Accusations of overacting bedeviled blond Helen Twelvetrees even when she was Pathé's top female star in the early days of sound, as did the inevitable joke that she was "Rin Tin Tin's favorite actress." Few of her films are viewed today and she is perhaps best remembered for playing the tough woman torn between William Boyd and a very young (and villainous) Clark Gable in The Painted Desert (1931), a Western that is hardly typical of her work. A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Art (where she met her first husband, alcoholic actor Clark Twelvetrees), Helen Twelvetrees did a stint with the Stuart Walker Stock Company and played in the Chicago company of An American Tragedy before signing with Hollywood studio Fox. But a slight lisp was exaggerated in the gossip magazines and the studio dumped her after only three films. Luckily, a group of motion picture advertisers had voted her a 1929 WAMPAS Baby Star and she quickly signed a contract with Pathé/RKO.
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Twelvetrees made an early impact in Her Man (1930), a laundered screen version of the "naughty" stage play Frankie and Johnny, and although there were some whispers of exaggeration, a few critics compared her favorably to Lillian Gish. But Her Man set the course of Twelvetrees' screen career and she would forever be asked to play doleful women fighting for the wrong men. The titles varied -- Bad Company (1931), Panama Flo (1932), My Woman (1933) -- but her teary expression and mournful dialogue remained the same. She earned a well-deserved break from the monotony on loan to MGM for Unashamed (1932), a domestic drama that at least allowed her to be a bit more sophisticated. "I enjoyed the picture hugely because it was a far different type of role from any in my experience," she confessed at the time.
Twelvetrees left RKO when producer David O. Selznick brought onboard the more versatile Katharine Hepburn and spent the remainder of her screen career as a freelance artist. Her reputation for portraying suffering women followed her, however, and when one of her films proved a success -- Now I'll Tell (1934), from the book by Mrs. Arnold Rothstein, the Ellery Queen mystery The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) -- it was for reasons other than her participation. By 1936 to 1937, she was publicly feuding with husband-number-two, ex-stunt man Frank Woody, and appearing in B-Westerns and crime thrillers. She left films in favor of summer stock in 1939 and made her Broadway debut in Jacques Deval's Boudoir (1941). Unfortunately, the play folded after only 11 performances and she retired to Harrisburg, PA, with her third husband, a military officer. Her sudden death in 1958 was pronounced a suicide. ~ Hans J. Wollstein, Rovi