Actor Biography

ALMA RUBENS

Born: 1897, San Francisco, CA

Died: 1931, Los Angeles, CA

Notable Films: The Half Breed (1916), The Americano (1916), Humoresque (1920), The World and His Wife (1920), Enemies of Women (1923), Cytherea (1924), Show Boat (1929)

Alma Rubens entered films as a teenager. Her beauty and dynamic acting gained her featured roles with Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart. Her ability to express emotion movingly brought audience and critical attention and support. Her life and career were overwhelmed in the late twenties by narcotics addiction. Hospitalization and treatment seemed to bring about a cure, and she attempted to restart her career by appearing in vaudeville. She was struggling with a relapse of her addiction at the time she developed pneumonia and died.

EARLY CAREER

Rubens, a teenager, started her career by replacing a chorine in a minor stage production (name unknown). Her first film roles were uncredited extra work in shorts produced by Kay-Bee Pictures and Vitagraph Films (1913-1915). She also had uncredited bit parts in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).

In 1916, Rubens, not yet twenty, joined the newly formed Fine Arts Company and appeared in four films with Douglas Fairbanks, playing supporting parts in Reggie Mixes In and The Mystery of the Leaping Fish, and his leading lady in The Half-Breed and The Americano. In 1917, at the Ince Company, she had featured roles with William S. Hart in Truthful Tulliver and The Cold Deck.

CAREER APEX

In the early 1920s, now with William Randolph Hearst's Cosmopolitan Productions, Rubens starred in a succession of well-received films, including The World and His Wife (1920 with Montague Love, directed by Robert G. Vignola), Humoresque (1920, with Vera Gordon and Gaston Glass, directed by Frank Borzage), The Valley of Silent Men (1922, with Lew Cody, directed by Borzage), Enemies of Women (1923, with Lionel Barrymore, directed by Alan Crosland), and Under the Red Robe (1923, with John Charles Thomas, directed by Crosland).

Reviewers around the country admired Rubens' youthful beauty and praised her expressive acting. The extremely popular Humoresque was the first hit of Rubens' career. The anonymous critic of a film review column "The Screen" in The New York Times (July 19, 1920) wrote that her work in The World and His Wife "proves her quality". Rush, film critic of Variety, reviewing Enemies of Women (April 5, 1923), noted the strength and authority of Lionel Barrymore's acting but gave "the palm of the picture" to Rubens. In her scenes with Barrymore, she "achieves some of the most eloquent pantomime of screen history." She "took hold of the audience" with acting that reached "genuine emotional expression". Humoresque (1920) and Enemies of Women (1923), the most successful films of Rubens' career, played around the country for months.

In the mid-twenties Rubens continued to make well-received films, including Cytherea (1924, co-starring with Irene Rich and Lewis Stone, directed by George Fitzmaurice, produced by the Samuel Goldwyn Company), The Price She Paid (1924, with Frank Mayo for Columbia), and at Fox, co-starring roles with George O'Brien and Madge Bellamy in The Dancers (1925 directed by Emmett J. Flynn), and with Edmund Lowe in East Lynne (1925) and The Winding Stair (1925).

Reviewers praised her lovely features and emotionally forceful acting. 'Sallie', film fashion columnist of "The Dressy Side" (Variety, May 28,1924), commenting about Cytherea noted that Rubens "never acted or dressed to better advantage". Variety critic Fred predicted that The Dancers (1925) would be "sure fire at the box office" and praised her performance as "there 100 percent", and Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times wrote: "by far the best performance is that of Alma Rubens" who "makes a bewitching Argentinean dancer" (January 7, 1925).

CAREER DECLINE

Rubens' career (and life) disintegrated during the late twenties. In 1926, she retained her popularity with the public, and her name on a film proved valuable to the box office; however, she made only three films. She was mostly off the screen in 1927 and 1928. In 1929, she had small supporting roles in two final films.

Rubens made three emotionally charged films in 1926, Gilded Butterfly (with Bert Lytell, directed by John Griffith Wray), Siberia (with Edmund Lowe, directed by Victor Scherzinger), and Marriage License (with Walter McGrail, directed by Frank Borzage). The Variety critic described her role in Marriage License as an exceptional opportunity for enacting emotionally charged scenes in a dignified, high-class production (October 27, 1926).

She made one film in each of 1927 and 1928, The Heart of Salome (1927, with Walter Pidgeon, directed by Victor Schertzinger) and The Masks of the Devil (1928, with John Gilbert, directed by Victor Sjöström). She had featured billing, but a role of little importance, in the Sjöström film.

Her film career ended with supporting roles in two 1929 part-talkies, She Goes to War (starring Eleanor Boardman, directed by Henry King) and Show Boat (starring Laura La Plante, directed by Harry A. Pollard).

