The Lost Starlet: Helen Monday

A movie shot 75 years ago starred a Knoxville teenager. Many thought she was bound for stardom. What happened to her?

Stark Love looked like a hit. Released in early 1927, it premiered for a white-tie crowd at New York's Cameo Theater on 42nd Street. Variety gave it a banner headline: STARK LOVE BRIGHT SPOT ON BROADWAY. It got a rave in Photoplay ("despite its garish box-office title, a picture of genuine merit"), another from the New York Times. The Times would later call it one of the 10 best films of 1927.

The director was Karl Brown. He was well-known in the business for his camera work, but had never directed his own movie before Stark Love. It seemed an auspicious debut.

But it wasn't your usual jazz-age thriller. Times critic Mordaunt Hall called it "an engrossing and trenchant pictorial transcript of those slothful mountaineers of North Carolina and Tennessee.... Mr. Brown deftly portrays the ignorance of these people and their primitive ways of doing things...."

The 1920s was not a time of political correctness. Even in sophisticated newspapers, all minority groups, including white Southern Appalachians, were stereotyped without apology.

By most accounts, the female lead stole the show. "Helen Munday, who is an excellent type for the leading female character, was found in a Knoxville drug store," Hall wrote. "She was the only member of the cast who had ever seen a motion picture."

Many who saw the film believed the magnetic actress had a future in film, on the cusp of the sound era. Paramount reportedly signed her to another movie. But after the sensation faded, what became of Helen Munday—or Mundy, or Monday, as she's variously known—is a mystery about which scholars of early film have speculated for years.

When he was here 75 years ago this summer, the director had big, boyish eyes, a round face, an overbite, and perpetually tousled hair; he probably looked even younger than 29. Originally from the Pittsburgh suburb of McKeesport, Pa., Karl Brown was a camera prodigy. When he was only 17, he was working as a camera assistant for the great D.W. Griffith just as that director was inventing the feature film. Brown had worked closely on Griffith's movies Birth Of a Nation and Intolerance; after the war, he became a well-known name in jazz-age Hollywood, working with the stars of that silent era: Alan Hale, Mary Astor, Wallace Beery, George Bancroft, Will Rogers, Fatty Arbuckle in the original Brewster's Millions.

He built a reputation as one of the finest cinematographers in Hollywood, serving as chief cameraman for the landmark 1923 film The Covered Wagon, a classic remembered as the first great Western, and noted for camera work that transcended Griffith's best.

Though he'd been born in the foothills of the Appalachians himself, Brown became intrigued about Southern mountaineers while in Utah. During an on-location shooting of The Covered Wagon, he read an Atlantic Monthly story about the strange, eccentric people of eastern Kentucky. Right away, he wanted to do a film about them.

It took some persuading, but Brown got Jesse Lasky, patriarch of Paramount Studios, to finance a movie about a different kind of pioneers: the contemporary pioneers of the Southern mountains.

A realist, Brown had insisted on shooting it on location. In his day, and for a half-century into the future, most movies with Appalachian subjects were shot in the hills of Southern California. Brown was looking for absolute realism, along the lines of Nanook Of the North and the Polynesian epic, Moana. Like those popular and critical successes, this would be a documentary, of sorts, about an exotic and little-known people, undercut with a stylish commentary on the oppression of women in the presumably male-dominant mountain culture, and wrapped around a melodrama as lurid as any latter-day movie: A mountain boy leaves his family and girlfriend to attend Berea College, but returns home to find his father has married his girlfriend. Implied was a sexual horror: sharing a bedroom with your father as he makes love to your girlfriend.

When Brown brought his script and a small camera crew to the Smokies, he didn't bring any of Paramount's stars with him. To Brown, shooting on location meant hiring actors who lived on location.

The setting was eastern Kentucky, and Brown went there first. But he learned that in the Southern Appalachians, a movie depicting hillbillies was a hot potato. In Berea, when they learned he wanted to make a hillbilly picture, they told him they were fresh out of hillbillies. They suggested he go to Nashville. In Nashville they suggested he go to Knoxville. In Knoxville they suggested he go back to Nashville. Or Asheville.

Asheville didn't go for the idea, either, but while he was there he picked up a book by Horace Kephart, and learned the esteemed author lived in the area. Brown thought Kephart would make a valuable consultant. (The involvement of this seminal Appalachian scholar and author in a movie that many believe stereotypes Appalachians is surprising; some scholars believe Brown exaggerated Kephart's contribution to Stark Love.)

