Jan 19, 2016

Book Review--Helen Twelvetrees Perfect Ingenue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films

Helen Twelvetrees Perfect Ingénue: Rediscovering a 1930s Movie Star and Her 32 Films
Cliff Aliperti

Though I've only seen two Helen Twelvetrees films, I was fascinated by Cliff Aliperti's biography of her life. There wasn't anything in her work in Millie (1931) and State's Attorney (1932) that made me particularly curious to learn more about her, though I liked her well enough. Still, I was eager to read Cliff's book, because he is a respected friend of A Classic Movie Blog and I have enjoyed his posts on Immortal Ephemera for several years. In addition to being a fine writer, he is a stickler for good research, a pursuit that dovetails nicely with his film memorabilia business. This is a man who is immersed in the world of classic Hollywood, and that gives him an interesting point of view.

I didn't know much about Helen Twelvetrees before I read her biography. Aside from an article in Films of the Golden Age by Dan Van Neste and Cliff's profile of the actress on his site, detailed information about her life and career has not been readily available. Very few of Twelvetrees' thirty-two films are available for purchase, and some are believed to be lost.

Helen was famous for her sad eyes
It surprised me to be so entranced by Helen's story. It's not that the things that happen to her are so novel, lots of actresses deal with divorce, toxic relationships, struggling to find work and alcoholism. What intrigued me was how her life seemed to be simultaneously incredibly easy and dauntingly challenging.

Twelvetrees fell into work easily enough. She was confident and determined, and moved fairly gracefully from the New York stage to Hollywood stardom. In fact, the actress would always be able to find some kind of employment in the entertainment industry, when film and Broadway failed her, she could turn to summer stock, radio and even performed in one of the first television productions.

She was also intelligent in many ways about her own affairs. The actress wouldn't overspend, stay too long in a damaging relationship or even abuse alcohol until life truly beat her down. There was never any worry about poverty or providing for her son.

The problem was that she never had quite enough of what she needed. More often or not she would lose a plum role to another actress and her romances would begin with a bang and wither into abuse. She had something, and even critics recognized that she wasn't getting the material she deserved, but there was never a classic role, or an interested producer or director, to help her reach the next level. It's admirable that she had the strength to keep striving for the next opportunity as many years as she did, given all those disappointments.

The first talkie version of The Cat Creeps (1930), thought to be a lost film

Aliperti has arranged the book into two parts. The first is straight biography, the second a more detailed analysis of each of her films. This arrangement worked for me, because so many of Twelvetrees' films are not available that I was interested in learning as much about them as I could, but sharing those details separately gave her biographical profile a smoother narrative flow. I think this is a good format for performers with short lives and brief careers.

While there is some repetition between these two sections, it doesn't tend to be tedious because each part is written in a different tone. The biography is essentially straight-ahead storytelling, while the reviews are more personal. Aliperti shares more of his opinions and research process when he discusses the films, though most of the text focuses on critical reception and the production history.

This was an enjoyable read. I went into it with only mild curiosity about Twelvetrees and now I find my self pining for copies of unavailable, but intriguing films like the pre-code gangster drama Bad Company (1931) and the actress' final film Unmarried (1939), which sounds like a worthy effort that proved she had much more to offer Hollywood. It makes you realize how many lost gems remain to be discovered. I also found her to be an interesting person, someone with untapped potential who nevertheless was savvy enough to make something of herself.

Many thanks to Cliff Aliperti for providing a copy of the book for review.


  1. I've always wanted to know more about Helen Twelvetrees. Enjoyed your review and excited to read this one!

  2. I hope you enjoy the book FTF--Cliff is a great researcher and a very accessible writer! Thanks for dropping by.