"Francelia Billington, who is playing the title role in Wanda of Red Street, found her way to the company's studio at Palo Alto by way of train. When she saw the fine scenic beauties of the Santa Clara valley she sent for her mother and her car, and both arrived a few days later.
"Nell Shipman, who is up in Bear Valley with Rollin S. Sturgeon's Vitagraph Company, filming James Oliver Curwood's 'God's Country--and the Woman,' writes on the two outgoing mails a week from there, that they are snowed in and the only way to get out before the snow breaks, is to 'mush' down the long trail on snow shoes. Since joining the Vitagraph Company in Bear Valley to play the part of 'the Woman' in the Curwood picture, Miss Shipman finished the continuity on Wanda of the Red Street for the Palo Alto Corporation and has all but finished that of another five-reeler which this company has bought."
The Palo Alto Company engaged James Cruze for the leading male role. He had been a prominent actor with the Thanhouser Company in New Rochelle, New York and would later become one of the silent cinema's most celebrated directors with classics like The Covered Wagon. Unfortunately, despite all the talent involved, the Palo Alto-based venture seems never to have gotten off the ground and it is not clear if the unreleased feature, Wanda of the Red Street, was ever even completed.
Following her association with the Palo Alto Company, Francelia joined Universal where she played leads for such directors as Rupert Julian and Rex Ingram. In 1917, she went over to the American studio in Santa Barbara to star in features directed by Edward Sloman. Her return to Universal in 1918 brought her a co-starring role in one of the silent cinema's true landmarks, Erich von Stroheim's directorial debut, Blind Husbands (1919). In this film, Stroheim first demonstrated the genius that would make him one of cinema's most legendary figures. Simultaneously the director, writer, set designer and star, Stroheim brought to the story of a marital triangle a Continental sophistication that revolutionized the treatment of sexual themes in American films. Francelia played a doctor's neglected wife who becomes involved with a sinister but seductive Austrian lieutenant portrayed by Stroheim. Her sensitive performance was acclaimed and it seemed as though she were destined for future triumphs when the film scored a major commercial and critical success upon its release in the fall of 1919.
Ironically, however, while Blind Husbands inaugurated a whole new career for Erich von Stroheim, it proved to be the climax of Francelia Billington's. In the early 1920s, she appeared in western and adventure films, entering into an on-screen partnership with Lester Cuneo whom she also married. But the marriage ended tragically in 1925 with Cuneo's suicide just two days after their divorce. Francelia's career foundered as few roles came her way. It was impossible for her to return to her work as a camera operator which she indicated she had found even more satisfying than acting. With the increasing expansion of the film industry, cinematography had become the most male-dominated field in the cinema. After a long absence from the screen, she made her final screen appearance and her only talkie in a 1930 Hoot Gibson western for Universal, The Mounted Stranger. As her opportunities in films declined, so did her health. On November 24, 1934, she died of tuberculosis at 39 in Glendale, California, a passing so unnoticed that it would be over half a century before researchers like Billy Doyle discovered that she was indeed deceased. It will be the task of future film historians to enrich our understanding of film history by chronicling the careers of such stars as Francelia Billington, an extraordinary pioneer in a time when anything seemed possible in the new art of the cinema.
© William M. Drew
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