Brown finally chose to shoot near there, in the hills of western North Carolina. There he found a girl who he thought would be perfect for the role. Then her father stepped in and declared, "I'd see her dead an' in her coffin before I see her play-actin' for nobody."

Desperate for a leading actress, Brown sent his business manager, Paul Wing, a balding young veteran known as Captain Wing, back across the mountains to Knoxville. It was here that they had found their young male lead, a football player named Forrest James, carousing with friends in a Knoxville restaurant. Maybe Knoxville had one more actor to cough up.

It was more than a decade before Lana Turner was allegedly discovered in a Los Angeles drugstore, but something similar happened to a Knoxville girl in a Knoxville drugstore.

At an unnamed downtown pharmacy soda fountain, Wing asked the girl behind the counter if she knew anyone who'd like to be in the pictures. Yes, she said, a friend of hers, who already had some acting experience, might be very interested. And in walked Helen Monday, 16-year-old student at Knoxville High.

Diminutive in stature, with large, expressive eyes, Monday was modern, independent, and high-tempered, a bobbed-hair flapper. Her father, a sometime fireman, had left the family years before; she grew up mostly with her single mother, Isabelle, and two older sisters. Helen had some token experience in show biz; she'd done some singing and dancing at the Kiwanis Club on Gay Street. Once she even subbed for an injured dancer in the popular vaudeville revue, "George White's Scandals."

In the drugstore, Monday thought Wing was kidding; she kidded back. But Monday had reasons of her own to take him seriously: ugly rumors had been chasing her around town since the accident. Her boyfriend's car had spun and crashed. She was thrown free, but found her boyfriend crushed to death. The dead boy had earned a bad reputation which Monday somehow inherited. In the wake of the accident, gossips had been spreading stories about the two. Monday was eager to get out of town.

Wing was so impressed with her he called Brown, who came to Knoxville and met Helen, escorted by her older sister Janet, in a downtown hotel. Monday wasn't Brown's original ideal for the character. She was "flat as a board," he lamented, and "she had bobbed her hair to keep up with the city folks' fashions....

"But she did have eyes, and what eyes they were: large, clear, and radiant of every passing mood. Here was a somebody...."

After some persuasion, her mother agreed to let her go. She rode back with Wing, without chaperone, which startled Brown, who was worried about the fine print in the Mann Act.

Though happily married to a Hollywood starlet himself, Brown seemed to fall for Helen: "No one could have been more astonished than I by the wistful beauty of her face or by the flowing grace of her every movement," he later recalled. "The girl wasn't merely good. She was wonderful, with greatness to come...."

He took some rushes of her and sent them hopefully to his New York producer. The reply came to Robbinsville in a telegram: "GIRL WONDERFUL. SIGN HER IMMEDIATELY."

Brown hired Monday and her co-star, Forrest James, for $30 a week: not Hollywood rates, but a good living wage.

Brown later recalled, "Helen Mundy was the most difficult person I ever had anything to do with." The hyperactive teenager enjoyed chaos, and wreaked it whenever she could. She enjoyed spoiling Wing's long calculations by sticking her finger in his adding machine.

Knowing that Helen was a troublemaker and a bit of a flirt, her sister, Janet, accompanied her occasionally. On a horseback ride through the mountains, she observed with some alarm that Helen's fellow cast members were passing her jars of moonshine, expecting her to take a drink. On horseback, the teenager held the jar up to her mouth, and appeared to take a swig. But she showed her sister that she was just blowing bubbles. Janet admired the trick, and imitated it when the jar came around to her.

Bored and frustrated while she and the crew waited for a rainy spell to end, Mundy left the camp alone. Brown, still fretting about the Mann Act and possible kidnapping charges, didn't pursue her. "She learned very early in the game that she was the only girl in the picture, that without her the picture could not be made," Brown recalled. "It was virtually a case of blackmail."

Just when Brown was convinced she'd gone for good, she returned and finished the movie.

The few who've seen it to write about it agree that there's never been another movie like it. Its artistic success, heralded in all the film reviews of the day, seemed to bode well for everyone involved. But in the decade after its 1927 release, the leading actress, the director, and the movie itself disappeared from public view. Later in the century, Helen Monday's fate was a mystery that baffled scholars, Karl Brown was believed dead, and all copies of the movie were believed to be destroyed, lost without a trace.

Their fates are much better known today.

