For reference and background on Wampas and the full listing of Babies, see my original post in this series.
Year that she was crowned: 1932
Baby who?: Evalyn Knapp was born June 17, 1906 in Kansas City, Missouri, one of 4 children born to Samuel and Ida (Latstrom) Knapp. From an early age, Evalyn seemed prone to serious physical conditions and accidents. The first (publicly documented) of these occurred when she was 4 years old and was partially paralyzed as a result of a severe illness. Having to listen to the sounds of other children playing outdoors encouraged bedridden Evalyn to action and she attempted to walk, enduring a fall down the stairs for her efforts. Months later she was able to gain back her mobility. This would not be the last, or most publicized, accident to befall Evalyn (or her family) as we will see later.
In high school, she showed her first symptoms of the “acting bug,” participating in plays and attending drama class. She worked briefly as a schoolteacher before giving herself over to acting entirely and got to work performing in stock productions in Kansas City. Around this time, she was advised to lose her strong Mid-Western accent if she had any serious hope of making it in pictures. She followed her older brother, Orville, to New York and attempted to do just that, taking elocution classes and practicing vocal techniques for 6 months before seeking further acting parts on the stage. Eventually, she made her way to film around 1930, gaining a contract with Warners and initially appearing in shorts. It was said that she aced her screen test by using “baby talk,” convincing higher ups that she could play a sixteen year old, even though she was in her early twenties at the time. Though petite at 5’3 and 108 ibs, it was hard to mistake sexy Evalyn for a tween. Though possessed of a sweet smile, the girl could smolder. Fortunately for her, her baby talk days ended almost before they began.
Within 6 months at Warner’s, Evalyn made 5 films in rapid succession in both supporting and lead roles; her rise was practically meteoric. However, only a year after arriving in Hollywood, an accident threatened to end her career entirely.
On June 22, 1931, Evalyn was hiking with her younger brother, Stanley, in Hollywood Heights when some ground gave way on her trek up a hill and she plunged down an embankment. Though reports vary as to whether she fell 15 feet or 50 feet, the fall resulted in 2 broken ribs and a fractured spinal column. One of her frequent visitors in the hospital was actor Donald Cook, who she co-starred with in the 1931 film Side Show. Later, when he was in an auto accident, she did the same for him and they developed a close romantic bond.
Donald Cook was a handsome divorcee who had once been romantically linked to 1926 Wampas Baby alum, Mary Brian. Evalyn became engaged to Donald, but they ended things in 1933. A few months later he would propose marriage to nightclub singer Maxine Lewis, then try to back out 3 months later. Maxine, about 3 months pregnant with Donald’s child (perhaps the reason for his backtracking), was not about to let him off the hook. She not only told the press about her “condition,” she brought a $100,000 breach of promise suit against her ex-fiance. Donald may have felt that being a father was better than being broke or perhaps he truly loved Maxine, but he convinced her to drop the suit, they reconciled, and married a couple months later. Their relationship would remain turbulent and Maxine smacked him with divorce papers just months after their marriage and the birth of their daughter. This type of flighty, up and down drama did not seem to suit Evalyn, who was described in most accounts as rather earthy, steady, and dependable.
4 months after her accident, Evalyn had recovered enough to appear once again in films, but this setback had effectively thrown her trajectory at Warner’s off course. They released her from her contract in 1932.
Why could she have been picked by Wampas?: The year that she was released from her Warner’s contract and became a freelancer, she was named a Wampas Baby of 1932. This was not unfounded. Blonde, sultry and sweet Evalyn was undeniably beautiful and had thus far been paired onscreen with biggies of the time including George Arliss, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson. Wampas had every reason to believe that she was destined for stardom. However, without the backing of a major studio, as she would find herself in 1932, this was often difficult…
Life after Babydom: Being a freelancer didn’t stop her and she stayed busy after her contract with Warner’s ended, making about 17 pictures in 1932 and 1933 alone. Despite the output, without the support of a major studio, she was no longer on an A-list path. Many of the films she made afterwards were B pictures and, eventually, Westerns (in those days the sure sign of a slipping career).
In 1933, she beat out two dozen other girls for the title role in a talkie remake of the Pearl White serial, The Perils of Pauline. But injury wasn’t far behind. In September, 1933 while on set, she fell off her horse after it and her leading man’s horse collided, injuring her shoulder and making headlines once again.
