Florence Rice is not well known today – but IMHO, she definitely joins the rank of debutantes that made solid (to great) careers for themselves in Hollywood. They were few and far between, but the illustrious party includes Katherine Hepburn, Dina Merrill, Gene Tierney and Jean Muir. A solid B movie presence, Florence had an unique acting style that combined a gentle, soft femininity and an almost masculine strength underneath it, a true iron fist in a velvet glove.
Florence Davenport Rice was born on February 14, 1907, in Cleveland, Ohio, only child and daughter of prominent sports reporter, Henry Gartland Rice, and his wife, Katherine Hollis. Her parents married in 1906 in . Some dubious information about an existence of a brother, Grantland Rice, born in 1904, can be found on the net, but no other article ever mentions the boy, thus we can assume it’s a lark.
Florence came from a well to do background. Not only was her father famous and wealthy by his own merit, he also hailed from a fine southern family. He was one of three sons of Bowling and Bula Rice, landed gentry living in Tennesse (but both hailed from Alabama). His grandfather was a Confederate general during the Civil war. Florence’s mother, Katherine, was born in Americus, Georgia, to Benjamin Pulliam Hollis and Florence Davenport, both members of socially prominent families.
Florence was a beautiful child with flaxen hair, a favorite of her parents. She was tutored in private schools in Englewood, New Yersey and in Masschusets. The family moved to New York in the late 1910s, and in 1920 they lived in Manhattan, New York with a maid, Julia Goldman.
She traveled with her parents to Europe almost yearly from the early 1920s, and started making splashes in the social columns from 1925, when she made her debut at the age of 18. The Rices were very active in the high social circuits, and attended many soirees and parties. Florence herself was an accomplished tennis player, and for a time played the game daily on the Flamingo Tennis courts.
Yet, in the end of the day, Florence wanted to act, something not deemed worthy for a woman of her stature. Luckily, she had wonderful, warm parents who supported her wishes, and she was quick to make a Broadway debt in 1930. Doubtlessly her father and his wide net of acquaintances helped her land the gig. She appeared on Broadway in a few solid musical comedies: Criss Cross, Three Cheers, June Moon and Ripples. She then got married, took a brief hiatus, and returned again to the stage in 1933’s She Loves Me Not. That proved to be her last Broadway credit for a long time, and she departed to Hollywood for a fresh start as a motion picture actress.
Florence has a very interesting, varied and unusual filmography. While completely unknown today, she was mostly cast in leads in low budget productions that tackled questions high budget farces could not – small, intimate stories with real people in real situations. Of course, she also made crime movies, adventure movies, war movies, you name it! This were thankless roles as far as fame and fortune went, but good enough for somebody more into art and acting. Florence was by all accounts an intuitive actress, using both her stunning beauty and inbred vulnerability to her advantage.
Her first movie, Fugitive Lady, is a lost one today so there is no information to be said about it. Florence got to star in a string of decent, low budget crime/drama movies with well executed plots and good casts. The Best Man Wins puts her in a middle of a love triangle, made to choose between Victor McLaghen and Edmund Lowe. A frequent trap of the roles of innocent love interests who charm men not because they are femme fatales out to hunt some suckers, but because they are simply enchanting women, is that the actress playing it really has to have that inner shine, a charisma that explains why she is such a magnet. Florence does this perfectly. Her tender, kind personality is tingled with touches of elegance and regality (one can see she was a debutante, just the way she moves and talks is enough too attest to her high breeding and education), and all that is enveloped into a passionate but subtle strength, indicating that, beneath it all, this is a woman who knows how to take care of herself and no one will ever have her fully. She was in possession of the feminine mode of strength, a strength that could match any man’s, but whose very nature was gentler, not so physical, more mental and emotional. In a nutshell, she proves that you could get things done just as well as a man with an approach distinctive to a woman. In this regard, she much reminds me of Eleanor Parker and Olivia De Havilland, who both ended up bigger stars than Florence ever was.
She used this unique mix and match of traits greatly in her next few movies: Under Pressure, a surprisingly relevant movie about sand fogs where she is again the object of desire of two men, Carnival, an interesting piece about a single father trying to raise his son while on the run (sadly, Florence is not the lead here but Sally Eilers, but she gets her moments of fame). Death Flies East, by all accounts a very good movie, is also very hard to find, and gives Florence a chance to play the lead. Florence excels in the parts where she is required to carry the movie. The Awakening of Jim Burke is a intimate movie Hollywood so seldom makes today, a all too real story about a boy whose artistic tendencies clash with his father’s more gruff approach to life. This is truly where Florence shines in her role of a woman who helps the father see the other side of the medal and try and evaluate his own perceptions of power and weakness. With her deep, honey laced voice, she is a calming balm, a friend in need everyone should have. Guard That Girl is sadly totally forgotten today. Escape from Devil’s Island is a bit more adventure than substance, but a fun movie nonetheless.