***

Stark Love was a sensation in New York that February, 1927, running for three weeks—a good long run for a 42nd Street theater in those prodigious days. Every magazine raved about it, some predicting that its no-star cast and unusually naturalistic acting might provoke an upheaval in Hollywood. "It is going to be one of the most talked-about pictures of the year, whether the film magnates like it or not," wrote critic Gene Cohn. "And I do not hesitate to predict that whatever the immediate fate of [director] Karl Brown's picture, he has started something, the end of which is yet to be heard."

Though the movie was seen as a threat to the "star system," critics agreed the lead, a spirited Knoxville teenager called Helen Mundy in the credits, seemed destined for stardom. Some compared her to one of the brightest stars in the star system, Lillian Gish.

But just weeks after the 1927 premiere, reporters were calling her the "lost girl," mystified about why she'd vanished back into the South just when she was the center of attention in Manhattan.

The movie was a big deal around here, too. After much anticipation and fanfare, it opened at Knoxville's Riviera that spring. Author and historian Wilma Dykeman recalls seeing that first run, in a movie theater in Asheville. "I loved movies, as a girl," she recalls. "Stark Love may have been the first one I ever saw.

"I loved anything that was dramatic," she says. "The love scenes didn't impress me much, but there's one scene I remember vividly": it's one where the indolent men order the woman to "fix" a dying fire.

"Of course, it wasn't the mountains I recognized," Dykeman says. "I recognized the hills, but not the people. I knew a lot of mountain people—I mean real mountaineers. Some were sort of ragged and all, and didn't have the sort of manners you'd find in a city hotel. But I didn't know any situations that were quite that stark."

Despite scholar Horace Kephart's alleged contributions to it, Stark Love has taken blows for its stereotypical portrayals of mountaineers. In 1927, it was disappointing to some who found the characterizations offensive. Dykeman acknowledges its excesses, but says depictions went both ways: prior to Stark Love, she says, mountain life had most often been romanticized as an ideal. "That was just as false as going the other way."

The movie was a sensation for other reasons as well; even after heavy editing of an attempted-rape scene, it included a brief scene in which the girl appeared nude.

When Helen Monday (as she spelled it) returned from the gala premier on 42nd Street to the home she shared with her mother, Belle, on North Knoxville's Branson Street, she found herself swamped with admirers, among them fraternity boys asking for dates. Helen's date book, they said, looked like the new city directory. But she was wearing an impressive ring some beau had given her in New York. She wouldn't say who it was.

Stark Love didn't bring down the Hollywood establishment.

In spite of the critical raves and the 42nd Street sensation of its premiere, Stark Love was never the middle-America smash that Brown had promised Paramount. Moviegoers in 1927 were enthralled with the modern: jazz, airplanes, radio, big spending. They didn't have time for a movie about hillbillies.

Paramount soon gave up on Stark Love. As was the practice in those days, they destroyed all the copies they could find, melting them down for the silver content.

The Jazz Singer came out months later; with sound, moviemaking changed, leaving behind many of those who had perfected the silent form. Karl Brown, the movie-camera artiste of the '20s had a different reputation in the '30s and '40s. Brown directed rarely, writing screenplays for a chain of B-thrillers, like The Port Of Missing Girls; Hitler: Dead Or Alive; The Man With Nine Lives and Before I Hang, both with Boris Karloff; and The Ape Man, starring Bela Lugosi. Brown's career changed so radically that some found it easier to believe that the silent-movie Karl Brown was dead.

He kept a low profile, and then dropped out of sight altogether. Hollywood authorities reported Brown was dead until 1969, the year Stark Love showed at the Lincoln Center, when film historian Kevin Brownlow found him retired and living comfortably with his first wife, silent actress Edna Mae Cooper, in North Hollywood. Brownlow interviewed Brown and persuaded the old man to write a book about his early work with the inventor of the feature film. He did; Brown's 1973 book, Adventures With D.W. Griffith, became a primary source for students of Griffith's work. He's interviewed in the 1980 documentary, Hollywood.

Brown also wrote a memoir of his later life, including extensive recollections about the making of Stark Love and its fascinating, maddening star, Helen Mundy. Book publishers weren't as interested in that one. It remained unpublished when Brown died in 1990, at the age of 93.

Helen Mundy's vanishing act was more thorough than her old director's.

When Stark Love was released for national distribution, Helen Mundy—for whatever reason, that's how her name was spelled in the credits, and how she's referred to in essays today—rode around the country on a publicity tour, but she wasn't much of a spokeswoman for the movie. "I don't care for it myself," she told a reporter frankly. "You might, but I can't see anything appealing about it...."

