The Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound keeps turning up fascinating stuff. They just can’t help it. Every time I visit archivist Bradley Reeves’ underground lair, he’s unearthed something I’ve never heard of.
Over the years I’ve often written about Weston Fulton, the genius inventor who founded the Fulton Sylphon Co., the big factory that made complex gauges of various sorts and enabled everything from car air-conditioners to the first depth charges.
Somehow I’d never heard that one of his daughters was an actress who had a Hollywood career, albeit brief.
Her name was Barbara Fulton. Born in 1915, she grew up near downtown, when movies and new movie theaters like the Riviera and the Tennessee were the main excitement in town. She was a strikingly beautiful young woman, and a talented actress, who made her way first to Broadway, by 1936, appearing in supporting roles in a couple of plays, the most successful of which was a production called Behind Red Lights, which ran for several months in 1937.
In that role she apparently fell for the lead, an actor from Seattle named Bruce Gentle. A decade older than she was, he was well-connected; his mother, a Met soprano, had done some singing in the pictures. In Hollywood, he was better known as Bruce MacFarlane. He was gunning for tough-guy roles in movies like Come On, Leathernecks!, Dick Tracy Returns, and Federal Man-Hunt. For a guy like that, the last name Gentle just wouldn’t do.
The two came back to Barbara’s home to get married. By then, the Fultons lived in their famously exotic mansion on Lyons View. The Moorish mini-palace was on the top of the ridge where the Westcliff condominiums are now. Only the stone guardhouse remains.
It looked like one of those fantasy mansions in Hollywood, and its formal garden was the scene of a Hollywood wedding between two aspiring movie actors. Both the dailies gave it full-page treatment. It even got a writeup in The New York Times. The bride’s dress, one reporter noted, was like something from the novel (not yet a movie) Gone With the Wind. American Beauty roses were everywhere.
About 350 invited guests attended, with music led by the founding conductor of the new Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, Bertha Walburn Clark. Soprano Marjorie Whaley sang “Oh! Perfect Love.”
The next day, the young couple drove to Cape Cod for a honeymoon, intending to settle, for the fall at least, in New York.
But they apparently ended up in Los Angeles. In the three years after he married Barbara Fulton, Bruce MacFarlane appeared in 14 movies, often as tough guys.
In 1938, Barbara Fulton, still using her maiden name, made her silver-screen debut in a novelty short called “Shopgirl’s Evidence.”
The 12-minute mini-mystery was part of a series of true stories presented by Floyd Gibbons, who was familiar to Americans in the 1930s as the dashing war correspondent who wore a jaunty eyepatch, a souvenir of combat in World War I. Gibbons made a series of shorts, writing his own scripts, and always giving himself the role of reporter. In “Shopgirl’s Evidence,” he was the droll narrator of the reportedly true story of a keen-eyed department-store clerk who collared a shoplifting ring.
Gibbons was the familiar face, but the gorgeous young Fulton is the hero of this particular tale.
Shown between main features, it had its local premiere at the Tennessee Theatre in April, 1938, when Weston Fulton himself and his wife Barbara attended. The movie was shown around the English-speaking world for about a year after that. (A quick Google check discloses that it was showing up in movie advertisements as far away as Australia, months after its American release.)
That may have been the extent of Fulton’s Hollywood career. Family lore has it that she tried out for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. Judging by her magnetic presence in “Shopgirl’s Evidence,” she had a shot. She was a classic brunette of the era, bearing a resemblance to Hedy Lamarr or maybe Susan Hayward.
By 1940, both husband and wife’s film careers had already peaked, and so had their marriage. Four years after one of the biggest weddings in Knoxville history, both bride and groom were married to different people. In MacFarlane’s IMDB bio, Barbara Fulton is not mentioned as the first of his three wives.
Barbara’s new husband was Knoxville businessman Fenton Gentry, who at the time had a cardboard-box company, and that one took. In Knoxville, for the rest of her life, she was known as Barbara Gentry, and kept acting now and then. She’s recalled as one of the Carousel Theatre’s most glamorous early performers. She was known to younger family members as “Aunt Boo.”
“Shopgirl’s Evidence” was almost forgotten. Early this year, even her local family members hadn’t seen it. But Brad Reeves turned up a copy of it at the University of Wisconsin’s Center for Film & Theater Research, and they agreed to loan it to be copied, if a family member would vouch for it. Her local nephew, Jay Talley, did the honors a few weeks ago. If things work out, TAMIS will be showing “Shopgirl’s Evidence” in one of their always-surprising public events later this year.
Barbara Fulton Gentry died in Knoxville in 1999. Her father, Weston Fulton, died back in 1946, but his legacy is in the news a lot this year, in ways no one would have expected. The longtime site of his Fulton Sylphon plant, on Third Creek at the bottom of Cumberland Avenue, is becoming the unusual new Walmart-Publix project, which by some accounts is being built to look a little bit like the old factory. By the time it was torn down, a European corporation owned the building, and I’m not sure they ever knew there were local developers interested in saving it.
And UT’s just about to tear down Fulton’s last remaining residence for the luxurious new student center. The early 20th-century house on Volunteer Boulevard is where Barbara Fulton spent most of her childhood.