By Grace Ulferts:
Edwina Booth was a beautiful actress who should’ve received the film stardom she deserved. Born Josephine Constance Woodruff on September 13, 1904, in Provo, Utah, she was the oldest of five children. Her father was a local doctor. She unfortunately suffered from hypoglycemia as a young child, which left her often ill and with little energy. Because of this, she never completed a full year of school.
In 1921, when Josephine was sixteen years old, her father contracted influenza, and her family moved to Venice, California, so that her father could receive more extensive medical treatment. As a teenager, Josephine often watched films at the local cinema, and thus began her dream to become an actress.
In 1926, when she was twenty-one years old, Josephine was sunbathing on a beach when she was discovered by director E.J. Babille. He thought she was beautiful and offered her a screen test at Metropolitan Studios. She didn't get the role, but that did not deter her.
In 1928, she made her film debut in a small role in the romantic comedy Manhattan Cocktail under her stage name, Edwina Booth (her grand-uncle was named Edwin, and her grandfather’s last name was Booth). Her next film role came in 1929 with a small part in the Joan Crawford film Our Modern Maidens.
Although Edwina had only appeared in small roles, her potential as a starring actress was noticed by many directors, and her chance for stardom came when she was cast in a starring role in the 1931 epic film Trader Horn.
Even though the film eventually met with great success as the first non-documentary film shot on location in Africa, the production for the film proved disastrous. Edwina and the rest of the cast and crew were not well-equipped for the filming location, and many of the crew, including Edwina, contracted malaria during filming. Edwina was scantily clad for the role, and due to the heat, suffered from heatstroke many times. Despite these problems, Trader Horn was a success, and even secured a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Picture.
However, the film’s success did not help propel Edwina’s career. It took her six years to fully recover from the malaria she contracted during filming, and because she had suffered from hypoglycemia as a young child, her immune system as compromised, the malaria leaving her weak and ill. Edwina eventually sued MGM for over a million dollars, claiming she had been provided with inadequate protection and inadequate clothing during the film's production. She also claimed she had been forced to sunbathe nude for extended periods of time during filming. The case received an enormous amount of attention and publicity and was eventually settled in court, with Edwina allegedly settling for $35,000.
Despite making a handful of films after Trader Horn, Booth never received the film stardom she longed for. The films were mostly B westerns, and although they were successful in their market, they failed to propel Edwina’s career forward. Growing depressed over her failed career and her illness, Edwina retired in 1932 at the age of only 28. A few years later, she traveled to Europe to seek medical treatment. Afterward, she completely withdrew from the public eye and refused to talk about her experience in films, despite still receiving fan mail.
In her later years, Booth declared that she would dedicate her time and her earnings for the alleviation of human suffering, saying, “My years of illness have not been wasted. . . . I have learned to love mankind.” She later became more active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and often worked in the Los Angeles California Temple. Edwina married three times and never had any children. She passed away on May 18, 1991, at the age of 86 in Los Angeles, California.
Edwina suffered so much during her lifetime, but it’s heartwarming to see that she was able to heal her wounds later in life. Edwina Booth deserved the film stardom she dreamed of, and although she may never have achieved it, she will always remain in the hearts of Old Hollywood lovers.
May she rest in Peace.
Grace Ulferts is the nineteen year-old creator of Instagram account @allaboutsilentfilm. She is dedicated to sharing her love for silent movies and the history of the stars who made them famous. A student of Behavioral Neuroscience, her hobbies are reading, drawing, hanging out with her friends . . . and, of course, watching old movies!