I wrote about the forced phenomenon of "Death in Threes" before, so I'll try not to repeat myself much here. That post came soon after a rash of Hollywood-related passings during mid-2012 and this post comes not too long after the too busy obituary season of late 2013 into early this year. The subject once again aroused my curiosity out of completely unrelated research, this time when I spotted an article about Robert Ames' death in a 1931 newspaper while mining background info for my recent Winner Take All post.
Ames has cropped up on Turner Classic Movies a lot this month. We've had opportunity to see the former RKO star alongside TCM Star of the Month Mary Astor in Smart Woman and Behind Office Doors and I came across his obit not long after seeing him in Three Who Loved during TCM's March 19 Betty Compson birthday schedule of movies. He's also in Millie, which I semi-recently wrote about. So even though Ames had no business interrupting what I was doing, having seen the obscure actor so much lately I couldn't look away once his name caught my eye:
Robert Ames, who died November 27, 1931, supposedly completed a trio that also included Hungarian-star Lya De Putti (also November 27) and Robert Williams (November 3), who proved popular opposite Jean Harlow and Loretta Young in Columbia's Platinum Blonde that same year.
I covered several trios of deaths from 1935 in my earlier "Death in Threes" post, but coming across the Ames grouping made me wonder about other movie-specific groupings.
While our morbid subject definitely loans itself to cases of the shivers I do believe we have a tie when it comes to creepiest reportage of a death trio. First, a familiar one to those who've read my Dorothy Dell biography:
Poor Dell had recently exploded to stardom in Little Miss Marker when she died tragically in a car wreck at just age 19, but why not spice up the headline a little, right?
Lilyan Tashman had died on March 21, 1934, but it was at the funeral of actor Lew Cody, who died over two months later, May 31, that Dell herself supposedly said: “They always say that when death comes to one actor it comes to two others before very long ... There was Lilyan Tashman, and now Lew Cody—I wonder who’ll be next.”
The teenage actress died June 8.
The following headline was served up by the Spokane Daily Chronicle on January 11, 1936 (page 9):
He was Harry Carr, a 58-year-old journalist who had begun his career at the Los Angeles Times in the late 1890s and actually wrote and appeared in a few silent films. Carr had died the day before the headline, January 10, 1936, the very date he was said to have written his last column for the Times, published on the 11th, in which he asked, “Death cuts down the famous by threes in Hollywood—Thelma Todd, John Gilbert and quien sabe (who knows)?”
Todd had died December 10, 1935 and Gilbert just before Carr, January 9, 1936. Given the status of the two film stars who preceded him, I'd like to think a friend was doing a Harry Carr a favor and that the headline would have made him smile.
If any period could compare to December 2013 it would have to be April 1975 when Richard Conte extended the normal trio to four major Hollywood deaths in just six days!
From the Lawrence Journal-World, April 16, 1975 (page 21):
Richard Conte died on April 15, 1975 and had been preceded by a pretty notable trio: Character actress Marjorie Main on April 10; Larry Parks, who had starred in The Jolson Story (1946) and Jolson Sings Again (1949) on April 13; and two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actor, Fredric March, on April 15.
I took a quick glance at a few of the Fredric March obituaries and, in an interesting "Death in Threes" aside, there was no mention of either Main or Parks in his write-ups. I guess no gimmickry required in reporting the death of a star of his magnitude.
Going back to 1949:
Director Sam Wood died September 22, 1949 completing a trio begun by character actor Frank Morgan on September 18 and leading man Richard Dix, September 20.
That set everyone on edge when recording artist Buddy Clark died in a plane crash, October 1, 1949:
“Now everybody in the business who owns up to a heart murmur or an ulcer figures Clark’s violent death started a new cycle.”
I'll go ahead and invent an unreported trio for Clark to be a part of, grouping him with director Elmer Clifton (October 15) and actor Craig Reynolds (October 22). That wasn't too hard.
You can really stretch status, occupation and timeline to make these groupings seem as random as they actually are. Still, it is interesting to see when and how the period press would group our dearly departed stars together. Other trios I bumped into:
The above headline linked the August 5, 1955 deaths of Carmen Miranda and Suzan Ball, reported as being 12 hours apart, with the death of Robert Francis, star of The Caine Mutiny (1954), who died in a plane crash on July 31.
I found this tucked inside Wayne Morris' obituary a few years later:
Morris died on September 14, 1959, following Edmund Gwenn on September 6 and Paul Douglas on the 11th.
Shortly after Grace Kelly's death, September 14, 1982, Santa Ana Orange County Register staff writer Jerry Hollerman not only names her as "the third," completing a somewhat broadly dated but most star-studded trio begun with Henry Fonda (August 12) and Ingrid Bergman (August 29), but also provided several additional semi-recent groupings when he asked:
Hollerman adds the following groupings to our list:
- 1981: William Holden (November 16), Jack Albertson (November 25) and Natalie Wood (November 29).
- 1980: Steve McQueen (November 7), Mae West (November 22), George Raft (November 24) and Rachel Roberts (November 26).
- 1979: Mary Pickford (May 29), Jack Haley (June 6), John Wayne (June 11) and Darla Hood (June 13).
- 1977: Elvis Presley (August 16), Groucho Marx (August 19) and Sebastian Cabot (August 22).
- Again, 1977: Ethel Waters (September 1), Zero Mostel (September 8) and Maria Callas (September 16).
- 1967: Spencer Tracy (June 10), Jayne Mansfield (June 29) and Vivien Leigh (July 8).
In truth these groupings are often haphazard (Hollerman also mentioned tightly timed but otherwise loose trios of Ross Martin-Allen Ludden-Harry Chapin in 1981 and Dorothy Stratten-Gower Champion-Sam Levenson in 1980) beyond their occurrence in our own particular time and place. Personally, I think I find them interesting in retrospect for the very reason that it is a way to group together like personalities who aren't otherwise typically associated with one another.
We're often saddened by the loss of our favorite stars but, no matter their age or how distant their contribution, seemingly silly connections such as the dark tradition of "Death in Threes" do have a way of keeping us talking about them and remembering them in social settings, online and off.