Lila Lee, Little Cuddles: Vaudeville to the Silver-Screen!

Lila Lee

Lila Lee


Lila Lee, born Augusta Bessie Appel, was a child star on the vaudeville circuits, under the management of Gus Edwards. Her relationship was such with Mr. and Mrs. Edwards that she took the Edwards name professionally, Little Cuddles Edwards; this with full permission from her mother. The song “Look out for Jimmy Valentine is the reason that Augusta Appel, soon to be ‘Little Cuddles’ was discovered. “Jimmy Valentine” was published in October of 1910, and Edwards saw her outside of a theater, and it was not until he got inside and like a flash the idea of this little girl lying on a piano, while “Look out for Jimmy Valentine” was sung, came to him; he asked Miss Lee’s mother for consent, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Lila Lee childThe_Washington_Post_Thu__Apr_18__1918_


All did not remain amenable between the Edwards and the Appel families; an April, 1920, legal battle ensued which lasted two weeks, finally awarding custody of Lila Lee once again to her parents, Charles and Augusta Appel of Chicago;[1] Augusta Cuddles Lila Edwards-Lee-Appel had lived with the Edwards for ten years. A month later, guardianship for Lee was appointed to Chicago attorney Philip Sultan.[2]  As we explore the early career of Lila Lee we cannot forget that she was still a child, throughout those formative acting years, she learned the art of celluloid acting on the job.

The next subject I want to tackle is the Lila Lee conundrum: her age. FPL (Famous Players-Lasky) signed the then sixteen-year-old actress in June of 1918.[3] Yet, her given age to the press was fourteen-years, in 1918,[4] eh, I’m lost? Was she 16 or 14? If 14 then she was born in 1904, but her date of birth on file is 1901 or 1902? Any birth-date earlier than 1903 would have made the custody between the Edwards and Appels moot; we will consider 1901 and 1902 as Ms. Lee attempting to pass herself off as older.  In a newspaper article in December of 1912 her age is listed as seven[5] and her discovery by Gus Edwards when she was five? If Lee was five when discovered in 1910, then she was born in 1905? Which would make her? Total confusion! Even her own personal statements (this could be a common trait in Hollywood) make the process of finding her true age difficult. In the 1930 Federal Census, she listed her birth year as 1906; we would continue confused as to her real age excepting that she married James Kirkwood July 25, 1905, on her eighteenth birthday.[6]  She was a star from the get-go! Top billing amongst the children on the vaudeville circuit, was the norm. She continued her vaudeville appearances through April of 1918, and then as stated above, Ms. Appel contracted with FPL, no later than the first week of June, 1918;[7] taking the name of Lila Lee.

The_Indianapolis_News_Fri__Jan_14__1916_Photoplay (Apr - Sep 1918).htm_20140712060941The_Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle_Sun__Jul_20__1913_The_Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle_Sun__Sep_1__1918_The_Brooklyn_Daily_Eagle_Thu__Jul_23__1914_The_New_York_Times_Sun__Jul_15__1917_The_Washington_Post_Thu__Apr_18__1918_

Lila Lee just prior to her first movie

Lila Lee just prior to her first movie


At first glance it appears Ms. Lee may have been in the pre-Broadway production of Common Clay (penned by Cleves Kinkead), which played in Atlantic City, in August of 1915,[8] but, it is more reasonable to believe that the actress was Ms. Lela Lee, and not Lila Lee, listed in the trial-run of the Harvard award-winning play; accepting this as a misprint jibes well with the Broadway run of Common Clay where Lela Lee is in the cast. Lela Lee retired from the stage in January of 1916, after marrying Samuel Hoffenstein; the new Mrs. Hoffenstein left the cast of Common Clay, being succeeded by Ruth Boyd.[9]

In July of 1918 the preparation for her first appearance was laid down, with a nice piece in Film Fun magazine, where The Cruise of the Make-Believes is not called her first movie but One Hundred Per Cent American (a WWI Bond-Campaign film);[10] obviously plans changed for Lee’s role in this Liberty Loan Drive[11] movie, we see not hide nor hair of her in this 1 ½ reel short-patriotic-subject.

