(From Old Corral image collection)
George W. Merrick and Louis Weiss hired Lease as the star of CUSTER'S LAST STAND (Stage & Screen, 1936), 15 chapters, directed by Elmer Clifton. The players in the insets are: bottom left - Dorothy Gulliver as 'Red Fawn' and Rex Lease as 'Kit Cardigan', the chief of scouts for George Armstrong Custer; and on the right are Nancy Caswell and William Farnum.
In 1936, Merrick and Weiss cast Lease in a pair of fifteen episode serials which were distributed on the states rights market. He starred as 'Kit Cardigan', the chief of scouts for George Armstrong Custer, in CUSTER'S LAST STAND (Weiss/Stage & Screen, 1936; directed by Elmer Clifton). And he was second billed as Jack Mulhall's helper in the dreary, disjointed (THE AMAZING EXPLOITS OF) THE CLUTCHING HAND (Weiss/Stage & Screen, 1936; directed by Albert Herman). As with many cliffhangers, CUSTER suffers from lots of stock footage and is stretched out over too many episodes. Enhance your viewing experience by watching the first couple chapters and the finale. CLUTCHING is another story - it's incoherent and a real yawner. Familiar faces from Rex's westerns can be spotted in both chapterplays - there was William Desmond, Franklyn Farnum, Milburn Morante and George Morrell. And Bobby Nelson and George Chesebro got paydays for doing CUSTER.
In between lead roles, Lease did featured parts in some B westerns. Examples: he was Hoot Gibson's brother in CAVALCADE OF THE WEST (Walter Futter Prod., 1936); Rex played the "Pecos Kid" in McCoy's LIGHTNIN' BILL CARSON (Puritan, 1936); and he worked in a couple of Tom Tylers, RIDIN' ON (Reliable, 1936) and FAST BULLETS (Reliable, 1936).
Circa 1936, the Stage & Screen and Superior Talking Pictures companies were no more. Louis Weiss and George M. Merrick were still in operation, and they did three serials for release through Columbia Pictures. Rex must have maintained a good relationship with Weiss and/or Merrick - he was hired as the assistant to hero Frank Hawks in the fifteen chapter THE MYSTERIOUS PILOT (Louis Weiss/Columbia, 1937; directed by Spencer Gordon Bennet). (THE MYSTERIOUS PILOT was sandwiched between JUNGLE MENACE (Weiss/Columbia, 1937) with Frank Buck and THE SECRET OR TREASURE ISLAND (Weiss/Columbia, 1938) with Don Terry in the lead.)
Lease portrayed "Colonel William Travis" in HEROES OF THE ALAMO (Sunset, 1937) a grade Z train wreck from producer Anthony J. Xydias and his Sunset production company. In the 1920s, Xydias churned out "historical" films about Davy Crockett, the Alamo, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, etc. He retired because of health issues, but came back in the mid 1930s with HEROES. He should have stayed retired. In 1938, Columbia Pictures needed to fill a hole in their schedule and picked up HEROES for distribution as a Columbia film.
Rex's finale as a star had him teaming up with Rin-Tin-Tin Jr. in THE SILVER TRAIL (Reliable, 1937), purportedly the last film from Bernard B. Ray and Harry S. Webb's Reliable Pictures Corporation.
(Pressbook ad courtesy of Les Adams)
HEROES OF THE ALAMO (Sunset, 1937) came from producer Anthony J. Xydias and his Sunset production company. In the 1920s, Xydias produced several "historical" films about Davy Crockett, the Alamo, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, et al. He retired because of health issues, but came back in the mid 1930s with HEROES. He should have stayed retired. In 1938, Columbia Pictures needed to fill a hole in their schedule and picked up this independent production for distribution as a Columbia film. The pressbook ad above is from that Columbia version. Lease portrayed "Colonel William Travis".
Lease was one of many who had a fling at B western stardom ... and failed. There were multiple reasons including luck, bad timing, the Depression, and production company and distributor financial issues and failures. He tried to become a heroic range rider but wasn't able to "saddle up" with higher grade production companies. In the mid 1930s, Lease was competing with a glut of sagebrush heroes that were also looking for work (like Wally Wales, Bob Custer, Jay Wilsey, Buddy Roosevelt, more). And by the time he made the Custer serial and the 1937 Rin-Tin-Tin Jr. adventure, the singin' cowboy had arrived via Gene Autry at Republic.
