The Greek Actors of the Early Hollywood Years

Part Three

chicago – From 1894 to 1926, all motion picture films were silent productions. In 1927 The Jazz Singer, an American musical film, was the first feature-length motion picture with synchronized dialogue sequences. With the release of this film the commercial ascendance of the talkies and the decline of the silent film era began.
Only 12 actors said to be Greek have been identified as appearing appeared on film from the beginning of motion pictures to 1929, the beginning of the Great Depression. They are: Jack Pierce, George Kotsonaros, George Regas, Petros Regas, Peter Kanellos, Nellie V. Nichols, Luiza Ralls, Lloyd Pantages, Marion Davies, Lou Tellegen, Elene Aristi, and Demetrios Vilan. Full documentation does not exist for all of them, and at least one – Davies – although repeatedly identified as a Greek, most certainly was not.
Unfortunately, the available documentation on Greeks in early Hollywood is often very hard to find. Legendary Broadway columnist Paul Denis (1911-1997) is credited with having had the definitive file on Greeks in Hollywood. In the much-quoted July 12, 1985 edition of the Greek-American (a Greek-American newspaper that was published in Astoria by Pettalides Publications in the 1980s) Denis noted seven Greeks who had worked in early Hollywood films: Dimitrios Alexis, John Belasco, Tom Demio, Paul Lukaris, Paul Ralli, and the two Regases. Yet for Demio and Lukaris, no other documentation on their careers in film appear to be available, which does not automatically mean they were not in Hollywood films. In all likelihood, they were character actors or supporting actors. Both Regas brothers, George and Petros, were character actors, each having appeared in more than 100 films. {50172}
Kanellos’ documented films are: Reckless Speed (1924); Speed Madness (1925); Gentleman Roughneck (1925); Cupids Knockout (1926); The Fighting Doctor (1926); Unknown Dangers (1926) and The Hollywood Reporter (1926). What is confusing is that he is credited as being the “presenter” for all of these films. But given the dates involved, 1924 to 1926, the films must have been silent, so, in what manner did Kanellos present them?
Very little about Kanellos’ life is known in general. He was born in Greece on May 15, 1897 and died on February 27, 1967 in Los Angeles, CA, and he is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, CA. Kotsonaros also appeared in Cupid’s Knockout, prompting the question whether that was the first time in Hollywood that two Greek immigrants appeared together in a film.
¬Other sources offer only tantalizing glimmers into the world of Greeks in early Hollywood as well. For instance, the Portland newspaper, The Oregonian: The youngest new comer among Grecian film flappers is Luisa Ralls, who isnt yet 17, and who is a cross between Clara Bow and Lupe Valez. Her mother is a well-known stock actress Winifred Ralls, and the youthful Luisa is a Denishawn dancer. When she isnt doing her dance specialties in films she adds luster to the Los Angeles Greenwich Village Theatre club, known as the ‘Play Shop,’ in a series of plays. Claude Gillingswater, Jr. , son of a famous father, is in the company; so is Lloyd Pantages and other youthful scions of famous mas and pas (May 26, 1929).
Bow (1905–1965) was an American actress who rose to stardom in the silent film era of the 1920s. She was known as the “It Girl for her provocative appearance as a spunky shop girl in the 1927 comedy film entitled, It. Bow came to personify the uninhibited flapper of the Roaring Twenties and so is often described as this eras leading sex symbol. Bow appeared in 46 silent films and 11 talkies, and was one of the first female actors to be a huge financial success.
Velez (1908–1944) was one of the first Mexican actresses to succeed in Hollywood. She began her career in Mexico as a dancer, before moving to the United States in the 1920s, where she initially worked in Vaudeville. Velez her first appearance in film was 1924 and by the end of the decade she had progressed to leading roles. The versatile performer had a long career that with the advent of talking pictures continued in a long series of comedies. Today, she is most often associated with the nicknames, The Mexican Spitfire and The Hot Pepper.{50173}{50174}{50176}
The Regas Br{50175}others frequently portrayed Mexicans and Spaniards in Hollywood. George was born Georgios Thomas Regakos on November 19, 1890 in Goranoi, Greece. His father is said to have managed an acting troupe. Much documentation cites that Mary Pickford (1893-1979) at the very height of her career as the reigning female star of Hollywood, saw Regas’ stage work and thought he would be just as good in feature films.
Which theatrical production Pickford attended is never mentioned. This is a key point since Regas is not credited with any stage work, in English, until 1937. Did Pickford, known the world over as “America’s Sweetheart,” go to see Regas in a Greek language production? Pickford immediately hired Regas to appear in her film The Love Light, as the character Tony. The film is available in a remastered DVD version as part of the Milestone Collection of American films.
Regas appeared in 10 silent movies: The Love Light (1921); The Dangerous Moment (1921); Omar the Tentmaker (1922); The Rip-Tide (1923); Fashionable Fakers (1923); The Wanderer (1925); That Royle Girl (1925); Desert Gold (1926); Beau Geste (1926); and The Rescue (1929). Regas’ appearance in four other films in 1929 were all in the new technological format of sound or so-called Talking Pictures: Redskin, The Wolf Song, Sea Fury, and Acquitted. How did an American audience respond to Regas in those early silent films? As one news account reports, “George Regas, a Greek actor, did so well in The Wanderer that Paramount has persuaded him to sign on the dotted line.” Adding to the fables concerning the Greeks in Hollywood is the fact that Regas was actress Reine Davies second husband. And while it is true that Reine Davies was Marion Davies biological sister, neither woman was of Greek descent.
So much work has yet to be done on chronicling the real life careers of the Greek actors, producers, and technicians who literally created Hollywood cinema.