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Golden Era Actress Helen Twelvetrees - Talent, Mental Illness and Tragedy

Updated on February 22, 2016
Gorgeous but sad eyes
Gorgeous but sad eyes | Source

The Lady with the Sad Eyes

Helen Twelvetrees was a blonde movie goddess of the 1930s who starred with some of the silver screen's giants including Clarke Gable and John Barrymore.

Like many actresses, especially during the early movie years, she became stereotyped. Hers was one of the woman who loved the wrong man. Strangely—or some might say not so coincidentally—her personal life followed this pattern and she came to an unfortunate end.

For a while though, her star did shine brightly during the golden era of Hollywood. This is my tribute to a forgotten goddess.

An Almost Been

Helen Twelvetrees was born Helen Jurgens in Brooklyn in 1908. Not much is known about her early life before she signed a movie contract at age 19 and starred in one of the first talkies—The Ghost Talks. She met her first husband, fellow actor Clark Twelvetrees, at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and would keep his name after their divorce.

She never became the household name she possibly should have been even though she would go on to star in over 20 films. Part of this was due to changing public tastes—she was often cast as the earthy and wronged woman. Another factor was her lack of confidence especially when Katharine Hepburn came onto the scene. She apparently had a fear of competing with the extremely talented actress. She would later attempt a mostly unsuccessful stage career and retire from acting in 1951.

Helen first came to my attention in The Spanish Cape Mystery—a 1935 film based on the novels that revolved around writer/detective Ellery Queen. She was charming and lovely and I wanted to find out more which lead me to learning of her woeful fate.

She hurled a woman's laughing scorn into the face of men, "Get all you can and treat 'em like tramps..they're all alike." ~ tagline from the Helen Twelvetrees film Millie, 1931

Helen Twelvetrees on the Silver Screen

The Painted Desert - Starring Clark Gable and Helen Twelvetrees

The Painted Desert
The Painted Desert

This was Clark Gable's first talkie. In this early Western, he portrays an unapologetic criminal and Twelvetrees plays the tough daughter of a rancher.


Helen Twelvetrees during the making of "Thoroughbred", Sydney, 1936 Sam Hood

Helen Twelvetrees during the making of "Thoroughbred", Sydney, 1936 Sam Hood,
Helen Twelvetrees during the making of "Thoroughbred", Sydney, 1936 Sam Hood, | Source

A Tragic Ending

It seems even in real life Helen Twelvetrees couldn't escape the fate of many of the women she portrayed on screen. Another marriage—this time to stuntman Frank Woody—would end in divorce in 1936 after having one son together. There were reports of feuds and drunkenness.

Supposedly, her husband tried to kill himself many times. She unfortunately would succeed in committing suicide in 1958. She's buried in Middletown Cemetery in Pennsylvania, USA (see grave link below).

Clearly, she wasn't well. Was it her failing career that pushed her over the edge? Or did she have depression, bipolar disorder or a combination of mental illness and substance abuse? We may never know. But in her films, she seemed like a gentle soul behind those sad eyes.


Have you seen any movies starring Helen Twelvetrees yet?

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Is Hollywood to Blame?

Do you think Hollywood is the culprit behind these suicides?

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Manner of Hollywood Deaths

The Hollywood Book of Death: The Bizarre, Often Sordid, Passings of More than 125 American Movie and TV Idols
The Hollywood Book of Death: The Bizarre, Often Sordid, Passings of More than 125 American Movie and TV Idols

A listing of over 6000 Hollywood deaths of every manner including where they've been laid to rest.


Source Consulted

Knox, Kevyn. The Lost and Forgotten Legacy of Helen Twelvetrees. The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World, March 10, 2012.

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