On July 13th, 1934 the madcap RKO comedy We’re Rich Again was released, the sixth collaboration between director William A. Seiter and star Marian Nixon. They married soon after, and five years later they collaborated in the birth of Jessica Seiter (now Jessica Seiter Niblo), whose Movietown Baby Grows Up is a breezily entertaining memoir of her upbringing in Hollywood. Published at an Espresso Book Machine at her local bookstore, it was intended as a gift for her family, but she is also selling it through Facebook for those interested in the careers and personalities of her talented parents. Seiter Niblo has a warm conversational tone, relating her parents’ romantic foibles and career bumps as if she were flipping the pages of a family album with you over a mug of Irish coffee.
William A. Seiter was the heir to a silver, crystal and china shop in NYC before he found his first wife in bed with another man, whereupon he “flew out the door, onto a train, and headed for Los Angeles to start life anew.” He paid the bills as a Western stuntman and a Keystone cop in Mack Sennett comedies before working his way up the ladder, directing his first silent feature, The Kentucky Colonel, in 1920. Seiter Niblo relates that “Bill’s private life moved along at a reckless pace, trying marriage again with Jill (I was never informed of her last name) who chased him around their cottage with a meat cleaver.” Maybe that harrowing slapstick experience informed the movies he would later make with comedy teams Wheeler and Woolsey and Laurel and Hardy.
Following the more amicable split with third wife Laura LaPlante, Seiter tied the knot for an even number with Nixon, who at the time was dubbed “The Nicest Girl in Hollywood”. She was born in Wisconsin “in a year she would never reveal – but most likely 1904″, to a family of poor Finnish immigrants, and showed a talent for dance, taking lessons in ballet and tap. She joined a touring group at a young age, and was abandoned in L.A. when tour director Paisley Noone absconded with “some handsome young man in Hollywood.” Nixon refused to return home, and tried her hand at acting, getting her first break with a casting director noticed her “threading a needle with ‘notable vigor’”. She earned her first leading role in the Buck Jones Western Big Dan (1923) directed by a young William Wellman.
Nixon had her own lovesick blues, with a short-lived marriage to boxer Joe Benjamin, who made the gossip rags by popping two bullets into Nixon’s home after a spat. She climbed the social ladder for her second marriage, to Chicago department store heir Edward Hillman, Jr., who never held down a job, but simply “drinks and plays polo”. His alcoholism cracks up the marriage, and Seiter and Nixon get hitched mere days after both their divorces are finalized.
This one sticks, and a family sprouts up. Seiter Niblo relays the whirl of being a Hollywood brat, moving from house to house ten times according to the curve of her Dad’s career. As a 2-year-old she sings “Dearly Beloved” to Jerome Kern, and Delmer Daves gives her a book of his calligraphy. Nixon curtails her acting in order to raise a family, but remains fascinated with the business, sending her daughter Mike Connolly’s column from the Hollywood Reporter every week through Jessica’s four years at Stanford. Nixon is essential to maintaining the loose community Seiter created on set, delivering “personal Christmas gifts from my father to his ‘staff’, especially Glen Tryon and Sam Mintz, his right hand men.”
Dave Kehr discusses this communal spirit in his Film Comment essay (Jan/Feb 2012) on William A. Seiter, which is re-printed in the back of the book. He emphasizes that “the thrust of his work is not to dominate his performers but to enframe and enhance them”. He uses Ginger Rogers as an example, as her non-nonsense persona is perfected from Professional Sweetheart (1933) through In Person (1935). Seiter Niblo has learned to do the same for her family, letting their lives and personality emerge through her tough and loving portrait of two charismatic Hollywood talents.
As she proudly notes, her children have continued the family’s string of success in Hollywood. Ted Griffin is a screenwriter whose worked on everything from the cannibal thriller Ravenous (1999, a personal favorite) to the broad Brett Ratner comedy Tower Heist (2011). He collaborated with his brother Nick on Matchstick Men (2003) and the short-lived but much loved TV drama Terriers. So while the Seiter name has long been absent from silver screens, his family still knows how to entertain.