Who was Betty Compson?
Betty Compson was an American actress and film producer best known for the movie ‘The Docks of New York.’ One of the leading actresses of the silent era in Hollywood, she had an extensive film career, that spanned over three decades. Born as the daughter of a mining engineer, she was forced to drop out of school due to her father’s untimely death. Following his death the family was plunged into financial crisis and the young girl had to start working to help her mother. Pretty and talented, she began her career as a violinist at a theater in Salt Lake City, Utah. She also toured with her mother, with an act called 'the Vagabond Violinist.' During one of her violin performances, she got noticed by the comedy producer, Al Christie, who offered her a film role. She appeared in a series of comedies over the ensuing years and found considerable success with ‘The Miracle Man’ directed by George Loane Tucker. Soon she became a super star and eventually founded her own company. Her first movie as producer was ‘Prisoners of Love’ in which she also had a starring role. Her career touched newer heights with the advent of talkies and she continued appearing in films well up to the late 1940s.
Childhood & Early Life
Betty Compson was born as Eleanor Luicime Compson on March 19, 1897, in Beaver, Utah, U.S. Her father was a mining engineer.
Her father died when she was a teenager. His untimely death plunged the family into a financial crisis, forcing the young girl to drop out of school. She had to start working to support the family and found employment as a violinist at a Salt Lake City vaudeville establishment for $15 a week. She also toured with her mother.
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While playing violin in vaudeville sketches, she got noticed by comedy producer Al Christie. He suggested that she change her stage name from Eleanor to Betty. She appeared in her first silent film in 1915 and followed it up with a steady series of slapstick comedies, almost all of them for Christie.
In the late 1910s she started appearing in feature films. Her portrayal of Rose in the George Loane Tucker directed film ‘The Miracle Man’ (1919) marked the beginning of her rise as a superstar. By the early 1920s she became one of the most highly paid performers of the silent era.
In 1921, she founded her own production company—becoming one of the first women to run her own production company. Her first movie as producer was ‘Prisoners of Love’ (1921) in which she played the role of Blanche Davis, a beautiful and wealthy girl who feels burdened by her wealth.
While she initially specialized in comedy, she eventually broadened her range of roles and gained acclaim for her dramatic and romantic performances as well. During the late 1920s she appeared in several films, exploring a range of roles. Some of her notable movies from this time are ‘The Docks of New York’ (1928), ‘The Barker’ (1928), and ‘The Great Gabbo’ (1929).
With the advent of the talkies in the late 1920s, Betty Compson found even greater success. Unlike many of her silent era contemporaries who struggled to transition to talkies, she effortlessly made the transition. The musical, ‘Street Girl’ (1929), was among her initial talkies.
She enjoyed a prolific career during the early 1930s as well, with well appreciated performances in ‘Isle of Escape’ (1930), ‘Those Who Dance’ (1930), ‘Midnight Mystery’ (1930), ‘The Lady Refuses’ (1931), ‘The Virtuous Husband’ (1931), and ‘Three Who Loved’ (1931).
Her career started floundering in the mid-1930s. Most of her later films were low-budget affairs that did not do justice to the acting skills of the great actress. She continued appearing in films throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
She made her last film appearance in 1948 with the role of Martha Blake in the comedy film ‘Here Comes Trouble’ which also starred William Tracy, Joe Sawyer, and Emory Parnell. Following this she retired and helped her husband in running a business called "Ashtrays Unlimited.” An astute businesswoman, she continued to manage the business even after the death of her husband in 1962.
The best known of Betty Compson’s films is ‘The Docks of New York’, a silent drama film in which she played a prostitute named Mae. The film was deemed "culturally historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1999.
Awards & Achievements
She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress for ‘The Barker’ in 1928 but lost to Mary Pickford.
Compson has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1751 Vine Street.
Personal Life & Legacy
Betty Compson married film director James Cruze in 1924. The marriage was a troubled one and ended in 1930. Her second marriage to agent-producer Irving Weinberg also ended in divorce.
She tied the knot for the third time with professional boxer Silvius John Gall in 1944. The couple remained happily married until Gall’s death in 1962. None of her marriages produced children.
She died of a heart attack on April 18, 1974, at the age of 77.