H. Hellman (the son of I.W.'s also-influential brother Herman W. Hellman)—who followed in their fathers' successful financial footsteps. These other Marco Hellmans complained about their good names being besmirched because of constantly being mistaken for their similarly-named black sheep relation. However, any mistaken identity issues would end on February 22, 1895, when—with legal and financial woes mounting—Marco Hellman took his own life by gunshot.

Helen Hellman had been born in Los Angeles on October 15, 1892, slightly more than two years before her birth father's suicide. Her mother was Ethel Jane Thompson, born in June 1874, in Kentucky. If and when Marco and Ethel married cannot be verified. However, in 1894 Ethel Thompson did marry Adam C. Dartt (sometimes spelled Dart), who was in the oil business. (In the 1903 incorporation for the Standard Lime Company, the five directors include A.C. Dartt and two men named H.P. and R.C. Thompson, who were likely related to Ethel Jane.) In the 1900 census for A.C. and Ethel Dart, there are three children, all born in California but with their father’s birthplace given as Canada (which was the birthplace of A.C. Dartt) and their mother’s as Kentucky. The children were Mildred (born April 1894), Ollie (born October 1896) and Clemon (born February 1899). However, Ollie Dart was in reality Helen Hellman—born four years earlier in 1892, but with her information “fudged” to make her appear the product of her mother’s second marriage to the Canadian-born Dartt. However, all subsequent census entries for Helen/Ollie would correctly show her father’s birthplace as that of Marco Hellman’s—California. (Older sister Mildred was also the daughter of Marco and Ethel, and appears to have actually been born in 1891.) Clemon Dartt, the son of A.C. and Ethel, died in 1901; in 1902 that couple added another daughter named Margaret Dartt.

Shortly thereafter, the oil business led the Dartt family to relocate to Kern County, California. In Kern County, Helen had a child named Donald K. Dively, on June 25, 1909. She and the father, Richard Dively, married in Tulare County on December 4, 1909. By the time of the 1910 census in May, however, Helen Dively and her son Donald were living with sister Mildred Allen (a married name) in Malibu, though her information shows Helen as still married (Helen’s mother, stepfather and sister Margaret were still living in Kern County).

The 1900 census had provided the first evidence of Helen being referred to as “Ollie,” the name by which she was referred in the Photoplayers’ Weekly. However, in the 1915, Los Angeles City Directory, there is an Olive Carlyle, “photo player” (the standard city directory designation for film actor or actress as a profession) living with Mrs. Ethel Dart at 498 California St. It is possible that Helen’s middle name was Olive, with “Ollie” as a nickname. The origin of "Carlyle" as a stage/film name cannot be traced.

Helen/Ollie reportedly began her screen career in 1913, though her death certificate suggest that she entered the theatrical profession (probably on stage) circa 1903. I could not find a divorce date for Helen and Richard Dively, nor a marriage date for Helen and Hampton Del Ruth. Thus, I am not certain whether she met Hampton at Keystone, after which they married; or whether they met and married prior her work at Keystone. However, it makes the most sense that Helen started acting at Keystone, then met Hampton, and retired from acting after marriage in the summer of 1915 (when she disappears from Keystone films—such as FATTY'S CHANCE ACQUAINTANCE, pictured, where she's flanked by Billie Bennett, who thinks Helen/Ollie has stolen her purse, and Billie Walsh). By 1916, Hampton Del Ruth had become the production manager at Keystone. Two years later, he left for Fox Sunshine, where he would shortly take over for Henry Lehrman as the director general of that comedy studio (while also giving the first of many directorial assignments to his younger brother Roy Del Ruth, who had been a scenario writer at Keystone).

In the January, 1920, census, Hampton (age 31) and Helen (age 26) Del Ruth were living at 1618 Hobart in Los Angeles, with Hampton’s mother Theresa, and Helen’s son Donald, her mother Ethel, her sisters Margaret Dartt and Mildred Wells, and Mildred’s daughter Frances. However, Hampton and Helen divorced shortly afterward, prior to Hampton Del Ruth marrying actress Alta Allen on November 25, 1920.

Sometime in the 1920’s, after the divorce, Helen Carlyle (as she was known at that point) returned to acting on the stage. In 1928, she was appearing in an Oakland, California production of “Admiral Crichton,” which starred Robert Warwick. In the April 13, 1930 census, Helen Hellman (the first time her birth name appeared in a census) was living at 366 N. Van Ness in Los Angeles, with her sister Margaret Dartt. Son Donald, now 20, was not living with them.

In the early 1930’s, Helen Carlyle appeared in such films as MODELS AND WIVES, a 1931 Universal two-reeler starring Charlie Murray and George Sidney, and FORGOTTEN COMMANDMENTS—a 1932 Paramount feature starring Gene Raymond. Helen Carlyle did her last film work in April 1932, after which she began suffering the effects of ulcerative colitis, which would cause her death on June 30, 1933 at Hollywood Hospital. Prior to hospitalization, Helen Carlyle had been residing at 1628 Argyle in Hollywood with her sister Margaret Dartt. She was buried in an unmarked grave at Hollywood Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever).

Though hardly a significant performer in the annals of Keystone (appearing in about a dozen and a half shorts over a 6 month period, with only one known performance as “leading lady") Helen “Ollie” Carlyle displayed enough charm and charisma in her brief appearances which make her worthy of being remembered. Additionally, her blood relation to one of Los Angeles’ most influential pioneer families made her unique—in a time when actors (and particularly “picture people”) were looked down upon by high society.

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