Some blame has to be placed directly on Lease as there were incidents and behavior that damaged his career. Newspapers and Tinseltown trade publications carried many reports of his temper and relationship issues from the 1920s through the mid 1930s. There were broken engagements, multiple marriages, difficult divorces, brawls with Hollywood personalities, court cases, a suicide attempt, money problems, more. In the late 1920s, Rex was romantically linked to actress Viola Dana as well as Joan Burroughs, the daughter of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. But he abruptly called off the Burroughs romance, and married actress Charlotte Merriam (and that pairing lasted from 1925-1929). There was the July, 1930 altercation between Lease and dancer Vivian Duncan (more on that below). Actress Betty Pierce called off her one-year engagement to Rex in October, 1930. In late 1930, Lease, Ralph Ince, and a few others scuffled with some newspaper writers at a Press Club in Los Angeles. Lease's (very brief) second marriage was to actress Eleanor Hunt, and that marriage (along with several separations and reconciliations) began and ended in 1931. In 1932, Rex and actress Esther Muir (who was divorcing Busby Berkeley) announced their engagement but they never married. Actor Jack Oakie and Lease had a brief fistic encounter in October, 1934. In 1935, Lease tied the knot in Yuma, Arizona with Elsa Roberts (not an actress) and their turbulent relationship ended in a 1936 divorce. In October, 1936, there was the suicide attempt and following is an excerpt from one of the newspaper articles: "Rex Lease, thrice married cowboy film actor who slashed his wrist with a knife ... Lease was despondent because he had been out of work for some time and because his third wife, Elsa, divorced him last May."
|At an early age, Lease was considering a life in the clergy. The March, 1931 Picture Play magazine has a multi-page article by William H. McKegg titled "The Pulpit Called - the Screen Tempted, Five well-known actors were drawn to the church early in life, but yielded to the siren call of Hollywood".|
The five actors were Richard Dix, Ramon Navarro, Richard Arlen, Neil Hamilton, and Rex Lease.
The photo right is from that article, and the caption of "the parson with a punch" relates to the much publicized incident in July, 1930 when Lease got into an altercation with dancer Vivian Duncan. She wound up with a black eye and Lease was arrested, pleaded guilty to charges, and paid a $50.00 fine.
In August, 1930, there was a brawl between Lease and Harold Duncan, the brother of Vivian Duncan, and Rex got the worst of it. One article read "Duncan Avenges Sister's Beating" and "... Harold Duncan exacted summary revenge ... soundly beating the motion picture actor in a hotel cafe here last night."
At the time, Rex was engaged to actress Betty Pierce. She called off their one-year engagement in October, 1930.
At the bottom of this webpage, you'll find a link to various free and pay newspaper articles about his many trials and tribulations of Rex Lease. And for those who are interested, ye Old Corral webmeister has dozens of articles and clippings which I can send to you.
Hollywood is fickle and it was easy to fall out of favor. Circa 1936, time had run out on Rex Lease as a leading man. He was only 33 years old, had been in Tinseltown for about a dozen years ... and there were reports on his loss of status:
February, 1936 issue of Picture Play magazine had a brief mention of a personal appearance tour by "stars of other days":
"Among the unsung heroes of Hollywood are the stars of other days, who no longer finding themselves in great demand around the studios, keep smiling and trying as best they can to make ends meet ..." "Recently Clara Kimball Young, Mildred Harris Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Bryant Washburn, Rex Lease, Franklyn Farnum and Leo White organized a unit and went on a personal-appearance tour. A few years ago the salaries of this combination would have been so prohibitive ..." "Today, they were glad of bookings, and the salary for the act was divided among them."
In the July, 1936 issue of Motion Picture magazine, there's a tidbit about "old-timers" and "once-stars" hired for (THE AMAZING EXPLOITS OF) THE CLUTCHING HAND (Weiss/Stage & Screen, 1936):
"... Clutching Hand serial, a remake of the one which starred Pearl White 20 years ago, will bring a lot of old-timers back in your eye. On the sets I noticed such once-stars as Bryant Washburn, William Farnum, Rex Lease, Jack Mulhall, Franklyn Farnum, Mae Busch, Reed Howes and Gaston Glass!"
