Depending on the source material, Lease was born February 11, 1901 or 1903 in Central City, West Virginia or Huntington, West Virginia, but was raised in the Columbus, Ohio area. There are mentions of his interest in becoming a minister and attending Ohio Wesleyan University/College.
Though some questions remain, we now have more details on his early years and family:
• According to a birth ledger at the State of West Virginia Archives and History digital records library, Rex Lloyd Lease was born February 11, 1903 and his parents were Luther Lease and Vernie Florence Lovett Lease. The State of West Virginia also has a digital record of the September 6, 1902 marriage of 21 year old Luther Lease and 18 year old Vernie Lovett in Huntington, Cabell County, West Virginia. But there are questions with Rex's birth information - appears this was a later add-on to the West Virginia records, submitted by Lease's aunt Nora Belle (Lovett) Graul on 3/10/1942 (which is around the time of World War II draft registrations). And the time period between the wedding and Lease's birth is about five months.
• As to the question of whether he was born in Central City or Huntington, West Virginia - that birth ledger mentions both names. Some fact checking indicates that Central City was annexed (absorbed) into the city of Huntington in 1909.
• There is a December 6 birth and December 7, 1905 death of a one day old male child of Luther and Vernie Lease who were living in Columbus, Ohio. There is also a 1918 Columbus, Ohio City Directory showing Rex Lease with a job listing of "clerk". Additional information was found in the 1910 and 1920 census and the West Virginia death records. His mother Vernie Lease passed away from consumption in 1910. In the 1910 census, 7 year old Rexie Lease was living in Mason County, West Virginia with his grandparents (Mother's parents). In the 1920 census, 17 year old nephew Rex L. Lese [sic], obviously a spelling error by the census taker, is in Muskegon, Michigan with his Mother's sister Nora Belle (Lovette) Graul, her husband and daughter.
• Various Hollywood trade papers noted that Rex was considering a life in the clergy and attended Ohio Wesleyan University/College. Many years ago, Gary Spencer did a biography on Lease for Favorite Westerns magazine and debunked the Ohio Wesleyan claim. He had written to the school, and the registrar found no information on a 'Rex Lease' though a 'Leland J. Lease' was listed as a senior in their 1920 School of Oratory. Following that lead, the SSDI (Social Security Death Index) has a record for an Ohio born Leland Jacob Lease who passed away in 1953. Western film historian and Old Corral contributor Bill Russell also wrote a piece on Lease circa 2008. He interviewed Lease's son Gary who confirmed his dad's attendance at the school. If he did enroll at Ohio Wesleyan, my best guess is that his attendance there was brief.
• On January 3, 1966, Rex's son Richard found his father dead on the kitchen floor at his Van Nuys, California home. He had passed away sometime between New Years Eve and January 3.
Lease arrived in Hollywoodland in 1924. He found bit and supporting parts at Film Booking Office (FBO), Rayart, more, and was given the opportunity to play a few leads. His first film was A WOMAN WHO SINNED (FBO, 1924), directed by Finis Fox and released in Summer, 1924. The principle players were Morgan Wallace, Irene Rich, Lucien Littlefield and Mae Busch. Assuming his February 11, 1903 birth date is correct, he would have been slightly over 21 years of age when he began his movie career.
While under contract at FBO, he worked in MOULDERS OF MEN (FBO, 1927) with Conway Tearle and child star Frankie Darro (who at the time was appearing in many FBO Tom Tyler oaters). The director was Ralph Ince, and he and Lease would become buddies. Rex had a featured role in director Frank Capra's THE YOUNGER GENERATION (Columbia, 1929), a tale of a Jewish family that moved to a more prestigious, up-scale neighborhood and the stars were Jean Hersholt and Ricardo Cortez. Rex's earliest westerns were a pair of Tim McCoy silents at MGM, one of which was THE LAW OF THE RANGE (MGM, 1928) which had a very young Joan Crawford as the heroine and Rex as the "Solitaire Kid". Tim and Lease became friends, and over the next dozen or so years, he appeared in seven more McCoy westerns.
Rex Lloyd Lease possessed all the necessary attributes to become a leading man and hero - he had a fine voice, was good looking in a suit or western costume, and comfortable in front of the camera. He successfully made the transition to talkies, and starred in melodramas, action flicks, old dark house mysteries, and comedies as well as a couple of western serials and about a dozen low-budget sagebrush yarns and outdoor adventures. But there were obstacles. Lease's starring days were numbered because he couldn't escape Poverty Row productions and the independent film market. And there were incidents which damaged his starring career.