Pride of the Marines is, as a reviewer wrote on the imdb page, a fast moving film with some surprises and plenty of heart, just the kind Florence always brightened up with her serene presence. Panic on the Air and Blackmailer were crime potboilers with some good actors (Lew Ayres). Women Are Trouble is a crime movie with a strong female lead, played vy Florence. Sworn Enemy was her first pairing with frequent costar, Robert Young. Known today as the perfect TV dad, Young had a long and varied career in movie prior to his TV experiences, but his basic persona, that of a fair and square every man, comes across most of his roles. Never the dashing romantic interest or the high wired heavy, Young was nonetheless a solid presence in most of his movies. This brand of “charm” worked wonders with Florence’s “tender but strong” style, and they are a very underrated, highly functional, Hollywood duo. Their first movie starts out as a typical mob sotry, but homosexual undertones and a well developed villain (played by Joseph Calleia) elevate it above the typical fare. The Longest Night is a more lightweight mystery movie, pairing Florence and Robert for the second time. Under Cover of Night could perhaps be called one of those proto noir movies, a dark and intensive tale about greed and corruption with a top notch cast of unsung Hollywood greats (Edmund Lowe, Nat Pendleton, Henry Daniell). Man of the People is a movie made way before it’s time, dealing with the problems of political corruption and how it reflects on the men caught in it’s web. A genre later made popular by Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it was never a popular thematic in Hollywood and kudos to the director and screenwriter for tackling with it. Florence is very good as the female lead. Riding on Air is a very far fetched mystery movie, not particularly good, pairing Florence with one of her lesser costars, Joe E. Brown.
There is a special kind of movie I like to call “brainless fun”. If you try and look at it from a artistic or indeed any logical perspective, you might a swell give up right from the start. On the other hand, if you want something to just have pure, undiluted fun and not think too much about it, this is your movie! Married Before Breakfast thrives on the strength of it’s totally silly plot and charming actors. Double Wedding is a lesser Powell/Loy movie, with Florence playing Loy’s meek sister totally under her spell until she gets involved with Powell. It’s predictable and without the usual Loy/Powell panache, but ultimately entertaining. Navy Blue and Gold is an early James Stewart movie, a theme that would be used countless times in the future (crime in the Marines).Florence than had the honor of appearing in two great but little known comedies, Beg, Borrow or Steal and Paradise for Three . Fast Company was a Thin Man copy with a mind of it’s own, and Vacation from Love was the first pairing of Florence with Dennis O’Keefe, another frequent costar.
Sweethearts was finally a A class production for Florence. Supporting Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy (she is adequate with a lovely voice, he is wooden with a booming voice), it’s a sharp, witty musical comedy. While not the usual sentimental fare that strike you right int he heart, it has other merits and holds up well today. Stand Up and Fight gave her chance to act opposite some of MGM’s big names – Robert Taylor and Wallace Beery) although not in a particularly good movie. Taylor had no chance, with his shallow acting style, to outmaneuver the scene chewer Beery, and the results is an uneven farce with a promising story but mediocre execution.
Four Girls in White, while a B movie, made Florence sink her teeth into an above average role. She ages from a bratty teenager to a full bodied woman in only 70 minutes, and did it with flair and dignity. Miracles for Sale and The Kid from Texas were low calorie, funny comedies, but her own personal comedy peek was At the Circus, a hilarious Marx brothers movie. Of course Florence plays the love interest (her beau is Kenny Baker), and of course her segment is the boring one (usually, people want to see what is happening with the brothers or Margaret Dumont, and not some sugary, wishy washy love story), but it got her some coverage. The absence of Zeppo caused some critical “damage”, and it’s not their best known work, but overall it’s a great film for Florence. After this was back again to lesser quality movies. Little Accident is so deeply on the low budget stack nothing is known about it today. Broadway Melody of 1940, while a big budget movie, was not a particularly good musical, and Florence was cast as a third wheel nobody cares about (not when you have Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell as leads).
