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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

Martha Mansfield (Martha Ehrlich)  July 14, 1899 – November 30, 1923

Martha Mansfield (Martha Ehrlich)  July 14, 1899 – November 30, 1923

Generally speaking, we all like tragic tales. There's rock and roll's 27 club, about the impressive number of musicians who passed away at that age. Hendrix, Cobain, Joplin, Winehouse, and even blues legend Robert Johnson left the earth at age 27. We are fascinated by those whose candle burns brightest before it goes out. Movies have their obsession with it, especially with their demises. James Dean (Car Crash), Marilyn Monroe (Drugs), Montgomery Clift (Drugs - or something), and even a lesser-known actress, Thelma Todd, have her cult and legend. (Todd died from the effects of car exhaust, and it may have been murder but chalked up to an unlikely suicide)

Us film buffs cover various conversational topics when we get together. This morbid fascination drew us into a discussion about the gruesome deaths and murders that plagued Hollywood's silent age. There are plenty—suicide, murder, suspicious deaths, and car wrecks, to name a few. I was shocked when I brought up the name of the shooting star, Martha Mansfield, and no one knew who I was talking about. 

First, Martha Mansfield was an American actress in silent films, Vaudeville, and stage plays. She was a model for some of the greatest illustrators and photographers of the early 20th century. As a kid, she fell in love with the theater and acting and decided to become an actress. This proclamation probably wasn't taken well by her parents at the time because wanting to be an actress in 1909 had the same effect as announcing you wanted to be a prostitute. 

This was a period where acting wasn't considered a real career choice. Actually, it still isn't considered a good career choice. But there you have it. This incrementally changed as the 19th century gave way to the 20th century. Actresses that managed to project a high moral value were becoming popular in the public eye. It was all about gossip. Pre-television marketing reached out to the public through a few well-placed stories in the newspaper, and further information dripped into a few choice ears. The talk would swirl. If you were the star of the most enormous success in Broadway history in 1897 (Sit down kids, $370,000.00!!! Three Hundred and seventy thousand dollars or what it costs for an Astin Martin DBS Volante.) The Little Minister by J.M.M Barrie, what would you do? 

The Little Minister's break-out sensation Maude Adams had an idea or two. After everyone in New York got to see her perform the part of Lady Babbie, she decided to take the play to the hinterlands. The New York newspapers called her beautiful, intelligent, and a woman of excellent high moral standing. Though she was a single woman and an actress, she was never without her mother or her close friend, Lucy Boynton. Maude cultivated an innocent and serene attitude off-stage, thus keeping moralistic tongues from wagging. She starred in many plays opposite John Drew in his company. John Drew? Who the heck is he, and why do I mention him? 

Did you see the little girl in E.T., the Extraterrestrial? Say her name? DREW Barrymore. He's that Drew. Her great uncle. Or great, great uncle? Or really great uncle that was dead before she was born, uncle. So the Drews and the Barrymores intermarried, and somehow you get the little girl with the lisp. John Drew was handsome! Historically thought of as a great actor but also as a matinee idol. He and our girl Maude never had a hint of scandal. She was either with her mother or her good and very close friend, Lucy. (I didn't know her, so I can't say, but they were so close they are buried together in Lake Ronkonkoma.)

Anyhoo, Maude Adams did her part to change the world by becoming the first actress to portray Peter Pan on the stage. She even designed his costume and invented the Peter Pan Collar! Maude Adams had found her role, and the fad she created with that collar showed that there was more to give. After surviving the Spanish Influenza, Maude went to work on a project with General Electric, to make stage lights that were more powerful and lasted longer. She and GE held patents on several of these advances that were to become the industry standard. (More on that in a minute.) Simultaneously she was working with Eastman Kodak to develop color photography, specifically as a film that could be used in motion picture photography. She did not have the same success. It would eventually come. She pointed them in the right direction. (It was theorized at the time that she was hoping to perform as Peter Pan in a full-color movie, and she was taking charge.) 

The point of all this side track is that the stigmatization of becoming an actress was wearing off. You wouldn't want your daughter to do it, but some fine young women are in the stage lights. It wasn't the death of your family's honor. That said, let's get on with the story du jour. 

Maurice and Harriet Ehrlich were blessed with two daughters, Martha and Edith. That was a long time ago; those names were considered quite seductive. Or not. The family lived in the South Bronx. Long before DJ Kool Herc invented hip hop. Martha was so eager to become an actress that she and her mother took the El from the Bronx to midtown, and fourteen-year-old Martha tracked down a part in the Broadway production of Little Women. She begged and pleaded and somehow won the part. When that show closed, she started modeling and working for some of the leading lights of the new century, James (I want you!) Montgomery Flagg, Photoplay cover artist Rolf Armstrong, and photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston, he had a way with actresses. A way to get them out of their clothes! Or close to it. (His work is very collectible by folks that like that sort of thing.)  