When taking notice of the advertising afforded Ms. Lee with her film debut, The Cruise of the Make-Believes, in 1918, it is clear that she had name recognition, which translated to a starring role for her first celluloid appearance. Adding to that the Paramount Pictures public-relations department was quick to connect the Little-Cuddles angle in every publicity-release, interview and photo-shoot and in nearly every ad seen; this was especially true, through 1919 (her name appeared over five-hundred times in entertainment magazines and papers, in those two years). Lila Cuddles Lee was remembered fondly when she made her mark in movies, by those that had seen her on stage.[12]

Lila Lee Reading_Times_Mon__Sep_23__1918_(1)The Cruise of the Make-Believes The_Bridgeport_Telegram_Sat__Sep_28__1918_The_New_York_Times_Sun__Sep_1__1918_

Motion Picture Magazine (Aug 1918-Jan 1919).htm_20140712055810Reading_Times_Fri__Jan_31__1919_(1)Moving Picture World (Sep - Oct 1918).htm_20140711204022Reading_Times_Fri__Jan_31__1919_

Motion Picture News (Apr-Jun 1919).htm_20140713081553


Soon her star began to fade as bad reviews piled high; this became a concern with distributors and exhibitors, once they began looking at the box-office analysis. Their suggestion, to off-set lackluster performances and weak story-lines, was to direct the attention of the potential movie-goer back to Lila Cuddles Lee, reminding the audience of her vaudeville fame.[13] Although the poor reviews were not contained to the film-making industry; there were enough pans and lukewarm notices to damage the rise of the young star, albeit, a manufactured starlet by Paramount Pictures. The common complaint of Lee was that her airy, vivacious stage presence did not translate well on film.

Miss Lee was set to take the lead role in Judy of Rogue’s Harbor, as of December, 1918,[14] further it was reported in April of 1919 that she had wrapped up shooting for Judy of Rogue’s Harbor.[15]  Yet the final project was not produced by Paramount and the role was given to Mary Miles Minter;[16] a very perplexing mishmash of events.

With turns in the Cecil B. DeMille production of Male and Female, 1919, and under the direction of William C. De Mille and James Cruze, with her best work yet to come in 1922 in Blood and Sand (starring Rudolph Valentino, directed by Fred Niblo and Dorothy Arzner), it may have appeared that she at last had found her acting stride, but her contract with Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount was not renewed. Her last film for the company (for which she receives modern credit for; please see Lee miscellany, below for her true final FPL/Paramount flick) was The Ne’er-Do-Well, released in April of 1923. Lee was announced to play in the 1924 release of North of 36,[17] but she did not make the trail to North of 36; FPL canceled the project, (no sooner having announced it), then reversed their decision again in February, 1924, this time with Irvin Willat to direct instead of James Cruze, their original choice for the film.[18]

Lila Lee is a most interesting subject, a talented child brought along too quickly, attaining a certain celebrity, without reaching the stars.


Lee miscellany

Two films that are not included in Ms. Lee’s work history are Human Wreckage (produced by the Thomas H. Ince Corporation), 1923, and Pied Piper Malone (for Paramount), 1924.

The_Indiana_Gazette_Sat__May_24__1924_ The_Chillicothe_Constitution_Tribune_Fri__May_23__1924_


With James Kirkwood, Lee married a man more than twice her age, twice divorced, his last divorce-decree coming just a week before the Kirkwood-Lee-nuptials (the grounds for the second Edwards divorce, granted to his wife was ‘other women’).[19] Lee defied her parents, by marrying Kirkwood, whom they opposed and her guardian Philip Sultan, was surprised at the wedding.[20] To add to the strain for Lila Lee, just a month later her husband came close to death, by fracturing his skull, when thrown from a horse.[21] Kirkwood was working on the King Vidor, film, Wild Oranges, and the entirety of the five reels required retakes, with Frank Mayo taking Kirkwood’s role.[22]

Lila Lee’s father, Charles Appel, must have been a constant embarrassment for the young lady, while everything at casual observation looked fine (he owned a special events facility in Chicago, Illinois[23]) Mr. Appel was walking the razor’s edge of criminality when at his best, and not only flirted with the wrong side of the law, but took up residence in the dark region; all the while maintaining the persona of a philanthropist.[24]

