This post is a part of our New Voices Section.
Written by Jennifer Ann Redmond.
Pretty teenager wins national star-making contest. Contracts, ad campaigns, and a slew of merchandising follows. After a while, her inevitable downfall: news outlets flare with stories of illicit sex, bankruptcy, and drunken catfights.
If you’re wondering which reality show this was, you’re off by a hundred years.
Corliss Palmer’s story is the perfect script: girl from small Southern town wins the 1920 Motion Picture “Fame and Fortune Contest,” the fan magazine’s showcase to uncover new movie talent. She beat out thousands of contestants and became publisher Eugene Brewster’s favorite; he saw a sparkling future for her in sweet, innocent ingenue roles. He didn’t account for her being neither sweet nor innocent.
She managed to make a few films in between spending sprees and temper tantrums, but only one – Bromo and Juliet (1926), a Charley Chase comedy – is remembered today. Her true (and unfortunate) legacy is the adulterous affair she carried on with Brewster while living with him, his wife, and toddler son.
Southern Belle to Hollywood Hell: Corliss Palmer and Her Scandalous Rise and Fall pulls no punches. Speaking with her family fleshed out the actress and woman I only knew from copious “picture studies” in Motion Picture; their photos, correspondence, and candid stories showed her as a flawed human being, definitely no “angel.” No one exists in a vacuum, however, and it’s hard to not have some pity on the troubled young lady so eagerly exploited by so many.
Today, someone like Corliss would be “famous for being famous,” a celebrity lauded on social media for her tumultuous behavior. 1920s Hollywood could only shun her, and she was blacklisted by the studios. In later years she struggled with tragedy and poor health, and she died in obscurity, but she deserves to be remembered; her life parallels an industry in flux, caught between the ideal and the actual, and I do hope you’ll discover her for yourself.
Southern Belle to Hollywood Hell: Corliss Palmer and Her Scandalous Rise and Fall (BearManor Media) is available now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and direct from the publisher at BearManorMedia.com.
Jennifer Ann Redmond found her calling at age 7, when her essay won a countywide contest. Her passion for writing is equaled only by her love of the 1920s and 1930s; silent and pre-Code (1929-1934) films are a favorite, with Clara Bow, Louise Brooks, and Jean Harlow among her muses. Several places have featured her work, including Classic Images, Atlas Obscura, and on the Library of Congress website. Her first book, REELS & RIVALS: Sisters in Silent Film, was published by BearManor Media in 2016. She lives on Long Island, NY.