Velma Gresham was beautiful, but so what? Every year since the twenties, thousands of the most beautiful and handsome young women and men in America had migrated to Hollywood. Some of them - a very few - had sufficient theatrical experience to impress a studio's casting director or the gatekeepers at Central Casting. Most of them, however, as they stepped bleary-eyed from Greyhound buses or stood in line for Hollywood-bound streetcars in the busy streets of downtown Los Angeles, brought with them nothing but their looks, and were destined never to set foot inside a studio or appear in so much as a frame of film.
Velma was an auburn haired, blue-eyed twenty-one year old from Memphis, Tennessee, and she feared she'd end up among the latter arrivals. She knew she couldn't compete with the truly talented hopefuls - she had never acted outside college productions, and her singing and dancing were nothing out of the ordinary. Her only chance was to ensure that her face - her remarkably beautiful face - stood out in the crowds of the lesser-skilled hopefuls.
She needed a gimmick.
Throughout Velma's college years, she would have read in gossip columns stories of people's hapless attempts to trick their ways into the movies. There was an unnamed Canadian boy in the late twenties who had spent every last dime on his misguided plan. He bought a dressy suit and hired an expensive car and a chauffeur, whom he told to drive right through the studio gates without stopping. Once he was inside, he ran up to the casting director's office and introduced himself. His chutzpah earned him one day's work as an extra, but nothing more.
Velma would also have read about a twenty-one year-old Connecticut girl called Shirley Williams who, in 1930, got inside Paramount by sending her dog racing through the gates and chasing after it as if all she wanted to do was catch it and leave. Instead, as the watchman tried to corral the dog, she slipped into the lot, where she eventually met Harpo Marx. She told Harpo that she was looking for work, and he introduced her to one of the managers, who promptly threw her out on the street.
The same year, the papers reported the story of a man whose scheme consisted of sending daily postcards to the MGM casting director, all of which read, "George is coming". After three weeks, he presented himself at the studio gates and was let in, but the casting director wasn't impressed - George had no abilities and wasn't even a good type for extra work, and he was sent away with the advice that he should go back home without delay.
Jeanne Williams, however, proved that a really audacious trick could work when she managed to get a contract with Cecil B DeMille by changing her name to Sonia Karlov, speaking in a European accent and hiring a publicist to spread the word that she was a famous Danish theatre actress. The fact that she was eventually found out and forced to leave Hollywood didn't mean that having a gimmick was a bad idea, just that it was better to be upfront about it.
Velma's plan was honest and had the advantage of being not only attention grabbing but also practical.
Her father was some sort of society figure in Memphis and, before she left town at the beginning of 1932, she gathered together a group of his rich friends and made them an offer. She would legally incorporate herself - as Velma, Inc - for $20,000, with the idea that she would sell 50 per cent of the stock in herself and share her earnings with her stockholders.
Five of her father's friends backed her, with the result that Velma arrived in Hollywood as the most wealthy jobless starlet in the industry's short history.
She appears to have spent a large part of her cash on the services of a publicist, who spent the months from April to July, 1932, getting Velma's face and name in papers across the country.
The initial pieces were concerned with the story of Velma, Inc, and were accompanied by a variety of glamorous studio portraits, while the later mentions were smaller but more important, as they placed her name alongside the names of genuine stars. Readers of a gossip snippet about "just what film folk do when they get mad" were informed, for example, that Irene Dunne breaks golf clubs, Bebe Daniels counts to ten, Colleen Moore stamps her foot and Velma Gresham - who? - cries, shedding torrents of tears.
The publicity opened no studio doors, but might have helped Velma to get on Central Casting's books. She started as an extra that spring, appearing in crowd scenes and non-speaking roles at MGM, Warner Brothers and Universal.
Like many ambitious extras, she moved downmarket in order to get a speaking role, heading for the independent Poverty Row studio, Edward Halperin Productions, in order to get two lines in the Bela Lugosi B-picture, White Zombie (1932). Velma played the taller of the two maids in this scene, unhappily discussing their mistress, who has been turned into a zombie:
Velma's performance appears not to have caused great enthusiasm in the industry. It was to be her only speaking part.
The summer ended with a line in a gossip column. It was perhaps the last effort of Velma's publicist, and it has a somewhat jaded tone: "Velma Gresham is just back from visiting the hometown folks. She's the girl who incorporated herself to finance her start in pictures... and is still starting."
Velma spent the next two years working hardly at all and earning very little when she did. It's unlikely that her father's friends' money lasted even her first year in town. Indeed, the cash that had at the beginning seemed like the thing that would bring her success might by that time have become the source of nothing but guilt - it was obvious that she was never going to be able to pay any of it back.
At the end of October, 1934, this headline appeared in the press:
According to the news stories, Velma had written a suicide note, turned on the gas outlet and lain down on the floor to die. Velma's landlady was woken by screams - Velma had panicked as she started to succumb - and hurried to her room, shutting off the gas and saving her life. Speaking from hospital the next day, Velma denied that she had tried to kill herself, saying that the police had misconstrued the note.
It mattered little what Velma said, of course. The story that she had attempted suicide was already out and, in any case, it ended up working in Velma's favour. A week later, the papers noted that "a kind-hearted movie producer, reading police reports of her unhappiness, offered her a job and she accepted."
There's a striking similarity to the story of Julia Graham, another young extra girl, covered previously in The Unsung Joe. She had attempted suicide twice that same year, each incident resulting in a boost to her career. After her first attempt, in April, a movie producer had taken pity on her and arranged for her to get a contract as an extra at Paramount, and, after her second, in September - just one month before Velma's apparent suicide attempt - she had been given her first speaking role.
It's unfair to speculate about Velma's motivations, but Julia Graham's lucky breaks would have been much discussed gossip among the extra girls in 1934. And Velma knew the value of a good gimmick.
The studios didn't reward Velma as highly as they'd rewarded Julia Graham; although Velma was given a job, it was only a bit part, and she did not get a contract. However, there was another result. The hospital required that Velma be released into someone's care when she was discharged, so Velma called around her gentlemen friends, one of whom, an attorney named Paul Ziegler, came to collect her and assured the hospital that he would look after her until she was fully recovered.
The following year, a small news item appeared under the headline, "Plans Merger". It ran: "Velma Gresham, 26, former Memphis, Tenn, girl, incorporated herself, sold stock to friends, thus entered the movies. Now, she and Attorney Paul J Ziegler have declared their intention to marry."
By coincidence, Velma's engagement was announced in the papers the same weekend that Julia Graham, depressed over the failure of her career, decided that she had had enough and finally managed to kill herself, on her third attempt, by shooting herself in the head with her married lover's pistol.
Velma decided that she'd had enough too. That year, Velma, Inc, was quietly wound down. Once married, Velma never appeared in another film.
Sources: 29 April 1932, Monessen Daily Independent; 2 May 1932 Chillicothe Constitution-Tribune; 10 June 1932 Laredo Times; 29 July 1932 Rhinelander Daily News; 10 Dec 1933 Ogden Standard-Examiner; 1 Feb 1934 Hagerstown Daily Mail; 24 Oct 1934 Nevada State Journal; 24 Oct 1934 Los Angeles Times; 18 Jul 1935 Elyria Chroncile-Telegram.