While doing research for this month’s theme, I came across an unfamiliar name: Gladys Walton. Fairly popular in the early 1920s, she was intriguingly described as playing “flapper roles”–a few years before those roles would be associated with Colleen Moore and Clara Bow.
Who was this young woman? Research revealed a pragmatic, outspoken star who quickly realized her true priorities in life…and it also revealed an intriguing mystery. (At least, I’m going to call it a mystery.)
Gladys was born in Boston in 1903. When she was only three, her parents divorced and she and her mother eventually went to live in Oregon with one of her aunts. She had a happy, active childhood, one where she never dreamed of ending up in the movies.
In 1919, when she was 16, Gladys and her mother spent the summer with relatives in Los Angeles. When they decided to tour the William S. Hart studio (studios were open to visitors back then), Gladys ran into a talent scout who noticed her good looks and asked if she’d like to be in pictures. With her mother’s approval she shot some screen tests at Fox Studios (“She said it would be fun, so do it!”). Having a flair for comedy, she was cast in several Sunshine Comedies shorts and La La Lucille (1920), which starred the popular comedic duo Lyons and Moran. She later recalled that her lack of acting experience was no concern at all: “Back then, we didn’t train for a picture. They’d tell me what to do, and I would do it.”
Although Gladys’s screen career was originally a lark, meant to end when she returned to Oregon (and high school) at the end of the summer, she took a liking to the work and decided to try and get hired at Universal. They gave her a $150 a week contract and starred her in Pink Tights (1920), a circus film where she played a tightrope walker. It was successful and Gladys would be touted as a new “find,” her specialty being comedy-dramas where she played a succession of young heroines.
In 1921 Photoplay said: “Universal has discovered an attractive little flapper in Gladys Walton.” At the time, “flapper” generally meant an impetuous, lively young woman, and Gladys’s slangy shopgirls, “madcap” daughters of society matrons, and plucky runaways looking for a better life certainly fit that description. By the time of The Wise Kid (1922) she was being advertised as “The Little Queen of the Flappers.” A 1922 article in The Moving Picture Weekly proclaimed:
When Gladys Walton started out to portray the flapper in Universal comedy dramas, who said she didn’t immortalize the quaint little figure?
When she came out in such pictures as “Pink Tights,” “The Man Tamer,” “Playing With Fire,” and others, who said she wasn’t wonderful? Who said she couldn’t act?
Nobody! Not anybody could say it!
She has achieved a place for herself, no question of that. Being too young to know everything, pretty and full of personality, she is the perfect type for flapper roles.
Gladys was a hard worker, doing her own stunts for her circus films and spending endless hours at the studio. Although she had little time for a social life she did get to brush elbows with big stars like Lon Chaney. She would also recall: “I took a streetcar to work every day because I didn’t have a car. One day, Rudolph Valentino got on and winked at me, but I never said anything to him.”
She also wasn’t afraid to speak up if she felt it was necessary. One time this lead to some unintended consequences:
In those days, they allowed visitors to watch us film. One day I was playing a rather sad scene, and they were playing music to get me in the mood. It just wasn’t happening. I looked up and saw a man with a straw hat and potbelly staring at me. I told the director I didn’t like him and would he please ask him to leave, he was breaking my concentration. Well, do you know who that man was? It was William Randolph Hearst.
Hearst, as you may know, was the immensely wealthy and powerful newspaper mogul who inspired Citizen Kane. Gladys said that as a result she was one of the few stars who was never invited to the famed Hearst Castle.
While she was never quite an A-list star (she made $600 a week), her work remained in demand. For three years straight she starred in film after film, around thirty in all, and she was growing exhausted. “They just ground those movies out,” she recalled. “They overworked me and wouldn’t give me a vacation.” Finally, in 1923, she left for Hawaii for three weeks without telling the studio.
Upon her return, she found out that Universal had docked her pay. That was enough for Gladys, and she left the studio without looking back. While she would work in independent productions for a couple more years, she began to lose interest in making movies and to feel more focused on starting a family. She married sales manager Henry Herbel in 1923. (It was actually her second marriage. The first was to writer Frank Liddell in 1921, but because of her packed film schedule it failed after only six months–later in life she often forgot the marriage had happened at all).
Gladys could hardly wait to have children–she had a daughter in 1924 and a son in 1926. In time, she and Henry would have six kids in all. She would later say, “I started out as an only child and now I have six. Isn’t that something?”
She was married to Henry until his death in 1955. She married for a third time, to a fighter pilot, and while they were together 19 years they eventually divorced.
She spent her remaining years in the seaside town of Morro Bay, California, in a house she dubbed “Glad’s Castle.” It was packed with antiques, souvenirs from trips abroad, and plenty of photos and memorabilia from her silent days (including a folding screen covered with her old Universal portraits). She learned to paint and sculpt, raised dogs and birds, enjoyed the company of her many grandchildren, and even in her late 80s would go out dancing several times a week. At age 90 she passed away from cancer, an end to a full and memorable life.
