The FIR Vault

ANNA Q. NILSSON

By • May 30th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3

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James Kirkwood made five pictures with Anna Q. as his partner. One of them was PINK GODS (’22), a Paramount film in which Bebe Daniels also appeared in a prominent role. Both stars wore exceptionally, elegant clothes in this sophisticated production designed by Anna Q.’s former employer, Penrhyn Stanlaws. The sartorially-conscious Adolphe Menjou also acted in this film.

Bebe Daniels and Anna Q. compared notes on the many accidents they had suffered while making pictures. Neither used doubles, and they found they were the two actresses in Hollywood who had the most accidents.

Anna Q. could not know she was in for a terrible experience in HEARTS AFLAME, made in ’22 and released by Metro the following year. Reginald Barker directed this forerunner of the present-day protest against the destruction of nature. The problem of reforestation was one of the themes and to get authentic background Barker took his troupe to a lumber camp where most of the film was shot without incident. However, for the big forest fire sequence, the location was nearer Hollywood, where in a sand strip they planted 600 trees, wrapping them in combustible material and sprinkling them with gasoline. Anna Q., Frank Keenan and another actor had to ride the train through the “forest fire.” They had twenty seconds to do it safely, but once ignited, the trees caught fire so swiftly that it became an immediate, uncontrollable inferno. The three riders in the engine-car were terrified as the train stopped dead on the rails. “Had I been told in rehearsal that I was grabbing onto the brake, I would never have touched it.” Anna Q. revealed later. But she did and the trio were caught on the train 38 seconds longer than planned. They were believed done for by the director and crew. Anna Q. stepped down from the train with light burns, but mad as a hornet. She went after the director and producer, threatening to kill them if she caught up with them. They stayed in hiding for five hours. This fire sequence was made with a color tint, and the Los Angeles “Record” wrote: “The zenith of realism in motion pictures has been reached.” It certainly had.

Anna Q. Nilsson

The next important step for Anna Q. Nilsson’s screen fame was taken when she signed with Cecil B. DeMille for a role opposite Milton Sills in ADONIS RIB. The picture has a potent DeMille cast, and Anna Q. played a neglected woman on the rebound from her wheatbroker husband (Sills). A parallel story was set in prehistoric days. The critics praised Anna Q.’s acting, and one review said: “She appears rather youthful for a woman with a 17-year-old daughter.” Author Robert F. Sherwood in “Life” (March 29. ’23) wrote: “The film is somewhat above the usual DeMille standard which statement may he added to the Dictionary of Faint Praise.” The film contained a color sequence.

Paramount’s success in pairing Anna Q. with Milton Sills was repeated by First National when the company made THE ISLE OF LOST SHIPS with Maurice Tourneur directing. It came out a full-blooded adventure film, set in the Sargasso Sea.

Anna Q. Nilsson was utterly feminine, lively and with an almost impish temper. She spoke quickly and radiated an aura of intense energy. She didn’t care what others thought of her. “Photoplay” wrote: “It is her quality of absolute sincerity and naturalness, coupled with complete indifference as to whether anybody likes her or not, that wins everyone’s warm regard.” To her circle of close friends she had added Florence Vidor and Corinne Griffith. She liked to read, but didn’t care for outdoor sports, as she felt she had enough of them on location.

Her next assignment must have been a relief for her, as she didn’t want to he typed in adventure films. She played under Herbert Brenon’s direction in THE RUSTLE OF SILK (’25) for Paramount, with Betty Compson and Conway Tearle in a triangle story that found Anna Q. playing an unsympathetic part and handling it well.

Though Rex Beach’s lusty story, The Spoilers, had been filmed in ’14, Samuel Goidwyn produced his version in ’23. To Anna Q. went the choice role of Cherry Malotte, the saloon-keeper. Once more she was teamed with Milton Sills in a big spectacle. In this film Sills and Wallace Berry (who played opposite Anna Q. in other features) took part in one of the classic fights of the silent screen.

In ’23 Anna Q. married the shoe manufacturer, John Marshall Gunnerson, who was of Norwegian descent. The marriage was dissolved in ’26.

In PONJOLA, a First National film of ’23, she had to have her hair cut short and play a boy in one of her several roles. James Kirkwood was the object of her interest in this outdoor film with a South African milieu. Some believe that she topped Milton Sills’ performance in the ’24 version of FLOWING GOLD, another Rex Beach yarn, this time set in the oilfields of Texas, where the daughter of an oil millionaire falls in love with the family helper. A remake of ’40 had John Garfield and Frances Farmer in these parts.

The old movie pioneer, J. Stuart Blackton, produced and directed BETWEEN FRIENDS in ’24 with Anna Q. cast with Norman Kerry and Lou Tellegen in a sordid triangle story, in which she commits suicide.

In BROADWAY AFTER DARK (’24) Anna Q. played with a fine cast, including Norma Shearer, Adolphe Menjou and Carmel Myers. It was produced by Warner Bros, who had recently bought Vitagraph and begun to establish themselves in bigtime moviemaking. The film, based on a play by Owen Davis, was directed by Monta Bell. “Photoplay” called it a “humanized melodrama,” but most critics found the story dull, though Anna Q. gave a top performance.

Anna Q.