Martha Ehrlich decided a name change was in order and signed a contract with Chicago's Essanay Studios and lighting as Martha Early. She made three films as a co-star to French comic actor and the first international sensation Max Linder. His Max movies, some twenty-plus, were the first film to feature a recurring character. The Max Linder Universe! And for three films, Martha was part of that universe, like, Scarlett Johansen in the Marvel Universe. Her movies with Max were well-received and financially successful. She also starred in Broadway Bill, filmed in the day while she appeared in the Ziegfield Follies by night. Martha took a breath, decided to become a movie star, and while deciding things, decided it was time to go west. 

But before she went on the westbound 20th century to Los Angeles, Martha signed up with Famous Players-Lasky to play leads. She starred in Florenz Ziegfield's Midnight Frolic in 1919. She boarded that train.

Ah, Hollywood. A new beginning and a new name, Martha Mansfield, was born. Martha's first Hollywood feature was, Civilian Clothes, a comedy based on the stage play starring early heartthrob Thomas Meighan. Meighan was a reliable leading man. He starred with all the red-hot mommas of the silent era. Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Anna Mae Wong, and whoever else you can think of. Civilian Clothes was a hit. You may never get to see it projected because the only known copy of the film is stored in Russia at the Gosfilmofond. I can't recommend it because I haven't seen it either, but for 1920 it was considered pretty good. 

Her next project was a filmed version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Starring America's Best living actor (at the time), John Barrymore! He was to morph his handsome face from the kindly doctor to the evil Hyde without using make-up! Take that, Lon Chaney! For those of us who grew up on Famous Monsters of Filmland, we know this film well. At least we know a few stills and the story. The feminine interest in this odd love triangle, Millicent Carewe, was portrayed famously by Martha Mansfield. 

After Dr. J and Mr. H, Martha split from Famous Players-Lasky and signed a contract with a group operating the late Thomas Ince studios. She starred in the Perfect Lover and then went on the road playing Vaudeville. She made two independent films, The Queen of the Moulin Rouge and 'Till We Meet Again. She was done with them as they were beginning to be consolidated into MGM, and I reckon a star of her magnitude needed a little bit more attention. She returned to the Vaudeville circuit and signed a new deal with the Fox Film Corporation. (Way before they took credit for the 20th century.)

Martha's first film at Fox was The Silent Command. She was cast as a Femme Fatale, a seductress named Peg Williams. (What is this with these people? Natascha is a good seductress' name! Peg! What is that?) She is in the middle between Edmund Lowe and the Hungarian Heartthrob, Bela Lugosi! It's true. You can see it on YouTube. It's about a plot to ruin a good Navy man and blow up the Panama Canal. (The Panama Canal is massive, 51 miles long. The story is a fantasy with a purpose. It was made to get the public to be more sympathetic to increasing the size of our Navy, and it worked.) 

Next up for our rising star was a comedy, Potash, and Perlmutter, based on Montague Glass's successful play of the same name adapted from his stories about the same two fellows. This would be Samuel Goldwyn's first film of his independent film company. It would inspire two sequels, In Hollywood with Potash and Perlmutter and Partners Again. Martha plays the Head Model. (This is another of those films that perpetrate an uncharitable stereotype.)

Following the comedy, She co-stars as Seena Owen's younger and prettier sister in the Leavenworth Case. It would be her first film with the handsome, Wilfred Lytell, gossip magazine hinted that they might be more than co-stars. This long percolating project was produced by an independent producer, Whitman Bennett, and distributed by Brooklyn's own Vitagraph Company of America. According to Agatha Christie, the book tremendously influenced her writing. 

Martha's next role would take her to San Antonio, Texas. It was on location in the Lonestar State, where Martha would play her final role as a Southern Belle named Agatha (WTF!?! Not Ellie May or Cindy Lou, but Agatha!), in The Warrens of Virginia. It was a common enough story made and remade by early Hollywood almost exactly each time. Here's the plot: Agatha and Burton (Wilfred Lytell) are childhood sweeties but then, "dun, dun, dah!" the Civil War breaks out! She's a Confederate daughter, and he Joins the Union. (And remember to look for the union label.) 

Burton is purposely given a package of orders (that are false and, if not precisely false, then very misleading). He is carrying them when he slips across enemy lines to visit Agatha and gets caught. The fraudulent orders once relayed to the Confederacy's headquarters, led General Robert E. Lee to get caught by the Union soldiers. Thus the war ends, but not our story. Hill Buzzard and his gang of Confederate hooligans' plan to string Burton up. In fact, they get the noose around his neck while he is seated on the back of his horse. Hands tied, they try to get the horse to walk off, leaving Burton to a sad demise. The Brave horse will not budge no matter what Buzzard and his gang do. I love that horse. This gives Agatha, who is quite cross with Burton for siding with the Union, time to get help anyway, and he is rescued! 

Alas, Agatha repels him, fade to black. Title card: Five Years Later. All is well upon Burton's return to the family seat. He spies Agatha, their eyes meet, and true love is born anew. Is it just like I described it? Who knows, the film is lost. Barely anyone who walks the earth could have possibly seen it. Let me have fun. There are other versions you could see. But why bother? I gave the plot away. Sorry. Is this where I say Spoiler Alert?

