Phillips Holmes always did look like a movie star, but his moniker could have used some improvement. His parents each had a blue-blooded surname that he combined, making his own name rather unwieldy. But no matter: his aristocratic nose, thick fan of eyelashes, and neat waves of golden-blond hair more than made up for it. In the 1930s, he worked with Howard Hawks, Josef Von Sternberg, Ernst Lubitsch and other luminaries of the early years of Hollywood, but rarely in their most remembered films, making Holmes little more than a cinephile footnote today.
The well-off Ivy Leaguer first made a mark at the tail end of the silent era, appearing in bit roles until he was signed by Paramount Studios around 1928. His star power rose in lighthearted, sophisticated comedies that the studio had made its signature—white telephones, refined characters, European manners, and so on. Aristocratic types and English gentleman became a fundamental part of Phillips Holmes’ star persona.
It didn’t hurt that Holmes was something of an F. Scott Fitzgerald avatar: a well-off, pretty-faced boy with light hair and a fashionable look. Given that Holmes was, like Fitzgerald, a Midwestern Princeton man, his resemblance to the literary star was all the more striking—and marketable. In 1931, Holmes capitalized on his personal charm in an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which told of a social-climbing young man who murders his pregnant girlfriend when a wealthy socialite takes a romantic interest in him.
Based on a scandalous true crime case, Holmes takes on the central role of Clyde Griffiths as a slippery fellow with a likable, charismatic front. The role would later be taken on by Montgomery Clift in George Stevens’ better known film A Place in the Sun (1951), but Holmes’ more unwholesome portrayal of a similar character makes for a fascinating comparison. While A Place in the Sun is dripping with tragic romance, An American Tragedy is more deeply connected to class, poverty, sex and greed in American life. The conclusions it draws are so bleak that it’s no surprise Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was originally set to direct. Instead, Paramount execs turned to Josef Von Sternberg, famous for discovering Marlene Dietrich. An American Tragedy was a box office success, scandalous enough to be banned outright in Great Britain, and did plenty for the rising star of its leading man.
In fact, Phillips Holmes’ run of directors in the early ’30s is hard to believe. In ’31, he worked with Von Sternberg and Howard Hawks as a hoodwinked naif in The Criminal Code. The following year, he was cast in Ernst Lubitsch WWI drama Broken Lullaby, as a shell-shocked French musician seeking absolution for his deeds in the trenches. The trouble, it seemed, was that Holmes was given more credit by reviewers for his wavy golden hair than for his acting ability. Even decades later, powerful critic Pauline Kael referred to him as “unspeakably handsome, but an even more unspeakable actor.”
In 1933, Holmes played a role in the large supporting cast of George Cukor’s Dinner at Eight, best-known for its cracking wit and sharp twists between humor and drama. But as the 1930s progressed, Holmes increasingly found that his particular “type”—the flaming youth of the Roaring Twenties, with plenty of money in his tailored pockets—was no longer so popular. During the Depression years, many moviegoers gravitated to pugnacious, salt-of-the-earth types like James Cagney and John Garfield, making Holmes’ trim, patrician aesthetic—all WASPy demeanor and delicate features—rather worthy of suspicion. As a result, his roles were frequently of moral weaklings or dissolute playboys.
A string of forgettable comedies and misfiring literary adaptations reached their nadir in Great Expectations (1934), a stodgy and unremarkable Dickens story hugely overshadowed by the release of W.C. Fields’ David Copperfield around the same time.
This image of Holmes as box-office poison was all-the-more supported by extratextual information leaked to the public around the same time, characterizing Holmes as party boy. In 1933, while driving drunk, he had a late-night car crash that seriously injured his co-star Mae Clarke. Clarke broke her jaw and lost a juicy upcoming role as a result. Fan magazines frequently implied he was a heel who had risked Clarke’s career and behaved carelessly, only offering to pay for her medical damages when she sued him in court.
A number of commercial failures and increasingly negative public scrutiny led Holmes back to Britain, where he starred in several stage plays and a handful of films for Elstree Studios. But war was on the horizon by the latter half of the decade, and Phillips—along with his brother Ralph—both eagerly signed up to the Canadian Air Force in 1941. Although Phillips was by this time 35-years-old, he was convinced he had only survived in Hollywood for as long as he had on his good looks, and felt no real sense of pride about his career. He reportedly told his parents on the phone after he joined the Air Force: “I love you dearly, and I’ll make you proud of me yet.”
While it may be that Phillips Holmes’ ability was somewhat limited, he vastly underestimated his talents. He had proven he could portray a great deal of wounded sensitivity and even understated malice. In his own quiet way, it could even be said that he was a predecessor for the more brooding masculinity of the stars of the post-war era. Sadly, he had no chance to see that style of leading man prosper, as he was killed in an aircraft collision over Canada in 1942. He was buried in New York to little fanfare. His life may have cruelly cut short, but for the better part of a decade Holmes burned radiantly across American screens, inducing swoons in men and women alike. To see him at his finest, revisit his shimmeringly untrustworthy persona in An American Tragedy and remember: once upon a time, Phillips Holmes gave Montgomery Clift a run for his money.
Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing flicks.