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The Lost Starlet: Part I

The Lost Starlet: Part II

Epilogues of the makers of one of America's most unusual Movies.

by Jack Neely

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.

August 30, 2001 * Vol. 11, No. 35
© 2001 Metro Pulse