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helen broderick2As part of an ongoing series covering major figures in Jeanne Eagels: A Life Revealed, I’m looking at the life of Helen Broderick – who danced in the first Ziegfeld Follies, and made the transition from star of Broadway musicals to one of Hollywood’s most beloved character actresses. She was also a loyal friend of Jeanne Eagels, and the mother of Broderick Crawford.

Helen Broderick was born on August 11, 1891, in Philadelphia. She came from a theatrical family, and on her IMDB page, I.S. Mowis gives an amusing take on how she became an actress: “The story goes, that at the age of fourteen she ran away from home, because her mother, who appeared in operatic comedy, was totally obsessed by the theatre. Paradoxically, all the people she met turned out to be performers, and Helen (who needed to make a living, after all) ended up where she hadn’t wanted to end up – on the stage.”

helen broderick3

A young Helen Broderick

In 1907, Helen appeared in the first season of the legendary Ziegfeld Follies. It was while toiling in the chorus of Jumping Jupiter (1910-11) that she discovered a gift for comedy. Jumping Jupiter opened on August 3, 1910, in Chicago, to a packed house and rave reviews from the city’s newspapers. Joining Helen as a chorine was Jeanne Eagels, almost a year her senior (though she claimed to be younger.) Jeanne had recently left the Dubinsky Brothers troupe, after more than two years of touring the Midwest in various tent shows.

In Jupiter, Richard Carle starred as a professor who attempts to save a good friend’s reputation from the threats of a spurned Parisian coquette. The extremely thin plot was fattened up with fifteen musical numbers, plus comic turns featuring Carle and a chorus of twelve lovely young ladies.

Each of the girls was named after popular automobiles of the time: Buick, Packard, Cadillac, Pierce, and so on. Jeanne was listed in the programme as Miss Renault, while Helen Broderick played Miss Winton. “One night, Ina Claire was unable to perform and Helen Broderick stood in as the romantic lead,” Mowis writes. “She soon had the audience in stitches, trampling about the stage like an elephant, rolling her big saucer eyes and attempting to croon ‘Cuddle Near Me All Day Long’ in her rather unique voice.”

After the Chicago run ended on October 13, a four-month tour commenced, crisscrossing the Midwest in towns and cities much larger than those preferred by the Dubinskys, and finally reaching Manhattan in March 1911.

Jeanne had become particularly close to Helen, and they would remain friends for life. They found a room at the Claridge Hotel and settled in for what they hoped was a long and successful run. Unfortunately for the cast and crew of Jumping Jupiter, what had played well in Chicago and smaller towns was deemed too lowbrow for a more sophisticated audience. The show was savaged in the New York press, and folded on March 24 after just twenty-four performances.

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For Jeanne, who had only just arrived in New York, this was a crushing disappointment. But Helen had recently married Lester Crawford, another cast member. Their son, William Broderick Crawford, was born on December 9, 1911. Throughout her ‘lean years’, Jeanne enjoyed a warm friendship and practical assistance from Helen and her family.

During the summer of 1915, Jeanne stayed at their 67th Street apartment. While appearing together in vaudeville, Helen and Lester were saving for a home on Long Island to raise their son Broderick, currently living with his grandparents. Nights were spent dining on chow mein and ginger ale, or chili con carne and beer, while Jeanne performed impersonations and shared theatrical gossip.

Throughout the next decade, Helen appeared in a series of musicals, comedies and revues. She made her screen debut in a short, High Speed, which she also co-wrote. By the end of the decade she was playing leads and featured roles, most notably in Fifty Million Frenchmen (1929-30), with music by Cole Porter.

Less than two months after Jeanne Eagels died in 1929, Helen completed a manuscript entitled My Memory of Jeanne Eagels, in the hope of fashioning it into a play. The Missourian, as the project was renamed, would focus on Eagels’ early life and rise to stardom. They had drifted apart in recent years, but Broderick remained fond of Jeanne, last meeting her in the lobby of the Morosco Theatre shortly before her untimely death. Sadly, Helen’s project never materialised – but her reminiscences were among the more reliable passages in The Rain Girl, Eddie Doherty’s controversial 1930 biography of Jeanne.

In 1931, Helen reprised her role as Violet Hildegarde in a big-screen adaptation of Fifty Million Frenchmen, and like many other stage actors of her generation, began making the transition to Hollywood character actress. She would go on to appear in a total of thirty-seven films, most memorably as the wisecracking sidekick to Ginger Rogers in Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936), two classic RKO musicals showcasing the dancing partnership of Rogers and Fred Astaire.

As Madge Hardwick in 'Top Hat' (1935)

As Madge Hardwick in ‘Top Hat’ (1935)

Helen also played supporting roles in a number of B-movies, many of which can still be found on VOD and Youtube. In 1940, she starred opposite Anna Neagle in a movie adaptation of the hit musical, No No Nanette. Three years later, she appeared in Stage Door Canteen alongside her Broadway peers (including Ina Claire, another pal from Jumping Jupiter days.) The film, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, chronicled the theatrical community’s efforts to bolster the morale of American troops in World War II.

That year, Bette Davis starred in a remake of The Letter, Jeanne Eagels’ penultimate movie. On her right little finger she sported a square of small diamonds which Jeanne had worn in the same role, almost a dozen years before. After filming wrapped, Davis returned the ring to Helen Broderick.

Helen’s final film, Because of Him, was released in 1946. Her son, Broderick Crawford, enjoyed even greater success, winning an Academy Award for his role in All the King’s Men (1949.) Helen died aged sixty-eight in Beverly Hills on September 25, 1959, and her husband, Lester Crawford, passed away in 1962.

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