Thursday, July 4, 2013

silent film actress: Rhea Mitchell

Rhea Mitchell was born in 1890 in Portland, Oregon.  Her mother, Lillie Ross Mitchell, was the first cousin of my great-grandfather Ben Plymale of Medford, Oregon.  Rhea's grandmother, Elizabeth Plymale Ross, was the sister of my great-great-grandfather William Plymale.

Early Life

Rhea Mitchell was raised in Portland, Oregon, the only child of Willis and Lillie Mitchell.  Her father worked as a local shipping clerk to support the family.  In his spare time though, he volunteered as a stage hand at a local theater.  It was because of this early exposure that Rhea ultimately became involved with theater and acting.  Rhea's talents were soon noticed by her father's boss George Baker, the manager of the Baker Stock Company in Portland. In 1907, at the age of 17, she was given her first role in a local theater production.  Over the next several years, she continued acting with the Baker Stock Company in Portland, quickly going form minor to leading roles in the performances.  Her success and popularity soon prompted her boss to send her to act in theater companies in other cities.  Between 1911 and 1913, she lived and acted in Spokane, Washington; Seattle, Washington; Vancouver, BC; and San Francisco, California.  During this time period, she also switched from traditional theater performances to vaudeville acts in the Orpheum Circuit. It was while acting in Vancouver, BC that she was apparently discovered by movie scouts. 

Silent Movie Actress

Rhea Mitchell and costar Fred Stone in the 1918 film "The Goat"
Although Rhea loved stage acting, her dream was to act in the movies.  Luckily for her, she was quickly discovered and signed by a movie studio, the New York Motion Picture Company.  In 1913, she moved to Los Angeles and began her long career as a Hollywood film actress.  The height of Rhea's popularity was during the 1910s, when she was frequently the lead role in variety of silent movies.  She frequently appeared in Westerns opposite leading man, William S. Hart.  Rhea continued acting in films up until her final role in 1952, spanning a career of nearly 40 years.  Unfortunately, we do not know exactly how many films she appeared in; partly because many of the early ones have been lost and she was not credited in all of the movies she appeared in.  Estimates range from 64 to over 100. 

Surviving records infer that life as an actress during the 1910s was perhaps not as glamorous as it now is.  In a letter that she wrote in 1914, she indicated that she often had to ride on horseback to movie sets that were not accessible by vehicle.  During this time period, she had to commute from her apartment in Hollywood to the movie studio which was then located on the ocean in the Santa Ynez Canyon in Santa Monica, which at the time was very remote. (The movie studio in Santa Monica became known as Inceville.)  She indicated in her letter that her workdays often lasted 12 hours.  She wrote "I have a cunning apartment, and loads of nice acquaintances whom I scarcely have time to bow to, I'm so busy.  and when I'm not busy, I'm sleeping. Sometimes I just fall into bed, dead tired from climbing hills or being pursued through gullies."  During this time period, she gained the nickname "little stunt girl", because of her willingness to attempt thrilling scenes that other actresses avoided.  In her 1914 letter, she complained about having to "drown herself" in a stream in January during filming.

1916 newspaper advertisement for one of Rhea's movies
In her letter, Rhea indicated that while she was happy being a film actress, she missed acting on stage.  In particular she missed performing in front of an audience and being given flowers.  Because of this, she often returned to act on stage during her career as a film actress.  Rhea's popularity lessened in 1919, when she was replaced in a film by a younger woman.  In that same year, she sued her producer for $55,000 for breach of contract.  In the suit, she claimed that she had only been paid $10,000 over the course of two years for a three year contract. 

Even though Rhea's film roles lessened, she continued to act.  She also put her attention to writing.  In the late 1920s she worked as a scenarist (screenwriter) on a variety of films.  In a 1928 article, she explained that screenwriting was difficult and dissuaded "wannabe" writers from attempting it.  She explained; "It is ridiculous to say that every person is a potential author. The very drivel most amateurs write would prove it.  And "having an urge" to write is by no means the equivalent of an ability to write."

Her Murder

Rhea Mitchell in the 1915 film "On the Night Stage"
Rhea Mitchell was never married and spent the rest of her life living in a variety of apartments in Los Angeles.  After the death of her mother in 1943, she lived alone.  After the end of her film career in the early 1950s, she supplemented her income by managing apartment buildings.  On September 17, 1957, her dead body was discovered in the dressing room of her apartment in the La Brea neighborhood of Los Angeles, having been strangled by the sash of her blue silk robe.  Initially, police feared that her death was connected to a serial-killer strangler in the Los Angeles area.  Since her windows and doors were locked though, it was assumed that she knew her killer and let him/her into her apartment. 

After the discovery, police questioned the buildings' two janitors, who were the last known people to see her alive.  One of the janitors, Sonnie Hartford, failed a lie detector test and was immediately booked on suspicion of murder.  At first he denied everything but eventually confessed to the murder.  He at first explained that he did not know why he did it, and elaborated: "I liked her. She was a very decent woman."  After more time had passed though, he explained that he had made an obscene remark to her (or "complimentary" in his words) which offended her.  He then killed her so that she wouldn't tell the owner of the building.  During the course of the investigation it was revealed that Sonnie was on probation for a robbery conviction.  Eventually, in February 1958, Sonnie pled guilty to second degree murder.  It is not known what his sentence was or what eventually happened to him.  Interestingly, newspaper articles from Los Angeles during the murder investigation expressed fears that the incident would incite further racial unrest because Sonnie Hartford happened to be African American.

Rhea Mitchell was 66 years old at the time of the murder.  She is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Since Rhea was never married and was an only child, she had no close relatives. Her closest relatives were some cousins who lived in Seattle, who were questioned after her death. As an adult, Rhea often went by the nickname "Ginger."


  1. How fascinating to have this interesting woman as an ancestor! It's so hard to understand how an actress like her, who co-starred with Charlie Chaplin for pete's sake, could simply pass into obscurity as though she never existed. It just proves how ephemeral life is. Sad that hers ended tragically, but it certainly was a unique one, led during an exciting time in our history. Thanks for telling her story!