Viola Dana and Alice Lake are little more than footnotes in books on Buster, but they were both a pretty big part of his life at the start of his film career. Buster and Viola dated and were great friends after he moved to California, and he even lived with her family for a time. As she put it much later in her life,” My brother-in-law brought him home for dinner one night and he stayed for [months].” (Curtis p.123)
As for Alice, she and Buster starred together in a number of films directed by Roscoe Arbuckle. Off set Alice also dated Roscoe, who was Buster’s best friend. So Alice and Viola made up their regular social foursome around 1918-20.
Biographies of Buster spend a little time describing these ladies’ beauty and vivacity and a bit of their acting abilities. Sometimes there’s a hint or two at a variety of relationship possibilities with Buster. Mostly it’s just things like : “For at least a year, Alice and Viola were the two women in his life.” (Dardis, p. 56)
I personally didn’t realize just how spunky these ladies were, or that they were great friends with each other, until I came across an article titled “Charlie and Sarah.”
Though the interview takes place in 1922, after their foursome had pretty much broken up, it’s still fun to get a sense of their personalities. Buster had been married to Natalie Talmadge for almost a year at this point and they were expecting their first baby. Roscoe was no longer making movies due to the fact that he was on trial for the tragic death of Virginia Rappe, a crime he did not commit. In 1922 Roscoe stood two rounds and was acquitted in April. These famous and excessively publicized trials might account for some of the suspicion directed towards movie stars that Viola and Alice talk about.
I’ve typed the article out because it was tricky to read, but all the pictures are included in this post. The original can also be found here.
Under the surveillance of Ray Leek, publicity commander of the Metro cantonment, I sat in the salon of the Hillview apartments awaiting Alice Lake and Viola Dana, champion bantam-weights of the screen world. They had consented to go a five-course round at some quiet tavern, that I might record their moods, manners and movements under the influence of the demi-tasse.
As I say, I waited with the Metro duenna, observing with my rare perspicacity that the Siamese Twins, as they are known about the film colony, by reason of their inseparability, were thus far manifesting no distinction from the rest of the gender femina.
Finally they emerged–sartorially incomplete, of course, having only started on the gloves. Viola asserted that Alice made her wear them. She thought the idea of wearing gloves to dinner was most unreasonable, since one no sooner got them on than the soup arrived.
Thus the glove was thrown down, metaphorically speaking, and the combat started.
Alice likes gloves.
Viola does not.
Alice likes dark men.
Viola demands blonds.
Alice emotes for art.
Viola says she’s French and Russian.
Alice says she’s Irish and Brooklyn.
Let this curtain-raiser suffice to show that the two differ sufficiently to be bosom friends.
“Where do we go?” Demands Viola, stripping on a finger of her glove–and asserting that the skin is stripping with it. “I have to get back early, because Dad is having a man up to see me about investing my money.”
“Investing in motion pictures?” I asked.
“I should say not! I want something safe.”
“Where do we go?” demands Alice.
We reach the running-board of the Leek fiacre.
“Let’s go to the Hollywood Hotel,” says Viola, enthroning herself on a forward cushion. “I used to live at the Hollywood Hotel.”
“Do you s’pose they’ll let us in, then?” demands Alice.
There’s no retort to this. Viola is considering suit against the saleslady who that day had fitted her with gloves. She alleges that the lady, in the course of fitting, had, with premeditation and malice aforethought, given her hang-nails.
Upon alighting in the lobby of Hollywood’s chief hospice, six gentlemen–actual count–rush forward to salute les petites.
Eventually, we reached the menu. Viola refused to vouchsafe it a glance.
“Why should I look at it?” she asks. “I told you I used to live here. This is spare-ribs and roast veal night.”
She suddenly is seized with a morbid desire for a home of her own.
“I’m going to get married,” she avows.
“So am I.” says Alice.
“What type of men will be cast for the parts?” I inquired.
ALICE: I don’t care, so long as he’s dark.
VIOLA: Mine must be blond. All the men I’ve ever fallen for have been blonds–except five or six.
