A hard worker, a prolific director, and a dedicated individual with a decided allergy to vacations – James Cruze, indeed, continues to impress, inspire, and instruct new audiences, not only with his work, but with his checkered example.
James Cruze was born Jens Vera Cruz Bosen in Five Points, near Ogden, Utah, on March 27, 1884. His middle names, Vera Cruz, came from the famous Battle of Vera Cruz. Later, he used the name James Cruze on the screen, but the Bosen surname was retained in his private life.
According to a note in The Billboard, from October 1921, “Cruze is a quarter-breed Ute Indian and was born in the Uintah Indian Reservation near Vernal, Utah. His grandmother on his mother’s side was burned at the stake for giving birth to a pair of twins. The Indians of the tribe considered this the performance of a witch and took those extreme measures to rid themselves of what they considered a malignant influence.” It was said that James Cruze had 17 siblings. He was fond of telling different stories to different interviewers, and over the years many diverse versions of his childhood and early career appeared in print.
James Cruze was raised in the Mormon religion, a discipline he abandoned when he reached his teen years. At the age of seven he began working in the family’s garden patch, and at the age of 15 or 16 he left home, because, as he told numerous interviewers in the 1920s, including Dorothy Donnell, Doris Irving, and Alfred A. Cohn, he disliked weeding acres of onions for the wage of 25 cents per day.
Cruze’s first motion picture work is believed to have been with Lubin, with whom he had a role in the January 1910 release of The Usurper. The next stop was Pathé, where, among other films, he played in the August 1911 release of A Boy of the Revolution, in which Jack Pickford, brother of Mary, appeared. James Cruze joined the Thanhouser Company in the first half of 1911, where his first part may have been a role in The Pied Piper of Hamelin (released August 1, 1911), although he later stated that his first Thanhouser picture was She (released in two reels, December 26, 1911 and January 2, 1912), in which he played two parts: Leo Vincey and Kallikrates, Vincey’s ancient ancestor.
A biographical sketch published in 1914 noted: “He fitted peculiarly into photo drama because of his versatility and powers of mimicry. He perhaps has had the widest range on the motion picture stage in the variety of parts played.”
Cruze was one of the leading players in the two Thanhouser serials, The Million Dollar Mystery (1914) and Zudora (1914-15). Cruze directed at least one Thanhouser film, the 1914 release of From Wash to Washington. He married another prominent Thanhouser player, Marguerite Snow, in February 1913 in Los Angeles, in a filmed ceremony, and was father of her child, Julie Cruze, born on October 24, 1913. In an interview in The Photoplay Magazine, January 1913, he stated, “One girl is enough for me, providing of course she is THE girl.” Apparently, Marguerite Snow wasn’t THE girl after all, for he divorced her in 1922.
When Edwin Thanhouser returned to New Rochelle in early 1915, he made it clear to James Cruze that his services were no longer needed with the firm, and by that time the actor was seeking a change anyway. On May 15, 1915, he and Sidney Bracy, also formerly of the Thanhouser studio, left New Rochelle with mechanic Abraham A. Meltzer and a cameraman, and headed west on a self-arranged publicity tour.
Cruze suffered a number of financial reverses, and by Autumn 1915 a number of creditors were on his trail. The actor went to Palo Alto, a small film producer located in the California city of the same name, then by early 1916 joined Metro Pictures Corporation, where his wife, Marguerite Snow, was already working. Cruze appeared in the May 1916 release, The Snowbird (Rolfe Photoplays, Inc. for Metro).
The Moving Picture World, March 17, 1917, told of his move to Fox: “James Cruze, known wherever a motion picture screen is to be found, is the newest of prominent photoplayers to join the still rapidly growing William Fox forces. Millions of silent drama fans will remember Mr. Cruze as the intrepid reporter, the star character in the big serial, The Million Dollar Mystery. This part came as a fitting reward for his seven years in the films. From 1909 to 1916 he was allied at various times with Thanhouser, Pathé, Kinemacolor, Metro, Kimberley, and Lasky.”
He had a lengthy career directing films in California, where in 1923 The Covered Wagon earned special attention as an early full-scale Western. This production brought him great renown in the 1920s, and it was stated that he was the highest-paid director in the film industry, earning some $6,000 per week. In later years, any mention of Cruze’s career was apt to mention this film as its highlight.
A lavish brochure about The Covered Wagon was issued by Paramount and suggested that it and The Birth of a Nation were the two greatest pictures ever made.
