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Monta Bell

1891 - 1958

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03 Life Stories

Monta Bell
1891 - 1958

Sometimes the key to any individual’s success lies in the associates on a project. That is the basis of teamwork, and can make or break each person’s sole legacy. Such is the case with Monta Bell, a talented director who, for numerous reasons, had a difficult time making his way in Hollywood.

Louis Monta Bell was born on February 5, 1891, in Washington, D.C. After finishing school, he went into the newspaper business – he first worked as a reporter for the Washington Post, and eventually rose to become editor and general manager of the Washington Herald. Despite his journalistic prowess, Bell was smitten by theatricals, and formed a stock company (with George Preston Marshall) called The Garrick Players. For several years, Bell learned the histrionic trade by acting, producing, and directing the Garrick company. It would prove to be valuable experience.

In the early 1920s, Bell became friendly with Charlie Chaplin, and soon was engaged to assist Chaplin in preparing My Trip Abroad, an autobiographical travelogue chronicling the star’s 1921 return to his native England. This led to a more permanent role in the Chaplin fold – he was named publicity director, and in The Pilgrim (1922), Bell acted, was story consultant, and worked on gags. It has been suggested that Bell was partially responsible for moving Chaplin away from the improvisational “rehearse-on-film” approach that marked the comic’s earliest screen work. After The Pilgrim, Bell became one of four associate directors (along with Edward Sutherland, Harry D’Arrast, and Jean de Limur) on Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923). This film – which earned great attention in the trade, as a moralistic melodrama with tinges of comedy – launched the careers of costar Adolphe Menjou and, along with his fellow associate directors, Monta Bell.

On the strength of this success, Bell was soon signed to a contract with Warner Bros., then a small studio, There, he directed two features, before being whisked over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer later in 1924. There he directed and adapted the screenplay for The Snob (1924). This film starred John Gilbert, then one of the pre-eminent screen lovers, as a ruthless social climber: the ultimate casting against type. This was the first of an unfortunate trend of bad decisions in Bell’s career.

In 1925, Erich von Stroheim walked off the set of his latest feature, The Merry Widow: Bell was given the plum assignment of replacing the temperamental director. However, that was short-lived, as von Stroheim and M-G-M soon patched up their differences, and Bell lost out on what emerged as a commercially successful project. Soon thereafter, Bell was loaned out to Famous Players-Lasky to adapt the story and direct The King on Main Street (1925), giving him the chance to work once again with Adolphe Menjou. The two enjoyed collaborating, making the comedy film a moderate success. Bell would later direct two films for William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions: Lights of Old Broadway (1925, starring Marion Davies), and The Torrent (1926, which marked Greta Garbo’s American film debut). Both were prestige projects, yet neither star chose to work with Bell again (it was/is common for powerful stars to choose their own directors, it should be remembered). The reasons for this are not terribly clear, but an understanding of Bell’s directorial strengths can help wade through the murk.

Bell was a talented director, who was able to inject life into any script, so long as he was setting up relatable characters or creating realistic atmosphere. However, he was ultimately stifled by a common M-G-M trend, namely, the inability of a plot to go anywhere: excellent character development was wasted on scripts that went nowhere quickly. Thus, without collaboration to bolster good roles, they are worthless; without good support behind good direction, it cannot succeed.

Bell directed films featuring some of the cinema’s finest stars at formative times in their careers: The Big Pond (1930), which firmly established Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert as screen stars, and Young Man of Manhattan (1930), which was Ginger Rogers’ film debut, memorable for her line, “Cigarette me, big boy.”

Bell was transferred from the East Coast facilities to a Universal contract in Hollywood, and it was there that he, again, guided such major stars as Lew Ayres (in Up for Murder, 1931), and John Gilbert (in the 1932 feature Downstairs). In 1933, Bell was transferred to Fox Film Corporation. Years earlier, while at Universal, he had written the story for The Worst Woman in Paris?, and now Fox would film the story. However, the 1933 film ran afoul of the Hays office (for violations of the Production code), and was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Another poor move in a gifted career marred by ill-thought-out decisions.

Bell later went to England with a contingent of Hollywood film personnel, recruited by Alexander Korda, to help build the skills of the British film industry – this decision kept Bell away from his own industry for an extended period of time. When he returned to the States, Bell produced a number of minor Technicolor musicals, and directed his final film, China’s Little Angels (1945) for the fledgling Monogram Picture company.

His obituary stated that he retired in 1951 – and it is known that he was married at least twice, to first wife Lucille in 1910, and then to Betty Lawford (cousin of actor Peter Lawford). He spent his final days at the Motion Picture Country House and Hospital, where he died, on February 4, 1958, one day shy of his 67th birthday.

The career of Monta Bell, and its contemporary lack of critical attention, is hard proof of the importance of good support behind any successful work: his was a professional life marred by poor decisions, no one big break, and a sad lack of sustenance from those he worked with. However, it is simply enough to know that he aided in the launch of some of Hollywood’s most important careers, to prove the worth of the life and career of one of the forgotten pioneers of film, Monta Bell.