Remember This? Bess’s Parts

By: Brad Dison

Bess was the queen of Hollywood. She was born in Sherman, Texas in 1898. After high school, she attended the Oklahoma College for Women in Chickasha where she often performed on stage. In 1916, she played dual parts or characters in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and another in the “Merchant of Venice.” As this production was staged by a women’s college, all of the parts, male and female, were performed by females. All of the characters Bess portrayed were men, which is a testament to her talent.

Within a few years, Bess made her way to Hollywood where she appeared in her first film, a 1923 silent comedy film entitled “Hollywood.” Her talents were such that she made two more feature films in her first year in the business. Within three years, Bess became the go-to-girl in Hollywood. In addition to her other acting abilities, Bess began to get acting jobs because of her beautiful hands. She had what the First National Productions studios claimed were the most photographed hands in the world. One reporter boasted, “Her hands are her fortune, sir!” When a movie studio needed a closeup of a beautiful feminine hand, Bess was the actress they would call first. Many leading actresses of the time, according to one reporter, “ofttimes subject themselves to exposure and their hands in many cases suffer from the elements. Consequently, when a close-up of the hands is to be made, they are in many cases unable to offer their own hands due to the fact that they have not been properly cared for and ‘groomed,’ as it were, for the particular occasion.”

Bess, on the other hand, (pun intended) kept her hands properly groomed. She kept to a strict set of rules for the care of her hands. When out in public, Bess always wore thin silk gloves to protect her hands. Every night, she rubbed her hands thoroughly with the skin of a lemon followed by a special cream concocted by a film studio master make-up artist just for her. She allowed her fingernails to grow abnormally long so they could be easily manicured to fit within the film’s script.

As many actor’s and actress’s careers floundered with the transition of the movie industry from silent pictures to “talkie” pictures, Bess remained busy. In 1935, parts of Bess appeared in “Star of Midnight,” which starred William Powell and Ginger Rogers. Bess’s character is pivotal in the film because the plot hinges on her character’s disappearance. In the film, the audience glimpses her ankles as she enters a taxicab, she waves from the taxi’s window, and speaks a few lines, but no more is seen of her. Her presence in other films varied between a quick view of her waving hand to her speaking a few lines. If you watch a film from the 1920s through the 1960s, you will most likely see all or part of Bess, though you may not realize it.

Although Bess had a lucrative Hollywood career for more than four decades, she thought she was no good at acting. However, Bess became the most prolific actress in the history of motion pictures. She appeared in over 700 films, more than any other actor or actress. She appeared in five films which won Academy Awards for Best Picture, more than any other actor or actress. Those films include “It Happened One Night” (1934), “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938), “All About Eve” (1950), “The Greatest Show on Earth” (1952), and “Around the World in 80 Days” (1956). She also appeared in twenty other films which were nominated for Best Picture, more than any other actor or actress. It is doubtful that you will have ever heard the name Bess Flowers, but due to Bess’s parts, she became and remains the “Queen of the Hollywood Extras.”

1. The Chickasha Daily Express (Chickasha, Oklahoma), April 20, 1916, p.1.
2. The Minneapolis Star, March 6, 1926, p.23.
3. Palladium-Item (Richmond, Indiana), July 23, 1927, p.13.
4. The Record (Hackensack, New Jersey), March 12, 1935, p.23.