Today sex scandals seem to do little, if anything, to damage a celebrity’s career. In fact, the accused often seem to benefit from the notoriety which can often relaunch their careers. This was not the case some 60 years ago when a series of trials besmirched the reputation of the English Universal Horror Star Lionel Atwill. STEPHEN JACOBS reports …
Lionel Atwill was born in Croydon, Surrey, England on 1st March 1885. Educated at Mercer School in London, Atwill began a stage career in 1904 when he made his theatrical debut as a footman in the comedy The Walls of Jericho at London’s Garrick Theatre. In 1915, after touring England and Australia, he arrived in America with Lily Langtry to appear in the comedy Mrs Thompson. Two years later he was both directing and starring in the play The Lodger on Broadway with his then wife, Phyllis Relph. Within a year he had made his motion picture debut.
In 1930, following his divorce from Phyllis, Atwill married the multi-millionairess Louise Cromwell Brooks, the ex-wife of General Douglas MacArthur.
In December 1931, he began work on the courtroom drama The Silent Witness. It was his first Hollywood picture and he enjoyed the experience. “I’m one of those few stage actors who really like the films,” he said, “and admit it.”
Soon he appeared in Dr X, the first of three horror movies he made with Fay Wray. The Vampire Bat and Mystery of the Wax Museum (both 1933) completed the trilogy.
Although he then had a varied career, appearing in such pictures as Captain Blood (1935) and The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939), he is mainly remembered for his horror roles, especially as the one armed Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939) – a character whose boyhood encounter with the Monster had ended badly.
“One doesn’t easily forget, Herr Baron,” Krogh tells Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone), “an arm torn out by the roots!” Yet within a few years of facing the Frankenstein Monster Atwill was making headlines, for all the wrong reasons.
The first investigation
On Thursday, 8th May 1940, the Los Angeles county grand jury began an investigation into claims that a 16-year old girl named Sylvia Hamalaine was mistreated by a number of film celebrities. 13 subpoenas had been issued to both men and women, many prominent within the movie industry. By the time the jury began taking testimony in early May, however, only a few had responded.
The first witness was a Cuban dress designer, Virginia Lopez, who spoke of a “wild party” during which Hamalaine had been molested. Despite her testimony Lopez was not whiter than white – for, as the county grand jury began its investigations, Lopez and an ex-car salesman named Adolph La Rue, awaited trial in another case concerning the young Miss Hamalaine. In that case Hamalaine claimed that Lopez and La Rue had ‘mistreated’ her. Lopez was indicted due to the assertion that she was present and had condoned the action.
Minnesota-born Sylvia Hamalaine had travelled from her home in Hibbing to seek a film career in Hollywood. Her parents had been supportive, reportedly supplying their daughter with between $150 and $200 a month in expenses. She had rented a room at a respectable Hollywood hotel, where many prominent figures in the movie industry lived. One day, while sunbathing, she met Lopez and La Rue. Soon Hamalaine and Lopez were sharing an apartment and it was here on 17th December 1940, Hamalaine asserted, that the ‘intimacies’ occurred. She was seduced in the presence of Lopez. “She held my hand at the time,” the accuser stated. She later revealed that she had been intimate with La Rue twice although denied he was the father of her expected child. Both Lopez and La Rue, then a draftee soldier at Camp Ord, were arrested on charges of statutory rape.