Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Dear "Penthouse", I've got quite the sleeper

I was intrigued, while watching "Penthouse", by a pretty brunette with an interesting name: Martha Sleeper.  (The film is a snappy little 1933 gangster picture, worth watching for the chemistry between Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy alone.)  Her face seemed familiar but I guessed she was one of the hundreds of minor starlets, featured in one or two pictures and then relegated to party scenes or chorus lines for the rest of her short career.

Not so with Miss Sleeper, who achieved lasting fame -- though not in the way you might think.

Martha was born in 1910 (some older sources incorrectly say 1907), and by 1924 was under contract to Hal Roach Studios.  She was discovered after a ballet photo of hers caught the eye of director Emory Johnson's mother -- who wrote recommending her for films immediately.   She worked extensively in comedy shorts through the 20s, and her career continued (albeit sporadically) until 1945, when she did her last film, "The Bells of St Mary's".  She then went on to success on the stage before leaving suddenly in 1949.

That same year, she and her husband decided to take a vacation to the Virgin Islands...but once she saw Puerto Rico, it was love at first sight.  She made her home there, spending her remaining years designing and sewing clothes for her own fashion line.  

However, all of that pales in comparison to the reason she is most remembered for today: jewelry.

Martha had always been creative, and in the 30s started making her own baubles out of a sort of papier mache.  They got a lot of attention, says Decotini:

Her earliest pieces, grasshoppers and spiders, were made from paper towels and glue.  Her first tarantulas were arranged in a row down her own sun suit. Delores de Rio and Fay Wray saw her and demanded to know where she got them!  

By 1937, she had a buyer for her line of "gadget jewelry", featuring items you wouldn't expect on necklaces or bracelets:  globes, cigarettes, matches, pencils.  Lots of whimsical animals were featured as well.


Andy Warhol was a huge fan of her work and in the 70s collected it voraciously, almost single-handedly starting the renewed craze for vintage Bakelite.

So there you have it!  From a lovely face in a old film to a pop-art superstar, all in one post.  

If you'd like to learn more about Martha Sleeper's jewelry and fashions, make sure you click the Decotini link above, or:


Classicfilmboy said...

I had no idea ... what a great story to share!

Bob Duncan said...

Martha led an amazing life - she was playing adult roles in films at the Hal Roach studios in the silent era as a teen - she was doing live stage work in Hollywood while also working in films in the 1930s. She was performing on Broadway when the gadget jewelry craze took off in the late 1930s and her Bakelite creations were at the forefront of this fashion trend. After her move to San Juan Puerto Rico she founded a new career and soon became a world renown designer of women's clothing - she stauyed on the island fot almost 20 years. She was truly one of a kind....