OUR HOLLYWOOD HISTORY (4/10)
Joseph Louis De Grasse was born in Bathurst, New Brunswick in 1873. By the time he died in 1940 in Eagle Rock, California, he would be remembered as one of the Silent Era's most respected directors. What wasn't known until much later, was that without Joe De Grasse many Hollywood stars would have died destitute and forgotten.
One of 11 siblings, Joe was still a child when his father moved the clan to Boston to take a job in a local shipyard. The first time there was any official record of Joe came when he was 13 and dubbed a hero by a Boston newspaper for diving into the harbor to rescue a little girl who was drowning. It was to be the first of many mentions to follow.
Joe had no real interest in show business, studying to become an accountant. But he spent some of his leisure time building and painting sets for amateur theatre companies. An extremely handsome man, he was eventually coaxed into acting.
In 1905, the lead in a show prepping their Boston opening had a heart attack and a desperate producer brought Joe in as a replacement. Despite only two days rehearsal, he wowed the audience and critics. The play was a hit and after a successful season went on a cross country tour that ended in Los Angeles a year later.
Local producers were equally impressed with this new, good-looking leading man and Joe soon found himself not only the star but artistic director of a local stock company.
Suddenly in charge of picking plays and supervising other actors, Joe discovered that what he really wanted to do was direct.
The proximity of the emerging film industry led to him appearing in a few films, where he gained fame in Pathé Westerns as a dashing highwayman -- who came to be known as "The Pathé Bandit". But while there were plenty of good-looking actors in early Hollywood, there weren't many skilled directors and the studios soon realized Joe possessed talents of which they were in greater need.
Pathé offered him a contract to direct anything he wanted and Joe soon became a favorite of performers like Mary Pickford and Lon ("The Man of a Thousand Faces") Chaney.
Meanwhile, Joe's brother Sam, a dentist, arrived in town to visit and was soon put to work as an actor as well. He too excelled at the craft, becoming a star in his own right and later the villain in almost all of Douglas Fairbanks' swashbuckling adventures.
But while Joe's skills both before and behind the camera were notable, what he seemed to do best was manage money.
Having learned early in his career that show biz people were not the best at handling their financial affairs, Joe had often helped fellow thespians invest their earnings. In the process, he also became a trusted friend and confidant, especially among the fairer sex.
Joe soon had a staff handling the accounts of many in Hollywood and was credited for saving most of their fortunes from the Stock Market Crash of 1929. When asked how a studio as successful as his own could have gone bankrupt, Mack Sennett stated simply, "I ignored the advice of Joe De Grasse."
Often linked by studio publicists and Hollywood gossip to virtually every female star and starlet known to the public, Joe married fellow director Ida Mae Park in 1917. She soon discovered that Joe had a private phone line on which he swore he merely "consoled" many of the industry's leading ladies. According to Park, they "seemed to need a lot of consoling".
Somehow the marriage survived, and Ida Mae even became the manager of such stars as Miriam Cooper, Louise Lovely and Dorothy Phillips.
But it was only after Joe's death that Ida Mae discovered just how much Joe had meant to not only those actresses but many others.
As Hollywood obituaries noted the titles of the 85 films he had directed, his founding of the Motion Picture Directors Association (precursor of the DGA) and Joe's achievements as an actor, Ida Mae uncovered much more in her husband's will and private papers.
For while Joe had left her an immense fortune and hundreds of acres of property and bequeathed members of his family ownerships in Gold mines and other businesses that would ensure their future security, he had, for a decade, also been making monthly payments to 40 luminaries of the Silent era who had fallen on hard times when their careers were over.
Joe had not only "consoled" his friends and co-workers, he had made sure that so many who had helped create the industry, whose faces and names were widely known by the Public, never wanted for anything.
He had also set aside funds to make sure they were cared for as long as they lived.
Joe's generosity not only assured a peaceful retirement for many early stars, directors and writers, it sent their children to University, paid their medical care and helped them when they were in need.
In a time before guilds and unions capable of securing royalties and residuals let alone offering insurance and pension plans, Joe De Grasse had personally stepped up for those in his industry.
His brother Sam followed his example, leaving half of the wealth Joe had built for him to theatrical charities, some of which had been established by others in the Hollywood community inspired by his brother's thoughtfulness.
Joe De Grasse, another Canadian who helped build Hollywood -- and became the Keeper of its Stars.