The eternal California sun high in the sky. The beaches, the surf. All offering variations of the lifestyle made famous in the Sixties. The climate of Hollywood has not changed much from when film was younger. The idealism of the dream may have changed for some, but the allure remains strong. Actors, technicians and writers tread the sunny streets; often in anonymity trying to get their break. Those from the past perhaps walk unnoticed. One such person was Helen Chandler. The same Helen Chandler who was once thought to be the new, younger Lillian Gish by studio heads. The Helen Chandler who was escorted by Charles Lindbergh to a party in New York after his famous flight.
Helen Chandler is most remembered by modern audiences for her role as Mina Seward in DRACULA (1931). She was born in Charleston South Carolina on February 1, 1906 with an ethereal beauty comprised of delicate features and expressive, deep eyes that even from a young age held fascination. Helen made her stage debut in New York at the ripe old age of eight followed by Broadway in 1917.
Early performances include appearing on stage with the brothers John and Lionel Barrymore in a production of MACBETH. When the world of Hollywood beckoned. Helen a stage veteran with over 20 Broadway production credits under her belt.
Helen Chandler’s film debut was in the 1927 production of THE MUSIC MASTER. Her first critical success came in the Warner Brothers produced fantasy story OUTWARD BOUND (1930). The picture, which was from a hit play (most projects at that time were from books or well received stage productions), concerned a group of people on an ocean liner that come to the realization they are dead. They are in fact heading, not to their desired destinations, but to Heaven or Hell. Also on the trip were stalwart performers Leslie Howard and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The critics felt Helen Chandler was perfectly cast in the role of Anne Bergner. It was her look and delicate features, plus her rather bird like voice that added to the metaphysical nature of the picture. The press said that she had stars where her eyes should be.
Helen Chandler was not that different away from the camera. Like her fellow female performer Zita Johann, who starred in THE MUMMY (1932), Helen was a sensitive and compassionate person. Johann more fully embraced the bohemian culture of the time in dress and manners, proclaiming her beliefs in reincarnation. Helen read voraciously from an early age and often was forced inward in from a very cruel and sometimes not understanding world. Reading or engagement of the mind was an escape for her. Helen also had a history of addiction and mental health challenges long before her most remembered role.
Helen Chandler did not want to play to the role of Mina Seward in what was to become the classic DRACULA (1931) from the near bankrupt Universal Studios. The Laemmle family, lead by the elder statesman of the picture business Carl and his son, known (with little affection?) as Junior, had run the studio since its start in the silent days of 1915. The studio was at a crossroads in the thirties financially and it was Carl Laemmle Jr who first floated the idea of making Horror films. His father was quite violently against the notion, yet Jr had proven his producing acumen by spearheading ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930). That film gave Universal its first outstanding production award which is what best picture was called initially and best Director. Junior Laemmle could spot talent. Utilizing many of the European technicians that fled the soon to be anti-Semitic climate in their homeland, and taking into account the successes and influences of European films including NOSFERATU (1922), the seminal THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1920) and THE GOLEM (1915), he gave birth to a new house style. The creation of the Universal Studio horror film and iconic cycle that followed was started with the initial production of DRACULA (1931).
Helen Chandler and costar David Manners (originally Rauff Acklom) found the production to be a total “lark.” Helen, who played Mina to the Manners role of her husband to be Jonathon, were professional on the set with their lines and concentrations. The two would giggle in between takes, finding the subject matter hard to take seriously. This was in direct contrast to the approach of Bela Lugosi, who lobbied hard for the role of Dracula. Lugosi had been a ‘star’ in his own country of Hungary and fought in wars. He had seen much real life horror on battle fields, plus he was a newcomer to the country and struggled with the English language. Lines were learned phonetically, requiring great concentration from a man who held himself to high standards. Many cast photos survived of Helen, David Manners and Edward Van Sloan showing camaraderie and yet some humor seemed forced. Dwight Frye, who lobbied hard to get the role of Renfield from the often mentioned Broadway actor Bernard Jukes, walked around the set totally immersed in his fly eating alter ego. Helen and David Manners felt like other actors sometimes do on the set of DRACULA (1931); it was just another assignment.
Helen Chandler lived with her brother Lee, his wife Geraldine and young son Lee Jr in a small two bedroom home high in the Hollywood hills between her marriages. The four shared meals, expenses and the all-important car for Lee to get to work. Lee and Geraldine were young and married at the age of 17. Times were tough. Lee was so young many firms refused to hire him. Helen’s income was what kept them afloat financially. It was hard despite that. Geraldine worked at a five and dime on the weekends.
