Monday, February 29, 2016

Theodore Le Berthon (1892-1960)-Part Ten

The body of Elizabeth Short was found in Los Angeles on January 15, 1947. A little over a month later, on February 23, 1947, presumably in Boston, Helene Le Berthon married Franklin B. Pollock of Elmira, New York. Helene's father was by then cut loose from regular work as a journalist at the Los Angeles Daily News. I don't know his whereabouts at the time of the wedding. However, in September of that year, he was in Elmira and "in the midst of a nervous breakdown" when he received a visit from his friend J.F. Powers. Powers' visit was evidently a short one. "[T]he situation looked so bad," he wrote in a letter, "so unpropitious to camaraderie, I decided to go to Washington." (1) Powers was otherwise mum on the condition of his friend. When Le Berthon died in Fresno in 1960, Powers wrote, "God bless Ted. I hope to see him in heaven one day." (2)

Don Herold quipped, "Actresses will happen in the best of families." So did Helene Le Berthon's marriage have anything to do with her father's breakdown? Who now can say? The players are all gone from the stage. A decade before, though, Le Berthon had probably helped his daughter break into show business. She is supposed to have been on the staff of the Los Angeles Daily News, his same paper, when she started out in movies. The producer of her first (and apparently only) movie was Fanchon Royer (1902-1981), a woman with a very interesting life story and very probably a friend or acquaintance of Ted Le Berthon going back to the Famous Players-Lasky days of circa 1918-1920. (3) Fanchon started out as an actress. In 1920, she became assistant editor of Camera!, a movie magazine for which Le Berthon wrote the column "Screen Writers Forum." She produced her first movie in 1928 and in the 1930s formed Fanchon Royer Productions, specializing in what we would call quick cheapies. Religious Racketeers (1938) was one of those. Here's how The Film Daily saw the film:
"Religious Racketeers" with Mme. Harry Houdini, Robert Fiske
This is designed solely as an exploitation picture for the states rights market and achieves its purpose. Madame Houdini, widow of the famous Houdini, plays a role and demands that police war on fakers of all types who prey on the credulous. Robert Fiske enacts the role of a spiritualist, who dupes a wealthy heiress, who is anxious to communicate with her dead mother. Betty Compson, who is one of Fiske's followers, and who is also in love with him, gets her friend, Helen [sic] Le Berthon, the heiress interested in Fiske's work. On Fiske's advice, Helen accompanied by Betty goes to Egypt and India. Unknown to Helen, Fiske also makes the trip, and in Egypt and India, poses as a native spiritualist and is called upon by Helen, who is still seeking spiritual guidance. Arthur Gardner, a newspaperman, in love with Helen, trails Helen and Betty to Egypt and India, and finally manages to expose Fiske as a faker. Frank O'Connor furnished the direction, story and screenplay. Fanchon Royer rates credit as the producer. 
CAST: Madame Harry Houdini, Robert Fiske, Helen Le Berthon, Arthur Gardner, Betty Compson, David Kerman, Robert Frazer. 
CREDITS: Producer, Fanchon Royer; Director, Frank O'Connor; Author, Frank O'Connor; Screenplay, Frank O'Connor; Adaptation, Charles R. Condon; Cameraman, Jack Greenhalgh, ASC; Dialogue Director, Don Gallaher; Art Director, Paul Palmentola; Editor, George Halligan; Production Manager, Ray Nazarrd; Sound, Cliff Ruberg; Technical Advisor, Dr. Edward Saint; India Sequences, Bhogwan Singh.
Fanchon Royer Features 90 Mins. (4)
The reference to "states rights" is not political, at least I don't think it is. I didn't know what it meant until I read Fanchon Royer's biography on the website Women Film Pioneers Project:
The film [Life's Like That, 1928] was completed and ready for review by June 16 although it did not have a conventional national release through a studio's distribution network; instead Royer sold individual states the rights to it. (Emphasis added.)
Religious Racketeers, also known as The Mystic Circle Murder, opens on a precise date: October 30, 1936, one day short of the tenth anniversary of Harry Houdini's death. Madame Houdini is in the movie, but only briefly. Besides Betty Compson, hers is the only name viewers of today might recognize. Helene Le Berthon plays the female lead. She provides the twist near the end.

Religious Racketeers is now in the public domain. You can watch it on YouTube and other websites. It reminds me of The Amazing Mr. X (1948) and "The Hoax of the Spirit Lover" by Harry Houdini (Weird Tales, April 1924), both of which are about fake mediums and spiritualists. Houdini spent a good deal of his time debunking spiritualism. He arranged with his wife that if communication from the beyond is possible, he would, after his death, send her a coded message. She spent years listening at seances for the code. According to Wikipedia, her last seance was in 1936, the same year in which Religious Racketeers is set. By the way, Fanchon Royer converted to Catholicism in 1943. I wonder if Ted Le Berthon was any influence on her decision. In 1945, she moved to Mexico, where she lived out her life and where she died in 1981 at age seventy-nine.

So this brings to an end the story of Ted Le Berthon and his family, but not of another bit player in this drama.

Next: Was the Son of the Black Dahlia Murderer in Weird Tales?

(1) From Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963 by J. F. Powers and Katherine A. Powers (2013), p. 101.
(2) Powers and Powers, p. 350.
(3) You can read more about her on the website Women Film Pioneers Projecthere.
(4) The Film Daily, Apr. 1, 1938. On YouTube, it runs to an hour and seven minutes.

Original text copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley

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