Oscar Actors: Compson, Betty (Nominee)–Background, Career, Awards

Research in Progress (Oct 1, 2021)
Betty Compson Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Social Class: Middle; father mining engineer, gold prospector, grocery store proprietor, mother hotel maid

Race/Ethnicity/Religion

Family: father died when young

Education:

Training: violinist at 16

Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Discovered by producer Al Christie

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut: 1915 silent; aged 18

Breakthrough Role:

Oscar Role: The Barker, 1929; aged 33

Other Noms: 1

Other Awards:

Frequent Collaborator:

Screen Image:

Last Film: 1948; aged 51

Career Output:

Film Career Span:

Retired:

Marriage: 3; first to director James Cruze

Politics:

Death: 77

 

Betty Compson (born Eleanor Luicime Compson; March 19, 1897 – April 18, 1974) was an American actress and film producer who got her start during Hollywood’s silent era.

She is best known for her performances in The Docks of New York and The Barker, the latter of which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

Compson was born on March 19, 1897, the daughter of Virgil Compson and Mary Rauscher, in Beaver, Utah, at a mining camp. Her father was a mining engineer, a gold prospector, and a grocery store proprietor, and her mother was a maid in homes and in a hotel.

Compson graduated from Salt Lake High School. Her father died when she was young, and she got employment as violinist at 16 at a theater in Salt Lake City.

Discovered by Producer Al Christie

Playing in vaudeville sketches with touring circuits, Compson got noticed by Hollywood producers. While touring, she was discovered by comedic producer Al Christie and signed a contract with him.

Her first silent film, Wanted, a Leading Lady, was in November 1915.

She made 25 films in 1916 alone, though all of them were shorts for Christie with the exception of one feature, Almost a Widow.

She continued making numerous short films well into 1918, when after a long apprenticeship with Christie she started making features exclusively.

Compson’s star began to rise with the release of the 1919 feature The Miracle Man  for George Loane Tucker. Paramount signed Compson to a five-year contract with the help of Tucker.

Production Company

Her popularity allowed her to establish her own production company that providing her creative control over screenplays and financing. Her first movie as producer was Prisoners of Love (1921). She played the role of Blanche Davis, a girl born to wealth and cursed by her physical beauty. Compson selected Art Rosson to direct the feature. The story was chosen from a work by actress and writer Catherine Henry.

After completing The Woman With Four Faces (1923), Paramount refused to offer her raise (her salary was $2,500 per week) and she refused to sign.

Instead, she signed with a motion picture company in London, where she starred in a series of four films directed by Graham Cutts, a well-known English filmmaker.

The first was a movie version of an English play called Woman to Woman (1923), the screenplay for which was co-written by Cutts and Hitchcock. Part of The White Shadow (in which she played a dual role), another Cutts/Hitchcock collaboration. Woman to Woman proved to be popular enough for Jesse Lasky to offer top dollar to return to Paramount.

Back in Hollywood, she starred in The Enemy Sex, directed by James Cruze. The two were married in 1925; they divorced in 1929.

Her contract with Paramount was not renewed, and she  freelanced, working with lower-budget studios such as Columbia in The Belle of Broadway and Chadwick in The Ladybird.

During this time, she was suggested as a replacement for difficult Garbo in the MGM Flesh and the Devil opposite John Gilbert. She eventually worked for the studio with her former The Miracle Man co-star Lon Chaney in The Big City

In 1928, she appeared in a First National Pictures part-talkie, The Barker. Her performance as manipulative carnival girl Carrie garnered her a nomination for Best Actress, although she lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette.

In Court-Martial, a 1928 silent film that has not survived, she became the first actress to portray Old West outlaw Belle Starr on film.

In the same year, she appeared in the acclaimed Josef von Sternberg The Docks of New York in a sympathetic portrayal of a suicidal prostitute.

These films caused Compson’s popularity to re-emerge, and she became a busy actress in the new talking cinema.

Chaney offered her the female lead in his first talkie The Unholy Three, but she was too busy and instead suggested friend Lila Lee. Unlike other female stars of silent film, it was felt that her voice recorded exceptionally well.

Although she was not a singer, she appeared in early musicals, in which her singing voice was dubbed.

Divorced from Cruze, Compson’s career continued to flourish, starring in 9 films in 1930 alone. However, her last hit was The Spoilers, alongside Gary Cooper. She was unable to score a success and only secured roles in “poverty row” studios.

One major film in which she did not appear was Gone with the Wind; although she shot a Technicolor screen test for the role of Belle Watling, she was not cast in the role.

In 1941, Compson appeared in small role in Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith. Most of her later films were low-budget efforts.

Compson’s last film was 1948’s Here Comes Trouble.

After retiring from the screen, she began cosmetic line and helped her husband run a business called Ashtrays Unlimited.

After her marriage with Cruze ended, Compson married two more times. Her marriage to agent-producer Irving Weinberg ended in divorce, and her marriage to Silvius Gall ended with Gall’s death in 1962.

She had no children.

Compson died April 18, 1974, of a heart attack at her home in Glendale, California, aged 77.

For her contributions to the motion picture industry, Compson has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street.