Comments in the pages of Variety called attention to Rubens' altered appearance. A column (May 12, 1926) headlined "So Pitifully Thin, Alma Looked Role" stated that she had "acquired a sylph-like form" and "resembles a famished exile" appropriate for her role in Siberia. The reviewer for The Heart of Salome (June 8, 1927) complained that she "looks like a type of French girl, but not the kind men are interested in. The first essential, s.a., is sadly lacking in her makeup". A fashion column "Among the Women" written by "The Skirt" (November 28, 1928) praised the "striking black evening gown and wrap" Rubens wears in The Masks of the Devil but noted that her makeup "appeared faulty".

Despite her diminished health and wan physical appearance, Rubens had not lost her emotive ability. She has touching emotional scenes with a dying soldier in She Goes to War and with a child in Show Boat.

PERSONAL LIFE

Alma Rubens was born in San Francisco and educated at the prestigious parochial school Sacred Heart Convent. She was attracted to acting from an early age, appearing in her first film at age 17. At age 19 she joined the newly formed Fine Arts Company. Her first major role was in the Douglas Fairbanks film The Half Breed (1916).

Her first marriage, to Franklin Farnum, a minor actor twenty years her senior, lasted only a few months, from June to September, 1918. In September 1918, Rubens was critically ill and nearly died; in later years, she traced her narcotics addiction to the morphine given her during this illness.

In January 1925, after two years of marriage to Daniel Carson Goodman, head of Cosmopolitan Productions, she filed for divorce alleging cruelty and accusing him of beating her frequently during the five months they lived together. The item in The New York Times reporting the filing (January 11, 1925) noted that she had also accused Farnum of beating her.

Rubens married actor Ricardo Cortez in January, 1926. Before the marriage, she told reporters that she planned to retire, and although she did not, she made far fewer films after her marriage to Cortez. In 1928, the couple spent several months in Europe. Upon their return, they separated, but did not divorce. She said that Cortez did not know about her drug addiction at the time of their marriage.

In 1929, her narcotic addiction derailed her screen career and life. The New York Times printed a series of items about her troubles. In early January, several Hollywood neighbors filed a complaint charging her with disturbing the peace. According to the complaint, she prowled around at all hours with a flashlight, looking for some unnamed thing that she never found. Her boisterous parties disturbed them, too. In late January, she was sent to a sanitarium; traveling by ambulance, she stabbed the attending doctor and escaped twice. In February, she left the sanitarium for a day or two, but soon returned, reportedly due to nervous collapse and excessive use of narcotics. At home again, Cortez and her mother signed a warrant to have her sent to a state institution for treatment of her narcotic addiction. She left behind a tangle of law suits and investigations, including the charges for disturbing the peace, charges of assault and battery against her maid, for an alleged attack on a driver following auto collision involving Rubens' car, and a federal investigation of several doctors suspected of illegally providing her (and other film personalities) with narcotics. In early May, she was released from the state institution. In mid-May, her mother called the sheriff and signed a complaint to have her recommitted to the state hospital after she attacked her nurse and threatened suicide. Late in December, the doctors at the state hospital declared Rubens cured and released her from the state system. Despite all this turmoil, she managed to struggle through emotional scenes in Show Boat and She Goes to War.

After her recovery, Rubens and Cortez went separately to New York to appear in vaudeville sketches at RKO theaters. For much of 1930, Rubens attempted to revive her career by appearing in vaudeville; despite her peppy and vivacious performance and initial audience interest in her show, overall public response was tepid. After a short-lived association with a Broadway-bound play, she returned to Los Angeles.

In early January 1931, Rubens was arrested in San Diego on a charge of narcotic smuggling. Released on bail, she went to live with her mother. In mid-January, Rubens came down with pneumonia. Her decline was rapid, and on January 21, 1931, Alma Rubens died at the home of her physician with her mother and sister by her side.

CAREER CONSIDERATION

Alma Rubens obituary in The Los Angeles Times (January 22, 1931) named her the "queen of emotional actresses". From her first featured role with Fairbanks in The Half Breed (1916) to her final small role in Show Boat (1929), Rubens specialized in portraying women under great emotional stress. The public and the critics were moved by the power of her acting. Although never in the top rank of film actresses, she received considerable recognition and esteem during her 12 year career.

REFERENCES

The Los Angeles Times Archive Online

The New York Times Article Archive

Variety Archive

The Kindergarten of the Movies: A History of The Fine Arts Company, Anthony Slide, 1980.

Photoplay, "Hollywood’s Greatest True Love Story", James R, Quirk. April, 1930.