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'Lucille Carlisle: A Leading Lady'

as published in Steve Rydzewski's SLAPSTICK! #6, May 2002, the Magazine Devoted to the Appreciation, Documentation and Preservation of Early Film Comedy


Claudia Sassen

Lucille Carlisle?---She was a nothing! A curator at the Cinematheque Francaise in an interview with the author, September 1992

[...] one of the loveliest and most talented girls who has ever appeared on the screen---Lucille Carlisle. Why in the world doesn't some star-hunting manager grab her? The LA Times, 15 April, 1919

Lucille Carlisle was born Ida Lucile White in Galesberg, Illinois. Lucille's father, Frank, came from a family in Illinois who owned a theatre in Detroit. They were well off as it seems. Frank was handsome and charming, but unstable. Lucille's mother, Della Pope, was born on a farm in Quebec. Her father went off to the gold fields in Nevada to find his fortune. One day, his family received word from him that he had become ill. Della was sent to nurse him to health. She left Boston where she was attending a school for secretaries and travelled to Nevada by way of Panama. There was no canal then so she crossed Panama by train. It was a hot and dangerous journey, especially for a young girl, and many people came down with malaria. She found her father and took care of him. Della became a teacher and married someone of whom there is no record. They had a son, but soon husband and son died of fever. It remains unknown where and when Della finally met Frank White, Lucille's father. They married and had four children: May Della (b. May 1892), Edna Ellen, who later used the name Helen Carlisle (b. November 1893), Ida Lucille (b. August 1895), and Melba Nevada (b. June 1898). Frank must have tried to be a good husband, but he worked as a horseshoer at racetracks and eventually left the family between 1907 and 1911. Alcohol was a problem and has been for some of his descendants. The last anyone heard from him was that he was seen in Louisville, Kentucky. The year their youngest child was born, Frank gave Della a large ``temperance'' bible. He probably attempted to give up drinking, failed and left.

Della was a rock. She held everything together for her daughters and took them from Detroit to Spokane, Washington, to live near her sister Florence. That was in 1911. Della purchased a boarding house which she also ran. The four girls worked in the boarding house and where ever else they could get jobs to help with finances.

Already at an early age, Lucille's beauty became apparent. She had evidently inherited the good looks and the charm of her father. Early photos show a lively and bright girl of a warm personality with lovely dark eyes and a captivating smile. As far as friends, Lucille always was popular with men. She might have been a sort of tomboy since she and her mother in later years never missed a football game on the radio.

Sometime in the 1910s, Lucille married and assumed her husband's name Zintheo or Zinther whose identity cannot be determined, though. Since the name Zintheo has not been common in the United States, two approaches seem likely, but remain unconfirmed: The first is that Lucille married the brother of a Clarence Janne Zintheo, who was born in France of French and Swedish parents and belonged to the only Zintheo branch that had settled in the Seattle area. Clarence Janne has a fairly well documented life that does, however, not include Lucille. The second possibility pertains to two brothers, N.N. and another Clarence Janne (C.J.) Zintheo, who emigrated from France to the States and are probably related to the other Clarence Janne. C.J. worked for the US Department of Agriculture, while the other became a soldier. Maybe Lucille married a descendant of N.N. or C.J. Zintheo1. There is also another possibility as the Western State Marriage Record Index suggests: the index of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, a place less than 40 miles from Spokane, lists the complete marital information for Lucile White and Eldred J. Zinther, who married on 20 June, 1912. Then, Lucille would have been sixteen [12]. Provided this is the right link, Lucille, embarking on a career in show business, changed her name from Zinther to Zintheo.

As it seems, Lucille was quite an energetic and somewhat liberated young woman. According to a friend of both Melba and Lucille, she left her first husband because he did not want her ice skating at night, this surely being not the whole story.

As a contemporary article from Movie Weekly reports [7], it was Lucille's sister Helen (Edna Ellen) who encouraged the hesitant Lucille to enter in a ``Brains and Beauty'' contest conducted by Photoplay in 1916. Incidentally, Helen worked for the magazine as a writer and press agent. If that article is right, Lucille had already shown considerable acting talent, her current profession, however, being a job at an office. In the end, Lucille mailed her photograph and was invited to take a test from which she emerged as a winner. It was actually the first contest of this kind announced by Photoplay. Other contestants of the same year who won were Mildred Lee, later playing leads with Universal Comedies as Mildred Moore, and Claire Lois Butler Lee (later Lois Lee), impersonating the Countess Helga in Rex Ingram's Prisoner of Zenda [11].