As a "star," she was notoriously difficult. When she traveled, she insisted on taking her menagerie of pets from Branson Street: a dog, six cats, three parakeets, a chicken, and a raccoon. She sometimes rode with them on the train.

Still, Paramount offered her a six-month contract at $100 a week, a lordly salary for any young person, much more than she made during the shoot. There was talk of a second starring role in a film set in the South Seas. Helen admitted she expected to enjoy that one better than Stark Love. But the project fell apart before it was finished; Helen Monday and Paramount parted ways.

"It may all seem like roses and honey," the teenager remarked, "but it's awfully hard work and awfully dull sometimes. I don't believe I want one of these 'careers' you hear about. I believe I'd rather be married." Of fame, she said, "it gets tiresome sometimes."

For a while, she dated suave film star William Powell, who'd been a silent-movie villain years before The Thin Man. He remained a longtime friend and correspondent.

She's last listed as a Knoxville resident in 1928. Decades later, scholars were puzzling about the "mystery" of the "lost girl's" disappearance. [See sidebar.] In spite of the promise that Brown and the critics saw, Stark Love would be her only credit.

She did settle down and get married. Richards Hill, a Nashville sales rep and Helen Monday's great-nephew, says that by the '30s, his Aunt Helen had moved to Michigan and married a bandleader named Don Barringer. They had four kids. Even when they were adults, Hill says, his grandmother was wary of her little sister's mischievous tendencies.

She lived to hear about the scholarly revival of Stark Love, but suffered from poor health. She'd been in a nursing home for several years before her death in 1987, when she was about 77. Her older sister, Janet, died four years later.

After Paramount melted its copies of Stark Love, the movie did vanish, at least from America. But a few remembered it. In a 1946 essay for The Nation, film critic James Agee described Stark Love as a rare example of an "excellent" feature film made on a low budget. (Agee didn't mention, and may not have known, that he and the film's star had been classmates at crowded Knoxville High.) By then, there wasn't any way to actually see the film. It's not surprising that in several histories of silent film, Stark Love is hardly mentioned.

Around 1959, Helen Monday attempted to find a copy for a showing in Kalamazoo. She may not have cared for it back in '27, but she was dismayed to learn that her big movie was lost.

In America, anyway. In Czechoslovakia, with Czech subtitles, Stark Love had apparently become a cult favorite—unbeknownst to American historians until 1969, when, prompted by British scholar Kevin Brownlow, film archivist Myrtil Frida offered it to the Museum of Modern Art. They gratefully accepted, translated the titles back into English, and at Lincoln Center gave the movie what may have been its first American showing in 40 years.

In 1979, Brownlow's tome, The War, the West, and the Wilderness, a survey of adventurous on-location shoots of the silent era, got international attention. In it, Brownlow, a ranking authority on the silent era, calls Stark Love "one of the most unusual films ever made in America," and devotes an 8-page section to it.

Stark Love showed at Knoxville's Bijou Theatre in late 1979. Helen Monday was invited to that revival but, citing poor health, declined. Janet Monday Warters, her old chaperone, was the guest of honor. The event received little attention in the local press.

Back in 1927, the Times had commented, "After viewing this admirable production, one feels that it would be most interesting to hear what the figurantes [extras] had to say about the picture if they have the opportunity of seeing it screened."

Appalachian State Prof. J.W. Williamson was curious about that, too. In 1990, he borrowed MOMA's copy and showed it in Cherokee County, N.C., near the movie's Graham County shooting site. Williamson, who admires Stark Love as "one of the little-known masterpieces of American film," nonetheless doesn't think much of Brown's motivations in making the movie and is sharply critical of its stereotypes. He was surprised that most of those who came to see it—some of them friends and descendants of those "figurantes"—liked the movie in spite of its insults. One elderly lady claimed they'd gotten the lazy-male part just right. (Williamson believes the movie's feminist perspective owed much to Monday's charisma in the role.)

Meanwhile, Williamson also obtained a section of the recently deceased Karl Brown's unpublished autobiography: a vivid account of the shooting of Stark Love, published for the first time in the Appalachian Journal in 1991.

Unfortunately for those of us who have never seen Stark Love, it's not available on video and may never be. Opportunities to see it are rare. There are apparently only two copies, one, made from the Czech print, at the Library of Congress, the other at the MOMA. The UT Library is currently attempting to procure a copy for its Great Smoky Mountains Regional Collection. For many of us, its unavailability only enhances its intrigue. It's the sort of phenomenon that Helen Monday may have understood.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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