Sometimes, we want our actresses not to be cute girls next door like Rosemary Lane or Teresa Wright, but full-blown, over the top divas. Someone like Bette Davis or Gloria Swanson. Well, Wilma Francis was a diva. She was flamboyant, did things her own way and dated men by the bucket-load. Unfortunately, she never achieved a level of fame to make her comparable to other well known divas, but it seems she sure had a fun life!
Wilma Francis Sareussen was born on November 26, 1917, in New Orleans, Louisiana, to John Sareussen and Frances Eleanor Ader. Her father was a wealthy ship chandler but by no means was he a true Southerner – he was born in Norway. Her mother did come from an old Louisiana family (think Scarlett O’Hara!). Wilma’s older sister Elinor Marie was born on December 10, 1915. The family resided in New Orleans, where Wilma grew up.
After graduating from high school, Wilma attended Tulane and Loyola universities, studying journalism. Now, how the story goes from here makes little sense – she, daughter of a prominent family and educated in top schools, while a student, ended up in a typing pool in an insurance company office in New Orleans. What?!! Anyway, this was the story she later sold to the papers, so I don’t know if this is true or invented, but why did they have to invent it anyway? Cinderella syndrome?
Anyway, Wilma landed in Hollywood because a scout for a film company (Ben Piazza) spotted her when she was working in the office of the insurance company, and signed her with Paramount.
Wilma made her debut in Florida Special, a run of the mill crime movie with Jackie Oakie as a worldly journalist trying to stop a train robbery. Yawn! been there, seen that at least a hundred times… Her next movie, And Sudden Death, was hardly any better – featuring Randolph Scott and Frances Drake, it was a cautionary tale about traffic and speeding. As it usually happens in much films, traffic cop falls for a young woman who simply drives too fast… Blah, blah.. It goes into overt dramatics too soon and becomes a sappy, low budget miss. It’s a shame, since the topic of driving too fast and too furious in traffic is very relevant today (and boy, so much!).
Wilma finally snagged a credited role in Lady Be Careful, but the movie is so utterly forgotten today there is nothing I can write about it. next. The same goes for her netx movie, Hideaway Girl. 1937 started a bit better for Wilma – her first movie of the year, Bank Alarm, was a bland and uninspiring film about G men fighting against a group of bank robbers, but at least the movie left the smallest of traces for prosperity. Unfortunately, this did not mean further career enhancements for Wilma – she spent the rest of 1937 far from the movie cameras, and only came back in 1938 with Trade Winds, a witty, sparking and elegant screwball comedy, with a top-notch cast (Joan Bennet!! Fredric March!!) and more than one twist to keep you occupation.
Wilma then left Hollywood for a short time, returning in 1940 to make Stolen Paradise, where her then husband, Leon Janney, was playing the lead. Unfortunately it was directed by the king of camp, Louis Gasnier, who ably helms it into “bad acting and bad script territory from scene one. The story is not half bad, and actually pretty deep in some aspects – a young man who wants to become a priest falls in love with his step sister and does not know how to deal with his emotions – it really sounds good, but the execution is awful. Skip! Next came the only slightly trashy Under Age – yep, as the title suggest, the girl here and pretty, nimble and under age. It’s an early movie by future legend Edward Drmytryk, but boy, while he does show signs of brilliance, it’s still way too much. The muddled plot is a hotbed of complicated feelings, bratty teens and love triangles. Skip. Wilma’s last and best movie from this batch was Borrowed Hero, a more than decent B programmer about a lawyer who after a stint of bad luck finally hits the jackpot – and how his life unravels afterwards. Florence Rice is in it – a plus for sure!
In the 1940’s she worked for a while as an assistant to director Sam Wood’and made her last billed appearance in a motion picture in Wood’s 1945 film Guest Wife. She then did some TV work (which I will not go into any detail), and appeared in minor roles in two more movies – Hotel and Airport. And that was all from Wilma!!
While in Hollywood, in her spare time, Wilma builds boat models. She revealed to the press that she learned the craft from her father, by then a retired naval officer.
Since Wilma was of a prestigious ancestry, bits and pieces were written about her family in the papers. Here is an early example:
One of Paramount’s younger players, Wilma Francis, has the most interesting antique bracelet in Hollywood. It is a family heirloom and has been handed down for many years with a legend which traces back to Cellini’s days when the piece of jewelry is supposed to have been made by this famous master. It is of dull gold with a floral tracery which has been filled la with black platinum. The design resembles a wide leather strap with a buckle and the bracelet has a safety clasp which is held with a fine golden chain.
Wilma started dating Conrad Nagel in August 1936, and their relationship blossomed nicely in the comings months. Already in November of 1936 there were rumors that they might wed. She told the press: “Conrad is the dearest person in Hollywood. We are constant companions. Of course, I am only 18 I’ll be 19 on Thanksgiving day. And Conrad is 37. Marrying him wouldn’t hurt my career.” However, there was a lull in the fairytale when Paramount refused to renew her contract Wilma used the opportunity to visit her mother. At the train to bid her farewell was none other than Conrad Nagel. The trip sparked a “finis” to their romance because at the time Wilma was doubtful whether she would return again to resume her career. However, Wilma returned to Hollywood, but not to Conrad. After a brief fling with director Wesley Ruggles, from March until May 1937, she dated noted novelist B. P. Schulberg. After she ditched Schulberg, she resumed with Conrad for several months in mid to late 1937. Again, there were rumors of their impending nuptials. They dated, on and off, for more than a year, breaking up in December 1938. In the interim, Wilma dated Latin charmer Antonio Moreno.