Many other pictures were directed by Cruze in the 1920s and 1930s, and until the late 1920s, a number of these were eminently successful from a financial viewpoint. Among his titles were Old Ironsides, The Old Homestead, Merton of the Movies, Ruggles of Red Gap, Hollywood, Beggar on Horseback, and Washington Merry-Go-Round. In 1926 and 1929 polls named him as one of the world’s 10 best film directors. Numbered among the stars he directed in the 1920s were Roscoe Arbuckle, Will Rogers, Claudette Colbert, Edward Everett Horton, Wallace Reid, and Edward Arnold.
Following his divorce from Marguerite Snow in 1922, Cruze led a riotous life as a bachelor. Karl Brown, in a recollection printed in the April 1986 Films in Review, told of the director’s dissipation: “Cruze was now completely free to indulge his own natural urges, and he became a living exemplar of the Beggar on Horseback. He not only did as he pleased; he over-did every chance he got to thumb his nose at whatever is considered polite behavior among civilized people.”
On October 14, 1925, James Cruze was married in Los Angeles to film actress Betty Compson (March 18, 1897—April 18, 1974), who entered films in 1915 and enjoyed a career that spanned more than three decades. Domestic tranquility did not characterize the Cruze-Compson household, as Cruze continued his fondness for wild parties, foul language, and drunken brawls. Neighbors frequently summoned the police to quiet things in the early hours of the morning. Apparently, Cruze enjoyed the image he projected, for a biography by Margery Wilson, James Cruze, published in 1928, noted: “He is the self-conscious primitive. It pleases him to be thought crude and rude. It delights him for people to think he had no schooling. He will tell interviewers that he is entirely ignorant, and yet the writer has seen a school program which named him valedictorian.”
Cruze’s marital differences with Betty Compson regularly reached the papers, as in this nationally-distributed item datelined Los Angeles, March 29, 1927: “CRUZES USED TO IT. Jimmie Cruze and his wife, Betty Compson, are reported to have come to the parting of their ways for the third time within two years. It is understood that the couple contemplate legal separation by Miss Compson inaugurating divorce proceedings.”
On July 18, 1927 Cruze filed incorporation papers for his own company, James Cruze Productions, capitalized for $10,000. Later, he formed a related company, James Cruze, Inc., which intended to make five pictures each year and release them through the DeMille-P.D.C-Pathé organization. Cruze was personally to direct two of these films each year. The Metropolitan studios in Hollywood were to be utilized.
A February 1928 news article stated that Cruze had experienced a checkered career, had become dissatisfied with Paramount, and had signed with Pathé, after which he was at liberty and
was considering going with United Artists, or with a states-rights company.
It was announced on March 23, 1929, that James Cruze, Inc. had purchased the property of Chadwick Pictures, consisting of a lot at 1440 North Gower Street, Hollywood, measuring 220 by 312 feet, with office buildings and a small store. Improvements to cost $100,000 were projected, in connection with 15 talking pictures to be produced there under a budget of $1 million. In December of the same year, the trade was informed that eight talking pictures costing $3 million would be produced by Cruze within the coming six months, and that in addition to the company’s own facilities, the studios of Metropolitan and Educational would also be employed. Cruze was set personally to direct such pictures as Circus Parade, The Big Fight, and Ann Boyd. Walter Lang, of the company, was at work directing Clipped Wings, while other titles to be produced by Cruze’s enterprise included The Soul of the Tango, Once a Gentleman, and The Pioneer Mother. A popular Cruze early talkie was The Great Gabbo, starring Betty Compson.
On June 14, 1929, Cruze was subpoenaed to appear in court in Los Angeles in a grand jury proceeding investigating the circumstances surrounding the filming of Old Ironsides off Catalina Island three years earlier. During a dynamiting scene directed by Cruze, a seaman, Charles O. Davis, was killed, and several others were injured.
On July 1, 1929 Cruze made more headlines with a suit against an artist he had filed in Los Angeles the day before. It seems that John Decker, a fairly prominent Hollywood painter and caricaturist, was commissioned by Cruze to do his portrait. The image was less than Cruze hoped for, and he refused to pay the bill, whereupon Decker added some vertical bars to the portrait frame and displayed it in a show window at 6070 Sunset Boulevard, with the caption: “JAMES CRUZE—IN PRISON FOR DEBT.”
