Hidden Hollywood: Madge Bellamy’s Acting Workshop

Madge Bellamy (1899-1990) 1920s.

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.”

George O’Brien and Madge Bellamy in John Ford’s silent Western, The Iron Horse, 1924.

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.


Adoring crowds line up to see Madge Bellamy in Ankles Preferred (1927).

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.

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  1. sennacherib
    Posted September 7, 2017 at 2:26 am | Permalink

    You know in a way her run in with Mayer might have been for the best. It would have happened eventually and would have been much worse if it had happened later on. It was obviously a clash between two powerful personas.

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    • Barry
      Posted September 7, 2017 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      No, no, no. She lived a life of poverty and near want. had she listened to Mr. Mayer, even in failure, she would have had success. Like Louise Brooks, who refused to dub a film at Paramount and was fired, never to make it back, this is easy to romanticize, but failure is for fools. Not for smart people.

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      • sennacherib
        Posted September 7, 2017 at 8:48 am | Permalink

        I don’t know. I’m not trying to be romantic, it’s just that I have met people in my life who I think are like Madge and Mayer. They are not “go along to get along” people for any reason. If either one of them had done that I feel the inevitable set to would have been much much worse. Obviously diplomacy was not a career path.

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        • Barry
          Posted September 7, 2017 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

          You are comparing Mayer, a first class executive chiefly responsible for building the most successful film studio of his time, with a girl who was a first class nut, spoiled everything she touched, shot at a guy, and as far as being successful actress in the sound era, had a thin voice. So, not likely.

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  2. Barry
    Posted September 6, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    I saw Madge Bellamy in two sound films. White Zombie, which I could not really get through, and Northwest Trail in which she supported Bob Steele, Joan Woodbury and John Litel. All of whom are at least somewhat memorable. Enough said.

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted September 6, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

      Bellamy’s best performance is in Lorna Doon. It’s also a wonderful film. She’s also pretty good in Iron Horse.

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      • Barry
        Posted September 6, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        Silent films certainly count, but they are more than just a little different. John
        Bowers was Madge’s John Ridd, and, so we have a pair of leads who loused up their lives. Bowers even worse than Bellamy, and certainly a case for study. As for Lorna Doone, (also a cookie) made and remade, my favorite version had John Loder, Victoria Hopper, Margaret Lockwood and down the cast list, Roger Livesey appearing.

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        • serene
          Posted September 8, 2017 at 9:05 am | Permalink

          Roger Livesey, my favorite. Great in great movies, and the best thing about not quite great movies (although I have not seen Lorna Doone). So many movies would have been so much better had he been cast in the main, or major supporting, role. A voice to rival Rains or Colman (and I can imagine Mr. Livesey in Random Harvest, being more effective in two particular scenes).

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          • Barry
            Posted September 10, 2017 at 11:30 am | Permalink

            Some of Roger Livesey’s performances are addictive. For me, The Drum and I Know Where I’m Going resonate most.

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