On a positive note, Lease seems to settle down about 1938. He and Isabelle "Belle" Riehle married and they were together through a mid 1950s divorce. There were two sons, Gary Lloyd Lease (1940-2008) and Richard Lloyd Lease (1941-1967).
Recall Lease's friendship with Ralph Ince? Ince was killed in a 1937 automobile accident in England. The Lease biography by Bill Russell indicates that Rex married (and divorced) Ince's widow Helen in the mid 1950s. That was marriage number five.
Rex's Hollywood career - in silents, talkies, and television - lasted about thirty five years. As mentioned, it appears that he overcame his 1930s issues and became a steady, dependable type that could be counted on to fill character roles as well as background/bit parts.
If you check the webpage on Les Adams' Prolific Performers, Lease appeared in about 220 sound films. Of that number, 126 were B westerns and 17 were serials. He got a lot of paychecks from Republic Pictures and his work at that studio amounts to about 85 films spread over a period from 1937 - 1953. Most were westerns and serials. As time progressed, he added poundage around his waist, and played heavies, sheriffs, ranchers, etc. And you can spot him in a cliffhangers such as THE LONE RANGER RIDES AGAIN (Republic, 1939), THE CRIMSON GHOST (Republic, 1946), and Columbia's next to last serial, PERILS OF THE WILDERNESS (Columbia, 1956). His later acting jobs included seven appearances in Abbott and Costello comedies as well as portraying the local sheriff in four Ma and Pa Kettle comedies.
The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s. With a few exceptions, the annual results would list the 'Top Ten' (or 'Top Five') cowboy film stars. In most cases, the winners were what you would expect --- Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc. Rex Lease never achieved a ranking in these polls (but those did not begin until the mid 1930s which was at the end of his starring career).
There's a few tidbits on the later years of Rex Lease, some of which is sad news:
• the story is true about actors Kenneth Harlan and Lease compiling and publishing a cookbook in 1939 titled "What Actors Eat When They Eat". The book contains favorite recipes of various movie personalities and copies are available at online used book shops.
• it's relatively easy to trace the Lease family home locations. The 1940 census and Los Angeles County voter registrations have a 3360 Bennett Drive address. Around 1944, he and wife Isabelle were at 7735 Coldwater Canyon Avenue. And in the 1948 voter registration, they were residing at 6252 Mary Ellen Avenue. (All addresses are Los Angeles County.)
• a December, 1949 newspaper article mentions Rex playing Santa Claus and handing out candy to children of the John B. Monlux Elementary School in North Hollywood.
• there was a September, 1961 fire and following are some excerpts/quotes from a newspaper article: "A North Hollywood fire burned down ... playhouses ... fence ... storage shed ... a one bedroom guest cottage." Addresses were 6255 Ethel Ave., 6751 Ethel Ave., and 6250 Mary Ellen Ave. "The cottage is on property owned by Edgar Rice Burrougs [sic] Inc. Rex Lease 57, who lives in the main house on the property, said many valuable photographs of famous film stars were destroyed by the fire."
The article notes that the guest cottage was occupied by 25 year old Ralph W. Ince (the son of director/actor Ralph Ince and his wife Helen).
• a newspaper article from September, 1958 reports that Rex's son, 16 year old Richard L. Lease, was the driver of a car involved in an accident in Burbank, California. A 15 year old girl, who was a passenger in his car, died from injuries.
• newspapers covered the tragic shooting and death of Richard L. Lease, a 25 year old Army veteran, who was living at his father's home at 6252 Mary Ellen Avenue. On September 4, 1967, Richard was shot twice in the head by two teenagers during a late night traffic altercation. He was in a coma and passed away on September 23, 1967 at the Sherman Oaks Community Hospital. The 16 and 17 year old juveniles were captured and charged with murder.