As you read further, pay attention to the plethora of company names associated with his movie work. There was Tiffany (Tiffany-Stahl), Sono-Art, World Wide, Superior Talking Pictures, Stage and Screen, Action Pictures, Metropolitan, Syndicate, Mayfair and Reliable. Those production companies and distributors faded into Hollywood history in the 1930s due to financial problems, the Depression, and changes in the sale and distribution of movies. All were gone by the mid to late 1930s, either completely shuttered or leftovers were absorbed/merged into other outfits.
Tiffany is considered as one of the premier independent film production companies. They had begun operation circa 1921 and went through several name variations including Tiffany-Stahl. Lease signed a Tiffany contract and was their resident utility player doing all kinds of features. Examples of his early talkies: U. S. Cavalry members Lease, Roscoe Karns and Slim Summerville were the TROOPERS THREE (Tiffany, 1930); he and comic Benny Rubin teamed up in a pair, SUNNY SKIES (Tiffany, 1930) and the baseball yarn, HOT CURVES (Tiffany, 1930); Rex was on his own in BORROWED WIVES (Tiffany, 1930); and aviator Lease was up against Mexican bandits in WINGS OF ADVENTURE (Tiffany, 1930).
In 1930, Tiffany was churning out westerns with Ken Maynard and Bob Steele, and there were plans for Rex to become one of their range riders. Quote/excerpt from an article in the September 14, 1930 edition of Film Daily: "Tiffany feels mighty proud of the cast it has assembled to support Rex Lease in 'The Utah Kid', the first of his six westerns ....". Those six didn't happen. Only THE UTAH KID (Tiffany, 1930) was filmed and is remembered today because Boris Karloff played a henchman working for former silent star Tom Santschi.
By early 1932, Tiffany was a Hollywood memory. Rex found work with Sono-Art/World Wide which was creating action and mystery flicks labeled as "Thrill-O-Dramas". Those starred Lease, Reed Howes, Grant Withers, Kenneth Harlan, and others. Among the "Thrill-O-Dramas" was a single Lease oater, IN OLD CHEYENNE (Sono-Art/World Wide, 1931) which had Dorothy Gulliver as the romantic interest.
Moving on, Rex and strongman Joe Bonomo were the dynamic duo in the ten chapter THE SIGN OF THE WOLF (Metropolitan, 1931). The following year came THE LONE TRAIL (Syndicate, 1932) which is a lost/missing film. Some believe that THE LONE TRAIL is the condensation/feature version of THE SIGN OF THE WOLF cliffhanger as the casts were similar and directing credits on both were Harry S. Webb and Forrest Sheldon. There's a bit more on this in a later webpage.
There was CHINATOWN AFTER DARK (Ralph M. Like Prod./Action Pictures, 1931) and THE MONSTER WALKS (Ralph M. Like Prod./Action Pictures, 1932) with a story about "an old dark house with an ape running loose". It was Lease, pretty Marion Shilling and Tarzan the Police Dog vs. Philo McCullough and Charlie King in the crime drama INSIDE INFORMATION (Consolidated, 1934).
(From Old Corral image collection)
Above - Rex Lease has Tom Santschi on the floor in the saloon battle in THE UTAH KID (Tiffany, 1930), Rex's solo oater for Tiffany. The leading lady was Dorothy Sebastian. She was married to William Boyd of Hopalong Cassidy fame from 1930-1936.
(Courtesy of Ed Tabor)
Above - Rex Lease and pretty Dorothy Gulliver in a romantic interlude from the "Thrill-O-Drama" IN OLD CHEYENNE (Sono-Art/World Wide, 1931). In addition to CHEYENNE, Dorothy appeared opposite Lease in three other films: TROOPERS THREE (Tiffany, 1930), FIGHTING CABALLERO (Superior, 1935) and the serial, CUSTER'S LAST STAND (Stage & Screen, 1936).
(Pressbook ad courtesy of Les Adams)
|Rex Lease and Tarzan the Police Dog are ready to spring into action in a still from INSIDE INFORMATION (Consolidated, 1934).|
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Lease became friends with independent producer Fanchon Pauline Royer (1902-1986). Royer also did press agent and actor management duties and her clients included Rex and Grant Withers.