ALICE: I want a man with character. You know–human. A cave-man? I should say, I don’t want a cave-man.
VIOLA: I do. Only there isn’t any.
ALICE: Above all, he mustn’t be affected. I like people to be themselves. I could kill a conceited man.
REFEREE: You wouldn’t marry an actor, then?
ALICE: All actors aren’t conceited. Now, there’s David Warfield–
VIOLA: Heavens, you haven’t designs on Dave, I hope.
ALICE (with feminine logic) : I’m not going to marry at all.
VIOLA: You’re backing out!
ALICE: No. If it gets in the magazines that I want to marry, some nuts will think it is an ad and start sending me photographs.
VIOLA (sentimentally): I had a proposal once by mail. He said he would rather clasp me to his bosom than be President of the United States.
REFEREE (fervently): Who wouldn’t?
ALICE: Well, I’m not going to stop anybody’s chances of being President of the United States.
VIOLA: If they keep on making you play grandmothers in your pictures, you certainly won’t. Cheer up; in your next picture you are to play a young girl of thirty.
ALICE (addressing Referee): Do you know what we call one another? I call Vi “Charlie,” and she calls me “Sarah.” They expect her to be as funny as Chaplin and me to be as emotional as Berhardt.
VIOLA (making wry grimace): Producers expect a screen actress to have the face of a girl of sixteen, the brain of a woman of fifty, and the acting ability of Berhardt.
ALICE: If we could only be ourselves. I don’t want to be Bernhardt–not so long as I can get around as I am.
REFEREE: What are you going to do when you start losing your beauty?
VIOLA: We haven’t started having any yet.
ALICE: I’ll be a censor.
VIOLA: I’m going to raise a family.
ALICE: You’re a fine person to raise a family. In all your pictures, you vamp. For four years they called you the Baby Vamp, and now it’s the Flapper of the Screen.
VIOLA (dignifying slightly): I don’t know that anybody would get a very good idea of your character from seeing you on the screen. I haven’t seen you in a picture yet that you weren’t seeking revenge on some one.
ALICE (addressing Referee): And in real life I never seek revenge; do I, Vi?
VIOLA (suspiciously): Well, who said I vamped in real life?
[Enter, F. Richard Jones, director of Mabel Normand in “Mickey ” and “Molly-O.” He is hailed familiarly as “Dick” by Alice and Referee and introduced to Vi and duenna Leek. He shows a magnificent platinum and gold watch, which he has received as a gift from Mabel, who at the time is having a vacation in New York. The Referee recalls that Dick has the reputation for never knowing when to quit work. Perhaps Mabel wants to provide him with a way of knowing before she starts her next picture under his direction.]
ALICE (To Dick as he departs) : We’ll be down to see “Molly-O” as soon as you give a preview.
VIOLA: We’re chronic fans. We went to the movies every night last week; didn’t we, Alice?
ALICE: We saw “The Queen of Sheba” last night, and we cried so much we were ashamed when the lights came on.
VIOLA: We cried so much that we had the mee-mee’s when we got home. Betty Blythe is wonderful. I admire her refinement in being able to wear those costumes without ever suggesting anything vulgar.
ALICE: Miss Blythe is marvelous, and so is Fritz Lieber. He’s a Shakespearian actor.
VIOLA: Alice goes to every kind of a show–even Shakespeare. Can you imagine it? And she couldn’t wait until Robert Mantell got here, to drag me down to see him.
ALICE: Well, wasn’t he good?
VIOLA: Yes, but he sings. And he kept coming back to sing without any encore.
ALICE: All great actors sing when they play Shakespeare.
VIOLA: I like Shakespeare, but I think he must have been asleep when he wrote “As You Like It.” What a dumb-bell play that is. Can you imagine any girl like Rosalind, getting away all that time as a boy, just by wearing a little boy’s suit?
ALICE (somewhat irreverently) : I love Savoy and Brennan.
VIOLA : Savoy would make a fine Rosalind, wouldn’t he? Can you hear him saying. “You must come over,” to Orlando?
ALICE : Savoy’s favorite screen actor is Douglas Fairbanks. He says he thinks Doug is “gorgeous.”
