I've Only Seen Him Still
Earle Williams was born in Sacramento, CA on February 28, 1880. By 1915 he was considered the most popular film star in the world. A 1917 popularity poll I've reprinted elsewhere on the site had him as number 14. Still not too shabby.
His popularity seems confirmed by his appearance throughout several card issues and promotional items from the latter half of the 1910's--most of those I've seen actually illustrating this page.
Most of the films Williams appeared in during the peak of his career appear to be gone. My guess is he's been mostly seen in the 1925 Clara Bow movie The Adventurous Sex, though he's also listed as being in the cast of Vitagraph's 1911 adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities, the first screen adaptation of the Dickens classic.
I've only seen him on cardboard. So after having my fun with Eleanor Boardman last night I decided to spend Sunday night digging up Earle Williams stories at the Newspaper Archive.
I'll warn you right from the start: these things usually don't end well.
Earle Williams in the Newspapers ...
August 2, 1908, the Oakland Tribune celebrates the return of native son Earle Williams, who is spending two weeks with relatives while on vacation. When he heads back to New York he'll be appearing with Rose Stahl in Chorus Lady. The unsigned article says that Williams' began his career in Oakland in a small part at the Dewey Theater ten years previous. That'd be 1898. Highlighting some of Williams' appearances in the interim were appearances with Phoebe Davis in Way Down East and Mary Mannering in Glorious Betsy.
November 19, 1914, the Muscatine Journal reports on what appears to be one of Earle Williams' most important roles, as John Storm in The Christian. The film is described as "non-sectarian, non-biblical, not a lecture, but a great love story, sounding the depth of a woman's soul."
The Journal refers to the film as a "masterpiece" in the headline and again in the body of the story. They report that Williams' character of John Storm is "generally declared to be the best balanced ever seen in a moving picture film." Williams' co-star was Edith Story playing Glory Quayle, the part which previously made Viola Allen famous on the stage.
March 17, 1917, an ad spotted in the Janesville Daily Gazette for an Anita Stewart movie features an "Extra Added Attraction" in the small print. Earle Williams in The Scarlet Gunner, which "is NOT A SERIAL but a number of Mile a Minute motor stories featuring Earle Williams and his hundred horsepower racer 'The Scarlet Runner.'" There are apparently twelve of these features that will run every Monday and Tuesday and you'll enjoy them whether you only catch one or all twelve. So not a serial but a group of a dozen standalone shorts each featuring Williams and this "Scarlet Runner" of his.
December 22, 1917, page 7 of the Muscatine Journal promotes Williams and Corinne Griffith in The Love Doctor, "the story of a surgeon who interchanged the brain cells of two girls that might give power to love and to save the other from herself."
Whoever wrote that didn't really lay it out well enough for me to understand the story, but I'll always be intrigued by something as off the wall as brain cells being interchanged.
Anyway, I thought the article warranted mention because it's claimed that Earle Williams got his start towards fame in New Orleans during a stage engagement in the Baldwin-Mellville stock company and in Mardi Gras carnivals.
October 21, 1918, "Same good old Oakland--except for the tall buildings and Spanish flu!" film star Earle Williams told his hometown paper, the Oakland Tribune, upon his returning to California from Vitagraph studios back East. Williams, arriving West to work in Los Angeles, joked to the reporter that he would have made a speech saying "how glad I am to be home again, and how nice it is to hear that Oakland went over the top in the bond drive--but we mustn't make speeches nowadays with influenza danger around."
I liked the quotes as just an all round sign of those times.
July 10, 1919, dig hard enough and you can find almost anything. How about a love letter penned by Earle Williams?
My Dear Snookums, Received both cards and am sorry you are lonesome. I miss you, too, dearie. You won't come to New York so come right here when you get back. Am doing the yacht scenes today. Quite cloudy. Have not gone to Orange yet. Was to go today, but had to do other scenes. I am pretty well and busy. Don't worry and get too lonesome dearest. Remember, I love you. "EARLE."
The Burlington Hawk Eye found this newsworthy and who am I to knock them reprinting it myself nearly 93 years later.
Anyway, the letter was news because one Miss Roma Raymond, "beautiful Polish actress," took our pal Earle for $50,000* in court by way of evidence including that letter up above proving that he'd trifled with her affections. That letter, Earle's last to his Snookums, was written July 5, 1918. On October 14, 1918 Earle married the former Florine Walz, who remained his wife until his death in 1927.
*I saw other reports stating it was just $20,000. A nice bit of change either way.
I'm going out of order only because I found this next article after the one with the Snookums love letter. So yes, I'm cheating totally for effect. Anyway, it seems Miss Raymond had a pretty good case, at least as she outlined it herself in the January 17, 1919 edition of the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette.
The particulars of Raymond's claims were that she had first met Earle Williams at the New York Vitagraph studio in 1912. They dated, fell in love, and he promised marriage as soon as he became a more established star. They took an apartment together in March 1913 and from that time on, "He never made a move, he never made a plan, there was never an interview given out or a story for a magazine written that I didn't have a hand in."
While I used that previous paragraph to air Roma Raymond's case the more interesting parts of her article are the details she gives about Earle Williams' career from 1912 through 1919.
In 1912 Williams made just $85 per week at Vitagraph. His big break would come in 1915 when Metro approached him and offered $250 per week. (I'm wondering if this comes off the success of 1914's The Christian mentioned up above?)
Williams was unsure of what to do. Raymond, of course, claims to have steered him on the right path and sent him to the Vitagraph bigwigs in order to present the Metro offer to them before actually signing away from the only studio he had ever worked for.
