OLD NEWS: Failed actress loses ID in 1910s Arkansas, writes silent movies and marries big star

When we think of Basil Rathbone, do we imagine him married to Eula May Branch of Little Rock?

Wait – before we answer that, we have to ask ourselves this: do we think of Basil Rathbone? Who was he again?

Although he died in 1967, Philip St. John Basil Rathbone must surely still be famous. Surely some of us can even remember the late actor’s voice: cultured, Shakespearian, the voice of Sherlock Holmes, the voice of many villains, a voice that told us stories from “The Wind in the Willows” when we were little.

Anyone for whom he doesn’t ring a bell should really stop here for a quick dip in YouTube, where it’s easy to summon clips from his more than 70 films. See arkansasonline.com/411basil, for example. And here he is again, bashing the media and fervently defending the general decency of young Americans on “The Christophers TV Show”: arkansasonline.com/411rath.

And here’s a clip involving William Shatner: arkansasonline.com/411bucket.

But we’re not focusing on Rathbone here today. We are talking about his second wife. In 1926, he married a far from vague woman named Ouida Bergère. Her high taste matched hers, and she had already racked up considerable film credits as a silent film auteur. They remained married for the rest of their lives.

In a column on Hollywood wives that appeared in the Chattanooga Daily Times on January 24, 1938, Sheilah Graham described Ouida Rathbone:

“Mrs. Basil Rathbone is over 40, short and stocky, has startling red hair and a pale but interesting face. Today, Ms. Rathbone worked as a screen writer under the name Ouida Bergère, alias Berger, and her life is currently devoted to hosting the most important and talked about parties in Hollywood.”

Meow.

AN OLD WOMAN DIES

On November 29, 1974, Mrs. Ouida Bergere Rathbone died in a hospital in Manhattan, NY, devastated by complications from a broken hip. She was 88 and barely a gossip object; and yet the country’s newspapers picked up and reported her obituary – because she was his widow, of course.

But Ouida Bergère was self-taught. It was done and redone long before it hit Rathbone, which is interesting. Plus, she deserves some credit for her credits, which 100 years ago in Arkansas were well known.

Before meeting Rathbone, she was Mrs. George Fitzmaurice. He was also a producer and director; she wrote the screenplays (then called screenplays) for their silent films and, if the interviews she or her fans gave to the Arkansas Democrat and Arkansas Gazette between 1911 and 1923 are to be believed, she ran a talent agency and production company.

She seems to have led a very colorful life even before she met Fitzmaurice…if any interview she’s given anyone at some point is to be believed.

Even his birth would have been colorful – premature and on a train rushing to Madrid where his mother, Marion Manner DuGaze, was due to visit her spouse’s Spanish-speaking parents. Left with the grandparents while mum and dad traveled the globe, little Ouida didn’t speak English until she was 4 and couldn’t understand her mother’s speech when they finally met. …

Either way, such is the romance Bergère presumably entrusted to a researcher for the 1932 collection “California and Californians” (see arkansasonline.com/411nope).

This romance cannot be believed by anyone who has read the various articles about Eula May Branch, daughter of Steven W. and Lou Ida Branch, published in old Arkansas newspapers.

Before meeting Fitzmaurice, Ouida Bergère was an aspiring actress in Little Rock, Chicago and New York, and a 23-year-old divorcee living with her parents in Scott.

And before that, she was Eula May Burgess, the 18-year-old bride of RH Burgess of Clarendon.

And before Burgess, she was Eula May Branch, a student at Maddox Seminary, an art school for young girls in Little Rock. No matter where she went or what she did, Ouida Bergère remained that Eula May for Little Rock moviegoers for more than half of the 20th century.

Somewhere along the way, however, his self-reinvention passed popular memory. When he died in 1974, his brief obituary appeared in the Gazette in a list provided by a news agency. He made no mention of any connection to Arkansas.

If I made this sound like I was the only one to rediscover Eula May Branch, please don’t think so. Others have made these connections before me (see, for example, arkansasonline.com/411blog). But I can say that my own knowledge of her arose independently last week from reading the April 9, 10, and 11, 1922 issues of the Arkansas Democrat.

A movie called “Forever” opened at the Capitol Theater that week. The entertainment briefs describing the show did not begin with its stars Wallace Reid and Elsie Ferguson but rather with the name of the writer: Ouida Bergere.

On April 10, 1922, the Democrat showed her photo under the caption “Photoplay written by former local woman being shown here”:

“The many Little Rock friends of Ouida Bergère (Mrs. George Fitzmaurice) will find unusual interest in the presentation at the Capitol Theater for the first half of this week of the Paramount production, ‘Forever,’ which is the latest production from her easy pen. The famous screenwriter is remembered here as Miss Eula Branch, and she renewed many old acquaintances here when she visited this town about a year ago.

The report continues: “Ms. Fitzmaurice while here recounted the struggles she went through to achieve the eminence she now enjoys in the film world. She left Little Rock with only $5 in her purse, determined to make her way in the world. …”

Oh…poor dear. I read that and dove head first into the archives. Next week we’ll share a bit more of what I found. Until then, dear reader, there is no way of knowing how much the woman’s purse contained or did not contain, but she wrote silent films and the people at home were proud of it.

E-mail:

cstorey@adgnewsroom.com

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