Can you believe we are now in autumn but have just enjoyed a heat wave. Well it is time for another walk down memory lane but as my readers are ladies and gentlemen, we will gently perspire rather than sweat.

I am actually writing this in my garden wearing my old pith helmet as old habits die hard.

I am starting to write my next book which will chart, mainly in images, the first 50 years of Elstree Studios from 1926 to 1976. Those first decades are remote to us today but contain great stories but also some tragic ones. This week I recall the fate of three young female stars who starred at Elstree Studios in the 1920s and early 1930s but are forgotten today. That is the nature of film fame.

The first is English actress Lillian Hall Davis who could claim to be the first Elstree female star. She was certainly according to Alfred Hitchcock his favourite star of his silent films at the studio. Lillian was a big hit but for some reason with the coming of sound her career seemed to vanish overnight. At the age of 35 she decided it was time to exit this world. To avoid her young son finding her on return from school she locked the door and left a note telling him to summon her neighbours. As this was about 90 years ago that poor boy must also be deceased now but what an awful legacy.

Then in the early 1930s Elstree Studios imported Hollywood star Thelma Todd to star in a film which includes a scene shot at Borehamwood railway station. Thelma was known by fan magazines as the ‘ice cream blonde’ . In those days studios loved to dub leading ladies including Jean Harlow with titles such as the platinum blonde, Clara Bow as the It girl and Lana Turner as the sweater girl. I dread to think what they would have called Jayne Mansfield had the habit survived into the 1950s! It is all a bit sexist by today’s standards although I don’t mind being called stud muffin in my twilight years.

At the age of just 29 Thelma was found dead in her garage just a year later back in tinsel town. The official verdict was carbon monoxide poisoning but books have been written about her suggesting she was murdered. In those days the Los Angeles police were under the thumb of the studios and a touch corrupt so who knows.

The final sad case is Lupe Velez who was labelled by Hollywood as the Mexican Spitfire. She came to Elstree with her then husband Johnny Weissmuller who was the most famous Tarzan of the 1930s and invented Tarzan’s famous signature yell. Lupe divorced him and had affairs with a number of actors including Gary Cooper.

Lupe became very upset with her young life and decided to commit suicide. Alas some scandal books have said she woke up and in a semi-concious state stumbled into her bathroom to be sick and was found laying by the toilet. I doubt that is true but if you decide to live and die in this biz we call show expect the worse, especially once you have gone to that great sound stage in the sky.

Those early years of Elstree Studios are full of good and sad stories for us to explore even if you have never heard of the films or the stars of yesteryear.

  • Paul Welsh MBE is a Borehamwood writer and historian of Elstree Studios