Yet, things looked up from there, and Florence had a string of good low budgeters: Girl in 313, brittle, sleek romp about jewel thiefs (Florence being one of them), crime movie Phantom Raiders, masterfully made by Jacques Tourneur where Florence get her very own face-heel-turn from a bad girl to a good one, another crime drama The Secret Seven, and above-average-B-movie-western, Cherokee Strip.
1940s were already under way, and Florence continued in the same stride as before, in solid B class movies. Mr. District Attorney is an interesting mix of a screwball comedy and early noir, Father Takes a Wife a touching, all-too-real romantic comedy about an aging diva (Gloria Swanson) marrying a totally juvenile, silly company president (Florence plays the wife of his serious son). Unfortunately, Doctors Don’t Tell, a soapy melodrama putting Florence in the middle of a love triangle yet again, was a slow intro into the last part of her career. While Florence was as good as always, the movies deceased in quality, and she was never to make a notable film again. The Blonde from Singapore was a over-the-top potboiler, Borrowed Hero a stilted, half baked crime movie. Interestingly, while not good movies, Florence continually won kudos for her warm, tender performances. The obvious verdict is that she was way above the material given at this junction in her career.
By this time, WW2 was raging, and Hollywood was quick to make propaganda movies. Lacking in quality but not in spirit, most of them do not hold well today. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp is one such propaganda comedy with Jackie Gleason, but Florence was nothing more than decoration. The Boss of Big Town, Stand By All Networks, Let’s Get Tough! all share the same fate, as movies that time has not been kind towards.
Florence ended her career in an upbeat note, with the comedy The Ghost and the Guest. Another spooky mansion movie, it doesn’t have any artistical value, but is a good choice for some light viewing. Aware that her career will never get out of the slums, Florence quite Hollywood after this in 1943. She was in her middle 30s and had never been a star, and there was little chance she would ever become one.
Florence returned to her roots on Broadway, giving her last performance in Proof Thro’ the Night. She did some off Broadway work next, in “The voice of the Turtle” and some summer stock.
She married for the fourth time in 1946, and retired to become a housewife.
Florence was a sough after debutante, being stunningly pretty, from a good family and possessing a honey laced, pleasant voice. Florence married David W. Dade, who worked in commerce, in about 1926. The marriage ended soon enough, and the couple divorced in Mexico in 1928. Little else is known about either Dade of exactly how they met, and he is often skipped on the web sites offering biographical information about Florence today (he is not mentioned on her IMDB nor Wikipedia page).
Florence started a high society romance with the wealthy broker, Sydney Andrew Smith, in 1929. Things were quick to progress, and in April 1930 they were officially engaged. Smith was on good terms with his future in laws, and frequently attended luncheons at their New York home. In turn, Florence went along fine with her future father-in- law, Sydney J. Smith, and Talia Carpenter, her future mother-in-law (by that time already wed to another man). Sydney and Florence married on June 12, 1930. They honeymooned in Europe, and took residence in a Park Avenue duplex.
Sadly, things were not meant to last, and by October 1930, they were living apart. The official announcement of separation was printed in the papers on October 17, 1930. Despite this, the social Register still mentioned them as husband and wife. For the next month or so, they were constantly oscillating between divorce and reconciliation, but the charade was cut short when Peter Vanderbilt, her cousin by marriage, introduced her to Peter Arno, the famous cartoonist. Member of the New York jet set, Arno was a hedonist and womanizer who frequently caused scandals. The papers loved him, and so did the ladies. Arno was by no means marriage material, but was fun to have around and he and Florence enjoyed, as it seems, a steamy, satisfying affair. They even went to Reno together to get their respective divorced, her from Lois Long and she from Smith. She and Smith were officially divorced in July 1931. She and Arno then took a train to Milwaukee together. She constantly denied having any romantic inclination towards the man, and even her mother soundly told the press there is no engagement between the two, but who knows how the thing really wrapped. Anyway, it seems that Florence and Peter broke up somewhere in August 1931 after nine months together.
Her former husband made headlines by almost marrying the French siren Lili Damita, future wife of Errol Flynn, during an European junket. Florence wasted no time and took up with Phillips Holmes, scion of a well known acting family, in late 1931. Holmes was an unusual looking man, with a delicate, almost ethereal face, baby blue eyes and dark blonde hair. Born the same year as Florence, 1907, he was a Hollywood staple by that time, often co starring with Nancy Carroll. They enjoyed a fine relationship, but it was marred by the fact that he lived in Hollywood and she was in New York. They got engaged in December 1932, and it was for the betterment of their romance that Florence went to Hollywood and started her movie career. The time was June 1934, and they were together for almost two years.