In early 1939, Wilma took up with Leon Janney, juvenile actor. They were married in March of the the same year, although they kept the marriage a secret from the press for at least four months. Janney was born on April 1, 1917 in Ogden, Utah. He started acting in earnest in 1927, when he was 17 years old. He was very active until 1932, and afterwards he got into the theater, where he met Wilma. They were all lovely dovely until June 1940, when something bad happened and they separated in August – they reconciled in September and tried again. This was a flop also – they separated again in October, tried to patch things up but were kaput by December 1940 and started divorce proceedings early in 1941. Wilma charged cruelty (she charged he threw a pack of cards at her during a bridge game) and they got their final decree in May 1941. Janney remarried twice and died in 1980 in Mexico.
Wilma then changed her life a great deal, got out of acting (more or less), and moved to New York. Then, in November 1946, Wilma hit the papers big time as a witness in a case of a major money swindle. The main perpetrator was Jimmy Collins. This is a short excerpt from the article about the swindle:
Sally Haines, blond film actress and dancer, admitted last night that she was a close friend of Jimmy Collins, sought as suspect in the Mergan-thaler Linotype Co. swindle in New York. Her attorney, Milton M. Golden, went further. He admitted that she and Collins shared a Safety deposit box in a New York hank, the box which New York police said yielded $5400 in cash. Golden also said Collins had been living in a New York hotel where Miss Haines and her actress friend, Wilma Francis, shared an apartment. However, as to reports that Collins helped finance a newly opened night club in Palm Springs, Golden was firm. “Not that I know of,” he said. The attorney explained the safe deposit box and its contents. “Yes,” he said, “the box is hers. The money is hers, too. There also probably were some other things in the box a few trinkets and some Jewelry.” ‘Might Have Married’ He explained the joint use of the deposit box by saying, “Well, you know, they were very good friends. It was possible that a marriage might have developed, from their friendship.” Miss Haines, Miss Francis and Golden told about the Collins friendship at a meeting with the, press in the home of AIDS POLICE Glenda Farrell gave information about missing swindle suspect. W) Wirept AT LARGE James Collins, also known as Julius Davis, who is sought in case, Mrs. Sylvia Garrett, 8235 Lincoln Terrace, in the Sunset Strip district. “I know him very well,” Miss Haines, former wife of Comedian Bert Wheeler, said. “I’ve known him about 14 months. However, I was not married to him. I last saw him Wednesday, We had been at Palm, Springs with a party attending the opening .of a club there. ,,The party returned and I saw him off oh’ an American-AU’iines plane. ‘ ‘ “He seemed a little nervous when he left, but I thought nothing of that. He said he would telephone me Friday night, but I didn’t hear from him. Knew Little. About Him “He is a man of a great deal of charm,” she said.. “Hp’s a medium-sized man, blue-eyed with a longish face, He looks something like Fred Astaire with hair,’ “I know surprisingly little about him considering how long I’ve known him,” she continued. “You know how it is. You don’t ask a person all about his business, where he’s from and who his friends and relatives are. He gave me a telephone number which ho said was that of his Importing firm in New York, where I could reach him. He said he was 43. Now I hear he is 53 or 37 or something else,” Miss Francis said she also knew Collins but nothing of his background, the city was that Burke and his wife .were ineligible for occupancy of tho veterans’ housing project because he had not served in the military forces during the war. The Burkes were moved from Rodger Young Village, another veterans’ home center in Griffith Park, some days ago when their eligibility was contested there. They then took up residence in the Channel Heights unit” …
After this unfortunate accident, Wilma returned to Los Angeles in December 1946, but by January 1947 she was bedded, with a nervous breakdown, probably due her involvement with Collins. By May, she got her groove back and was beaued by Dane Clark. Later in the year, she was seen with comedian Lew Parker.
In May 1949 there were rumor she’s hot going to altar-trek with Stacy Harris, star of radio’s “Your F.B.I.” Unfortunately, they were just rumors, and Wilma did not wed Stacy. In May 1950, she was pursued by actor Eddie Norris.
On September 29, 1951, Wilma married Roger Valmy. Valmy was quite a colorful character. Born in Egypt on October 1912, he moved to Paris with his mother and was a horse racing champion before the fall of Paris during WW2. He moved to the US and started a highly successful real estate agency in California. He was married once before in 1943 to Ruth Ownbey, a model and starlet. Later he dated and was very serious about heiress Barbara Hutton.
Wilma and Roger lived the high life in Beverly Hills, as she was Southern royalty and he was a wealthy and highly charming real estate tycoon. Unfortunately divorced after less than two years of marriage in mid 1953.
After he and Wilma divorced, Roger was married two more times – the first time was to Margarett Smith in the early 1960. They divorced in 1972 for the first time, remarried in 1974 and divorced not long after in 1976. In 1977 he was married to his last wife, Dana Kathleen Bond. He died in 2004 at the age of 92.
Wilma continued to date, but never remarried. Some of her post-marriage beaus were Jake Ehrlich Jr. in 1956. She returned to Louisiana to live close to her sister, Elinor, and got into the papers once again:
In May 1958, she got into newspaper again, but not for a nice things – she changed four charges, including kidnaping, against a Gretna, La., policeman as the result of a fracas at a ferry landing there on April 2. Miss Sareussen, who used the name Wilma Francis in the movies, filed the charges with Justice of the Peace L. L. Traught of Gretna against Policeman Alvin Bladsacker. Gretna is across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Miss Sareusson makes her home in New Orleans. She charged Bladsacker with assault and battery, kidnaping. false imprisonment and unauthorized use of movable property (her car).
I could not find any more information about the case, so let’s assume it just let it flow. Wilma completely falls of the radar from then on. What we do know is that she worked as a casting director for films and television productions shot in her Louisiana during the 1980’s.
Wilma Francis died on June 23, 1991, in Metairie, Louisiana.