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Alice Terry: The Girl from Old Vincennes

Posted by Allan Ellenberger on Nov 8th, 2013
2013
Nov 8

HOLLYWOOD PROFILE

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This is the first of four parts on the silent film actress, Alice Terry.

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By Allan R. Ellenberger

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Grace, style, and an icy beauty. These qualities describe Alice Terry, one of silent film’s most enchanting and underrated actresses. Even though she made only 24 films, her contribution to the film industry along with her husband, director Rex Ingram, could fill a history book.

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She was born Alice Frances Taafe on July 24, 1899, in a small house on Fifth and Shelby Streets in Vincennes, Indiana. Her father, Martin Taafe, was a farmer who had migrated to Indiana from County Kildare, Ireland. There he met and fell in love with Ella Thorn. The two were married and began a family, with Alice the youngest of three children.

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By the time Alice turned five years old, the Taafe’s had settled in Los Angeles. Not long after their arrival, Mr. Taafe was killed in a street accident, and Mrs. Taafe took her three children back to Indiana. Within the year the Taafe’s returned to Los Angeles and moved into an apartment building in the beach community of Venice.

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The years progressed, and Alice attended Santa Monica High School while her older sister Edna worked at a candy store. At the age of 14, Alice was chosen by the Chamber of Commerce to represent Venice in the “Beauties of the Beach” contest which was sponsored by the neighboring beach communities. “Miss Taafe is a typical beach maiden,” the local newspaper proclaimed. “She is an expert swimmer, diver, tennis player, and she is as swift and sure in a canoe as an Indian maiden.”

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Regardless of her fleeting fame, money was tight, and in order to help make ends meet, Alice auditioned as an extra for Thomas Ince after being encouraged by Tarzan of the Apes actress Enid Markey, who lived in the same apartment building.

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Ince took a liking to the auburn-haired teenager and paid her $12 a week. He put her in several of his films including the 1916 classic, Civilization, in which she played everything from a peasant to a German soldier. Years later, another Ince extra, Charlotte Arthur remembered working with Alice. “Alice Terry,” she recalled, “with whom we at once made friends, whose name was Taafe in those days and whom everyone called Taffy. She was very poor and very Irish and very simple and nice—and very plump—and nobody thought she had a chance. She couldn’t act. Well, Rex Ingram taught her to do that.”

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At the time, Rex Ingram was a young director working mostly at Universal. He was married to a young actress named Doris Pawn. However, the marriage was in trouble from the start, and within the year they were separated. Rex met Alice that same year when he was making a picture at the John Brunton Studios (now Paramount). “I played an extra for two or three days,” Alice recalled,” and then he left for the Royal Flying Corps. I didn’t hear from him again until the end of the war.”

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Alice Terry without her blonde wig

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In the meantime, she continued doing extra work for different studios. Alice did not have much confidence in herself or her talent and was uncomfortable working for anyone other than Thomas Ince. “Somehow I didn’t get the thrill out of working before the camera that one is supposed to experience,” she once told a friend. “Of course, as extras we did not know the story of the picture. We simply obeyed orders as they were shouted at us in a megaphone and then waited until the picture was exhibited at our favorite theater to see what it was all about.”

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Her confidence was soon strengthened when in 1916 director Charles Giblyn cast her as the younger sister opposite Bessie Barriscale in Not My Sister (1916).  “I acted all over the place,” she said, “killing people and eating up the scenery. Until I realized that I didn’t know anything about it. Then I never ‘acted’ again.”

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Regardless, with this taste of acting now in her blood, she set her sights on something more than just an extra. “I want to be a star like Miss Barriscale,” she told a reporter. “And I am going to work just as hard in the future as I have in the past, and who knows but my dream will come true.”

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Her dream eventually would come true, but not until several setbacks. After appearing in Not My Sister, Alice continued in small roles in such films as The Bottom of the Well (1917), Thin Ice (1919), and The Valley of Giants (1919). In 1917 she appeared as an extra in Alimony (1917), made at Metro Studios, along with another unknown named Rudolph Valentino. They were extras together earning $7.50 a day and were well acquainted. “I was an extra so long, never getting anywhere,” Alice remembered. “People would say, ‘its funny, Alice that you don’t get on,” but it wasn’t funny to me. I was so shy and backward, no one was willing to risk me with a part, and I grew to have that whipped feeling, you know, that awful inner discouragement, until I was sure I would never be any good.”

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Unfortunately, it was during this time that Alice’s insecurity caused her to run away from what may have been her first big opportunity. While working as an extra on The Devil’s Pass Key (1920), director Erich Von Stroheim approached her.  “I am starting my next picture soon,” he said. “I think I may be able to do something for you. Come and see me.”

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Alice promised that she would and then walked off the lot and never went back, not even for her pay check. Afraid of having her hopes aroused again, she decided to make a slight change in careers. She found a job in the cutting room at Famous Players-Lasky, but it lasted only a short time because of her adverse reaction to the glue fumes, which forced her to return to acting.

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Soon after she received a call from Rex Ingram who had returned from the war and wanted her to pose for a head he was sculpting. Again, their paths did not cross for several months until Alice was called to be an extra on Ingram’s next film, The Day She Paid (1919). However, he spoke harshly to her, and she began to cry. She walked off the set and refused to go back.