What exactly happened in the wake of Lucille's success with Photoplay can hardly be traced. Her picture had not only been submitted to the magazine judges, but also to a motion picture company that was cooperating with the magazine and unnamed outsiders. As one of the latest beauty queens she would be given a chance in celluloid industry, albeit without any further tutelage, as Movie Weekly writes. The magazine furthermore claims that for this very reason she went straight to Hollywood where upstart Vitagraph comedian Larry Semon was awaiting her for casting. But things seemed to have been a bit different. According to her grand niece Jessie Salmon, Lucille went from Spokane to New York. That she was in New York at a very early stage of her career is supported by an entry in the Internet Broadway Database: in 1917, she belonged as Lucile Zintheo at least to the opening night cast of His Little Widows, a musical production by Broncho Billy Anderson, playing opposite performers such as Carter DeHaven and his wife Flora Parker [1]. Probably through her work with Anderson she moved into pictures. Lucille's first film appearance that survives is in the one-reel Semon comedy Boodles and Bandits, released 24 June, 1918. Lucille, not yet in her typical star outfit, plays a she-sheriff, who manages to outclever dangerous Lightning Larry (Larry Semon). It is noteworthy that already in this picture she obtains the second leading role after Semon. As Semon at that stage was commuting between Hollywood and New York to produce his pictures and continued with his vaudeville performances, they might very well have met more or less by chance while both appearing on stage.

After making Boodles and Bandits, Lucille also got a smaller role in Big Boobs and Bathing Beauties. For the time being, she disappears from Semon comedies only to return about seven months and eight films later as a featured extra in his Scamps and Scandal, which then starred Vera Steadman as Semon's foil. The Semon comedies were now steadily produced in Hollywood. It is intriguing to consider Lucille's part in relation to the entire film. She makes an only appearance as a wedding guest and when the camera focusses on the party she is highlighted while talking to a disguised Larry. The scene itself does not make much sense for the plot and apparently Lucille obtained attention for some very special reason. It probably marked Lucille's future reign as Larry's leading lady since from now on she claims the female part in the subsequent sixteen Semon comedies. Soon, she would change her name from Zintheo to Carlisle. The Carlisle-Semon duo became an institution in filmland and did as well on screen as in real life. Evidently, Semon created his best comedies while joining forces with Lucille, often granting her as much screen time as himself. Lucille had already been noticed by the critiques, who were in praise of her beauty and talent. She seemed the perfect counterpart to Semon, bringing in a humorous and cordial performance. She was convincing in whatever character she impersonated; be it the vamp in Passing the Buck, the innocent girlie in The Simple Life or the dignified aristocrate in A Pair of Kings. A May 12, 1920 newspaper review of School Days exemplifies the main tenor of the reviewers:

Lucille Carlyle, Larry Semon's leading lady, is always attractive, but finds the pinafore and curls necessary to her role in School Days particularly becoming. She is a pleasant addition to the pictures in which Semon is endeavoring to immortalize the boob [...] [4]

Now that Lucille and Larry had become so popular on the silver screen, their first in person appearance was awaited with much excitement. It would soon follow on stage of New York's Kinema Theatre in form of an all-too-short song and dance act that ensued every evening the screening of the latest Semon comedy. The act had been staged by Larry himself and was approved of for its uniqueness [6].

Lucille and Larry

Eventually, lightfoot Larry fell for Lucille. Unlike their usual romantic billing in film magazines, Ed Roberts, a former editor of Photoplay, did not mince matters. In his as famous as wicked expose of the ``vices'' of film industry, an exemplar of what nasty little stories were done long before the National Enquirer age, Roberts terms the relationship of Lucille and Larry illicit [8]. And as if this was not enough, he describes Lucille as a man-eating, gold digging parasite and thus finds their liaison not a bilateral one. Allegedly, Larry--being not much for looks--ended up paying the bills for Lucille's extravagant life. They lived together and being only too well aware of the alerted moral authorities, Lucille and Larry tried to conceal their affair to the public:

[Larry] bought [Lucille] a handsome light blue car--a limousine. [He] was her slave. He visited her apartments. Virtually [Larry] lived there--day and night. A paid chauffeur drove her to the studio. [Larry] drove a nondescript car. Of course, they did not arrive at the studio together. That would be too crude [8].

Fact is that Larry was still married with his first wife, whom he had left behind with their mutual daughter in New York when Vitagraph settled in Hollywood. They would have divorced in 1919. And Lucille played obviously delaying tactics on Larry, as Roberts maliciously observes. Larry was only too interested in marrying her. Lucille, by contrast, was rather drawn to the hotel life of New York where she allegedly teamed up with other men to indulge in an insatiable lust for life:

Every now and then she makes a trip to New York--fatigued from being too closely wedded to her art--she needs a change. [...] Her face is familiar in every hotel lobby on Broadway. She has many telephone calls--many midnight suppers. Every day [Larry] talks to [Lucille] from Los Angeles--if he fails to reach her he comes home sick. She disappeared for two days on her last trip and they had to get a doctor for [Larry].

