Madge Bellamy was huge Hollywood star in the early 20’s. Unfortunately, most of Bellamy’s silent films have been lost. But you can still see her in starring roles in John Ford’s Iron Horse (1924) and Maurice Tourneur’s Lorna Doon (1922). In the sound era, Madge’s most famous role is as Madeleine Parker, in White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi (1932), a cult classic.
Tragically, Madge was one of the most self-destructive Hollywood stars of all time. And in a town where actors excel at self-annihilating behavior, that’s quite an accomplishment.
In 1943, Madge shot her lover, millionaire Stanwood Murphy, after he jilted her to marry another woman. The massive publicity and resulting scandal destroyed her already sputtering career. Regarding the shooting Madge said: “I only winged him, which is what I meant to do. Believe me, I’m a crack shot.”
But for now, let’s leave scandal behind and focus on how Madge learned to act in motion pictures as revealed in a fascinating interview from Photoplay Magazine, Oct. 1927.
Madge had the unfortunate reputation of being a dumb actress—probably because she made a series of disastrous career choices and insulted so many powerful Hollywood moguls. For instance, she walked out of L.B. Mayer’s office as he announced that he wanted to cast her in the starring role of his next film. Madge explained that Mayer didn’t stand up to greet her like a proper gentleman.
Needless to say, she didn’t get the role. And L.B. Mayer, the most powerful executive in Hollywood, made sure that Bellamy never worked at MGM.
However, as you can see from this excerpt, Madge Bellamy was bright and articulate.
“Acting,” for instance. “I always thought that acting was a question of emotions—that you felt a scene and played it as you felt it.”
“Well, I was wrong about that. Acting is a matter of intelligence and observation. You don’t have to feel an emotion to portray it. You must observe how other people express their emotions.”
“Mr. Dwan [Alan Dwan, the great, pioneering director] and I had an interesting conversation on the set this morning. I had been playing a sad scene and when I finished, Mr. Dwan asked me what I had been thinking about. And I told him I had been thinking about something sad. ‘Well,’ said Mr. Dwan, ‘you should have been thinking of the muscles of your face.’”
“Now I see what has been wrong with me. I have been trying to feel emotions and express them. I have never thought much about the technique; I simply wanted to be sincere. That was a mistake.”
“So I have been sitting here practicing with the muscles of my face. Look!” And Miss Bellamy drew here eyebrows. Instantly, the tears slowly rose to her eyes.
“See, I am crying and yet, I am not thinking of anything sad. It’s just a muscular reaction.
Madge Bellamy authored a fascinating autobiography, A Darling of the Twenties, published in 1989, a few months after her death. Silent film scholar Kevin Brownlow’s introduction is free of star-worship and highly informative. New copies of the book are almost impossible to find. However, used copies, usually cast-a-ways from public libraries, are readily available on the internet. Madge’s autobiography is filled with fascinating details of her years in early Hollywood, and illustrated with dozens of rare photos from Madge’s personal collection.