Actors living during the dividing line of “before” and “after” the emergence of cinema were given a unique gift. Unlike the generations of actors just before them, their performances could be enjoyed years, if not decades, after their deaths–provided their films survived, of course.
While many of these silent film actors have fallen into obscurity, there’s a few who had the good luck to end up in iconic films. One such actor was Elmer Booth, whose tragic early death left us with a comparatively brief filmography, but at least one performance that prophesied dozens of gangster films to come.
Born in 1882, William Elmer Booth was a Los Angeles native and had one younger sister, Margaret. Some sources say he started appearing in touring stock companies in his teens, while others say he attended St. Vincent’s College (the first college in California) and studied “physical culture, oratory and elocution.” After teaching these subjects for a time, he was persuaded by producer Oliver Morosco to focus on having a stage career.
From 1903-08 he was part of the stock company of the Central Theater in San Francisco, appearing in a variety of productions including comedies like A Night at the Circus and Convict 999 (he had the starring role in the latter). Billboard magazine described him as “a local favorite.” He was apparently known to have been in the San Francisco during the violent earthquake of 1906, and in 1907 he appeared in The Boys of Company “B” in New York City before returning to the Central Theater.
In 1908 he married fellow actress Irene Outtrim and they soon had an infant son. In 1909 the couple started working for a theater in Salt Lake City and left their baby in the care of Irene’s parents. While Elmer and Irene were appearing in the play By Right of Might in March of 1910, the grandparents brought the baby for a visit. Unfortunately, he was soon stricken with pneumonia. The Salt Lake Tribune claimed that Elmer and Irene received the news that their baby was sick during one of their performances: “The parents knew what that meant, but the play must go on. A physician was sent and mother and father suffered agony during the remainder of the play, while they were amusing the public.” Sadly, their little son did not survive the illness.
Perhaps a change of scenery was needed after this dark event, for by the fall of 1910 Booth was appearing in the New York City production The Cub starring Douglas Fairbanks, then a popular Broadway star. Booth became good friends with Fairbanks and appeared in several more of his productions, notably A Gentleman of Leisure, where his character was declared “the best stage burglar Broadway has seen to date–he lives his part instead of acting it.” Booth also accompanied Fairbanks on an impromptu trip to Cuba, and apparently wrote some well-received magazine stories about his time there and in Mexico.
It was probably the theater season’s summer lull (in the days before air-conditioning in theaters) that lead Booth to do stints in motion pictures, getting small roles at the Biograph studio helmed by D.W. Griffith. Since the studio was in New York, this would’ve been a convenient source of income before Broadway’s busy season geared up again. Sometimes he did extra work, other times he was one of the main characters. An Unseen Enemy (1912), notable as the first film to star Lillian and Dorothy Gish, featured him as their brother.
Despite his Broadway career and Douglas Fairbanks connection, Booth might’ve remained a very obscure figure today if it wasn’t for one iconic film: The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). Following the travails of a young tenement couple caught up in the rivalry between two gangs, the two-reel drama featured Booth playing a memorable and very James Cagney-esque gang leader, “The Snapper Kid.” Booth brought a sense of humor and comedic timing to a role that most actors would’ve played straight. He also added “bits of business” like pushing his hat forward for a jaunty tilt, or casually smoking a cigarette during a couple key scenes. He’s also the focal point of the famous closeup where he and a fellow crook are creeping along a brick wall. Nearly two decades before the gangster films of the 1930s, the Snapper Kid’s swagger and mixture of danger and likeability were all onscreen, uncannily familiar to us today.
The Musketeers of Pig Alley was a popular picture, and perhaps inspired his role as the crook Jack Doogan in the play Stop Thief!, running from late 1912 to 1913.
Still sticking mainly to comedy, he appeared in Mrs. Black is Back (1914) for the Famous Players Film Company, which had a big roster of stage stars. One of his costars was May Irwin, known today for the iconic Rice-Irwin Kiss (1896). Booth then dived into the world of comedy wholeheartedly, joining the stock company of the new Komic Comedies studio unit under Griffith’s supervision. The main star of these one-reelers (one per week) was Fay Tincher, a popular comedienne known for her signature bold striped outfits and gum-chewing working girl characters. Fellow comedians included Max Davidson, “Baldy” Belmont, and Tod Browning–yes, of future Dracula fame.