Around January 1935, Evalyn married Hollywood surgeon Dr. George Albert Snyder (who may have attended her after her first accident). Brown haired blue eyed Snyder was also a Missouri native and about 5 years older than Evalyn. The outdoorsy duo made a good match. Before they were married, Snyder would take her out on his sailing boat and Evalyn made up her mind to learn how to sail it. The couple took navigation classes together and, after their marriage, they bought a sailing yacht. Evalyn enjoyed hiking, swimming, and playing tennis and, after getting together with Snyder, took up his interest in fishing. Apparently, she was also very good at it. Newspaper headlines often boasted her prowess as a big game fisherman. Her first big catch was a 195 ib swordfish (nearly double her own weight) and she made similar catches the following two years. She bought a bird dog who she named West Basin and trained him to help spot fish that she would then catch. Evalyn would later describe her marriage to Snyder as happy and successful because they understand one another. They were in different professions, but both required them to work at odd hours and for irregular lengths of time. The inconsistency was something they both had in common and was something that they could sympathize with more than perhaps someone in a 9 to 5 job. They stayed married until his death in 1970.
Romantically speaking, Evalyn had it made, but soon after her marriage she would face an incredible personal loss.
Evalyn’s older brother Orville Knapp was 32 years old, a newlywed two months married to Broadway musical comedy actress Gloria Grafton, and on his way up in the orchestra world, currently headlining at the Ritz Carlton, when he was killed in a plane crash on July 16, 1936. He had bought the private yellow and brown Wasp-Sternam biplane only a couple months ago. Orville had been flying for 5 or 6 years at that point and had his pilot’s license for 3 years. With a job that required frequent travel, Orville thought his first plane was a good investment. He was practicing emergency landings near the Beverly Airport when during one pass he must have realized he didn’t have enough altitude and opened the throttle to gain height, but instead the plane did the opposite and fell. With a heavily wooded area ahead, Orville may have panicked and went into a turn but a gust of wind struck the banked plane and it crashed nose first. Bystanders rushed to him and pulled him out, still alive, but unconscious with severe injuries to his head, face, and wrists. He died there on the ground before he could be transported to a hospital.
Tall, blond, and handsome, Orville had started studying saxophone in high school then left for New York to pursue acting (Evalyn would follow him there and start her own career soon after) while simultaneously playing with dance bands. He then moved on to Hollywood and found that music suited him better than acting did. He would get his first break as an orchestra leader in 1934. Orville was known as an innovator in dance music, creating new sounds in the medium, highlighting teamwork and using all of the 11 piece orchestra instead of focusing on individual instruments.
Evalyn’s career had begun to slip around the time of Orville’s death. In 1938 she made a film called Hawaiian Buckaroo, a pretty clear indicator of how far she had fallen. By 1939 she was appearing mostly in uncredited roles or walk ons. Characters she played from this period included “nurse #4,” “arrested girl,” and “secretary.” She did appear in the classic Jimmy Stewart film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but you probably missed her in her uncredited role as a reporter. A far cry from the 10 films she made in one year at the height of her career, between 1939-1943 she appeared in only 7 films. 1943 was the year that she made her last film and by 1944 she had settled into comfortable, unpublicized peace with her husband.
Best known for: She had the distinction of acting in the only film that Warner’s powerhouses James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson would appear in together, Smart Money.
How accurate was Wampas?: Wampas shouldn’t have been wrong, but ultimately and unfortunately, they were. Evalyn had potential and beauty on par with many leading ladies of the time. At the time of her selection, she was climbing up the ranks quicker than most. Her first accident may have been what derailed the train. Not everyone could maintain a successful career without the backing of a major studio. Without Warner’s, the burden was on Evalyn to obtain roles and publicity that would help her maintain her status as a leading lady. It just didn’t work out for her in that respect. 2/5.
Zoe’s take: As a girl with a husband in the 1940s who doesn’t mind you having a successful career and doesn’t get his nose out of joint when you publicly best him at fishing, it sounds like you’ve got a pretty decent marriage. Evalyn certainly faced some difficult obstacles, but it’s nice to think that at least she had, by her own (hopefully true) admission, a good partner to go through it with her.
Liebman, Roy. The Wampas Baby Stars: a Biographical Dictionary, 1922-1934. McFarland, 2009.
“Hollywood Seeks Answer to How to Stay Married.” The Nebraska State Journal, 27 Nov. 1938, p. 38.
“The Unlucky Evalyn Knapp.” The Los Angeles Times, 16 Sept. 1933, p. 17.
“‘Baby Talk’ Wins Film Role for Evalyn Knapp, Versatile Actress, Recruited from Stage.” The Jacksonville Daily Journal, 22 May 1931, p. 3.