Royer and Lease worked together on several film projects. He and Lucile Brown had the leads in CANNONBALL EXPRESS (Fanchon Royer/Sono-Art/World Wide, 1932), another of the "Thrill-O-Dramas". Muriel Evans and Rex starred in the auto racing flick, 10 LAPS TO GO (Fanchon Royer Pictures, 1936; TV title: KING OF THE SPEEDWAY). And writing as "Rex Lloyd Lease", he scripted the dreadful TRAPPED IN TIA JUANA (Fanchon Royer/Mayfair, 1932), which had pretty but monotone Edwina Booth in her last film and Duncan Renaldo in a dual role as twins (one of whom is "El Zorro"). Royer and her two sons were living with Rex and his wife Isabelle in Los Angeles when the 1940 census was taken. By then, Royer was specializing in religious films, and in 1943, she became President of the Catholic Film and Radio Guild which was headquartered in Los Angeles.
Then came Lease's one cowboy series and the CUSTER'S LAST STAND chapterplay. His half dozen "Range Rider" and "Rough Rider" adventures were released in 1935 by Superior Talking Pictures and peddled on the states rights market to whomever and wherever. Louis Weiss and George M. Merrick were at the production helm, with Elmer Clifton directing four and Albert Herman and Jack Levine doing one each. The December 6, 1934 Film Daily reported that "Superior Talking Pictures has completed production on the first of the Range Rider series under the title of 'The Cowboy and the Bandit' ... "
Weiss and Merrick had some earlier experience with westerns as they were in charge of a series starring Harry Carey Sr. in the early 1930s. The Rex Lease half dozen were a tad higher on the quality scale vs. the typical indie westerns of the time. Lease portrayed a different character in each. And he did not wear a consistent cowboy hero uniform nor ride a beautiful steed with a superb saddle. Some common players in the six indicates that all or several were filmed back to back. Menacing in five was George Chesebro. To add juvenile appeal, young Bobby Nelson appeared in four; George Morrell worked in five; in a quartet were Yakima Canutt, William Desmond, crusty Milburn Morante, Artie Ortego, and Art Mix/George Kesterson; and Franklyn Farnum, Bill Patton and Herman Hack can be spotted in three. There were musical moments and musicians/songsters included Johnny Luther as well as members of the 1930s Arizona Wranglers/Range Riders groups (Cactus Mack McPeters, Loyal Underwood, Jack Kirk, Chuck Baldra, Jack Jones, and tall Glenn Strange).
Best of the bunch are Rex's first, THE COWBOY AND THE BANDIT (Superior, 1935) and PALS OF THE RANGE (Superior, 1935).
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above is the title lobby card from THE COWBOY AND THE BANDIT (Superior, 1935). About a third of this lobby card is devoted to heroine Blanche Mehaffey, billed in this one as 'Janet Morgan'. Young Bobby Nelson is shown on the left with the chaps. And in the center background, Rex Lease (green shirt) is all tied up and on horseback. This is the initial entry in Lease's six film series - and a good 'un - and features big, burly Dick Alexander as a good/bad guy that helps Rex in the ending shootout. Alexander is best remembered as "Prince Barin" in the first two Buster Crabbe FLASH GORDON serials.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
From L-to-R in the above lobby card from CYCLONE OF THE SADDLE (Weiss/Superior, 1935) are Chief Standing Bear (coming through the window - appears to be a stunt double), Artie Ortego (yellow shirt), Rex Lease, might be Chief Thunderbird (in shadows behind Lease), Milburn Morante (background with coonskin cap), Janet Chandler and Helen Gibson. Chock full of wagon train and Indian stock footage from silents, CYCLONE is unremarkable ... except for the quantity of Native Americans in the cast ... and the weaponry utilized by Yak Canutt who portrays 'Snake', George Chesebro's helper. Yak ties a knife to the end of the bullwhip and silently dispatches foes by snapping the whip at them.
(Courtesy of Les Adams)
Above from left to right are Bud Osborne, Rex Lease and Milburn Morante in PALS OF THE RANGE (Superior, 1935). Appears that Milburn Charles Morante (1887-1964) was a favorite of producer Louis Weiss who employed him in over a dozen films beginning in the late 1920s.