REFEREE : Have you no favorites?
VIOLA: Sure we have–a lot of them.
ALICE: I like Dick Barthelmess and Jack Barrymore.
VIOLA: I think Jim Kirkwood is fine–and Lon Chaney–
ALICE: I like Jim, too.
VIOLA: And Joe Martin. Oh, Alice, give your imitation of that [***] girl that used to hang around Vitagraph.
ALICE (proceeding to look cross-eyed and talk in a nasal tone, with a lantern-jawed effect not unlike Joe Martin): “All the men are just crazy about me. Can’t keep them away–just crazy about me.”
(With loud roars from Viola, Referee and Duenna, Alice gets up and imitates the sirenic Miss [***])
VIOLA (her laughter subsiding): Alice nearly killed me this morning by giving imitations as we were getting up. You ought to imitate that scenario writer who was always getting us aside to tell us his stories. They were all alike.
ALICE: Well, you had to admire him for sticking to his story!
VIOLA: Anything I hate is to be told a story. It’s terrible to go to a dinner with a movie crowd, and have to sit next to a director that wants to tell you about the corking thing he’s going to do next. You look away, and just get to talking to someone else, and he nudges you and says, “Oh, say, I’ve got a wonderful gag!”
ALICE: Did you ever see a Mexican jumping bean, Vi?
VIOLA: A which?
ALICE: They jump all around, and never stop.
VIOLA: My word! It must be embarrassing trying to eat a plate of them. What do you use–a butterfly catcher?
ALICE: You don’t eat them. They have worms in them. When the worm turns over, the bean jumps.
VIOLA: They must be spooky, like the relatives of those people who have seances at our apartment house.
ALICE (shuddering violently): Oo-oh! They’re awful. The room is all dark, and their relatives come down–or up–and jiggle the tables, write on pads, ring the alarm clock–
VIOLA: And put the cat out.
ALICE: Just suppose, Vi, that some time when they are being subpoenaed or seanced–or whatever they call it–the relatives make a mistake in the number of the apartment and get into yours. Oo-oo-oo-ooh!
VIOLA: Alice is afraid of the dark. She wanted a drink of water last night, and lay awake three hours because she was afraid to get up and get it.
[A venerable dame, passing our table, catches the word “drink,” and glances suspiciously thru her double-barreled glasses.]
ALICE: I know what she’s thinking. She’s thinking, “Those loud, vulgar movie people.”
VIOLA (wearily): Everyone is attacking us now.
ALICE: Especially the San Francisco people. And only last year we went up there to boost the town at some festival or something.
VIOLA: And you wore your new seventy-five-dollar hat in the rain.
ALICE (mournfully): It got all squashed down flat on my head.
VIOLA: Yes, it looked like a cat had crawled up there and died.
[The lights begin to wink suggestively. Viola, with a sigh, commences to struggle with her gloves.]
VIOLA (reaching under the table): My feet hurt.
ALICE (sympathetically): So do mine.
[Having at last reached agreement on one subject, they are ready for home, where Viola, with the advice of her counselor, Alice, is to face the man who wants to invest her money.]
REFEREE: Good-night, Charlie. Good-night, Sarah.
CHARLIE AND SARAH (in perfect harmony): Good-night. Now, don’t you publish anything we said!
(Motion Picture Magazine, May 1922)
Being The King of staged photographs, Buster had some photographic fun with both Viola and Alice during their friendships. It’s easier for me to imagine the hilarity that must’ve gone into making these photos after hearing the ladies’ voices. None of these images are from movies, just goofing around.
Buster and Viola (and Eddie Cline):
Buster and Alice, loose in the costume closet:
What a damn hoot.
*** Miss Black. After several careful readings (by myself and others) I concluded there was nothing sensitive about this paragraph other than, potentially, the fact that these days Alice’s poking fun at someone might be considered mean spirited. However, a less careful reading or a skimming over the words might cause it to come off differently, so in order to avoid confusion I removed her last name from the text. If anyone has any questions or concerns about this please let me know!