The excellent book by author extraordinaire Gregory William Mank, THE VERY WITCHING TIME OF NIGHT: DARK ALLEYS OF CLASSIC HORROR CINEMA, contains a chapter on Helen in which the author interviews her sister in law and lifelong friend Geraldine, or Jerry as she was affectionately called toward the end of her life in 2003. Geraldine says that Helen rarely talked of her work at home but she did speak of DRACULA during its making. Helen was going on about something to her when her eyes glazed over, her hands transformed into claws and she lunged at Geraldine. Gales of laughter erupted from Helen. The good natured fun almost stopped Geraldine’s heart in spite of its intent to poke fun.
Helen took Geraldine to the set of DRACULA, where she found Bela Lugosi being distant from the others as ‘perhaps he had more important things to do’. She also saw that Lugosi was visited on the set by a ‘self-important’ younger woman who liked to order people around. This was likely Lugosi’s wife Lillian, who worshiped and guarded him in life and in death. Lillian was often mistaken for being Lugosi’s daughter instead of his wife due to their age difference.
Helen Chandler and her brother Lee were not the products of a happy home, even by thirties standards. Helen’s mother would give them each tasks to perform like trained animals with wrath being the product of failure. Oddly enough, there is no mention of her father. Her mother became the stereotypical, domineering stage mother that plagued so many Hollywood performers, including Jean Harlow to Marilyn Harris, best known for being the ‘flower’ or little Maria that Boris Karloff sank in the soon to be filmed follow-up to DRACULA called FRANKENSTEIN. Helen’s mother’s idea of punishment was to withhold affection and to go so far as to ignore her children as if they never existed. A similar version today happens when one hears parents say to their children in public that “they are going to leave them if they don’t stop” whatever it is that they are doing. This is not a good recipe for a solid upbringing, particularly if the child is sensitive and craved affection like Helen. Geraldine remembered her own youth, and when things went wrong in her life she could go home to her mother. Geraldine would sit on her knee and all would be set right. However, Helen did not have that unconditional love in her youth. She had no one to turn to except herself, her books, and later, alcohol.
Lee rebelled against their mother’s authority and left to make his own life. Women in the thirties did not leave their family homes, especially with children, unless they were comfortable being labelled as “disgraced” in society’s estimation. “Disgraced”, of course, was the polite euphemism for “involved with another man outside of wedlock resulting in another child.” Women, through marriage or parental rights, were prisoners of their obligations to parents and often a clergy that counseled against leaving . Divorces were scandals in the eyes of the public to be avoided at all costs.
Geraldine goes on to say that Helen was woefully ignorant of basic household tasks since she was never permitted at home to be part of them. Geraldine recalls trying to cook a meal of fried baloney with disastrous results. Helen would stand over Lee and Geraldine and pepper them with questions of “Don’t you like it? Or why is that not good?” When Helen did try to learn cooking, she would crowd Geraldine in the kitchen to the point where Geraldine could not move. Helen would be asking questions like “What are you doing? Why are you doing that? What does that do?” in an effort to please others.
There were fun times between Geraldine and Helen, though, such as when she got up the nerve to ask Helen how much she made at the studio. Helen looked at her and simply said “Twelve fifty.” Geraldine said you make $12.50?! Helen responded, no, twelve hundred and fifty. This was a large sum by thirties standards. Helen did not seem to care one way or the other.
Helen’s income also provided a car for Lee to get to work when their original one broke down. Together Helen and Geraldine headed off with one hundred and fifty dollars to a used car lot. The two bought an older Flying Cloud Rio, complete with flower pots. Helen put in roses. They drive around in jeans, tennis shoes, white shirts and white gloves, because gloves, according to Helen, “made them respect you.” They would drive up to the Ambassador Hotel, toss the keys to a parking attendant who hated driving the Rio and sashayed into the hotel for lunch.
Helen was also generous with the clothes she got from the studio for social engagements. Some of the sophisticated designs she kept, but many others were circulated around to people who never had access to designers of that nature. She also hated high heels as balance was a difficult thing. She favored Cuban heels and preferred tennis shoes. Casual wear such as shirts, blouses, and skirts were divided up among friend and acquaintances that were the same size.
Then there was the dark side of Helen Chandler. It was the loneliness when she was not working. Geraldine would say that Helen would wait for her on the doorstep each evening when she came home from her store job with Lee Jr and her animals. Helen would attach herself to her and this caused tension when Lee was home as he wanted to be close to his wife. Helen was adored by Lee Jr, whom she spoke to as one little boy to another.