A hint at their on-and-off romance can also be spotted in a Times article on Hollywood social events:

Larry Semon had parked his comedy make-up and wore the moonlights; and lovely Lucille Carlisle, just to show there was no hard feeling, any more, was the partner of his terpsichorean joys and sorrows, looking very spankable in a kid outfit. [5]

Lucille was off the screen for Larry's complete 1921 season [9]. In the meantime, Larry had Maryon Aye and Norma Nichols under contract. Whether Lucille's absence was connected with any link to New York cannot be proven. Rob Stone mentions that Lucille spent the first three quarters of that year at the East coast to perform on the stages of New York City [10, p. 283]. Other sources suggest her being hospitalised for a nervous breakdown, see [9,7]. This is probably not far-fetched as all her sisters, except for May, had sadly shown a certain mental instability, too. Helen, at some time, would commit suicide.

In 1922, Lucille returned for Semon's The Show and after another trip to New York for a Broadway musical comedy2 [4], she and Larry announced their engagement on 13 July, 1922 [9]. The wedding was to take place sometime in the fall [4], but it is not clear whether the two were actually married [9].

Lucille led the life of a star. She had her photograph taken by Witzel, wore expensive robes and took part in the important social events. She knew Houdini and his wife and their obsession with the afterlife. Lucille also knew Rudolph Valentino. He was very fond of her and Helen, who probably resided in Hollywood, too, and he brought each one a scarf from Spain. Her grand nieces still have them. Reportedly, Lucille was very good friends with Anna May Wong and one of the few non Chinese persons to be admitted to the real Chinatown of San Francisco.

Lucille never lost contact with her family and documents show how close she was to her relatives, paying them visits and being visited by them. When Lucille's pretty sister Melba came to see Lucille in Hollywood in about August 1920, it seems that the two even worked together. In a baby book, Melba noted down how much Lucille actually was attached to her family and that she preferred staying in Spokane much to returning back to Hollywood. One reason was Melba's daughter, Lucille Johnson, who was named for her aunt. Lucille never had children and loved the younger Lucille as if she was her own daughter.

Lucille made her last traceable screen appearance in Semon's two-reel comedy No Wedding Bells that reached box offices in 1923. Discords in her relationship with Larry led to difficulties in casting for his future productions [10, p. 298]. Around that time, she was up for the part of Esmeralda in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the sumptuous Universal production starring Lon Chaney. However, Lucille had her nose changed to make it smaller and the effect was not pleasing. So she lost the part to Patsy Ruth Miller.

Lucille left motion picture industry before 1930. She married Leland H. Millikin, a successful businessman who sold expensive cars, and remained married to him until her death. When Melba's husband passed away in 1932, Melba suffered a nervous breakdown. She asked that Lucille and Della raise her daughter, the younger Lucille, who was about thirteen years old then. They agreed to do this and lived together in Spokane, Seattle and Los Angeles. The younger Lucille stayed with them until she married in 1942.

It seems that Lucille kept her connections to show business alive and groomed her beautiful niece for a career, but was very disappointed when she learned that the younger Lucille wanted a family more. The younger Lucille actually continued the line of highly talented family members: May was a wonderful artist and painted in all mediums. She had learned it from Della. The older Lucille also showed great talent for painting. Melba had a great business sense. A cousin was a Disney cartoonist. Young Lucille became a dancer in ballet and tap, a model and an artist in watercolour and oils. She attended Hollywood Professional School where she had a good friend who ended up being Cyd Charisse. Apart from inheriting the talents she also continued the near successes, as Jessie Salmon, her daughter, reports:

At one time she was up for a part in Gone with the Wind. She had beautiful long auburn hair and for some silly reason she cut it. That was exactly not what to do.

Another cue of Lucille Carlisle's lasting connection with show business is that she did some radio before or during the war. She belonged to a group called Mothers of America and acted as their voice. The radio show was against U.S. involvement in the war.

Photos that survive show a still very beautiful Lucille. People who met her were truly impressed and recall her as a smart and worldly person, who loved baseball and had a great sense of humour. The bulk of memories about Lucille, however, center on her career, swallowing up most of her personality. Shirley Lagasse, Jessie's sister, who never got to know Lucille personally, reports:

From what I know, my [Great] Aunt did a very noble thing in agreeing to raise my mom. I truly don't know what would have happened to her if Lucille had not agreed to raise her. My mother's mom was mentally broken when she lost her husband. Although she eventually recovered and remarried several times, she never took my mother back to raise her. My [Great] Aunt took on the financial responsibilities for both my mom and her own mother. Her husband [Leland] didn't always have a steady job, so much of the responsibility for making ends meet were on both my Aunt and my mother.

Lucille Carlisle died in around 1957, in Los Angeles, probably because of a liver disorder. She had been a drinker like her father, but had given it up. The damage might have been done.

This article could not have been written without the invaluable help of Bob Dickson, Peter Kühnlein, Joe Moore, Steve Rydzewski, Chris Seguin, Marilyn Slater and Elna Tymes. Very special thanks go to Lucille's grand nieces Jessie Salmon, and Shirley Lagasse, who shared all their memories and family photos with me. Jessie also went to the pains of scanning a wealth of photos of which only a few could be picked for this publication.

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Next: Filmography and other appearances
Claudia Sassen 2003-04-21