She sits in a metal dining chair reading a newspaper outside the inn surrounded by the gorgeous snow-capped Tyrolean Alps. Out of he corner of her eye, she catches the movement of the immaculately uniformed and monocled Austrian officer, but only glances to the right, not turning her head. Suddenly, he touches her shoulder, silently asking her to lean forward as he places a large, fluffy pillow behind her. She opens her mouth slightly as if she is about to protest, but does not. Hurriedly, he then lifts her feet and places a stool under them. Again, she looks incredulously at his presumptuousness. Finally, he places a wrap across her legs, bows from the waist and salutes. At first she looks at him blankly, but a slight turning of the corners of the mouth shows that she is humored by this uninvited attention to her comfort. Then, as the officer remains bowed, she suddenly throws her head to the side in an accepting laugh. As she continues to smile, charmingly but coyly, he pulls up a chair beside her. (photo at right: Stroheim, Billington and DeGrasse in "Blind Husbands" -- 1919)
This is a scene from "Blind Husbands" (1919) with Erich Von Stroheim as the Austrian officer and Francelia Billington as the beautiful Mrs. Armstrong. He continues to pursue Billington, who is on vacation with her doctor husband, throughout the film, and the uncertainty whether he will succeed in his seduction is what keeps the viewer interested -- but it is Billington who keeps the viewer entranced.
Francelia Billington was born the daughter of musician Adelaide Bueter and James Billington in Dallas, Texas, February 1, 1895. She was raised on a ranch giving her a familiarity with horses that served her well in a movie career that was to consist of many westerns. She attended a convent, and, at a very early age, began taking part in plays there. When she was 10 years old, she moved to New Orleans and continued her interest in outdoor activities becoming quite accomplished at swimming, diving and rowing. When she moved to Los Angeles, she also learned to drive well, a skill that also proved valuable to her movie career.
It is not known how or when she arrived in Los Angeles, but George Melford and his wife were friends of the family there. Both joined Kalem as actors, but Melford was just beginning a much more prestigious career as a director at this time. He suggested that Billington become a motion picture actress, and the next day she went to the Kalem studios where he gave her a leading role because the studio had just lost its leading actress, Alice Joyce. This was in 1912 when Billington was only 17 years of age. After several features there, she moved to Reliance-Majestic the next year.
As a child on a ranch in Texas, Billington had developed "an obsession of interest" in photography. "I photographed everything on that ranch that I could level the camera at," she said. "Even when I was at school I took pictures with the faithfulness of an aspirant for prizes. When I finished school, I fitted up a dark room where I could develop and print the pictures." (photo at left: Billington in "The White Sin" -- 1924)
After gaining employment in a motion picture studio, her interest in a still camera developed into an interest in a motion picture camera. A 1914 Photoplay article on Billington notes that she was proud, not so much of her abilities in front of the camera, but her abilities behind the camera. "Almost any day at the studio it is possible to see a brown-haired, gray-eyed, olive-skinned girl of remarkable grace and extreme prettiness standing back of one of the big cameras, turning a crank as she keeps close watch on the scene that a group of players are enacting. Sometimes Cabanne, the director, turns to her with a question concerning the placing of some player. Usually her criticism is accepted, for the director has found that Francelia Billington has an exceptionally quick eye for picture effects, and, as a result, he is permitting her to develop her talent in this line as well as in her own posing for the films."
Billington left Majestic in 1915, and after working on an uncompleted movie with Nell Shipman for the Palo Alto Film Corporation, she went to Universal. She stayed there until 1917 when she moved to American and made 12 successive films in 1917-1918 as leading lady to William Russell under the direction of Edward Sloman. Amazingly, she had made 11 of these features all in on year - 1917.
Billington's film output slowed down with only five total films in 1918 and 1919, but one of those was to be the most significant film of her career, Erich Von Stroheim's directorial debut "Blind Husbands" (Universal, 1919). The film was a big gamble on Universal head Carl Laemmle's part, and the negative cost ran nearly five times what he had originally budgeted for the film. Unlike future films under Von Stroheim's direction, this one was completed in a reasonable amount of time, about two months between April and June of 1919. Although her performance brought praise from the critics, the Fates had no great roles waiting for Billington, and she continued in a mix of undistinguished melodramas, westerns and actions films. (photo at right: Billington going into her studio bungalow at Universal)
1919 brought the first of two associations with Rex Ingram in "The Day She Paid." The movie, which was based on a short story by Fanny Hurst, began to show some of the genius that would soon assure Ingram's place among the great directors. In it, Billington plays a mother who sacrifices her own reputation to save her daughter's. The movie received positive reviews, but his was prior to Ingram's great success with "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921) and brought no significant recognition to the director or the actress. Billington made only one other film that year, an insignificant action films entitled "The Great Air Robbery" with stunt pilot turned actor Ormer Locklear. Locklear would die tragically the next year in a flying mishap while filming "The Skywayman."
Her first film of 1920 was a western with Tom Mix entitled "Desert Love." Later that year, she returned once again to Rex Ingram's directorship with "Hearts Are Trumps." In her previous film with Ingram, she had been in the lead role, but this time, Ingram had someone new, the beautiful Alice Terry who would take the leading role not only throughout the rest of the director's films but in his personal life as his wife. Reviews were favorable, but once again the film did nothing to bring Billington special recognition, especially now that she was moving more and more to secondary roles or low budget pictures. She finished the year with one more Tom Mix western, "The Terror."