Booth’s future certainly looked bright, and seemed assured. He had a thriving stage career under his belt; already made a splash on the big screen; worked with one of the most famous film directors in the movie business, in one of the most well-regarded film studios; and certainly had much more work to look forward to at his relatively young age of 32. Griffith was planning on giving him an important role in Intolerance (1916), the milestone epic of the silent era. But plans have a way of changing.
In the wee hours of the morning on June 16, 1915, Booth, Tod Browning, and fellow actor George Siegmann were heading back to Los Angeles from a night at the Vernon Country Club, a popular watering hole southeast of the city. While some reports would state there was a “heavy fog” that night, Browning–already known for his love of fast cars and hard liquor–was certainly driving drunk. Whether he didn’t see it or was unable to react quickly enough, he slammed the automobile into the back of a flatcar* loaded with steel rails. Browning and Siegmann were badly injured, but Booth was thrown from the car headfirst into the rails and was killed instantly. The Los Angeles Times reported: “The impresses in his skull were as even and regular as the design of a waffle off the grill.”
Booth was much mourned by the film colony, and his funeral on June 18 was attended by many actors and studio crewmembers. Pallbearers included Max Davidson and Robert Harron, and Griffith himself gave the eulogy, delivered “with much feeling.”
Booth’s untimely death had an unusual coda. His sister Margaret, who had graduated from high school earlier that year, was offered a job by Griffith in his studio laboratory. She became a “cutter,” or film editor. Having a knack for the tedious, time-consuming work, she would eventually work on films for Louis B. Mayer and then MGM. Through the following decades she rose through the ranks to being one of the most respected editors in Hollywood, working until the 1980s. In 1978 she was given an honorary Oscar for her lengthy career. Amazingly, she would live to be 104, passing away in 2002.
Through it all, the tragedy of that June night way back in 1915 seems to have stayed with her. In the ’70s Tod Browning’s biographer Elias Savada attempted to get an interview with Margaret about the accident. She would only reply coldly, “You expect me to talk about that man who killed my brother?”
* Sources today seem to assume it was a regular railroad flatcar, perhaps at a crossing, but this doesn’t explain how the automobile could’ve slammed directly into the back of it. Early sources state this was a street work car–that is, a work car on a street car line, which makes far more sense to me. A lantern hung at the back of the work car to alert drivers, but Browning was presumably not in a state to notice it.
The Billboard volume 20, no. 3 (January 18, 1908), page 4.
“Walter McCullough Lands a Good Place.” The Show World, November 20, 1909, page 31.
“Parents Permitted to Have Child Only Day Before Death Comes”. The Salt Lake Tribune, March 23, 1910, p. 20.
“Elmer Booth Killed.” Moving Picture World, July 3, 1915, page 75.
“Elmer Booth Killed.” Motography volume XIV, no. 1 (July 3, 1915), page 16.
“Funeral of Elmer Booth.” Moving Picture World, July 10, 1915, page 289.
Motion Picture News, July 10, 1915, page 55.
Goessel, Tracey. The First King of Hollywood: The Life of Douglas Fairbanks. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2016.
Massa, Steve. Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy. Albany, Georgia: BearManor Media, 2017.
Skal, David J. The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1993.
Fascinating. Yet sad.
Do we know what role Booth was offered for INTOLERANCE?
I don’t think so, haven’t been able to track that down anywhere.
Most interesting article! That’s an amazing “coda” about Margaret, and her still working up into the 1980’s. That seems such an eternity from 1915.
I’d not heard of the Komic Comedies studio. Do you have any more information about it? I’d assumed Griffith was only involved with Biograph at that time.
Yes! Griffith had just left Biograph and was working for Reliance/Majestic, which decided to create a comedy unit. Edward Dillon was the director for Komic Comedies, and Griffith supervised the unit. Interestingly enough, Anita Loos wrote a lot of the scenarios for the Komic films.
Thanks! Hard to think of Griffith in the comedy business. I wonder what the “supervision”‘ consisted of.
Maybe just ensuring they keep up with the release schedule?
Any relation to Edwin or john W ?
Not that I saw!