She was next chosen to play in INEZ FROM HOLLYWOOD (’24). Adela Rogers St. Johns had written the story on which J.G. Hawks based his screenplay. Miss St. Johns was given a list of names from which to select an actress for the role of Inez Laranatta. called “The Worst Woman of Hollywood.” The last name on the list was Anna Q. Nilsson, the only blonde in the group. Miss St. Johns decided that in real life the most dangerous women were blondes, and she talked the producer. Sam E. Rork, into using Anna Q. “Photoplay” carried a description worth quoting: “Anna Q. Nilsson of the purring, fascinating voice, the quivering exquisite mouth, the deep-blue eyes and the ever-present sense of humor.” In INEZ FROM HOLLYWOOD she played for the first of five times opposite Lewis Stone, the actor she rated highest as her leading man, and also the kindest and most considerate.

Anna Q. began to regret having put her name on a three-year contract with First National; she felt it too long a period. She longed to go to Sweden to see her parents again, but was kept busy with film after film. She was due for two films under Frank Lloyd’s direction in ’25, WINDS OF CHANCE and THE SPLENDID ROAD. Both were big adventure pictures, the latter featuring a great flood as a climax. THE GREATER GLORY (’26), an insignificant but not had Anna Q. film directed by Curt Rehfeld, should be mentioned here because Boris Karloff, in the midst of his early struggle, appeared as No. 19 on the credit list in the small part of a scissors-grinder.

Miss Nilsson was teamed with Walter Pidgeon in MISS NOBODY (’26), again playing in men’s clothes, sporting a cap and smoking cigarettes. She was far from the first woman on the screen in male attire, Marion Davies having preceded her in LITTLE OLD NEW YORK (’23). One critic called MISS NOBODY “a dandy little comedy with good public appeal and fine work by director Lambert Hillyer and Anna Q. Nilsson.”

John Francis Dillon, another fine director of silent films who was active well into the 30s. made several pictures starring Anna Q. He co-starred her with Lewis Stone in ’26, in two romantic comedies. MIDNIGHT LOVERS and TOO MUCH MONEY. They were Lewis Stone’s first humorous roles.

With her background as an artist’s model, Anna Q.’s directors often used her as a clotheshorse in their films. And she knew how to wear good clothes. At the Hollywood premiere of THE KING OF KINGS (’27) she showed her flair for publicity, making a dramatic arrival at the theater clad in a stunning evening gown and surrounded by six handsome men.

In THE MASKED WOMAN (’27), a rather had picture, she played opposite the gifted Swedish actor. Einar Hanson. who came to America a year earlier and died tragically in a car crash, shortly after this film was made.

Babe Ruth, America’s idol, made a few appearances before the camera and performed with Anna Q. in BABE COMES HOME (’27). One of the all-time great cinematographers, Karl Struss, was cameraman, but otherwise this film slipped by unnoticed. Anna Q. had reason to remember it, however, as she dislocated three vertebrae during the shooting.

In the Spring of ’27 her First National contract expired. and she rested while enjoying her freedom. Then Herbert Brenon offered her a role in his SORRELL AND SON, based on the best-selling Warwick Deeping novel. The film was produced in England by Herbert Wilcox. It had a kind of STELLA DALLAS theme in reverse, and Brenon and Wilcox endowed it with excellent production values; the designer was William Cameron Menzies. The male leads were played by H.B. Warner and a Swedish actor, Nils Asther. Alice Joyce, Anna Q.’s old friend and still a very lovely actress, was also in the cast and James Wong Howe was cameraman. About SORRELL AND SON ”Photoplay” wrote: “So touching, so beautiful, so genuinely human.” Considering the cast, “Moving Picture World” said: “Anna Q. Nilsson is the best performer in the picture.” (H.B. Warner was again cast in the title role in the ’34 remake of this film.)

At this juncture Anna Q. bought a house in Malibu Beach and enjoyed it for seven months, when she was offered a part in THE WHIP (’28) with Dorothy Mackaill and Ralph Forbes, by her old company, First National. Though sound had reared its ugly cacophonous head by this time, this film had no recorded dialogue but only music and sound effects. Anna Q.’s first talking-film was BLOCKADE (’28), directed by George B. Seitz for FBO.

She then signed a contract with RKO Radio for two pictures and with Pathe for one, but these commitments she could not fulfill. Friends had invited her to accompany them on a hunting and fishing trip into Kern County. On a narrow mountain ledge, her horse suddenly sensed danger and Anna Q. lost control of the animal. She jumped off the horse near the edge of a cliff – on the opposite side there was a sheer drop – and broke her hipbone. An incompetent local doctor told her that it was only a bruise. After five days she was belatedly taken to a hospital where they operated. At home, during convalescence, she began to move about and developed an infection. After it healed, she found that through maltreatment, her injured leg was too short. In ’30 she was again operated on and her leg re-set. At Christmastime she returned to Sweden to recuperate.

In effect her career was over. After the accident, assignments were few and far between, e.g., in ’33 she can he found on the screen, in a Paul Muni vehicle, THE WORLD CHANGES, in which her name was buried deep in the list of credits. After a hit role in SUNSET BOULEVARD in ’50, she lived in California in retirement. When Swedish television filmed a special guest program in America a few years ago, they chose Anna Q. Nilsson and Signe Hasso. Miss Hasso, one of the most gifted and charming actresses to come out of Sweden, made a gracious presentation of Anna Q. The old actress gave a wonderful performance for the Swedish public, displaying her lightning-like wit and blitheness of spirit. On February 11, ’74, she died in Hemet CA in a convalescent hospital where she had lived for a year.

Anna Q. Nilsson will be remembered for her fine performances on the silent screen. Offscreen she was known for her courage in helping others, especially fellow actors; at times she risked her own standing to go to hat with producers for someone suffering an injustice. “Photoplayā€¯ once said about her (and it’s not a bad epitaph): “Hard-headed and soil-hearted.”

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