If you look up the name of Gladys Walton online today, you may run across a self-published book–Walton and Capone: The Untold Story. This book, written by Glady’s son John Walton, claims that she had a ten-year relationship with the notorious Al Capone, starting in 1922. (Yes, that would mean carrying on with Capone even throughout her marriage and her several pregnancies. Mm-hmm. Sure.) He even claims that he may actually be Capone’s son, citing his grandson’s resemblance to Capone as evidence (he himself looks nothing like him).
There’s really no evidence to back up these claims. Lengthy, well-researched biographies of Capone make no mention of Gladys, and he was known to be in other parts of the country during the times John claimed he visited his mother. Then there’s the light matter of Capone having had syphilis and gonorrhea, which Gladys certainly never contracted. Having read excerpts from the book myself, it seems very sensational–I can’t imagine writing anything like that about my own mother. Oy. I’m considering this a “Myth: BUSTED,” my friends.
Unlike some forgotten stars who expressed bitterness about their old careers, Gladys Walton seemed content to have “the movies” ultimately be just one chapter in her long, active life. She would look back with her usual frankness: “They worked me too hard and it wasn’t very glamorous. People thought it was, but it wasn’t.”
My main sources for this article are the book Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars by historian Michael G. Ankerich, and his articles about Gladys Walton at his author’s website. Ankerich sought out and interviewed the star at a time when her silent film work had been long forgotten, and also took some wonderful photos of her in “Glad’s Castle.”
Ankerich, Michael G. Broken Silence: Conversations with 23 Silent Film Stars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1993.
Incredible. You’re a research wizard. Where do you find this stuff? 😉 Thanks! Always love hearing about new people. It’s a bit dizzying thinking about just how many actors and actresses there were in the silent years.
She sounds like someone you’d want to hang out with, doesn’t she? 😁 ( P.S. I probably would’ve fainted if Valentino winked at me.)
And now for the question I’m sure you knew was coming…. Do you know if any of her movies are still around?
There are SO many people to cover, it’s mind-boggling! You think you have a handle on them all, then you read about a film you haven’t seen before and not a single performer in it sounds familiar. 😀
For me, I like to go straight to old movie magazines, trade magazines, and ’10s-’20s newspaper ads to see who was being talked about, and why. You run across a lot of new faces that way!
There’s a few of Gladys’s films out there (although some are in archives), I know there’s a nice print of her feature ALL DOLLED UP (1921) on YouTube. Here’s the link! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JGRYjlI_MYA&t=84s
Thanks for the tips! And thanks for the link- that’s super nice of you. 😀
Just finished watching it. She’s adorable! She seemed to really get into the physical stuff, didn’t she? The fighting and all. That was awesome!
My favorite part was when she goes, “What job?! Go to hell!!” Lol!
Your blog is one of my favorites! Keep ‘em coming 👍
Thank you very much, Betsy! You’re welcome here any time. 😉
Really enjoyed this. I’ve recently run across several pictures on various blogs of Gladys and wondered about her. You certainly provided the missing pieces, for which I am very thankful! And I agree, imagine writing such stuff about your own mother!
Right?? Some people…!
I’m glad this article was useful to you! It’s fun to uncover these forgotten names.
“All Dolled Up”…I’m on it! The next movie I watch!!!! Holy cow, I never even heard of her….. this article really whet my appetite (big surprise!). Can’t wait! Excellent work, yet again, ma’am!!
Aw, thanks! 😀
Looks like All Dolled Up has now been removed. 😦
Aw, man–that was fast!
Thanks Lea for giving shout outs to all these forgotten actors and actresses. Gladys is my fave, and I found a neat new fact to include in her bio. The record says she lived in Portland Oregon while growing up,which is technically true but she actually lived in the neighborhood of Sellwood which was a city of its own until Portland annexed it in 1893. It sits at the most southern part of Portland on a bluff overlooking the Willamette river. Gladys would have had to take the ferry across the river and then go about 4 miles down the road to the main city of Portland. I found this out by acquiring a Feb 25 1921 Sellwood Bee newspaper that had a movie ad for the Isis theater that was showing “Pink Tights”. The ad said “Gladys Walton formerly a Sellwood girl in Pink Tights”. Lastly, her sons books unfortunately muddy the water to people trying to find out the true facts of Gladys’s life. I cant understand why anyone would do what he did. that is why I would encourage anyone who has a favorite screen star to research them on your own, with the internet we are open to so many more resources than before. Time to ad to the record.
Absolutely, there’s no way I could do the research that interests me without all those incredible online archives, quick ways to communicate, etc. At least, there’s no way I could it half as fast!
Great trivia you uncovered–all those little pieces add up to a much fuller picture of these forgotten personalities! I appreciate you sharing it.
