This video was recently assembled by youtube member “basilnelson”, using many of the great photographs from our Leila Hyams Photo Gallery. Enjoy!
For all intents and purposes, the pre-code drama Red Headed Woman is a Jean Harlow film. Harlow plays a selfish man eater looking for wealth; and, she’s willing to trade her most valuable “assets” for the big score. It was a great commentary on greed and the women who laughed at the male-female class system of yesteryear. Chester Morris plays a victim of sorts, though he’s hardly innocent. Morris is married to a lovely, down-to-earth and faithful woman, Irene ‘Rene’ Legendre (Leila Hyams). Not only does he cheat on Rene with Harlow’s character (Lillian ‘Lil’ Andrews), but he seems very nonchalant about her feelings in general.
Leila had 4th billing in this film. Harlow was naturally given top billing, followed by Chester Morris and Lewis Stone (playing Morris’ father). All three are fine performers and deserving of their respective positions on the movie poster. However, Leila’s “Irene” was the only character that had the audience on her side. I admit to being partially biased, but even objectively, no other character made the viewer angry of their behalf. In the screen capture below, Leila is teary-eyed at the news of her husband’s indiscretions.
My initial feeling after watching this scene was one of disgust. I found myself wanting to jump through the screen and strangle Bill Legendre (Morris). After awhile, I did remind myself that it was only a movie. But, it drove my respect for Leila even deeper. All she had to do was stand there and look at him with that broken-hearted expression. There was no huge blowout, no dramatic explosion, just a look. Leila’s character, like many real-life women, suffered for her forgiving personality. She tried to salvage the marriage between her and Bill, but her efforts were met with resistance and an unwelcome intervention from Harlow’s character, who seemed to enjoy the idea of smashing a happy home to pieces. In one particular scene, Irene shows up at Bill’s door to mend fences…
Again, she is made to feel like a fool. Bill is obviously blinded by Lil’s physical offerings and he forgets what constitutes a real woman. Irene is a combination of the best qualities but under-appreciated and disrespected by her own husband. She naturally suspects herself as the cause of her husband’s need to look elsewhere. While we, the audience, know better, it’s her quest for true happiness that gives Bill the benefit of the doubt. Here is a short clip where Jean Harlow’s character barges in thoughtlessly:
For those who’ve yet to see this gem from 1932, I won’t reveal the ending or even hint around it. I will say, however, that Leila is stunningly beautiful in this film. Her character is solid, hardly a bit part but not quite a starring role. Thankfully, this is one film that can be obtained on DVD, as part of Warner Brothers’ “Forbidden Hollywood” Collection. Leila is charming, captivating and memorable as Irene. She’s everything a classic lady should be.
I just re-watched Ruggles of Red Gap the other day and found a new appreciation for it. I only wish that Leila’s role was more prominent in the film. When she was on screen, she lit up the atmosphere. Leila plays Nell Kenner, a local singer in Red Gap, Washington, who seems to be well liked by everyone. I got the impression that she was the town’s “anchor”, that one person that everyone recognized as a symbol of reassurance.
Many of Leila’s scenes are funny, not in a negative way, but rather in the way that she blended her natural comedic abilities with her down-to-earth persona. She was, after all, a New York gal, born and raised. That “real” quality shines through in much of her film work. One scene in particular stands out – when Nell (Leila) tries to teach George Vane Bassingwell (Roland Young) how to play the drums. It’s painfully obvious that he has no rhythm whatsoever. Leila’s mannerisms and facial expressions are classic in this scene.
It’s no surprise that Leila sang in this film. She was often praised by critics, not only for her looks and charm, but for her voice. Her parents were singers and comedians on Vaudeville and Broadway. Her father, John Hyams, was particularly noted for his rich baritone. Leila sang a few short numbers but could have easily carried the film if it had been shot as a musical.
This film was released in 1935. As many of us are well aware, Leila retired from making films the following year in 1936. Be that as it may, Ruggles of Red Gap really is a wonderful period piece. There are a few unauthorized DVD releases, mostly from overseas. You can always grab the VHS tape online. It’s well worth the effort!
For someone that was as present in films as Leila was in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it’s hard to imagine that she could fall into obscurity with the passing years. Unfortunately, that did seem to happen. Hopefully with our book and continued efforts, we will undo that. However, let’s suppose that she didn’t retire from making movies in 1936. Could she have gone down in history as a superstar?
We have our own opinions about why she chose to retire (which we won’t discuss in the interest of objectivity). But again, had she not stopped, how famous would she have become?
In 1930 alone, Leila made a staggering amount of films for MGM. She was like their go-to girl, a dependable and strong actress who could carry any role she was given. The vast majority, those unfamiliar with her as a whole, was introduced to her talents after Freaks. There’s no doubt about it. The film was so scandalous that they couldn’t help but notice everyone who was part of it. Despite the fact that she was a frequent co-star of William Haines, himself an MGM favorite, she always fell behind the headliners of the era. The 30s propelled her into the fast lane of cinema. She made films every single year from 1930 until her departure in 1936. It’s conceivable that she would’ve continued making films every single year into the 1940s. Who knows what could’ve happened then? She may have become a Film Noir favorite or a musical queen. Her singing in Ruggles of Red Gap has become a favorite among fans. Leila was praised in many newspaper articles for her pleasant speaking voice, and her parents were both singers on the Broadway stage. We’re of the opinion that her creative plug was pulled much too early. She could’ve broken out and become an icon.
