Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Million Dollar Mystery: James Cruze

Say the name James Cruze, and directing immediately comes to mind: The Covered Wagon, The Great Gabbo, I Cover the Waterfront.  While he’s best remembered for his work behind the camera, his career started long before, in front of it - and not just as daring newsman Jim Norton in The Million Dollar Mystery.  He was the most famous of all the Thanhouser actors...

…and, more than a bit of a bastard.

image courtesy Thanhouser

Born James Vera Cruz Bosen in 1884, his story was memorable (and questionable!) from the get-go:

According to a note in The BillboardOctober 1921, "Cruze is a quarter-breed Ute Indian and was born in the Uintah Indian Reservation near Vernal, Utah. His grandmother on his mother's side was burned at the stake for giving birth to a pair of twins. The Indians of the tribe considered this the performance of a witch and took those extreme measures to rid themselves of what they considered a malignant influence." It was said that James Cruze had 17 siblings. He was fond of telling different stories to different interviewers, and over the years many diverse versions of his childhood and early career appeared in print. [courtesy Thanhouser]

He left home by age 16, and began working with the Lubin company in 1910.  By 1911 he had switched to Pathe, and subsequently joined Thanhouser.  In 1913, he married Marguerite Snow, and if you’re a reader of this blog you know what a heavenly match that was.  (Hint: click the link – it wasn’t.)  Their marriage produced his only child, daughter Julie Jane Cruze.

image courtesy Thanhouser

By 1915 he’d been let go from Thanhouser:

When Edwin Thanhouser returned to New Rochelle in early 1915, he made it clear to James Cruze that his services were no longer needed with the firm, and by that time the actor was seeking a change anyway. On May 15, 1915, he and Sidney Bracy, also formerly of the Thanhouser studio, left New Rochelle with mechanic Abraham A. Meltzer and a cameraman, and headed west on a self-arranged publicity tour. [courtesy Thanhouser]

Late 1915 found him deep in debt and needing work, so he met up with Snow in California, and began a stint at Metro.  He did a lot of studio hopping, endng up at Fox in 1917.  Besides Pathe, Metro, and Thanhouser, he had also done time at Kinemacolor, Kimberley, Palo Alto, and Lasky.

Skip ahead a little to 1923.  Cruze, divorced from Snow for a year,  had just directed The Covered Wagon, which brought him much acclaim and the highest salary in the business ($6k per week).  If only his personality had been as great as his work; cameraman Karl Brown gives us a peek:

Karl Brown [stated] Cruze was a drunken, obscene, lecherous individual worthy of little more than contempt…”[he] was now completely free to indulge his own natural urges…he not only did as he pleased, he over-did every chance he got to thumb his nose at whatever is considered polite behavior among civilized people.”  [courtesy Thanhouser]

[image courtesy jamescruze.org]

Cruze married actress Betty Compson in 1925, and by all accounts this marriage was just as wonderful as his first; the drinking, parties, and general debauchery of which he was so fond didn’t even slow down, much less stop, and the police were frequent visitors at their household.  They often split up, but always got back together.

[photo courtesy Silent Ladies & Gents]

From 1927 through 1929, Cruze started his own production company, was subpoenaed in a proceeding concerning one death and several injuries surrounding one of his films, was jailed for refusing to pay an artist for his wife’s portrait, and legally separated from Betty Compson.  By 1930, they were officially divorced, and Cruze was bankrupt.  The rest of the 1930s brought him more debt, more dead-end projects, a real estate court battle with his daughter, and heart problems. His career was officially over by 1941, which also found him married (for the third and last time) to Alberta Beatrice McCoy.  (Happily, he, Marguerite Snow, and Julie Jane were able to mend fences enough for them to be frequent visitors before his death.)

James Cruze died, almost completely broke, on August 3, 1942.  He was 58.

[Richee photo, courtesy LA Times]


Lisa said...

This Cruze guy! What is his deal! Why do beautiful screen stars keep marrying him! I love this post as a companion post to the last one about Marguerite Snow.

Flapper Flickers + Silent Stanzas said...

I know what you mean! Glutton for punishment, Betty Compson was...Cruze's personality was more than evident by then :D