There was the alcohol dependency. It had grown to the point that she was in fact an alcoholic. Lee would not let her in the home when she was drunk because he felt his child should not see that at any time. Helen would rise later in the day and be ‘stone cold’ sober in the evening, filled with smiles. This was a pattern that resulted in Helen going in and out of sanitariums for much of her life due to addictions, notably later on in the fifties
Helen Chandler had three husbands and three failed marriages for different reasons. Her first Husband was bespectacled screen writer Cyril Hume. He was not very good looking by all reports yet he loved her deeply and she him. This did not prevent them from divorcing in 1934. Perhaps a parallel for the beauty to marry the older academic as in the case of the Jean Harlow and Paul Bern union and later Marilyn Munroe and Arthur Miller.
Helen’s second husband was actor Bramwell Fletcher. He is best known today as the young Egyptologist driven mad by Boris Karloff in the Universal Studios production of THE MUMMY (1932). He was apparently “good to look at.” Helen felt he was simply around so she could jumpstart his career. The jumpstart never happened.
The two parted ways when Helen visited Mary Astor at her home one afternoon to pick up something. Helen drove to Astor’s home and yelled up at the window for Mary to bring what she wanted out. Mary Astor had quite a list of sexual exploits with men of Hollywood and no doubt some women (denied even today). Mary did come to the window but so did Bramwell Fletcher. The sight of her husband in the window broke Helen’s heart that day.
Her third husband was merchant seaman Walter Piascik whom she meet in a bar. Walter was described by Geraldine as a “big, dumb man who didn’t talk too much.” He largely said three words in a conversation. Walter was said to have other skills to match his size and strength, and these were factors for Helen. The union did not last as Walter shipped out to sea and was never seen again.
Through all this was the specters of alcohol and loneliness for Helen Chandler. Lee and Geraldine got Helen her own place later. Helen and her life became a living hell, even if it was masked with moments of laughter and kindness. Geraldine says that when she went into the Helen’s old room at their house to make it ready for Lee Jr. to move into, she found something in the closet. She opened the door to be confronted by large shopping bags filled with empty bottles on every hook.
Helen was hospitalized many times during the thirties for her addiction troubles and help her get control of her life with the result being a career decline. Then came the day in 1950 when Helen Chandler, a lifelong smoker, solitary drinker and reader at night, was involved in a horrific, accidental fire caused by her falling asleep. The result was disfigurement in terms of burns and scars to her left arm and the left side of her face and hair. Helen had no resources for expensive restorative surgeries and not as common as they are today. She continued to drink after her accident.
Geraldine and Lee tried to help Helen by installing in a former ranch house with other former actors, actresses and technicians who had fallen on hard times. Rent was paid and a house keeper cleaned and prepared meals for all. The constant drinking resulted in Helen developing an ulcer requiring surgery. In 1965 Helen Chandler passed away from complications during the procedure. Her body was cremated as per her wishes and her ashes were interned in the Chapel of the Pines crematory in Los Angeles.
Helen Chandler passed away on April 30th, traditionally known as Walpurgis nacht or “the night when evil is at full power.” The day was prominent in the DRACULA film that she is most remembered for and the Stoker novel. Helen was a victim of her own personal vampires; addictions and the need for the love that she never received. Helen and Lee’s mother did not come to the funeral. She disowned Helen after the horrible fire and ceased any and all contact with her.
Geraldine, who was devoted to Helen’s memory and legacy even forty years after her passing, said that in later years after the fire, Helen loved to perform for guests. She would dance, emote and pose often forgetting the very visible scars she had amongst an audience of friends. In Helen’s mind she had no scars. Helen was sweet and delicate of mind and body, gentle to all people no matter what. Geraldine adored her and their life together until her own end.
Helen Chandler would have no “I am Mrs. Norman Main!” moment of declaration in her life like Judy Garland in A STAR IS BORN (1954). A declaration that she had conquered her troubles. You have to reconcile to the idea that there are people who don’t and this may give you some sense of an uneasy peace. One hopes that if the ghost of Helen walked somewhere that she would lift her veil of secrecy and let the sensitive child who never knew Love peek out. Even for a moment and see that she is not forgotten. She is a star each time the lights dim and one gazes upon the blonde curls framing her delicate facial features, coupled with the luminescent eyes of she who was Helen Chandler.