Louise Lovely: The First Australian to Make it in Hollywood

Lovely (Women Film Pioneers Project)
Credit: Women Film Pioneers Project

In the early 1900s, Australia had a well-established film industry while Hollywood was still in its infancy. Most early American silent films were made in New York by companies such as Biograph and Edison Productions. Hollywood began to be a popular production location in the early 1910s. It didn’t take long for it to become the world’s leading film capital. Australia had made the first feature-length film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, in 1906 but was soon lagging behind. Early Australian actors and actresses made the move across the ocean to try their luck in American movies. Louise Lovely was among the first to have a successful career. She appeared in a handful of films at home before gracing the silver screen alongside other big names of the silent era. She was frequently compared to Mary Pickford, the most famous and highest paid actress at the time. She was even considered a rival.

Lovely was born on the 28th February, 1895, in Paddington, a suburb close to Sydney’s CBD. Her parents were of Italian and Swiss descent. She was named Nellie Louise Carbasse. Lovely’s father is unknown; she was raised by her mother. Lovely was more fluent in French than English as a child. This helped her to get her first part, as Little Eva, in the stage play Uncle Tom’s Cabin at age nine. She was noticed by Nellie Stewart, a popular stage actress and singer of the era. In her teens, Lovely joined Stewart’s theatre company and travelled around Australia and New Zealand. The two became close and Stewart took Lovely under her wing. This is where she learnt about acting properly and honed her skills.

Lovely made her first films with the Australian Life Biograph Company. Between 1911 and 1912, she made a handful including One Hundred Years Ago, A Tale of the Australian Bush, A Daughter of Australia and The Ticket of Leave Man. By mid-1912, the Australian Life Biograph Company was bought by Universal Pictures Ltd. Universal was a local company and had no affiliation with the American production entity. Lovely made one film with them, The Wreck of the Dunbar. She was credited as Louise Carbasse on all her Australian movies.

Radio (National Portrait Gallery)
Lovely during a radio interview Credit: National Portrait Gallery

She moved to Hollywood with her husband, William Welch, in 1914. Welch was a comedian, writer and actor. Lovely was noticed by Carl Laemmle and he invited her to make a screen test. Laemmle was an influential producer during the silent era. On the strength of her screen test alone, Lovely was offered a contract with Universal Studios and she accepted. Laemmle was the one who coined her Hollywood screen name: Louise Lovely.

Lovely had a very successful career. She was one of Universal’s most popular stars. She appeared in films such as Father and the Boys (1915), Dolly’s Scoop (1916), Bobbie of the Ballet (1916), The Diamonds of Destiny (1917) and The Girl Who Wouldn’t Quit (1918).

Bobbie of the Ballet (iMDB)
Bobbie of the Ballet (1916) Poster Credit: iMDB

As her contract was coming to an end, Lovely received an offer to work in France by the production company Pathé Frères. She was excited by the idea and its increased pay. Universal wouldn’t match the price with Lovely’s new contract and threatened legal action if she used the name ‘Lovely’ in other productions. Apparently, they held the copyright. Lovely refused to sign the contract and was blacklisted. Over the next year, she acted in a handful of independent films until being picked up by Fox Film Corporation. She appeared in some well received movies—such as The Last of the Duanes and Wings of the Morning—but her career never recovered. Lovely and Welch returned to Australia in 1924.

Johnny-on-the-Spot (1919) (iMDB)
Lovely in Jonny-on-the-Spot (1919) Credit: iMDB

Lovely and her husband toured the country with their A Day at the Studio show. They travelled to small country towns and set up a make-shift film studio in the local theatre. The show included a real motion picture camera and professional lighting. They filmed people and then screened the footage the following week. In an entertaining way, the show explained to an audience how a film set operated. It relied heavily on the ‘magic of the movies’ craze and also doubled as a talent search.

While touring Hobart, Lovely was visited by author Marie Bjelke Petersen. She hoped Lovely would adapt her novel Jewelled Nights into a movie. Lovely was intrigued by the idea and bought the rights. She formed Louise Lovely Productions with Welch and raised most of the budget herself. Filming began six days before the company was legally allowed to operate. All outside locations for Jewelled Nights were filmed near Waratah, Tasmania. The area was hot and dangerous. Lovely killed five snakes during the four week schedule. The rest of the filming took place on sound stages in Melbourne. The production was supposed to last four months but took nine. It also ran over budget. Lovely was responsible for producing, acting, editing, co-directing and co-writing. Besides her star billing, she received no other credits.

Jewelled Nights debuted in Hobart. The event included the then Tasmanian Premier, Attorney General and Petersen as special guests. Audience reaction for the film was positive but the opposite with critics. It faded from Australian cinemas and didn’t recoup its budget. Rumours have it that Jewelled Nights was shown as far as New Zealand but never made it to America. In 1927, Lovely stressed to the Royal Commission that Australia needed a better distribution system for local content or the market would be dominated by import films. She blamed this as part of her film’s failure at the box office. They rejected Lovely’s suggestion.

Lovely and Dog in Jewlled Nights (National Portrait Gallery)
Lovely in Jewelled Nights (1925) Credit: National Portrait Gallery

Lovely left the film industry disillusioned by the experience. She had made near 50 films during her career. Her marriage with Welch also broke down and ended in divorce. She remarried and stayed in Tasmania. In 1946, Lovely and her second husband bought the Prince of Wales theatre in Hobart. She was manager until her death on the March 18th, 1980. Locals affectionately remember her as the little old lady who ran the theatre’s lolly shop. No footage exists of Jewelled Nights except two minutes of footage, which is believed to be out takes. In 2000, The Australian Film Institute named their equivalent of the Academy Awards after her.

Louise Lovely Autograph (Star Struck)
Lovely publicity photo with autograph Credit: Star Struck

This article was originally posted on The Sydney Feminists Blogspot on April 12th, 2018. (http://thesydneyfeminists.blogspot.com.au)

Sources:

Lovely, Louise Nellie (1895–1980) (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lovely-louise-nellie-7248)

Louise Lovely: The silent film star who tried to bring Hollywood to Tasmania (http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-09-10/remembering-louise-lovely-silent-film-star/8875284)

Louise Lovely – Women Film Pioneers Project (https://wfpp.cdrs.columbia.edu/pioneer/ccp-louise-lovely/)

Louise Lovely – IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0522593/)

The remarkable life and times, house and garden of Hollywood silent screen star, Louise Lovely. (http://www.abc.net.au/radio/hobart/programs/statewideweekends/lovely-final/8867522)

Jewelled Nights: ‘Can Good Movies Be Made in Australia?’ (http://sensesofcinema.com/2012/tasmania-and-the-cinema/jewelled-nights-can-good-movies-be-made-in-australia-1/)

Louise Lovely – Australian Silent Film Festival (http://www.ozsilentfilmfestival.com.au/fame/indexfda0.html?IntCatId=35&IntContId=58)

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