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Lina Basquette: Her Life Is Screenplay Material : Movies: The Golden Era star who married a Warner, fended off Hitler's advances and became a champion dog breeder takes on her first role in 48 years at age 84.

August 23, 1991|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There have been many Hollywood Golden Era stars far more famous than Lina Basquette, but few have had lives crammed with so much romance and adventure, heartbreak and accomplishment.

A novelist would be hard put to invent a life as colorful as hers. Movie moguls, gangsters and European noblemen pursued her. Jack Dempsey was in love with her, and she fought off Hitler's advances while visiting his mountain retreat with her lover of the moment, a German baron.

"Maybe if I hadn't been so fastidious I might have changed history, but oh that body odor of his!," exclaimed Basquette. "When Hitler was about to rape me I said, 'Hey, wait a minute! You don't want to touch me. My grandfather was Jewish, which was true."

Basquette was reminiscing in the living room of her daughter Lita's elegant high-rise condominium in the Wilshire corridor. She was in town to promote "Paradise Park," her first film in 48 years, and the first installment of her recently published memoirs, "Lina: DeMille's Godless Girl," and to appear tonight and Saturday at the Silent Movie, where "The Godless Girl" (1929), her most famous film, will be screened. In this lurid but lively and vastly entertaining potboiler, Basquette plays a high school student busily proselytizing her classmates in the joys of atheism.

The dust jacket of Basquette's book promises descriptions of her "action-packed marriages, one-night stands and sizzling affairs," and she delivers the goods. Since she is as candid about herself as she is about everyone else, it is not hard to believe her every word--even the Hitler encounter. This impression of outspoken honesty is reinforced by meeting her in person. At 84 she retains an amazing vitality and a vibrant personality. Her dazzling dark eyes are those of a young woman, and they peer out of a face that retains much of its beauty. The moment you meet her you understand immediately why so many men fell in love with her.

Born in San Mateo to a classic stage mother and a loving but alcoholic father who shot himself to death at 36, Basquette began dancing as a child, winning the attention of Anna Pavlova, who wanted to make her her protege. But since her mother concluded that a career as a ballerina would bring in only "peanuts," 9-year-old Lina ended up a child actress under contract at Universal, where her dressing room was opposite Valentino's. (Basquette's younger half-sister Marge Champion, however, would become a famous dancer-choreographer.) Becoming a featured ballerina in the Ziegfeld Follies, she attracted the attention of Sam Warner of Warner Bros. (and also Harry Cohn, who would later prove to be a good friend in crisis). Pushed into a marriage to Warner by her mother, she found herself falling in love with him and bore his daughter Lita, named after Charlie Chaplin's second wife, Lita Grey. Her portraits of Sam Warner and Harry Cohn, diamonds in the rough both, are extraordinarily touching.

Warner was the visionary who forged ahead with his belief in talking pictures despite his brothers' lack of enthusiasm--"Sam and his toy phonograph" was the way they referred to the Vitaphone process, according to Basquette--but in his round-the-clock dedication he so neglected a sinus attack and some badly abscessed teeth that he died of a cerebral hemorrhage three days before "The Jazz Singer" was to premiere in New York. (Basquette said it was she who persuaded Sam to go after Al Jolson rather than have George Jessel repeat his stage role on the screen.)

Warner was only 42 and had died so quickly that he didn't have time to protect his wife and daughter legally. A widow at 20, Basquette found herself not only maneuvered out of her husband's share in Warner Bros. and even, to a large extent, blacklisted in the film industry, but also pressured to give up custody of Lita to Sam's brother Harry and his wife in return for a guarantee that her daughter would be set up with a $300,000 trust fund. Basquette would not see her daughter for 32 years, and it was only in 1977, when Lina backed Lita in her suit against Jack Warner's estate, did mother and daughter begin the ongoing process of getting to know each other. (Currently, Lita is at her Aspen, Colo., home.)

Basquette's fate at the hands of her in-laws was clearly the central, shaping event of her life, a subject about which she remains understandably bitter but philosophical. "Had I been a little smarter and not had such bum lawyers, maybe things would have been different. . . ," she said, trailing off with a shrug. "But you can't live life with 'what-ifs."'

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