The romance boomed like a rose in spring after this. They were often seen on the town and went fishing together (Florence even caught a huge barracuda once and made headlines). Despite being wealthy, Florence did much of her own housework. Once in July 1934, she was a victim of an odd accident. Getting dizzy from a cleaning fluid she was using, she toppled backward into bathtub and injured herself so she could not work for a few days. Her maid saved her from the water. When she landed int he hospital a month later nor an unknown malady, Phillips was there for her every step of the way. Marriage seemed like the next step in the natural course of things.
Everything started to fall apart when Phillips departed for England in September 1934 for a filming assignment. Instead of staying for a month and then getting back, Phillips opted to stay more purely for pleasure’s sake (boys love their fun and games), while Florence worked like a horse on the Paramount lot, claiming the only man in her life was her dad. She ended the year by dating her frequent costar, Edmund Lowe, who was also openly gay. Florence started 1935 a single woman, not too concerned about her dating prospects. As a true daughter of a sports journalist, she developed a love for horse and motorboat racing while in California. While there, she lived in a beach home between Venice and Del Rey.
Florence had a crush on Jimmy Stewart while making Navy Blue and Gold , and told an interviewer, after the filming was over, that Jimmy was a wonderful guy. She also noted that he was very tall, a thing she deemed important in a man. She also considered him the most handsome of the actors she worked with. Considering she worked with some real hunks, one has to wonder, did Jimmy Stewart look better off camera than on?
Late in 1936, she took up with Joe Mankiewicz, famous director, but he also dated his estranged wife at the same time. As expected, the affair did not last. Next in line was another director, Eddie Sutherland, formerly wed to Louise Brooks. In 1937, she befriended Leslie Howard, and the two planned to star in a Broadway show. It never happened, sadly. Howard died in 1942 in a wartime airplane crash. Florence dated Pat DiCicco for a time in 1938. All this time, she was constantly seen with her father, Grantland. They gave joint interviews, went to sporting events and played badminton. By all means, Florence had a wonderful relationship with Grantland, and they spend much time together, even tough he lived on the East and she on the West coast.
Florence started 1939 by dating Tom Neal, but just two months after this, she married another guy! Surprised? Well, so was I. Anyway, Florence married actor Robert Wilcox on March 29, 1939 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The next day, she tried to make him a special wedding breakfast, but she burnt the toast by mistake so the whole thing failed and the two had to go to a restaurant. So much for a romantic gesture! They spend almost a month on the island, returning in late April to Hollywood.
That Christmas, Florence was photographed showing some of the members of Tennessee’s Rose Bowl grid squad how to score at pool (so, she was good at that too! What a girl!). Sadly, the new year did not start nicely for the newlyweds. Rumors of divorce followed them everywhere, but when Florence had to remove her wedding ring for a movie assignment, she refused to do so, getting collective “awww, shucks” reactions from the papers. No matter how endearing it was, it didn’t last, and on June 28, 1940, little more than a year after the wedding, she filed for a divorce. An uncontested divorce was granted on August 3, 1940.
Noted concert pianist Dalies Frantz squired her later that year, and in 1941 she took up with the handsome actor, Edward Norris. Norris sure know how to pick them – some of his wives were Lona Andre, Ann Sheridan and Sheila Ryan. Norris was in the process of obtaining his piloting licence, and after he officially became a pilot he took Florence for air spins. In September 1941, she caught a small cold but the papers blew it out of proportion and she was reported being on the verge of death. She was nursed to health by John Howard, her handsome co star.
Florence quit Hollywood in 1943, and in 1945 she was on Broadway yet again, barely mentioned in the papers. What we do know is that she married Fred Thomas Butler in 1946. Butler was born in 1915, making him 8 years her junior. The two moved to Venice Beach, California.
Florence’s beloved father died in 1954 at the age of 74. In 1958, she and Fred moved to Honolulu, Hawaii. As Mrs. Butler, she was active in the civic and social life of the island, well loved by her neighbors and friends, and she and Fred were proclaimed one of the most charming couples of the island. She never mentioned her past as a Hollywood star and enjoyed living in anonymity. While she was in Hawaii, her mother died in 1966 in the US.
Florence Davenport Butler died from lung cancer on February 23, 1974 at the Straub Clinic in Honolulu, Hawaii. She was survived by he husband, Fred Butler. She was cremated and her ashes were scattered over Waikiki Beach.
Fred Thomas Butler died in 1994.