Born in Berkeley: Joan Lowell

Berkeley's own Joan Lowell

This week, Berkeleyside’s film writer, John Seal, delves into the archives to introduce us to a remarkable Berkeleyan who made her name in the movies.

Joan Lowell was born in Berkeley on November 23rd, 1902. Her film career began in 1919 at Goldwyn Studios, where she worked as an extra, and, though her earliest screen appearances are lost to posterity, she can be spotted in Souls for Sale (1923), a delightful comedy-drama about the movie business highlighted by a scene of Erich von Stroheim directing his legendary epic Greed.

Directed by Rupert Hughes, Souls for Sale relates the “Hollywood or bust” adventures of Remember Steddon (Eleanor Boardman), an unhappily married young woman with dreams of movie stardom. Remember gets her big break when the leading lady on a big-budget circus picture is seriously injured on-set, and Lowell appears as a script girl during the film’s final half hour.

After Souls for Sale, Joan appeared in a handful of films now considered lost, including several low-budget westerns and Loving Lies (1924), a W.S. Van Dyke-helmed melodrama in which she portrayed an unwed mother who comes (surprise!) to a sticky end. Though not top-billed in the film, she did get her name in the credits and her career seemed to be going places.

In 1925, she struck gold — or more precisely, The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin’s comic re-telling of the Yukon Gold Rush. An uncredited Joan plays a friend of the film’s heroine, Georgia (Georgia Hale). You can see her 30 minutes into the film when Georgia gets into a sled, and again in the dance-hall sequence a few minutes later. Joan’s character even gets her own inter-title, asking Georgia “what’s wrong with you tonight, dear?”

This was Joan Lowell’s last film work for almost a decade. In 1927, she married playwright Thompson Buchanan, but the marriage barely lasted two years. After divorcing Buchanan she penned her infamous ‘autobiography’, Cradle of the Deep, a Book of the Month club selection that shifted over 100,000 copies.

Lowell’s book recounted tales of her amazing childhood: adopted at eleven months of age by a salty seaman named Stitches, she left Berkeley for the South Seas schooner Minnie A. Caine, where she lived for the first seventeen years of her life.

According to Cradle of the Deep, Joan spent her years at sea learning how to swear, playing strip poker, single-handedly harpooning a whale, and swimming for three miles with a litter of kittens on her back — this after the schooner sank off the coast of Australia. It made for great reading, but alas, almost none of it was true. Joan had actually spent her wonder years in middle-class Berkeley comfort, and, though the Minnie A. Caine was real, it rarely left its berth in Oakland.

D. W. Griffith was eager to produce a big screen adaptation of Cradle, but when the truth came out his plans went by the wayside. Several years later, however, Joan sold the film rights to tiny Van Beuren Studios, a company best known for producing low-budget cartoons. The result was 1934’s Adventure Girl, an outrageous road-show feature shot on location in Guatemala. Joan narrates and appears on screen as a feisty gal eager to plunge into the jungles of Central America in search of lost cities and forgotten treasures. Though never released on home video, the film is in the public domain and can be viewed online.

Joan’s final contribution to the motion picture arts and sciences, the novel Florentine, was adapted for the screen in 1936 by Austrian director Carl Lamac. Lamac is best known for some good films he made in England during World War II, including the early James Mason feature They Met in the Dark (1943).

After that, Joan disappeared from the silver screen. She remarried — this time to a genuine sea captain! — and moved to Brazil, where she and her husband ran a coffee plantation for many years. Joan Lowell died in Brasilia on November 7th, 1967.

If any Berkeleyside readers have additional information about this remarkable woman, please share.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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