Thelma Hill ~ The Tragic Bathing Beauty

Thelma Hill

Thelma Hill was a Mack Sennett bathing beauty and comedic actress who struggled with alcoholism and died young.

She was born Thelma Floy Hillerman in Emporia, Kansas on December 12, 1904 (not 1906 as some sources claim). Her father Clifford Hillerman was a railroad worker and her mother Gussie Knittle was a housewife. When she was an infant her parents divorced and her mother was given full custody. Sadly Thelma would never see her father again after the divorce. Clifford Hillerman died in 1914 after a tragic work accident. She and her mother moved to Los Angeles, California where they opened a restaurant. They lived just a few blocks from the Mack Sennett studios. Thelma dreamed of becoming an actress and hung around by the studio gates trying to getting noticed. During the Spring of 1919 she was working in her mother's restaurant when comedian Fatty Arbuckle came in. She accidentally spilled soup in Fatty's lap. Instead of getting angry he helped her get a screen test with Mack Sennett. The fourteen year old started working as an extra at Sennett's studio. She had bit parts in dozens of movies including The Hollywood Kid, Yukon Jake, and Picking Peaches.

Thelma Hill 1919
Thelma in 1919

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 Thelma became very popular at the studio where she was nicknamed "Pee Wee". She befriended actress Marie Prevost who taught her how to do make-up and became her mentor.  In 1924 she was chosen to be one of Sennett's famous bathing beauties. The petite beauty was just five feet tall and weighed 100 pound. Her measurements of 34-24-35. Mack Sennett declared she was the "ideal bathing girl of the times". After posing in a Mah Jongg themed bathing suit she became known as the "Mah Jongg Bathing Girl". When she wasn't making movies she worked as Mabel Normand's stand-in. By 1926 she was getting featured roles in comedies like The Divorce Dodger and Hoboken To Hollywood. Thelma starred alongside Ben Turpin in The Prodigal Bridegroom and The Pride Of Pikeville. She also had a supporting role in the 1927 comedy The Fair Co-Ed with Marion Davies. Then she was cast in a series of short films based on the comic strip Toots And Casper. Thelma fell in love with writer St. Elmo Boyce in 1927 and the couple planned to get married.

Thelma Hill

Thelma Hill Bathing BeautyThelma Hill

Unfortunately he was an alcoholic and was arrested several times for drunk driving. During their relationship she also developed a serious drinking problem. Sennett signed her to a new long term contract in 1929. She costarred with Andy Clyde in the talkies The Old Barn and The Golfers. Thelma said "I am all enthused over what the next two years may bring me. I was scared to death the first time I faced a microphone but I have made three talkies now and feel just as home as I did when we only had cameras to face. I am taking dance lessons now too and if I ever get sufficient courage I am going to taking singing lessons as I think both will be necessary with sound films now in vogue." Tragically on September 30, 1930 her fiance St. Elmo Boyce committed suicide. She was devastated by his death and began drinking even more. Thelma had seemed destined for stardom but by the early 1930s her film career stalled. In 1931 she appeared in Frank Capra's drama The Miracle Woman. Then she had bit parts in the shorts Merrily Yours and Wild People. Her final film was the 1934 Hal Roach comedy Mixed Nuts.

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In 1934 she married Johnny Sinclair, an actor and gag writer for W.C. Fields. She had met him in 1925 when she was engaged to another man. The couple had an on again off again romance for many years. After getting married they moved into a modest house on Blackburn Avenue. Unfortunately she and Johnny were both alcoholics. Thelma had a nervous breakdown in December of 1937 and entered Merrill sanitarium in Santa Monica. She would spend her final months there. Tragically she died from a cerebral hemorrhage on May 11, 1938. She was only thirty-three years old. According to her death certificate she was suffering from chronic alcoholism and pellagra which caused by a lack of the niacin. Her body was cremated and a small funeral was held in Los Angeles. Some of her relatives from Emporia attended the service. Unfortunately her husband Johnny did not keep her ashes or have them buried. Today Thelma's remains are at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. They are being kept in a storage closet in the Great Mausoleum so she has no grave marker.


Thelma Hill ObituaryThelma Hill

Thelma Hill