Aside from a few technological advances, the world really hasn’t changed much since 1932. The cars and the clothes look different, and class may have taken a few beatings, but the foundation of human nature has remained the same.
When Freaks debuted in 1932, it wasn’t the most well-received film by any means. The vast majority was completely appalled by these bigger-than-life “oddities”. Naturally, society was aware that people like this existed, but they didn’t want to have to look at them, or be exposed to their gruesome exteriors. They certainly didn’t want the undesirable plastered across their beloved silver screen. The film’s director, Tod Browning, had a much different opinion. Having been raised around carnivals and the circus for much of his young life, Browning felt a camaraderie with sideshow performers. He saw the human beings in them – the people trapped beneath a physical hardship. It’s very likely that Browning made Freaks not to exploit these people, but to prove them to be as important as the “normal” citizens of the world.
Since Leila Hyams is our main focus, it’s noteworthy that she, as Venus, was one of the few who treated the sideshow acts with respect. In today’s society, we’re exposed to many people who deviate from our definition of normality. It could be their appearance, their choice of religion or sexual preference. Whatever the case, those looking from the outside tend to pass judgment. However, there are also the Venus-esque people of present day, who recognize difference as a uniqueness rather than a flaw.
Freaks is a commentary on intolerance. For that reason alone, it’s still as relevant today as it was when it debuted. The message was blatant, and it took place in a circus setting because of Browning’s personal convictions. Had it been set anywhere else, the message would have still come through. The shock value of the film served it’s purpose quite effectively. The audience gave their full undivided attention because the images before them shocked their system into response. Their instinct was to recoil in horror, but to be horrified, they first had to acknowledge the presence of these unfortunate people. They’d fallen right into Browning’s carefully orchestrated trap. It was his way of acting out for attention, on behalf of the misunderstood crowd he dearly loved. We see a number of people behave in the same manner nowadays.
Everyone is well aware of how often the same films are re-packaged and re-sold. First we’ll get a special edition, then a director’s cut, then the ULTIMATE edition with hours of never-before-seen footage and outtakes. The truth is, there really is little difference between each of these releases, other than a new facade. The entertainment and home video companies have been in the same rut for years. They’ll resurrect a popular 80s teen movie or a recent blockbuster with an illusion to make it look like you’re getting something new. In reality, you aren’t, but consumers still flock to buy the same movie over and over.
In the wake of this practice, many classic films are sitting in a vault and rotting away, having never even seen a single DVD release, much less numerous releases. For many people, especially the current generation, a DVD release is the only way these films will be seen again. TCM does a fantastic job with running classic films, but there are many that have never been shown and are almost forgotten. We didn’t want that to happen to Leila’s films.
We’ve started a petition, directed at Warner Brothers and MGM, to release the Leila Hyams films in their catalog on DVD. We will eventually have to start one for Paramount as well, seeing as how they hold the rights to a few of her films. For the most part, WB and MGM have the stronghold. To date, roughly four of Leila’s films have seen a DVD release. Those are: Freaks, Sins of the Children, Red Headed Woman and Spite Marriage. To some, four DVD releases doesn’t sound half bad…until you remember that Leila has a total of 52 movies to her credit. That means there are 48 films still hidden away from public appreciation, including the films considered “lost”.
We ask that you please sign the Leila Hyams DVD petition and send the link to as many people as possible. Every name counts! Thank you!
As some of you may know, we’re writing the first and only book on Leila Hyams’ life and career. To begin, we’re taking a look at her parents John Hyams and Leila McIntyre, who were extremely popular stage actors in their day. John and Leila’s experience on the stage would have a profound impact on young Leila and her decision to become an actress herself. The actual writing process has already begun and we continue to gather as much information as possible. It has proved to be somewhat of a challenge, given that Vaudeville records were not kept with the precision of Broadway records. Vaudeville producers were more concerned with each specific show, as opposed to maintaining a record of past performances or the actors/actresses who appeared.
Because there has never been a book on Leila Hyams, there is no previous work to cross-reference. Additionally, many blurbs that mention John and Leila are just quick references to whichever play they were doing at the time. That is one of the many reasons that a book like this is important. Without the effort and genuine concern for the subject, this history would be lost forever. There are many things we’ve found while researching that are amazing, and they deserve to be highlighted in the annals of entertainment.
Perhaps the biggest goal of the book is to give Leila her due. As a child, she lived in the shadow of her parents’ celebrity; and, as a married woman, she would take a backseat to her husband’s career. There was really never a time when Leila was the main attraction. She had moments of grandeur on screen and that was the one place where no one else could touch her. This book will finally make Leila the woman of the hour. There will of course be the necessary family history and information on her husband of 50 years (Phil Berg), but all in all, this book is about her life and her career.
We have been fortunate enough to speak with Leila’s niece and nephew (by marriage, they are Phil’s niece and nephew), the only living relatives we’ve located to date. Leila was an only child and had no children of her own, so tracking down living family members has been nearly impossible. However, they have both expressed interest in the book and are helping us as much as they can. We’re very lucky to have them involved, it gives this book a certain amount of validation.
This coming December will be the 30th anniversary of Leila’s death. Though we would love to have the book finished and available by that time, we’re certainly not rushing or slapping it together for the sake of a deadline. We’d like this to be as thorough, informative and as entertaining as possible. Leila deserves no less than that.