From All Movie Guide: “All bad little films when they die go to Ralph Spence.” So read the Hollywood trade-paper advertisement of this former Houston journalist, who entered movies as a film editor in 1921. By the mid-’20s, Spence was firmly established as one of Hollywood’s top title writers, supplying clever, witty dialogue for such silent film favorites as Wallace Beery, Raymond Hatton, and Marie Dressler. He was also famous as a “film doctor,” rearranging scenes and rewriting subtitles in order to make poor films good and good films great. Legend has it that he once completely altered the mood and tone of a mediocre melodrama by reworking one single introductory title, transforming the villain’s mistress into his maiden aunt. Many of his “gag” titles became classics: In 1927’s The Callahans and the Murphys, for example, he has a drunken woman exclaim, “This stuff makes me see double and feel single!” Reportedly, Spence was considered so valuable a Hollywood commodity that he earned 10,000 dollars a picture; he was also the first title writer to receive separate billing on theater marquees, and at one juncture even starred in his own series of two-reel comedies. In the talkie era, Spence continued to specialize in comedy, collaborating on many of the early Wheeler and Woolsey vehicles at RKO; he was also one of the scenarists on Laurel and Hardy’s 1939 “comeback” picture The Flying Deuces. Ralph Spence’s final film credit was the 1943 musical Higher and Higher. ~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide
I’m doing research on silent cinema, with an emphasis on intertitles and title writers. One of the most famous title writers was named Ralph Spence, and I’m hoping someone out there knows more about him. More specifically, I’m hoping there is someone out there (a grandchild, I would imagine) that might actually remember him.
During his time (1920’s), he was the one of the highest paid title writers in Hollywood. He was known as a “film doctor,” some one that could take unsuccessful silent films, reedit them, and make them successful. More importantly, he was a character, an eccentric with a story. But it is a story that I am having a tough time uncovering. I get little bits and pieces, but the whole story is elusive. For example, Louise Brooks (a famous silent film starlet) wrote in her biography that
I remember late one night wandering into Ralph Spence’s suite in the Beverly Wilshire, where he sat gloomily amidst cans of film, cartons of stale Chinese food, and empty whisky bottles. He was trying to fix up a Beery and Hatton comedy, Now We’re in the Air, and no comic line he invented would fit the lip action.
I love the mess of film, stale food, and booze. There must be more. If you know anything about Ralph Spence, please write me at gscottrobinson(at)gmail.com or post it here. I’ll post everything I’ve found so far here as well.