The Stories Behind the Stones

Cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their lives any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

Robert Williams

(Sept. 12, 1894 – Nov. 3, 1931)

Dec. 22, 2013 -- Throughout the 1920s, actor Robert Williams was building a solid career on Broadway, appearing in both comedies and dramas, and gradually moving up to starring roles.

Williams made his Broadway debut in 1922 in "Abie's Irish Rose" at the Fulton Theatre, and remained on the stage through 1930, in plays including "Milgrim's Progress"; "That French Lady"; "Jimmie's Women"; "The Trial of Mary Dugan," with Ann Harding and Barton MacLane; "Love, Honor and Betray," with Clark Gable, Glenda Farrell, George Brent and Alice Brady; and David Ogden Stewart's comedy, "Rebound."

Despite his success on stage, however, and despite the eagerness of the film studios to find suitable stage actors who could be successful in the new talking pictures, Williams had no interest in coming to Hollywood. In fact, he was strongly opposed to the idea. Eventually, he was convinced to give movies a try, and he gave film fans a brief and tantalizing taste of the career that might have been.

Williams was born Sept. 12, 1894, in Morgantown, N.C., and was raised on a farm. He ran away from home at the age of 10 and joined a traveling tent show, and later worked on showboats in Mississippi, and in theater groups in the Midwest. He eventually reached New York City, where he appeared in several plays before serving in the U.S. Army during World War I. (He joined shortly before the end of the war, and served less than a year.)

Following his discharge from the Army, Williams returned to the stage in New York, and married singer Marion Harris in 1921. Harris was known as one of the first white women to become popular singing jazz and blues songs. The couple had a daughter, Mary Ellen Williams, who later became a popular singer in the late 1940s and early 1950s, performing as "Marion Harris Jr."

Williams and Harris divorced in 1922, the same year Williams made his Broadway debut. Williams had another year-long marriage, from 1924 to 1925, to actress Alice Lake, who started her career in comedy shorts for Mack Sennett, and appeared in dozens of shorts with Fatty Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. Her success and popularity declined after the introduction of talkies, and she made her final film appearance in 1935.

After "Rebound" closed on Broadway in May 1930, the play came to Los Angeles, to the Belasco Theater, on South Hill Street. Williams came with it, with Ina Claire in the lead role. At the time, Williams was married to his third wife, stage actress Nina Penn.

When director Edward H. Griffith decided to make a film version of "Rebound," he wanted Claire and Williams for the film, but Williams wasn't interested. Instead, he was planning to return to Broadway to star in "Oh, Promise Me," then Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms."

"When talkies came in, I had a couple of offers in New York," Williams said in a September 1931 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "We had talked it over from every angle, and decided we greatly preferred the good old stage. We had decided money would not tempt us. So we really had banished pictures from our mind when I was here with 'Rebound.' We just enjoyed California and went right back to New York, proud of our strength of mind.

"Then, while I was rehearsing for 'Oh, Promise Me,' our friend, Harry Clark, the writer, was commending our stand, when Pathe came through on long distance. It seemed like a jeering note. I tried to stand firm, to repeat that dizzy salaries and long, sure contracts held no lure, but, oh, well, two weeks after the play opened, I was released and we were on our way here for the screen version of 'Rebound.'"

Back on Broadway, Williams was replaced in "A Farewell to Arms" by Glenn Anders. The film version of "Rebound," which also starred Myrna Loy, Robert Ames and Hedda Hopper, was released in August 1931. Williams next appeared in "The Common Law," with Constance Bennett, Joel McCrea and Lew Cody, and "Devotion," with Ann Harding and Leslie Howard, which were both also released in 1931.

Next, Williams signed for his first co-starring role, with Loretta Young in "Gallagher," to be directed by Frank Capra. In the film, Williams and Young play reporters working together at a newspaper. Young, as the title character, is secretly in love with Williams, but Williams sees her as just "one of the boys."

Williams marries a high-society heiress, played by Jean Harlow, but quickly realizes that he is hopelessly out of place and unhappy in that world. He returns to Gallagher and realizes that he's in love with her, too, and they live happily ever after.

During filming, the Hollywood gossip columns were full of reports that Williams and Young were also becoming an off-screen couple (even though Williams was still married to Nina Penn at the time, although she was back in New York).

Though originally titled "Gallagher," the title was changed to "The Gilded Cage" when the film was shown to preview audiences in Santa Barbara on Sept. 24, 1931. When the film was officially released a week later, the title was changed again, to "Platinum Blonde," to capitalize on Harlow's image and box-office attraction.

Although the film firmly established Harlow's stardom, playing a woman of wealth, refinement, culture and sophistication was not Harlow's strong suit. Even Capra agreed that she wasn’t right for the role.

The film opened to positive reviews and, despite sharing the screen with Harlow and Young, Williams was singled out by critics for his performance.

"It looks like Williams, who has done exceedingly well in minor roles with RKO-Pathe, has an indisputable chance of stepping ahead," Roy Chartier wrote in "Variety." "If his succeeding parts are made to fit his personality and his demeanor, it will be eggs in his coffee for this comer."

Although movies had just learned to talk, Williams' performance in "Platinum Blonde" was closer to a modern comedy performance than the silent slapstick of a few years before. As Stew Smith, Williams was the stereotypical fast-talking reporter, tossing off one-liners, a street-smart tough guy with a sassy attitude.

But Williams also found the heart and soul of Stew Smith, delivering an honest, natural and sophisticated performance that grabbed the attention of the audience, even when he was delivering snappy comebacks and sharing the screen with Harlow or Young.

In a 2008 interview with Turner Classic Movies, actor Christopher Plummer was asked about the impact of "The Method" style of acting, an immersive style of realism made popular by Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, among others. "Robert Williams ... was one of the most realistic comedians the screen had," Plummer said. "He made Cary Grant look like he was overacting. ... To watch Robert Williams act was like seeing a comic using the Method, long before the Method became famous with Marlon and Monty."

"Platinum Blonde" was released on Saturday, Oct. 31, 1931, but Williams was unable to attend the official premiere. Three days earlier, Williams was rehearsing for his next film, "Lady With a Past," co-starring with Constance Bennett, when he collapsed on the set with a ruptured appendix. He was taken to Hollywood Hospital (now Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center) on North Vermont Avenue, where he underwent emergency surgery. Following the first surgery, he was diagnosed with peritonitis. After a second surgery, Williams developed pneumonia.

On Tuesday, Nov. 3, 1931, three days after the premiere of "Platinum Blonde," Williams died. He was 37 years old.

Williams has been in Los Angeles for only nine months, and appeared in four films. He was replaced in "Lady With a Past" by Ben Lyon.

After Williams' death, the flag over RKO-Pathe Studios in Culver City was lowered to half-staff in his honor. "The industry loses a real actor whose hard work was just beginning to be recognized," said Constance Bennett.

Funeral services were held at the Pierce Brothers Funeral Chapel, 720 West Washington Blvd., Los Angeles. Williams was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale.

Marion Harris, Williams' first wife, died in New York City in 1944, at the age of 48, as a result of a fire in her hotel room when she fell asleep while smoking in bed. Harris is buried at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, N.Y. Williams' second wife, Alice Lake, died in 1967, at the age of 72, and is buried at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood. Williams' wife at the time of his death, Nina Penn Williams, eventually moved to Los Angeles, where she appeared in an uncredited role in one film, "Splendor" (1935), starring Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea. She died on April 15, 1981, at the age of 79, and is buried in the Abbey of the Psalms at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

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