It was also during 1920 that Billington married Lester Cuneo. Cuneo was seven years older than her, having been born in 1888 in Chicago and entered pictures in 1910 there with the Selig Polyscope Company. He worked for a variety of companies in a mixture of roles before going overseas in World War I. He returned in 1918, and continued with his film career, most often as a "heavy." Cuneo soon began gravitating toward westerns. His 6'1" build, 180 pound frame and good looks were well-suited for the western hero role. In 1921, he organized Lester Cuneo Productions, and his wife began co-starring with him in a series of western melodramas. (photo at left: Billington in "Blind Husbands" -- 1919)
Although the list may be incomplete, Billington appeared in at least 11 features, mostly under the Capital Films banner, with her husband between 1921 and 1925 with a few other features mixed in during that time including "High Gear Jeffrey" (1921) with William Russell, "The Truant Husband" (1921) with Mahlon Hamilton, "Blue Blazes" (1922) with Pete Morrison, "Restless Souls" (1922) with Earle Williams, "What A Wife Learned" (1923) with John Bowers, and "White Sin" (1924) with Madge Bellamy." "White Sin" is one of her films that still exists, and although it's a secondary role to the film's star, Madge Bellamy, Billington's presence adds much to the film as she is dressed exquisitely and continues to exude beauty and grace. According to George Katchmer (A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Western Actors and Actresses, McFarland, 2002), at least one of the Cuneo-Billington features still exists, "Blazing Arrows" (1922). It should also be noted that the features Billington made without her husband during this period were for a variety of companies including Palmer Photoplay, Vitagraph, Rockett Film, Universal and Ince.
Virtually no information seems to be available on the Cuneo-Billington marriage, but the fact that the two starred together in so many features would indicate theirs was a close one. Reportedly, they had two children, Francelia and Jack. An obituary states that he died Feb. 14, 2000, and was a retired chemistry teacher at Los Angeles High School. He was living in Hawaii at he time of his death at age 76. The obit also says he was survived by a sister, Francelia Furlong.
The couple made their last two features together in 1925, but apparently the marriage was on the rocks well before that. The March, 1924, issue of Screenland magazine reported, "Check this up on your divorce calendar: Francelia Billington is suing Lester Cuneo for divorce, alleging that Lester was the bootlegger's best customer." Their divorce was finalized in November of 1925. Long before that, however, Cuneo's career had begun to decline. One can assume that when he formed Lester Cuneo Productions in 1921, his star was on the rise, and, reportedly, these first features were well-made and a hit with fans. For whatever reason, Cuneo was back to supporting roles in 1922-23. He was given a second chance for starring status with a series for independent producer Ward Lascelle in 1923-24. According to Kalton C. Lahue (Winners of the West, A.S. Barnes & Co., 1970), this was a series, "he never should have filmed." Lahue goes on to say, ". . . these features disappointed exhibitors and fans alike with their woefully weak story lines and inept direction . . ." Although there were a couple more films after ending his association with Lascelle, Cuneo committed suicide by shooting himself on Nov. 2, 1925, supposedly two days after his divorce from Billington became final. (photo at right: Billington at the gate to her home)
Billington's film output after this is very sparse, and, as a matter of fact, one 1926 fan magazine listed her among a group of "Stars of Yesterday." She made "Tex" in 1926 with Ruth Mix, worked again with former leading man William Russell in "A Rough Shod Fighter" in 1927, then was absent from the screen until 1930 when she appeared in "The Mounted Stranger" with Hoot Gibson for Universal. She only appears on screen twice for two short scenes as the mother of Gibson's love interest, and both are full-length shots of her, no close-up. It is not intended to be a glamorous part, and her dark, unkempt hair, dowdy frontier dress and thin appearance certainly do not recall the beauty that was so apparent only a few years earlier. This was to be the last film of her career.
Her health was apparently declining, and, although always slender, one can only guess at whether her thin, frail-looking body in "The Mounted Stranger" may have been due to early stages of the tuberculosis that was soon to take her life. A short four years later, on November 24, 1934, Billington passed away from the disease in Glendale, California. According to Billy Doyle (The Ultimate Director of Silent Screen Performers, Scarecrow Press, 1995), "A brief obituary appeared in the Glendale paper, but there were no obituaries in the trade papers. The actress' death went unnoticed by the film industry and public." (photo at left: Billington and Stroheim in "Blind Husbands" -- 1919)
As with so many silent movie stars, it is unfortunate that so few of her films exist today. The American Film Institute Catalog provides an incomplete listing of her movies leaving out many of the Cuneo westerns and listing none of her films prior to 1915. Of course, "Blind Husbands" (1919) remains for viewing today, as well as "Blazing Arrows," (1922) "The White Sin" (1924) and "The Mounted Stranger" (1930). But that's little to document a career that spanned 18 years and over 80 films. There's no question that Billington was a stunning beauty and a fine actress. Certainly she wasn't the only beautiful, talented actress whose star didn't shine as brightly as it should, but explanations as to why are usually futile for many, many unknown reasons could have contributed to the course, good or bad, personal or professional, that an actor's career took. It is gratifying, though, that some of her work remains, and those films provide ample evidence of a serenely charming, lovely and talented -- albeit neglected -- actress who graced the screen all those years ago.
Thanks to William Drew for his contributions to this article.
Copyright 2004 by Tim Lussier. All rights reserved.
For more on Francelia Billington, see "Blind Husbands" as our Feature of the Month
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