In her silent heyday, this ravishing and highly photogenic star, known for her voluptuous femininity on the silent screen, rivaled that of Mary Pickford, Marion Davies and Clara Bow in popularity. She retired after only a few years into the talking picture era, however, and is not as well-remembered in today’s film circles as the aforementioned.
Billie Dove was born Lillian Bohny on May 14, 1903 (several sources list 1900), to Swiss parents Charles and Bertha Bohny who emigrated to New York City before she was born. Educated in private schools in Manhattan, she was already singled out as quite a beauty by her early teens. By 15 and 16 she was helping to support the family by working as both a photographer’s and artist’s model. It is said that the renowned poster painter/illustrator James Montgomery Flagg sketched her during this period. Although she could neither sing nor dance all that well, this stunning beauty was subsequently hired by Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. to appear in his famous Follies. She was eventually given solo entrances in his extravaganzas (one was for the song “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”), and also appeared as gorgeous window dressing in a few of his Follies’ sideshows–the “Midnight Frolics” and “Nine O’Clock Revues”–all between 1918-20. She also served as a dancing replacement in Ziegfeld’s Broadway show “Sally,” which headlined Marilyn Miller, in 1921.
A burgeoning affair between Dove and Ziegfeld prompted Ziegfeld’s wife Billie Burke to arrange work for the young starlet in Hollywood films. She made her feature debut in George M. Cohan’s Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford (1921), based on the 1910 Broadway play; the cameras instantly fell in love with the beautiful newcomer. She was immediately put into a starring role in only her second picture, the backstage romantic drama At the Stage Door (1921), the story of a chorus girl and her sister (also a chorine) who compete for the affections of a wealthy patron. From there Billie went on to appear opposite some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men–from glossy, dramatic stars such as John Gilbert and Warner Baxter to sturdy cowboy idols Tom Mix and Hoot Gibson–and in several different genres. Billie also graced a number of pictures helmed by Irvin Willat, whom she married in 1923. These included All the Brothers Were Valiant (1923) co-starring Lon Chaney; the Zane Grey western Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924); The Air Mail (1925) with Baxter and Douglas Fairbanks; and The Ancient Highway (1925).
Top stardom came while she was swept up in the arms of the dashing Fairbanks as the starry-eyed princess who is rescued by The Black Pirate (1926) in the classic silent adventure. Billie was the first actress to receive a color screen test via this pirate yarn. Lovingly dubbed “The American Beauty” after appearing in the movie of the same title, The American Beauty (1927)–in which she played a social-climbing hat check girl–her acting talent was considered modest. Her better pictures were those opposite stronger male actors by stronger directors. Pioneer female director Lois Weber fit the bill and brought out the best in Billie in two of her films–The Marriage Clause (1926) with Francis X. Bushman and Sensation Seekers (1927).
Divorced from Willat in 1929, Billie was still at the peak of her popularity with the advent of sound. The multi-millionaire eccentric and (at that time) budding producer Howard Hughes became an obsessed admirer, which resulted in an all-consuming three-year affair. Hughes, who tried to take over and control her career, actually proposed to the star and they were briefly engaged. She abruptly ended the relationship, however, when she was unable to handle his quirkiness and long, unexplained absences. For Hughes she appeared on screen in the dramatic The Age for Love (1931) and comedic Cock of the Air (1932).
In Blondie of the Follies (1932), the Marion Davies starrer, Dove was dismayed when her third-billed role was “trimmed” and “reshaped” at the urging of Davies’ highly influential paramour William Randolph Hearst (who happened to own Cosmopolitan Productions, which made the picture). This was to be her last film; she retired from the screen shortly thereafter. By 1933 she had remarried and focused on having a family. Married to Robert Kenaston, a rancher, oil executive and real estate investor, they had one son (Robert Alan) and an adopted daughter (Gail). The couple divorced in 1970 after 37 years of marriage (he died three years later). A third marriage to architect John Miller also ended in divorce.
Other than an unbilled bit part of a nurse in the movie Diamond Head (1962) with Charlton Heston, Dove never returned to the screen. She was eventually transferred from her Rancho Mirage (California) home to live out the rest of her life at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills. The nonagenarian died of pneumonia in 1997.
(Text by Gary Brumburgh via IMDB.com)