An Unbeatable Second Act: Week of January 15th, 1921

Justine Johnstone

One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley had to find words to discuss yet another showgirl turned movie actress:

It’s a darned slow week on Film Row that doesn’t see some beauteous lady from the Follies making her debut. Justine Johnstone, one of the prettiest of them all, is who appears for the first time in pictures at Clune’s Broadway this week. She debuts in a crook drama called Blackbirds.

Miss Johnstone has great beauty and grace, and while she never risks spoiling her face for the sake of getting drama over, she nevertheless seems possessed of an innate sense of expressiveness. The fans were out in numbers to get their first look at her yesterday.

What a polite way to call her a bad actress! However, the now-lost movie really wasn’t any good. Kingsley’s word was “shopworn,” and she gave a full description of the plot:

As for Blackbirds, this is another case of a forgiven lady. The heroine starts out as a high-class crook, though chemically pure withal. She confines her naughtiness to hooking and smuggling diamonds and rare paintings from Europe; but reforms, saying a little prayer to the Virgin Mary in a painting she is about to steal, just as the detective hero comes upon her, so that he knows her repentance is genuine.*

What Kingsley, and nobody, could have known at the time was what an interesting career Johnstone was to have after she quit acting. Before she went into film, her resume was unsurprising for a Ziegfeld Follies star. Born in 1895 in New Jersey, at fifteen she was discovered by a Broadway press agent, Walter Kingsley (no relation), when she was on her way to a modeling job. She made her Broadway debut in a show called The Blue Bird. After a second show flopped, she went back to school and graduated in 1914. She got hired by Flo Ziegfeld to be in his Watch Your Step (1914) (with Vernon and Irene Castle) and his 1915 and 1916 editions of Follies. The press called her “the most beautiful woman in the world.” In 1917 Lee Shubert produced Over The Top for her to star in (it also featured the Broadway debuts of Fred and Adele Astaire). She married former production assistant and World War 1 aviator Walter Wanger in 1919, and they both went into film: he as a producer at Paramount and she as an actress.

Justine Johnstone and Walter Wanger

By 1926 she got tired of the roles she was being offered, so she quit. However, unlike so many of these stories, she neither disappeared into the domestic sphere nor succumbed to substance abuse or some other sort of tragedy. Instead she audited classes at the Pharmacology Department of Columbia University and found a new job there: medical researcher. She became part of the team that developed the IV drip and a cure for syphilis, and she was a co-author of peer-reviewed papers about their discoveries. In 1931 she moved with her husband to Los Angeles, where he continued to produce films and she went to work at Cal Tech, assisting with oncology research. He was a chronic philanderer, and she divorced him in 1938.

She continued her scientific work, and also contributed to social and political causes, like finding work for blacklisted writers, fighting for women’s equality, and raising money for hunger campaigns. Newspaper writers tried to interview her after her career change, but she politely declined. She didn’t think she had anything to say that was interesting, and she enjoyed her privacy. She died in 1982 of congestive heart failure.

Published by McFarland

She had a great second act! Such a varied and interesting life deserves a biography and in 2018 she got one, written by Kathleen Vestuto. She summed up her subject this way: “she sought out challenges and enjoyed hard work.” The reviewers on Good Reads think it’s a fine book.

*Somebody must have said something to Kingsley about her habit of spoiling the endings of movies, because in this review she justified it:

I don’t feel that I’m really giving anything away in telling the end of the story, inasmuch as nobody outside an Eskimo or South Sea Islander or two will but guess the outcome from the beginning.

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