Friday, April 24, 2015

Francelia Billington

As I have said many times before, one of the main reasons that I write this blog is to make sure that the silent film stars that shined over 100 years ago and have long since passed are not forgotten. What is just tragic to me is when stars are forgotten about during their own life times. I recently covered Alma Bennett who was one such star, no obituary was published when she died. This next star passed away four years after she made her last film appearance. No obituary was published and her death wasn't even acknowledged by the film industry that she had worked in for almost 20 years. 

I plan on visiting her grave soon and letting her know that she is not forgotten. I hope this entry helps keep her name and her face out there.

Francelia Billington was born February 1, 1895 in Dallas, Texas. She was the third child born to James Billington and his musician wife, Adelaide. 

From what I have read, early in their marriage, James and Adelaide lived and worked in Deadwood, South Dakota where James's brother worked as a stagecoach driver. I believe James may have also helped his brother in this venture. The couple had a son while living in Deadwood who died in infancy and later had a daughter, Wanda (I have seen her birth date range from 1890-1893). 

Francelia grew up on a ranch and loved caring for and riding the horses. She became an accomplished equestrian, something that would become very useful later in her film career. 

When she was 10 years old, she and her family moved to Louisiana. Five or so years later, they moved to Los Angeles and Francelia began attending the Sacred Heart Academy. It was while in high school that she became interested in acting and began appearing in various school productions. 

Francelia made her film debut in a 1912 short called The Mayor's Crusade. During the early years of her career she mainly appeared in shorts and Westerns, which is where her childhood hobbies really helped her out! Her frequent costars during this time were William Russell as well as actor/director, Rupert Julian. 

She didn't have a very stellar career, no big film roles or notable films in general really to speak of. Her best known work would probably be in Eric von Stroheim's 1919 film, Blind Husbands. Critics praised her performance in the picture, but alas, she still wasn't offered better roles. All in all, her film career was around 140 shorts/films from 1912 until 1930. Out of those 140, only four still survive. 

Her final film appearance was in 1930's The Mounted Stranger, opposite Hoot Gibson. 

Francelia Billington passed away on November 24, 1934 in Glendale, California. Her health began declining earlier that year and she just gradually got worse and worse. Her cause of death was listed as tuberculosis. She was only 39 years old.

She was buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Even more tragic than her early death is the fact that Hollywood, the industry she had retired from only four years prior, ignored her death. There was no mention of her passing in any magazines and no obituary printed in any newspaper. It wasn't until years later that her career and death began to be talked about again in the film industry.

Francelia was married once, to actor Lester Cuneo in 1920. Some of the details surrounding their marriage is confusing because I have read conflicting reports. One of the reports I read is that they separated in 1925 and being so distraught, Cuneo killed himself a year later. I have also read that their divorce was finalized in 1925 and Cuneo killed himself two days later. The latter seems to be the most popular theory, however, the date on his headstone reads '1926.' So, not sure exactly which is the more accurate statement. According to reports at the time, divorce rumors began circulating as early as 1924, mainly due to Cuneo's growing addiction to alcohol. The couple had two children, Francelia and Jack. Jack passed away in 2000 and Francelia is still alive and actually lived only 2.5 miles away from my house in the San Luis Obispo area! I soooo wanted to contact her, but I moved so quickly after I found out the information, I never got around to it. I need to though! She was very young when her parents passed away, so I am not sure what kind of stories she would have, but I would love to hear them!

Aside from acting, Francelia also was one of the first female cinematographers. She had always enjoyed photography so she jumped at the chance to work behind the scenes as a camera operator on a number of films. She actually preferred camera work to acting.

"The door of Fame is open and Francelia Billington , of American [studios], is on the threshold. She is a movie queen but refuses to wear a crown - the kind of queen that has the world's support." ~~ Picture-Play magazine, 1917