Louise Lovely and Lon Chaney: The Australian Connection
Lon Chaney is a true legend of the Silent Era, making an estimated 155 films over 17 years, of which 109 are lost, and of the 46 remaining films, some are incomplete or mere fragments of footage. The bulk, if not all, of Chaney’s pre-1920 films were released in Australia. Advertisements exist for early films such as Damon and Pythias, The Grip of Jealousy and The Gilded Spider. It was not his acting or skill with make-up that first brought him to the attention of Australian audiences. Rather, it was his association with the Australian actress Louise Lovely.
Born in Sydney in 1895[i], Nellie Louise Alberti began acting and touring with dramatic companies at an early age under the name of Louise Carbasse[ii]. A precocious child, she later claimed at age 7 to have done the rounds of various businesses paying her mother’s accounts. She had played in almost every theatre in Australia, often alongside Nellie Stewart, before appearing in six films between 1911 and 1913. A prime attribute for her was that she looked older than she was and was able to be cast in adult roles. She married fellow Australian actor and writer, William 'Wilton' Welch, in February 1912 at the age of 16.
In 1914, Lovely decided to take a chance and move to America, specifically Hollywood. She arrived in America aged 18 and was given a screen test at Universal, and offered a contract. She dyed her hair blonde the same day. Carl Laemmle, Universal’s studio head, also gave her a new name: Louise Lovely. The problem was nobody informed Louise of this.
“I didn’t know that Universal had changed my name until I saw it on a poster outside a theatre,” she recounted in 1976. “They had shown me a list of names, like Blanche Sweet and Raya Sunshine. I thought how ghastly they all were. Raya Sunshine has always haunted me.[iii]” Oddly enough, the name Lovely was perfect for Louise, as she was a stunningly beautiful young woman.
With her blonde curls and new name, she was placed into films as Universal’s answer to Mary Pickford, much to her annoyance. Lovely’s co-star for her early films was a young Lon Chaney and her Australian heritage ensured that her films were rushed into cinemas across the land, generally with her name being the only one mentioned. Louise Lovely’s popularity as a local lass made good ensured that Chaney’s early feature length efforts were seen by many. It also meant that all the press attention, review wise, was centred around Lovely without any mention of her co-stars. It mattered not, Louise Lovely’s films were popular, and, by virtue of association, Lon Chaney built a steady following.
Chaney’s name first appeared in print in Australia in 1915 when The Grind was released. Ads for 1916’s The Trust noted that Chaney both starred in and produced that short, but it was the films that he appeared alongside Louise Lovely that saw his prominence rise.
All the Lovely-Chaney films were directed by Joe DeGrasse and seven were released in Australia, but not in order of filming or American release. These films were Tangled Hearts, The Grip of Jealousy, The Gilded Spider, Dolly's Scoop, Bobbie of the Ballet, Stronger Than Death and The Grasp of Greed.
Interestingly the first movie that the team made together, and Lovely’s Hollywood debut, was Father and the Boys, which was released in America on 20 December 1915 but appears to not have gained a release in Australia.
In six of the films Louise Lovely received top billing, Chaney was usually second or third billed. For Dolly’s Scoop (released 20 February 1916 in America, 30 September 1916 in Australia), Lovely was billed under her nom de plume; Louise Welch. Father and the Boys saw her 3rd billed, under her original stage name of Louise Carbasse to Chaney’s 7th, and their last film., The Grasp of Greed saw Lovely 3rd billed, Chaney was 5th.
No matter the order of the film’s release in America, in Australia it was completely different. The first Lovely-Chaney collaboration released in Australia was Tangled Hearts on 6 August 1916 and the last, The Grasp of Greed, appeared four months later, on 8 November 1916. By 1916, Chaney was mentioned in ads for his films, but, when it came to reviews or publicity pieces, his name was often mentioned alongside Lovely. It would take lead appearances in feature length films for his name to become known.
Lon Chaney died in 1930, Louise Lovely in 1980.
The story of Louise Lovely is nothing short of fascinating, and one that I’m going to reveal, on this blog, over time. As lauded as she (rightfully) is, she did far more than she is recognised for. So watch this space.
All films directed by Joe De Grasse
[i] Despite claims at the time, and since, Lovely never took up American citizenship, stating so under oath before the Royal Commission into the Motion Picture Industry in Australia in June 1927.
[ii] By the time she left Australia Lovely had been known by many names. In addition to Louise Alberti, she was also known as Nellie Welch, Louise Welch, Louise Carbasse, Louie Kabash, Louisa Lovely and, in one memorable miss-spelling, Louise Lovel. In America at least one film was advertised as starring "L. Lovely and Louise Carbasse"
[iii] Women Filmmakers Pt 1. Cinema Papers, June-July 1976
UPDATE: Fixed the date of marriage to Wilton Welch.