D. Robert Carter
In August 1925 Josie Woodruff accompanied her family on the trip from Utah to California where they met Josie's husband Lloyd who was recovering from a serious illness. Lloyd and Josie's eldest daughter, Connie, celebrated her 21st birthday soon after the family's arrival on the West Coast. In order to help the family make ends meet, Connie got a job in an office. She spent much of her leisure time reading, watching movies and enjoying the beach.
On a balmy day in 1926, a stroke of fate landed Connie her first bit part in a motion picture. She and a friend visited Santa Monica Beach where they watched a movie being filmed. Statuesque, five-foot-six, 120-pound Connie wore a red bathing suit, and with what her sister Ruth called "sunbeam blonde hair" and "horizon blue eyes," she would have been easy to look at. Connie's brother Booth later told Salt Lake Tribune columnist Hal Schlindler, "Keep in mind, she was really beautiful in a fragile sort of way." This was likely an understatement.
Connie's "fragile beauty" caught the eye of an assistant director on the film set. In her chitchat column, Hollywood writer Louella Parsons identified the man as E.J. Babille, assistant to director E. Mason Hopper. According to Parsons, Babille's first movie job was as casting director, and he "never lost his motion picture eyesight."
Babille approached Connie and asked her if she wanted to be in movies. He gave her a business card and invited her to come to the studio and take a screen test. The starry-eyed girl returned home excited, and after much deliberation, she decided to take the test. Connie went to Metropolitan Studio, presented the business card and took her screen test the same day as movie great, Clark Gable. The test showed Connie was photogenic, possessed stage presence and exuded a fresh excitement. Parsons said Connie reminded her of actresses Claire Windsor and Corinne Griffith.
Parsons claimed the studio hired Connie the day of the screen test, and the young woman quit her office job the next day. The novice received a bit part in the Marie Prevost silent movie, "For Wives Only." Parsons saw the would-be actress on the set of this movie and learned her story.
Now that Connie was in show business, she needed to select a stage name; her family helped. Because of her love and admiration for her grandfather, John Edge Booth, Connie chose Booth for her last name.
Connie also admired her uncle Edwin "Ted" Booth, John E. Booth's youngest son. Connie's Aunt Rowena suggested that the girl use Edwina, the feminine form of Edwin, as her first name. With the name Edwina Booth, publicity managers would surely link the budding young actress with the great Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth. So, Edwina Booth it was, and as predicted, publicity managers made her a relative of Edwin and John Wilkes Booth.
Shortly after Edwina played her first bit part in "For Wives Only," another fortuitous occurrence landed her a role on the stage. One day, Edwina sat in a hot, stuffy DeMille Studio room waiting to take a screen test for "The King of Kings." Overcome by the closeness and heat, she fainted. A songwriter revived her with smelling salts.
While talking to Edwina afterwards, the man informed her of an opening in Carter De Haven's Hollywood Music Box Revue, and he told her whom to see about it. The man even gave her a ride to De Haven's Hollywood office.
Edwina went into the building and got the job, but when she returned outside, her mysterious benefactor had vanished. She never learned his name.
The program for the Music Box Revue listed Edwina as being in the cast, and her picture appeared in the newspaper. Critics gave the production good reviews. The proud showgirl glued her contract to the lined paper in her homemade scrapbook. The contract showed that Edwina received $35 per week as a chorus girl in the 1926 production.
While performing in The Music Box Revue, Edwina met the actress Lucille La Verne, who suggested that the young woman should audition for the part of a youthful, backwoods girl in La Verne's upcoming play, "Sun Up."
Connie decided to try out for the part, and several years later she reminisced with journalist Relman Morin about that ordeal: "I was scared to death and the test was very bad. I made every known blunder and many that were unknown. I couldn't seem to catch the spirit of it. The only thing in my favor, so far as I know, was that I tried too hard."
Edwina got the part. By coincidence, La Verne's leading man in the play was another Utahn, Philip Morris. La Verne also helped Edwina get a role in another of her plays, Henrik Ibsen's "Ghosts." Both plays ran in Los Angles and San Francisco. Reviews agreed Edwina had beauty, talent and candid freshness.
Edwina soon found that aspiring to stardom had its down side. All too often, winning a part depended upon the distribution of physical favors. Morin wrote that Edwina did not, however, "subscribe to easy standards and soft morals" prevalent in Hollywood.
Edwina's sister Ruth Woodruff Andrews recalled several occasions that bore out Morin's statement. A producer asked Edwina to stay at his mountain cabin for the weekend. She replied to his invitation with a mixture of humor and common sense, "I would love to come. I'll bring my mother and you bring your wife."
Later, a magazine chose Edwina to portray "The Golden Girl," and a renowned artist was to paint her portrait for the magazine's cover. Edwina later found that the artist wanted her to do more than sit, and he wanted to do more than paint. Edwina walked out, and another girl appeared on the cover.
On another occasion, Edwina was about to sign a seven-year contract with a studio when the producer said, "You understand that your body goes with this contract." The paper went unsigned. According to Andrews, millionaire Otto Kahn offered to take Edwina to Europe where he would buy her a new wardrobe in Paris. While they were in Europe, Edwina would live in a castle in Italy, study acting under Max Rhinehart and perform in the Passion Play at Oberammergau.
Kahn claimed there would be no strings attached. A Woodruff family council decided that Edwina should not go -- too risky.
Considering all of this, it seems strange that sometime during 1927, Edwina entered into a mysterious, hush-hush marriage with youthful director Anthony G. Schuck. Morin held the opinion that Edwina was lonely, and for her, marriage symbolized happiness. Edwina did not talk about the marriage with her friends, and she apparently continued to live at home with her parents.
