Long-forgotten silent movie star had an Inland Empire connection – San Bernardino Sun

Vivian Rich received her diploma from Chaffey High School in Ontario, but nobody at the ceremony could possibly guess that she would soon begin a 20-year career as a leading lady in motion pictures.

In fact, the predictions in the school’s 1910 yearbook foresaw Rich, who had attended Chaffey only for a few months, as a minister’s wife.

Instead, less than two years later, she was performing before motion picture cameras. She would appear in more than 200 films and become one of the best-known actresses in the early years of silent filmmaking. But she has no star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and few today will recognize her name.

Much of her time in the spotlight came more than a century ago when movies were made without sound. She did get top billing with many of her films and performed with such greats as Wallace Reid, William Boyd and Charlie Chaplin, but the passage of time has not treated her legacy kindly.

Rich’s list of films is remarkable, especially during 1913, 1914 and 1915, when she performed in 157 movies — a rate of one released per week.

Silent film star Vivian Rich in 1914. (Courtesy photo)

Her versatility was the key in the production of such films, which then were rarely more than 20 minutes long. Usually one-, two- or three-reel productions, they were some of the first made for distribution to paying audiences.

Rich was only 19 when she made her debut in 1912 for Flying A Productions (later known as American Film Manufacturing Co.) in Santa Barbara, which later would flood newspapers and magazines with publicity about her.

“She is tall, dark, and slender and possesses a pair of very sympathetic eyes, with a smile that is at all times bewitching and irresistible,” said a movie column in the Buffalo (N.Y.) Times, Sept. 20, 1914. “There are few motion picture actresses who so delight in adventurous stunts as does Miss Rich.”

Her adventurous outlook is not surprising as she and her sister were born on a three-masted schooner, the Albertine Adove, captained by her father, Nathan Rich.

A year after Vivian’s birth in 1892, her father died of yellow fever in Cienfuegos, Cuba. Her mother Nellie moved the family to Philadelphia and New York before settling in Boston where most biographies claim she graduated from high school.

However, a short item in the San Bernardino Sun of March 4, 1910, reported that “Misses Vivian and Albertine Rich of Boston” had arrived in Ontario from the East to make their home with their aunt, Mrs. Charles B. Ford, on Emporia Avenue. Vivian attended Chaffey for the last few months of the 1910 school year, graduating with 11 other girls and 6 boys. The class included her future husband, Ralph Jesson.

As a young girl, she reportedly played in various stage plays in the East, taking children’s roles.  Later she was an artists’ model in the art colony of Provincetown on Cape Cod, which may have given her inroads into the fledgling California movie industry.

In those very early days of filmmaking, she was undoubtedly called upon to act each day and in scenes of multiple films, which were quickly assembled and edited for distribution.

Her debut came on March 18, 1912, when she appeared in a prominent role in the short film “Cupid’s Victory.” It was followed by the April 27 release of “Three of a Kind.”

Completed and distributed on May 4 and May 6 were “Her Corner on Hearts” and “The Ten of Diamonds.” After eight more films in 1912, she went on to appear in 51 in 1913, 54 in 1914 and 52 in 1915.

Barely out of her teens, she lived with her mother and cat in Santa Barbara, reported a November 1914 article in the movie fan magazine Photoplay. She said she worked most days from 7:30 a.m. to 6 at night.

“You see, playing in the movies is not the easiest thing in the world,” she told Photoplay. “I rode the rods under a freight train last week. Another time I was lowered from a window on a wire and still another I was dropped down out of a tower on a rope.

“Next week, I am to be drowned in my wedding dress.”

Her array of characters she played included love interests, villains, a widow, Mexican dancer, a princess, and artist, among others. She said she loved the variety because, “there is always the danger of getting into a rut of being too much the same girl in every part.”

Her growing confidence was shown in the Photoplay article as she asked writer Helen Bagg to go with her to buy her first “machine,” an automobile, in Santa Barbara. Her mother, then out of town, had discouraged such a purchase as too much of an extravagance.

Her popularity was at a height, even after only two years in films. A 1914 wire service story said she received a marriage proposal from a “very prosperous orange grower in Florida,” but she declined because “she is planning to have an orange grove of her own in California.”

By about 1920, as movies were getting longer, she appeared in fewer roles. This was likely because of her marriage in 1915 to Jesson, the son of an Ontario druggist she met at Chaffey High. They had three sons, in 1920, 1926 and 1930, which also reduced her availability for film roles.

It was perhaps not a coincidence that her film career ended just as sound movies came onto the scene. The so-called “talkies” must have been quite a change for an actress who acted in the silents for nearly two decades.

“She has purchased a tract of the Hollywood Hills, built a home and surrounded herself with every luxury and wanted a long rest from the kliegs and picture labors,” reported a 1929 wire service article. A Texas Rangers film, “Hell’s Valley” was her last on the silver screen. She played a housekeeper in the 1931 movie.

She would spend the rest of her life mostly out of public view as Mrs. Vivian Jesson in their secluded home in the Hollywood Hills. Her husband worked for many years as a coach and educator in Los Angeles-area schools.

Her life was cut short on Nov. 17, 1957 when the couple’s car was involved in a head-on collision in the Newhall area. As she had been long away from show business, local newspapers failed to note her celebrity in their accident stories. She is buried with her husband, who lived until 1985, at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood.

I want to acknowledge my appreciation to Patty Edwards of the Ontario Library’s Model Colony Room for her research assistance into the life of Vivian Rich Jesson. 

Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history.  He can be reached at joe.blackstock@gmail.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory.

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