• From Google Maps and Street View, it appears the main (front) house at 6250 Mary Ellen Avenue in Van Nuys is gone and only a light blue outback building remains (and is that light blue building 6252 Mary Ellen Avenue?). Perhaps an Old Corral visitor who lives in that area could provide some further insight. Google Maps and Street View link: http://maps.google.com/maps?q=6252+Mary+Ellen+Avenue,+Los+Angeles,+CA&hl=en&ll=34.184622,-118.419238&spn=0.006665,0.011115&sll=34.184570,-118.418922&layer=c&cbp=13,72.17,,0,9.65&cbll=34.184514,-118.419239&hnear=6252+Mary+Ellen+Ave,+Van+Nuys,+Los+Angeles,+California+91401&t=m&z=17&panoid=5XpzaqHx-Pv3T-6N4cDbkw
Rex Lease STARRING roles in
Western/Outdoorsy sound features and serials ONLY.
THE UTAH KID (Tiffany, 1930)
(Courtesy of Ed Tabor)
|New Years Eve was Friday, December 31, 1965.|
Lease was found dead in the kitchen of his home on Monday evening, January 3, 1966.
He was still living at 6252 Mary Ellen Avenue in Van Nuys, the location of the September, 1961 fire mentioned above.
Is there an Old Corral visitor who lives near that Hollywood Memorial/Hollywood Forever Cemetery? If so, can you stop by, locate Lease's grave marker, and take a photo please.
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on Rex Lease and the actresses which he married or planned to marry:
Rex Lease: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0495285/
Charlotte Merriam (1903-1972): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0581182
Eleanor Hunt (1910-1981): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0402437
Esther Muir (1903-1995): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0611348
Betty Pierce: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0682293
Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on names associated with Rex Lease and his films:
Lease in 9 Tim McCoy oaters from 1928-1941: http://www.imdb.com/search/title?roles=nm0495285,nm0003706
Producer Louis Weiss (1890-1963): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0919079
Agent and Producer Fanchon Royer (1902-1986): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0747362
Actor/Director Ralph Ince (1887-1937): http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0408433
The Family Search website (free), West Virginia Archives and History (free), and Ancestry.com (subscription) have information on Rex Lease. Rex's mother passed away in 1910 and he was living with his grandparents (Mother's parents) in 1910 and with his Aunt (Mother's sister) in 1920. That same aunt also filed a birth certificate document for Rex with the State of West Virginia in 1942. Her married name is Nora Belle (Lovett) Graul and I've highlighted mentions of her in red in the info below:
Rex's son Gary Lease was a noted Doctor of Theology and a Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He passed away from cancer on January 4, 2008: http://news.ucsc.edu/2008/01/1850.html
The ERBZine, the official website on Edgar Rice Burroughts and Tarzan, has a section on Edgar's daughter Joan Burroughs and her late 1920s relationship with Rex Lease. Included is a mention of Lease becoming a Burroughs family friend: http://www.erbzine.com/mag11/1103.html
There's a section on Rex Lease's starring westerns at Boyd Magers' Western Clippings website: http://www.westernclippings.com/westernsof/rexlease_westernsof.shtml
The story is true about actors Kenneth Harlan and Lease compiling and publishing a cookbook in 1939 titled What Actors Eat When They Eat: http://persimmonandpeach.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-actors-eat-when-they-eat.html
The Internet Archive has about a half dozen public domain films to view or download with Rex Lease as a supporting player or star. There's a couple Tim McCoys as well as THE SILVER TRAIL (Reliable, 1937) with Rin-Tin-Tin Jr. You might get a kick out of the goofy comedy BORROWED WIVES (Tiffany, 1930) (and if you do view it, see if you can spot a very young Robert Randall, who would become Bob Livingston of Republic's Three Mesquiteers). Go to: http://archive.org/search.php?query=%22rex%20lease%22%20AND%20collection%3Amoviesandfilms
YouTube also has some public domain films which you can view or download with Lease doing starring and support roles: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=%22rex+lease%22%2C+long
The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia website has a couple photos of Tim McCoy, Rex Lease and Joan Crawford in LAW OF THE RANGE (MGM, 1928):
And another photo of Lease and Joan Crawford in LAW OF THE RANGE (MGM, 1928) is on Tumblr: http://37.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m48vnnQzlR1rqy9tyo1_500.jpg
1928 photo of Lease and his first wife, actress Charlotte Merriam: http://38.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_m1u0zjF9TL1qg8r34o1_500.jpg