In autumn of 1919, Appel admitted that he purchased contraband beer from a Kenosha, Wisconsin, provider.[25] In the summer of 1920 one of Appel’s facilities was broken into and he had four-hundred cases of alcohol stolen; later Chicago Police detectives confiscated the remaining fifty-three cases of Appel’s stock, and began a watch on Appel, his truck and properties. This led them to a new hideout and police were able to apprehend seventy-five more cases of the illegal (prohibition) libation.[26]

1923 saw Appel charged with embezzlement, larceny, and running a confidence game; the indictment totaled approximately $250,000 (of course all charges were denied by the family, and further that Appel would face his accusers [27]). Even the money that Appel made off with was to be used to buy intoxicants, (again reminding us that this was illegal).[28]  The initial excuse for the absence of Appel from Chicago was that he went to visit his daughter in California, and would return to Chicago, which he did not; in January of 1924 a reward $500.00 was put out for the return of Appel.[29]  

Lila Lee so much believed in her father that she had supplied $30,000, in an attempt to preclude action against him.[30] Lee faced accusations that she had funded some of the illegal transactions; she threatened to leave the film-industry altogether if the ‘cloud’ of suspicion was not cleared up immediately by the press, regarding her involvement.[31] The situation worsened when in May of 1924, Lee brought suit against her father and mother, seeking clear title to eight pieces of property in Hollywood.[32]

Appel reportedly left the country in 1924, for Mexico City; [33] finally, he was located in Germany, in October of 1925, and the US State Department requested the German government to return Appel to the United States, as extradition was not possible under the provisions of the treaty between the two countries.[34] Appel died in November of 1935, in Elyria, Ohio; what happened between his stay in Germany and his death, I cannot ascertain.


Lila Lee and a non-lengthy Filmography:

The Secret Garden, 1919

Terror Island, 1920

Love’s Whirlpool, 1924

The Unholy Three, 1930

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, 1936


By C. S. Williams


[1] Logansport Pharos-Tribune (Logansport, Indiana) April 28, 1920

[2] San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California) July 26, 1923

[3] Motography, June 22, 1918

[4] Motion Picture News, June 22, 1918

[5] The Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) December 21, 1912

[6] The Evening Tribune (Hornell, New York) July 27, 1923

Moberly Monitor-Index, an Associated Press story, (Moberly, Missouri) July 26, 1923

The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) July 27, 1923

[7] The New York Times (New York, New York) June 9, 1918

[8] Variety (New York, New York) August 6, 1915

[9] The Evening World (New York, New York) January 4, 1916

[10] Film Fun, July, 1918

Variety, September 20, 1918

[11] Variety, September 20, 1918

[12] The Constitution (Atlanta, Georgia) November 17, 1918

The Reading News-Times (Reading, Pennsylvania) September 29, 1919

[13] Wid’s Daily, Sunday, October 13, 1918

[14] Wid’s Daily, Tuesday, December 17, 1918

[15] Picture-Play Magazine, April, 1919

[16] Photoplay Magazine, December, 1919

[17] Motion Picture Magazine, November, 1923

[18] The Film Daily, February 6, 1924

[19] Altoona Tribune (Altoona, Pennsylvania) July 27, 1923

[20] The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) July 27, 1923

[21] Lebanon Daily News (Lebanon, Pennsylvania) August 28, 1923

[22] The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, Nebraska) September 9, 1923

[23] Chicago Eagle (Chicago, Illinois) September 7, 1918

Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) December 12, 1918

San Francisco Chronicle (San Francisco, California) July 26, 1923

[24] Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) December 22, 1922

[25] Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) October 1, 1919

[26] Chicago Daily Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) July 21, 1920

[27] The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah) September 24, 1923

[28] The Huntington Herald (Huntington, Indiana) September 17, 1923

[29] The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah) January 11, 1924

[30] Decatur Review (Decatur, Illinois) January 25, 1924

[31] The Emporia Gazette (Emporia, Kansas) January 26, 1924

[32] Reading Eagle (Reading, Pennsylvania) May 24, 1924

[33] Lincoln Evening Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska) January 30, 1924

[34] El Paso Herald (El Paso, Texas) October 14, 1925






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