At the end of the shoot in Texas, the cast was planning to have a little wrap party. They were returning to their rooms to change when Wilfred Lytell walked Martha Mansfield to her car. As she got into the vehicle, she suddenly burst into flames. Lytell ripped off his coat and quickly wrapped it around her body to smother the fire. Doing so saved her beautiful face from harm, but the fire was scorching. Martha's driver joined Lytell in trying to rip her burning clothes off, and he caught fire too.  

She was barely conscious when she arrived at the hospital and was pronounced dead less than a day later of severe burns to all extremities. One of her co-stars, Phillip Shory, escorted her body back to the Bronx. Martha Mansfield was just twenty-four years old. She was on her way to stardom, but how did this accident happen? The first thing the press did was to say she was a cigarette smoker. A woman smoking was still not acceptable in polite company but was something that an actress would do. From her Bronx doorstep, Martha's mother answered the reporter's questions, "My daughter never smoked and looked down on all who do." 

Then the press started to play with the idea that it was a murder conspiracy. That Martha Mansfield was a victim of a match thrown at her gunpowder-laced clothes by a jealous rival for Co-star Wilfred Lytells affections. That didn't quite get the public excited. And by the time Martha Mansfield was buried in Woodlawn Cemetary, she was yesterday's news. The most likely candidate for the fire was the acetate crinolines under her costume. They were highly flammable. It was not uncommon in 1923 for a limousine or large car to have rattan seats in the passenger compartment. The driver or someone else could have been smoking in the back of the vehicle, and an ember fell into the rattan, causing a small smoldering fire that ignited her crinolines. Maybe. It's a better idea than gunpowder-laced costumes. 

What came out of this unfortunate chapter is that Studios began to institute safety measures on set. The nitrate film stock was highly combustible to the point of being explosive. Back in the day, some lighting fixtures on the stage required a carbon arc to create the light. This is basically a live flame on set. Maude Adams and GE's patented light bulbs were much safer. (See how I did that in the wrap-up?) They were a tungsten filament encased in a glass vacuum bulb. It had the benefit of being easily dimmable with a bonus that would not be important until the beginning of the sound age. Unlike carbon arc light, the bulbs were entirely silent to operate. 

The 1920s were a rough decade for Hollywood. What follows is a little sample of mayhem and disaster. 1920, Harold Lloyd lost a couple of fingers when a prop bomb blew up. Stuntman Leo Noomis crashed a motorcycle into a police car. It was decided that he had to drive no slower than 45 miles an hour. He was never the same and, by surviving, saved the director from being charged with Manslaughter (1922). That's the picture's name! 1923 gave us Martha, 1924, Buster Keaton broke his neck, and it took 11 years to diagnose. You can see it in Sherlock Junior. Actress Barbara LaMaar broke her leg, the show must go on, so a doctor was called to patch her up and gave her a shot of morphine followed by a shot of cocaine, you know to finish the film. Like you do. By the time Souls for Sale wrapped, Barbara was a straight-up junkie and would be dead within three years. Airplanes failed - dead, cars crashed - dead, in Ben Hur, a chariot wheel broke, and the stuntman was impaled on the spoke, oh, dead. Established actress Kate Lester (that's the polite way to say, "middle-aged") got blown up by a faulty space heater, horses fell on guys - dead, swimmers drowned - dead, and people got burnt. Still, the film that turned the tide was Michael Curtiz's Noah's Ark. 

While re-staging the great flood, imagine the climactic moment of Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, but actually using 600,000 gallons of water. It was so overwhelming that three extras drowned. One extra needed his leg to be amputated, and many other extras suffered broken limbs and serious injuries. The female lead, Dolores Costello, was water-logged, caught pneumonia, and almost died. Close to forty ambulances attended to the wounded. Rumor has it that John Wayne, Ward Bond, and Andy Devine were extras, did anyone of them ever get swept away by a flood again? Mostly they hung out in the desert. I rest my case.

This horrendous accident led to stunt safety regulations in 1929. Of course, the studio callously used the accident to promote the film. Implementing the rules was part of a movement to get movie producers to function like a business. In 1925, a group of actors created the Masquers club, basically a bitch session for actors to complain about long hours and bad conditions on set. The club grew in size giving voice to a certain amount of discontent. It would take about eight more years and several exciting accidents and deaths to lead to the formation of the Screen Actors Guild. After a bumpy start, SAG went from about 80 members to more than four thousand across the country in just a couple of weeks. Their remit was to present a unified force to implement best practices for safety and fairness for their membership. 

The silent era is filled with entertaining movies and tragic outcomes. The personalities were larger, and the lives crazier. The early days of Hollywood were the wild west. They were making it up as they went. Money, Drugs, Sex, were commodities traded amongst the people with money. Imagine a time when every studio was run by Harvey Weinstein.

I personally liked Harvey, but you get the point. As bad as it is now, it was way worse then. Every story about Marsha Mansfield's death discussed how her face (The money maker) was saved from the flames. Had she survived and not entirely done shooting, a doctor would have been called to help her finish the picture, just like Barbara Lamaar. 

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