The small, three by five, plain white envelope was postmarked at Hilo, Hawaii, on Nov. 11, 1920, with postage paid for with a common two-cent carmine Washington definitive (#528, A140, Type Va, 11 perf). In just about every way it was a common cover, but immediately I took notice of the address.
It was addressed to a “Lila Lee” in New York and then forwarded to another address in Hollywood. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected that this simple envelope had a story to tell.
Lila Lee was a Silent Era movie star who appeared in 74 films. Her long career spanned vaudeville, silent films and pre-war Hollywood. Born Augusta Appel in Union Hill, NY, on July 25, 1901 into a vaudevillian family, Lila began singing and dancing on stage at a very young age and by the time she was 13 she was on Broadway performing in her well-know role as “Cuddles.”
Lila made her silent screen debut in 1918 with “The Cruise of the Make-Believe.” During her career, Lila mainly played supporting roles and was usually cast as a mother, sister or wife. Though she was not considered a top-shelf star, she was easily one of the most recognizable faces on the silver screen.
Her best-known role came in 1922 when she played Valentino’s suffering wife Carmen in “Blood and Sand,” and her career continued when Pictures learned to talk. Her other notable roles were in “Country Gentlemen” (’36), “Unholy Three” with Lon Chaney, Jr. (’30) and “Flight” with director Frank Capra (’29).
In 1936 Lila Lee retired from 19 years in the movies and went back to Broadway. She reportedly suffered from periodic bouts of tuberculosis and in 1973 she passed away at age 72 in Saranac Lake, NY.
Lila Lee’s life appeared in a book and was dramatized for the stage by her son Jack Kirkwood, Jr., in “There Must Be A Pony.” (He, himself, is best know for winning a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his libretto for “A Chorus Line,” the long-running Broadway musical.)
Lila Lee’s first important role was in the 1919, 9-reeler “Male and Female.” Gloria Swanson plays haughty Lady Lasenby, and Lila Lee is Tweeny, the young scullery maid, secretly in love with the butler. They are shipwrecked on a deserted island along the butler and several others of the nobility.
The movie’s a romantic fantasy of forbidden love between the Lady and the butler, while the pure Tweeny carries the torch for him. At the time, the movie was a great hit and was notable for a scene in which a real-life lion lies on top of Swanson and roars.
The barriers between the upper-lower classes, male-female, break down, but are quickly repaired when they’re rescued. The Lady marries a Lord, and the butler finally realizes that Tweeny is his true love. They marry and live in bliss on a ranch in the Rocky Mountains.
Tags: 74 films, A Chorus Line, a vaudevillian family, American silent movie era of the 1920's, Blood and Sand, Country Gentlemen, Cuddles, Era movie star, Lila Lee, Silent Cover Story, spanned vaudeville, The Cruise of the Make-Believe, There Must Be A Pony, top-shelf star, Unholy Three