Explaining the $200,000 suit filed by his attorney, Milton Golden, Cruze said that he wanted the portrait as a gift for his wife, Betty Compson, but, “Good Lord! If I ever showed my wife the picture Decker painted I’d scare her to death! Mouth like a gargoyle; face like a frog.” Decker countered: “If Cruze wanted some wishy-washy, sloppy, sentimental portrait of himself, he could have had a photograph taken, or hired a two-bit painter to do it. I gave him a work of interpretive art.”
On April 8, 1929, Cruze and his wife legally separated. On April 19, 1930 Betty Compson filed for divorce in Los Angeles. The suit, which gave the couple’s private life names of Luicime C. Bosen and James Bosen, alleged that Cruze “kept open house every night, Sundays, and holidays.” She stated that he preferred the company of his rowdy friends to her companionship, and that conditions at their home were so noisy that it was impossible for her to study her lines. However, she stated, “We parted on the best of terms.”
By early 1930, James Cruze, Inc. was bankrupt. In February, the General Outdoor Advertising Company filed suit against the studio, alleging non-payment of a bill totaling $17,000. In a separate action, Elizabeth K. Chadwick alleged that the property Cruze had agreed to buy from her on North Gower Street, and had been using for some time, had not been paid for. Another action, filed in Federal Court in Los Angeles on April 2, 1930, alleged that Cruze and his company had violated the bankruptcy laws, and that claims amounting to $9,935 had not been paid; creditors included McHuron’s Grill, Metropolitan Sound Studios, Inc., and Smith & Adler.
Following his divorce from Compson, Cruze remained in La Hacienda, the couple’s home in Flintridge, California. On January 26, 1934, Cruze, under the name of James C. Bosen, obtained a permit to build a larger home in Flintridge, to be built at a cost of $50,000, at 4445 Woodleigh Drive. In September 1931 it was revealed that Cruze intended to cast his former wife in a new film, which was to be made by filming a stage play in a combination of stage and screen techniques. A story had not yet been selected. In the meantime, Betty Compson was set to work in a film produced by a Dr. Peters, who had invented a sound system known as the Syncophone.
In September 1932, a collection agency filed suit against Cruze for non payment of $69.50 due to the B.H. Dyas Company. On November 1, 1932, the Conciliation Committee of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ordered Cruze to pay $6,050 in back salary to actress Pauline Starke.
On June 30, 1941, James Cruze married Alberta Beatrice McCoy, 43 years of age, in the bride’s home at 337 North Martel Avenue in Hollywood. Cruze was ailing with heart trouble at the time. Hal Mohr, a cinematographer, acted as best man, and his wife, the actress Evelyn Venable, was the maid of honor. The ceremony was said to have been the third (one Los Angeles newspaper account said the fourth) for Cruze and the first for Miss McCoy. Alberta McCoy Cruze died on July 7, 1960 at her home at 435 South Curzon Avenue, Hollywood, and was buried at Hollywood Memorial Park (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery).
By 1941, his movie career was over. His films from the late 1920s on had been a mixed bag, with some successes and many failures. Among his later pictures were She Got What She Wanted, Salvation Nell, and Racetrack, all made by his own company, and talking pictures, including If I Had a Million, Sailor be Good, I Cover the Waterfront, Helldorado, David Harum, and Sutter’s Gold. Among his last pictures were those made for Republic: Prison Nurse, Gangs of New York, and Come On, Leatherneck. His first wife, Marguerite Snow, and their daughter Julie were frequent visitors to Cruze’s home in the late 1930s and early 1940s, indicating that the former breach was at least partially healed.
James Cruze died virtually penniless on August 3, 1942 in Hollywood, at the home he had shared with his wife for over a year at 337 North Martel Avenue. Rites, conducted by friend and actor Luke Cosgrave, were held at the Crane & Eberle Chapel. It was Cosgrave who hired Cruze years earlier, just after the young actor left the Billy Banks’ Medicine Show. Following cremation at the Hollywood Memorial Park Crematory, his ashes were placed in a crypt in the Abbey of the Psalms Mausoleum. He was survived by two sisters, one of whom was Mrs. W.E. Quillinan. James Cruze had a younger sister, May (also spelled as Mae), who was in films, including a brief stint with Thanhouser in 1912. The hearty contributions of this master director were recognized with a star along Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, at 6922 Hollywood Boulevard.
Without question, with a healthy career, a life lived to the fullest, and a legacy of magnificent films to his credit, James Cruze is one cinematic pioneer who taught lessons, personal and professional, which will continue to teach and inspire.