News From Terre Haute, Indiana

History

December 2, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: Revisiting the brief life of Grover Jones

TERRE HAUTE — It has been several years since this column has explored the all-too-brief life of legendary Hollywood screenwriter Grover Jones.

Jones, you may recall, was born Nov. 15, 1893, in Rosedale and was raised in a home at the intersection of McIlroy and West Johnson avenues in West Terre Haute.

His father, Bill, was a miner. As a teen, Grover worked as a breaker boy, dividing large chunks of coal into manageable pieces. He also was a part-time sign painter, worked briefly in local brickyards and glass factories and was an amateur poet.

A prolific writer of short stories and one-act plays, Grover had a gift for storytelling. He even published a weekly “private newspaper” in West Terre Haute, called “The Public Blaetter.” (sic) How he earned the nickname “Beany” is a mystery.

Enchanted by the silent movies he saw at local playhouses, Jones earned money painting theater show cards and placards. Sign painter Richard Earl Sibley, 13 years older than Jones, showed him the ropes on the east side of the Wabash River.

In late 1912, Terre Haute saloonkeeper Roy Dycus, doing business as the Dycus Film Co., advanced 18-year old Beany $600 to write and produce a motion picture called “A Mother’s Retribution,” or “A Boy and a Bandit.”

It was filmed in 1913 by Terre Haute photographer Robert W. Nicholson at the fairgrounds at Wabash and Brown avenues. Though Jones later made fun of the final product, Terre Haute Tribune theater critic Mique O’Brien labeled it “a dandy.”

By the time the movie was finished, Sibley already was in Hollywood painting movie backdrops for $20 a week. Using a little money sent to him by Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Film Co., and $50 borrowed from West Terre Haute banker Mosheim S. Weills, Grover headed west.

“The biggest thrill I ever had,” Jones later recalled, “was when I stood on the corner of First and Hill streets in L.A. and asked the policeman the way to Hollywood.

“That way,” he said, pointing, “and you can get out of it, too, by continuing in the same direction.”

Jones stayed, even though it was quite a while before he was doing what he hoped to do. His first job may have been taking care of the studio’s chickens.

“I came to California and I starved,” Jones once wrote. “For a dollar and an apple I would walk … to Santa Monica Canyon to play an Indian extra in inferior films. I always got killed and didn’t say a word.”

Jones turned down the initial invitation from the Sibleys to stay with them. His first residence was the Green Room Hotel where the proprietor allowed him to sleep on a cot under a stairway for $1 a week.

During his first film appearance, Jones earned an extra $3 for falling off of his horse. He finally accepted the Sibleys’ invitation to stay at their home. That permitted him to send a little money back to West Terre Haute to his family and to Mr. Weills.

Jones soon realized that being an actor bored him. He preferred people, pictures, scenery and writing. He was pleased in 1914 when technical director Lee Lawson offered him a job at Universal as a spray-pump artist.

For six months Jones worked on sets occupied by actors he later would direct. And he made a name for himself by writing poems and short stories for carpenters, assistant directors and actors. He also published a newsletter called “The Photo Maniac.”

On Dec. 30, 1914, Jones’ parents, his brother Bill and a family friend named Jersey Irwin arrived in California.

When Sibley left Universal to take a position with Oliver Morosco Co., Lawson named Jones the assistant technical director and doubled his salary. The next year Grover got a big head and quit, eventually landing a job at Morosco Photoplay Co., which became a part of Paramount.

Meanwhile, he attended art school and spent two hours a day learning story construction from Gardner Hunting. He progressed to become a gag man at Vitagraph for Mack Sennett and Keystone Comedies. While watching a rehearsal to focus on a dancer named Susan Avery, who became his wife in 1921, Grover suggested a comedy scene that landed him a career writing screenplays.

Sennett had the uncanny knack for identifying talent. He took an unknown fellow named Charlie Chaplin under his wing and gave him eternal fame. Gloria Swanson, Mary Thurber, Mabel Normand, Wallace Beery, Ford Sterling, Bobbie Vernon and Ben Turpin were a few of his other products. Sennett’s comedies were the best in slapstick.

The job at Vitagraph put Jones in touch with Sylvester Matzetti, later known as Richard Talmadge, an actor-stuntman who became his best friend. Jones mastered the art of creating a story off the cuff. If someone wanted a certain type of movie, Jones said he had one at home and then made up a story to fit their need as he described it.

Jones authored, produced or collaborated on well over 100 motion pictures and at least 121 shorts. Some place the total figure, many uncredited, above 400. During the Depression, he commanded $3,500 a week and $40,000 a script. He also wrote short stories for Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post and published Jones magazine.

His credits include “Lady and Gent,” which garnered him an Oscar nomination in 1932 for Best Original Writing, “What a Night,” “A Little Bit of Heaven,” “The Plainsman,” “Derelict,” “Dark Command” and “Gunsmoke.”

“Trouble in Paradise,” “Abe Lincoln in Illinois,” “Tom Sawyer,” “52nd Street” and “The Virginian” were among his adaptions. “The Lives of a Bengal Lancer” earned Grover an Academy Award nomination in 1935 for Best Screenplay.

Jones’ work ethic took its toll. He underwent kidney surgery in June 1940. Upon his release from the hospital, he wrote “A Girl, A Guy and a Gob” for Harold Lloyd and Lucille Ball. Then he went in for another surgery but died from complications on Sept. 24, 1940. He was only 46 years old. In 1961, Susan Avery married Richard Talmadge.

Bespectacled with a rim of red hair around his shiny bald head, Grover lived with Sue and their two children on a two-acre ranch with a menagerie — a horse, pony, monkey, goat, 14 sheep dogs, ducks, geese and chickens — encircled by a brick wall.

Daughter Sue Sally (Jones) Hale was a premier international polo player, disguising herself as a man for 20 years to play professionally. She broke the gender barrier in 1972 when she became the first woman to gain admission to the U.S. Polo Association.

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    March 12, 2010

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