Vitagraph rewarded him by signing Williams to a new deal at $500 per week with a $250/week raise for each year after the first for three years following. There was an option for the company on a fourth year.
Raymond writes that the last she was aware of Williams was being paid $1,500 per week working at Vitagraph.
July 30, 1921, "One of the requirements of a motion picture star is that he shall be a skilled all-around athlete, and as Earle Williams believes that nothing can be written in the script that cannot be enacted in life, he finds it necessary to keep up his training," comes the report in promotion of The Silver Car in which Williams supposedly makes "three daring leaps."
I have my doubts that Mr. Williams actually made any of these leaps, but their description provides an interesting peek at this actioner: Williams leaps from the rail of an ocean liner as it leaves its dock; Williams leaps from a tree onto the top of a moving limousine; Williams leaps from a cliff into a harbor from where he swims to a man-o-war anchored near by.
Good thing he kept himself in shape.
March 2, 1922, page 7 of the Olean Evening Herald announces the latest Earle Williams film, Bring Him In, "a stirring drama of the Royal Mounted Police." The write-up is interesting in noting that the Williams part is more rugged than his usual roles in which he's "so frequently portrayed as the polished dress-suited hero."
April 7, 1922, page 5 of the Provo Herald celebrates Earle Williams for daring to make the jump from the stage to the screen back in a day when "his fellow actors laughed at what they called 'magic lantern acting.'"
The brief article, with accompanying photo, celebrates Williams as one of the leading male stars of the screen and pats him on the back for having spent his entire film career with the Vitagraph Company in a day when "screen stars are jumping for producer to producer with comet-like speed."
September 25, 1922, the Mexia Evening News promotes the coming of A Rogue's Romance with the sub-heading, "Earle Williams in Picture with Great Valentino."
Actually early Valentino, filmed in 1919, the legendary star figures in a smaller part, referred to in the article as the Red Rat, while Williams handled the lead. Despite Valentino's stature in the film A Rogue's Romance is mourned as a lost film today not only because of Valentino's sheer presence, but the fact that he performed his Apache dance in it.
The article describes a scene shared by Williams' Picard and Valentino's Red Rat:
"It is regarded as highly dangerous to cross the Red Rat in any manner whatsoever and yet Mons. Picard, master criminal, deliberately picks a fight with this power of the underworld and thereafter is in constant danger ... The Red Rat learns the plans of Picard and informs the police; but by the introduction of a love interest the master crook is always able to turn the tables in a most unexpected manner."
June 9, 1924, the Hutingdon Daily News of Huntingdon, PA reports "Former Vitagraph Favorites at Studio," on page 3. Williams, along with old co-star, Florence Vidor, are amongst the cast of the studio's Borrowed Husbands. The article notes that Williams first appeared in films after a successful New York run of The Third Degree on stage. "Under Vitagraph tuition he, too, has risen to an eviable position."
Earle Williams died April 25, 1927 from a hemorrhage following double pneumonia. The Associated Press reported his death coming at noon that very day inside their Monday, April 25 paper. They stated he had only taken an especially bad turn the previous Thursday when he collapsed after being "indisposed with a hard cold."
Williams was just 47. Obituaries do not mention his wife or child, but do specifically state that his brother, Don Williams, still lives in Oakland, and that his mother, Mrs. Eva Williams of Sacramento, was still alive.
The Associated Press obituary recounts his career stating he had been employed in motion pictures since 16 years ago (1911) when he went to work for Vitagraph and that he worked on the stage prior to that. The AP names stock companies he performed with as those of Henry Harris, Henry N. Miller and Margaret Anglin in San Francisco; the Belasco company of Portland; the Orpheum of Salt Lake. Way Down East is again mentioned as one of his more important roles on stage.
A few days later it was reported that Williams had left no will and his widow had filed application for letters of administration to his $200,000 estate.
July 27, 1927, a wire story about Charlie Chaplin's pending divorce from second wife Lita Grey actually closes with a couple of paragraphs referencing the now deceased Earle Williams.
The article warns Chaplin fans that "few, if any, film stars have weathered trial featured by unsavory testimony," before going on to state that Williams, formerly one of the most popular movie stars there had been, finished his career playing second leads. His career had never fully recovered after "the sensational breach of promise suit" brought against him by Roma Raymond.
An Even Sadder Postscript
August 10, 1931, "Wholesale Death Pact Wipes Out Actor's Family," reads an Oakland Tribune headline. More direct on the other side of the country, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of the same date reports "Earle Williams' Widow Kills 3 Kin and Self."Florine Walz Williams, 33, was more than broke. Finances had been mismanaged so badly that she was on probation after having faced trial for a mortgage scam and facing imminent arrest on charges of passing bad checks. Despite wires from film executive Joseph M. Schenck offering $1,000 and another referring to $500 received from friend Constance Talmadge, Mrs. Williams just felt she was in too deep.
She made a pact with her 80-year-old mother, Mrs. Clarisse Walz, each of them leaving letters behind with further instructions. Earle Williams' daughter, Joan, 7, and Florine's younger son, Billy, 4, were also killed.
The newspapers are filled with lurid details including excerpts from the suicide notes.
Florine Williams' money troubles began soon after Earle's passing. Don Williams said that his late brother had left an estate of $260,000, a number falling right between other estimates. Florine spent.
She lived lavishly and she was easily taken in by others. Her father had left her mother $100,000 when he had died; Florine spent that as well.
She lost several hundred thousand dollars to a Wallace Harvey in an oil business scam. Florine had been involved with Harvey and he had fathered Billy. Harvey was gone after securing the money.
Hopefully our next subject has a happier ending. I suppose I could have ended this post with Earle Williams' own death in 1927, but that seemed to leave some very important details dangling.