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The next day, Rex called Alice and apologized and asked her to come back. He was going to be changing studios soon, and he had a part for her. Alice told him she would consider being a script girl, but as far as acting was concerned, she was through!

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Rex Ingram and Alice Terry

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Of course, Rex was able to convince Alice to return, and he gave her a small role in his next film, Shore Acres (1920), made at Metro. During this time, Ingram was able to find the talent that lay hidden beneath her shyness and decided to cast her in an important role in Hearts Are Trumps (1920).

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It was during preparation for this film that Alice discovered her trademark. One day she was putting on make-up and saw a blond wig sitting on the table next to her and decided to try it on. Thinking that it looked too silly, she immediately took it off, but not before Ingram walked into the room and saw her in it. He insisted she wear it in the film. Alice felt ridiculous wearing the wig until she saw the rushes three days later. “When I appeared on the screen, I looked so different, and from that time on I never got rid of the wig,” she recalled. “I was stuck with it. I didn’t feel like myself, and my freckles didn’t seem to show. My skin looked whiter, and there was a different person there. If I ever had to rehearse, I always put the wig on or I couldn’t do it.”

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The relationship between Alice and Rex was developing at a rapid pace. Rex began to get possessive of Alice, and once became jealous when she played the ukulele for his assistant, Walter Mayo. Another time, during the making of Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), a taxi driver took a liking to Alice and gave her free rides to the studio from the streetcar stop on Hollywood Boulevard. One morning, Rex overheard the taxi driver as he let her off in front of the studio on Cahuenga Avenue. “Goodbye Alice. I’ll see you in the morning,” he told the young actress. Rex was incensed. “He shouldn’t call you Alice,” Rex insisted. “You’re going to be a big star.”

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“Look,” she told Ingram, “he can call me Alice if he picks me up. I’m not going to ride on that streetcar and then walk six blocks to the studio.” The next day, Rex provided Alice with a car.

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Ingram began grooming his young protégé for stardom. First, he changed her name to Alice Terry and had her teeth fixed. He also sent her to a spa to lose weight. During this time they became good friends. They would meet at a Pasadena tea room and discuss the day’s events and each others secret ambitions. He would take her home, and the next day everyone would tell her about the other girls he saw later that night. “Well, good for him,” she would say. She liked Rex very much, but she knew that kind of behavior was not for her.

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Meanwhile, Metro Pictures’ president, Richard Rowland, bought the rights to the very popular novel The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The Vincente Blasco Ibanez novel had remained on the best seller list consistently, and Rowland felt it could be what the ailing studio needed to rescue it from the brink of bankruptcy.

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Rowland placed the undertaking into the capable hands of scenarist June Mathis. When she suggested Rex Ingram to be the director, Rowland looked at his recent work and saw how little they had cost, compared to their quality. This impressed the cost conscious mogul, and he signed Ingram for the project.

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Rudolph Valentino and Alice Terry in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”

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Ingram and Mathis did not agree on the choice of the actor to play Julio. Mathis wanted Rudolph Valentino, who was a rising young star. Ingram recalled the young actor from his days at Universal and felt that he could not handle the role. When Mathis agreed to sign Alice Terry in the role of Marguerite, Ingram yielded and agreed to using Valentino.

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When Alice discovered that Metro had signed both her and Valentino, she couldn’t image why Rex and the studio wanted to risk everything on two virtual unknowns. However, Metro executives were betting that the book was still popular with the public, and hoped that would be enough to lure an audience. Once again, Alice’s self confidence was tested. “When I read the book I was terribly frightened,” she recalled. “I used to look at those big sets and wish I could run away; but once we started on the work I forgot to be afraid—I was fascinated.”

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A spirit of congeniality developed on the set, but the work was hard. Rex insisted that the dialogue be spoken in French. Even though it was a silent film, he wanted to impress even the lip readers in the audience. So Alice would get up at five o’clock every morning and study on the streetcar on her way to work. However, after she learned one French title, she would repeat it for every scene. “Nobody could tell the difference,” she reasoned.

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Valentino became very irritated and told her, “If you say that line one more time I’m going to…” Rex finally insisted that she learn the entire dialogue.

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When the film opened in Los Angeles, Alice was a bundle of nerves. Rex had gone to New York to attend the premiere there and called to tell her that the film was a success. As she arrived at the Mission Theater, people greeted her politely, but not with much fanfare. She felt there must be something wrong that she didn’t know. “Then at intermission these people I knew began to recognize me,” she said, “but they didn’t know I had changed my name and that I had changed so much and that I was blonde and all this, and then it was very exciting.”

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The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was a tremendous hit and put Metro into the black. It also helped the careers of June Mathis and Rex Ingram and made a star of Valentino and Alice Terry.

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Next week, Part Two looks at Alice and Rex Ingram’s budding relationship and the films she made with Ramon Novarro.

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2 Responses

  1. Anne Says:

    This is most interesting…..thanks

  2. caroline Says:

    Great article about a terrific actress, my favorite of Valentino’s leading ladies! Thanks, Allan

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