I found a amazing article in a Aug 1921 motion picture magazine, were the writer actually visited Universal Pictures to interview Gladys on a off-day of sorts. She was by the lion cages getting to know her feline costars for her next movie “The Man Tamer”. The writer was suprised that there was a lot more to he personality than people knew. In the interview we actually find out in detail how she went from Sunshine Comedies to Universal Pictures and how she almost was not a star. She was so open about her feelings and insights you actually get a real sense of the whirlwind such a young person as herself was pulled into in the early days of film. I put a link to the internet archive where the article starts on page 62, https://archive.org/details/motionpicturemag22brew/page/n61
Oooo, I’m intrigued! I’ll be able to take a look at it tomorrow, since I don’t have good Internet at the moment.
I found a neat story about Gladys Walton that goes along with your latest post on bumping into movie stars in the silent area. In early Feb 1922 she started out on a personal appearance campaign to theaters in key cities, one of the first was the Columbia theater in Seattle. Just a few weeks prior to this, Paramount director William Desmond Taylor had been murdered. The papers were mentioning many hollywood names with the case including Gladys’s in a San Francisco newspaper and Gladys was pretty mad about that. In Seattle she was greeted at the train by the theater manager and the press. The press followed her to her room’s at the washington hotel for the usual interview, she set them strait about the taylor case and morality in hollywood as it pertained to her and discussed a number of other items. What suprised me was she was in Seattle for a week. She arrived on Thursday gave the press interview and got settled in, on Friday the papers printed the interview, Saturday she was at the Bon Marche department store for the pacific northwest products exhibit. were she was in a window displaying aprons made in Seattle. Then on Sunday she started her personal appearances at the Columbia theater for her new movie “The Guttersnipe” , then on Wednesday and Thursday she was back at the Bon Marche modeling pacific northwest garments in there fashion shows. Then she was off to the next city doing gosh who knows what. can you imagine how many people bumped into her during that week? I got all this information when I found the newspaper story of her visit and also the theater ad and the ad from the Bon Marche store.
Wow! This is great, Robert. It’s a good example of how hardworking she was (and had to be) and how outspoken she was (in a good way). I wouldn’t mind reading that interview at the Washington Hotel, if you care to share a link. 🙂
Here’s the link http://silentera.com/taylorology/issues/Taylor40.txt There are many newspaper interviews from other stars that were doing personal appearances in early 1922 on this web page, it’s a really interesting read. I also found another cool personal appearance story about Gladys that I will post soon.
Thank you much!
Hey Lea, I have another story of the accessibility to stars in the silent area. In Oct 1921 Gladys did a personal appearance at the Superba theater in Los Angeles for her new movie “High Heels” but the neet thing was she also performed a prologue skit on stage with her two six year old co-stars the De Briac twins. How cool would that have been to see the star performing right in front of you before the movie started.
Right? The world of movie stardom seemed more casual in those days, even the biggest stars seemed to make personal appearances and introduce their films. Oh how times have changed…
Hi Lea, Im updating my post of were Gladys lived while growing up in the Portland area. I found evidence that she not only lived in Sellwood but in Kenton for a short time and the city of Portland, It was mostly due to her uncle’s pharmacy business moving locations.I also discovered Gladys never did broadway theater like the IMDB,Wikipedia and her sons books claim. I thought it was strange that none of the interviews she did throughout her life mentioned doing theater. I found the proof in two newspaper articles from 1921 and 1922 in the Sunday Oregonian. It seems there were two Gladys Waltons, one on the East coast traveling doing theater productions and our Gladys making movies on the West coast. The articles stated that writers of the time were often confusing the two. Now I have to figure out how to change this on the IMDB and Wikipedia. In the case of her sons books the more I research the more I shake my head about them.
Nicely done, Robert! The two Gladys Waltons reminds me of similar confusion with Buster Keaton’s brother Harry. Apparently there were two Harry Keatons working in some capacity in Hollywood around the same time, and historians have been hoodwinked by this ever since.
I’m sure I’d shake my head over her son’s books too. Very strange that someone would use their own parent’s life story that way…cannot relate, to put it mildly.
Thanks to you, people like me have a place to go to get new facts and information out into the community. And as the late great Stan Lee would say,”Excelsior”.
🙂 Much appreciated, Robert!
Here are the links to the articles of the two Gladys Waltons https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn83045782/1921-06-19/ed-1/seq-57/#words=Gladys+Walton+Waltons https://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn83045782/1922-10-15/ed-1/seq-61/#words=Gladys+Walton
I found the name of the talent booking agency that discovered Gladys, it was “Willis and Inglis” and there offices were in Los Angeles. They were the ones that set up the meeting at the Fox sunshine comedy studio. Have you ever come across this agency in your research of any other silent film actors?
Doesn’t ring a bell, I’m afraid. Nice find though!