After appearing with Lucille La Verne, Edwina, who was now taking drama and dancing lessons, went to the motion picture studios and picked up bits and small parts. Two of the most important of these were in Paramount Studio's 1928 picture, "Manhattan Cocktail," and in "Our Modern Maidens", filmed in 1929. Edwina also appeared in "Mr. Babile on the Beach," and "The Wedding March," "Show People" and "Suspicion." There may have been others.
In 1929, another strange, almost miraculous sequence of events landed Edwina a prominent part in a new Hollywood movie. She read that screen tests were about to be held for the role of Nina T., the fair, blond, goddess in the Hollywood adaptation of Alfred Aloysius Horn and Ethelreda Lewis' best-selling book, "Trader Horn." Edwina had a job scheduled for the day of the test. It would have paid her $7.50, but she gave it up in order for the movie role.
Edwina hung around the studio for half a day and had her picture taken with "Trader Horn's" director, William Van Dyke. Then she found out the whole thing was just part of a publicity stunt to get a picture of Van Dyke and a lineup of beautiful blondes who were supposedly vying for the job. After the photo, the girls were told there would be no screen tests, and they were dismissed.
This deception coupled with the loss of her $7.50 job, all for the chance of having her picture in the paper, infuriated Edwina and dashed her hopes of getting the movie role. She usually masked her feelings behind a placid, impassive facade, but that day she became so mad that she informed the director of her displeasure in no uncertain terms. The young actress demanded a $7.50 check to make up for the money she lost that day by not showing up for her other job.
Several years later, Edwina told Bob Moak, a writer for Screen Secrets Magazine, about the incident: "Mr. Van Dyke was somewhat startled when I demanded a check for $7.50, and I'm afraid I gave him quite a piece of my mind. Well, he paid me out of his own pocket, and now, I suppose, I'll have to make good. He's got $7.50 invested in my career!" Van Dyke also promised Edwina she could try out for any of his future films.
That night, Edwina told her mother about the incident. Josie predicted her daughter would never get any extra work at that studio again.
Van Dyke, who had been chosen to direct "Trader Horn" because of his great talent for nature films, left almost immediately for the South Seas where he filmed "The Pagan." When he returned about three months later, he had read the script for "Trader Horn," and he began his search for a cast.
The part of Nina T., The White Goddess, proved to be a difficult one to fill. The actress who depicted the goddess needed to be blond, beautiful, fiery and impervious, yet she also needed to portray innocence when she first met other whites. David Arlen, a magazine writer from the 1930s, claimed Van Dyke screen tested over 200 young women unsuccessfully while searching for a woman who could portray these qualities.
Time was running short when Van Dyke remembered the "blonde with a temper like a spanked cat" who had confronted him the day of the publicity photo. He couldn't remember her name, but he could remember her grit. Van Dyke thumbed through photos until he found the picture of Edwina and the other hopefuls "lined up for a screen test." Now he invited the star-struck girl in for a real screen test.
Van Dyke had already selected Duncan Renaldo to play one of the male leads in "Trader Horn." Renaldo, who was present at the time, remembered Edwina's screen test almost 40 years later in 1968 when Byron Riggan interviewed him as part of an article on the movie for American Heritage Magazine.
Renaldo recalled that Nina "had to be the most exotic personality possible." He marveled at the remarkable change that came over a rather demure Edwina during the screen test. She displayed a volatile temperament perfect for the role. The crowd burst into applause before the tryout was completed, and the company hired her then and there. Van Dyke, who said Edwina had "the perfect profile," offered her a five-year contract if she would accept the role. Losing her temper had won her the job.
The ship was leaving from the East Coast to sail to Africa in two weeks, so Edwina was forced to rapidly decide whether to take the role. Her brother Booth claimed she was reluctant to accept it. He said Africa scared her.
Edwina's family helped her make the final decision. Her father encouraged her to go so she would have the opportunity to travel and see Africa. Her mother didn't want her to go, but she was afraid that if another girl went and made it a success, Edwina would not forgive her.
Ruth Woodruff Andrews remembered that the studio assured the Booths they chose Edwina because she was a woman of high moral standards. An immoral woman would cause too many problems on an extended and isolated trip like this. Co-star Harry Carey's wife Olive was going on the trip, and the studio suggested that she could help watch over Edwina.
The motion picture company planned to hire an English maid for the potential star after they reached Africa. Edwina's Aunt Rowena offered to act as her maid, but the studio said they preferred to hire somebody who was already acclimated to Africa's climate.
Lloyd Woodruff suggested that he should go as the film company's doctor so he could help watch over Edwina. The company turned down his proposal also. The family finally decided that since the actress who played the "White Goddess" would likely be one of the most highly publicized women of the year, and the role would likely lead to stardom, Edwina should accept it. It would be a chance in a million. Booth Woodruff told Hal Schlindler in 1991, "It was a decision against her better judgment that she was to regret for the rest of her life."
In the days leading up to her departure, Edwina was "shot to pieces" with needles and cameras. After recently being inoculated against typhoid fever, Edwina left Hollywood with a fever of 104 degrees. Josie said her good-byes at home. She was still beset by fears.
A large crowd of photographers and newsmen saw off the troupe as they boarded The Chief to travel to New York by rail. Van Dyke had left two days earlier. The shutter bugs took a photo of Edwina holding a small doll's trunk containing her main costume, which was made of monkey fur and lion's teeth and weighed a mere 1 pound and 4 ounces.
Soon after the company left California, old Trader Horn himself who had traded in Africa for 60 years and upon whose story the film was based, visited the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio. The elderly man made the following dire prediction, "Some of them'll never come back alive. . . . It's a bad place they've gone to -- bad."
To be continued...
D. Robert Carter is a historian from Springville. He can be reached at 489-8256.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B2.