“I got a job as a junior clerk in the offices of a steel mill, living in the meantime with my father's youngest brother, Frank, who had a son my own age. We went dancing at small local dance halls and chased girls. We drank beer and chased girls. We took up boxing, seriously, at a gym run by the brother of Jimmy Driscoll, The Nonpareil. And we chased girls. And then it began to pall. The dreary monotony of our activities, the viciousness of the little gossipings, the small horizons all came to a head the beginning of that June. Our local dentist, a pillar of the Church, furtively dropped his hand onto my crotch while he was examining a wisdom tooth that had been bothering me. In shock and horror, I lashed out and kicked him in the stomach and ran out of there. In my ignorance I was terrified; it was the canal all over again, something beneath the surface, something obscene and horrible. It was my first brush with a homosexual. I am what you might call fervidly heterosexual. It was through Janet MacLeod, that I met most of the friends I have today. And it was through her that I met my wife Mal.
I made a deal with Janet that if she would teach me to play tennis, I would teach her to ride. This led to our going dancing a lot, at George Olson's, Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club, the Coconut Grove, and lots of private homes, as well as to my first and only speakeasy in California, where I became violently ill. It was a dreadful little shack, a bungalow somewhere south of Santa Monica Boulevard. There were about eight or ten people scattered around the living-dining room area, all very quiet and surreptitious. I had the feeling that I must have wandered into an opium den. I went back to Page's club about half a dozen times. I also went to a couple of theatrical parties with Margot St. Leger, and at one of them I met a film actress named Estelle Brody, a very quiet American, who was a star in British films.
It was Estelle who planted the first seed, who started a restlessness in me and the beginnings of discontent. It was she, in her quiet, penetrating way, who first asked if I wanted to stay in the army the rest of my life. I looked at her in some surprise. Suddenly I was aware that I had never thought of the future, that I had never even given much thought beyond tomorrow. Life was too joyful. "Think about it, sonny, and when you have, give me a ring." I had never been very interested in the theater. Up until that time I don't suppose I had seen more than four plays. I think the first one I ever saw was The Only Way, with Martin Harvey and his wife; And the last one was on my nineteenth birthday, at the old Bedford in Camden Town. It was The Silver King, with Tod Slaughter and company. Outside of those few occasions, my theatrical time and money were spent on anything with music.
And, of course, the Palladium, to my mind the greatest variety theater in the world. I went twice a month without fail. I loved it, the individual brilliance of the performers, the marvelous American humor, because fully half the bill came from the United States. I'd ache from laughing at Burns and Allen, Milt Britton's wild and woolly orchestra. Then there was Will Fyffe from Glasgow, Billy Bennett and Albert Rebla from London's East End. And the insane Harry Tate and his golf sketch. But the legitimate theater? I never gave it a thought. The first person I called when I got out the Army was Estelle Brody, but she was on location in Ireland and would not be back for two weeks, so I killed a week going to a couple of plays and popping into Page's for a drink now and again. I met one riotous gal there by the name of Norah Howard. She was going with one of the three Yacht Club Boys, Stewart Ross; the other two were Joe Sargent and Al Barney. They were American and the biggest nightclub hit in London. They remained my friends for many years. I remember Stewart's saying to me, "You in this racket, kid? I mean acting or something? What do you do?" I said I didn't do anything, that I had just come out of the army and was sort of looking around. He said, "Well, get in it, boy. You've got the build for it. Look at me. I can't sing and I don't read music, and here I am playing the piano and singing and making a small fortune, and my two partners are in the same boat. Don't be bashful. They'll never know the difference." I didn't believe him, but I went home thinking that night.
I called Estelle Brody the following Sunday, and she was back. She suggested that I come down to the studio in Elstree on Tuesday and have lunch with her. Then she would have someone take me around and try to explain the goings-on. Just tell the man at the gate, and he would direct me to where she was. I got there at midday, a half hour early, was given the directions, and immediately got lost. I found myself in a cavernous place that looked like an airplane hangar, lit up by what seemed to be at least a thousand searchlights. It was absolutely blinding. After a few moments I saw that it was a huge nightclub with about a hundred and fifty people sitting around, all in evening dress, and all very beautiful. At the foot of a staircase were standing two people, apparently rehearsing a scene. I left and eventually found Estelle, and we went to lunch in the commissary. There were four other people at the table, one of whom turned out to be her director, Norman Walker, and another the studio casting director, whose name was Allen.
Estelle explained to them that this was my first time in a film studio and wouldn't it be a good idea for Allen to give me a couple of days' crowd work so I could see for myself that they weren't all nutty. Allen turned and said, "If you have a dinner jacket I can give you a call for tomorrow morning and you can work on the set you saw today. What do you think?" Suddenly I heard myself saying that I would like it very much but that I knew nothing about makeup and that everybody seemed to be painted orange. "Don't you worry about that. I'll tell one of the extras to make you up. Just report on the set at eight a.m. in your dinner jacket. I'll take care of the call." It was as simple as that. I got the impression that acting was a most insecure calling, peopled mostly by exhibitionists, but seasoned here and there with those who were touched with genius. The ones who kept the theaters open. The upshot of our talk was that I should get an agent. I went to Dan Fish's office. There was a reception room divided by a wooden rail behind which sat a secretary with cropped fair hair and an efficient manner. The rest of the room was taken up with a sofa and a lot of chairs which were filled with what appeared to be the members of a circus. I felt like a leper.
Dan Fish was the agent Ronald Colman had gone to when he was trying to break into pictures. Ronnie had taken his pictures in. Across one of them Dan Fish had written "Nice voice. Short. Splayfooted. Can't act." I've seen it. I finally ended up with Frank Zeitlin, who condescended to take me on as a client. Allen was waiting for me on Stage Two, which had been transformed into what looked like a huge conference room, about sixty feet long and thirty wide. Five or six men were standing at one end. Allen began to explain the reason for the rather hurried call.
They had just started shooting a picture called The Informer. The director was a German named Dr. Arthur Robison, and a stickler for realism. It was a Belgian Browning .22 caliber automatic, a beautiful thing, and held twelve L.R. cartridges. Robison went to the end of the room and drew a chalk circle around an English half-crown, a little larger than a half-dollar. "Fire at that," he said, "as rapidly as possible." "Where from?" I asked. "The other end of the room." I asked permission to take one practice shot, explaining that all firearms behaved differently and that I had never handled this weapon before. I paced the length of the room which, as I thought, was sixty feet. It didn't mean anything but I thought it might impress them. I took careful aim and squeezed off the first shot, and then went down to see where the bullet went. The direction was perfect but the shot was about an inch high, so I went back, made a mental correction and let fly with the other eleven. When the smoke cleared we all went down to see what had happened. Now I have an affidavit, signed by every single one of them, to prove this. All eleven shots had made a hole you could have covered with a quarter. It had taken no more than ten seconds. I couldn't have done it again. Nobody could. I got the job. The pay was to be twenty pounds a week for eight weeks, starting the next day.
I had replaced one of England's most promising film stars, Cyril McLaglen, the brother of wonderful Victor, who, incidentally, had also been a member of the Household Cavalry in the First World War. There were five brothers and believe it or not, their father was a bishop. Their lives were living proof that heredity is a myth, with the possible exception of Andrew, Victor's son, a gentle giant of much intelligence but a lousy golfer. On my idle days I would walk around the stages watching other pictures and other actor's work. On one stage they were shooting a picture called Blackmail, the first all-talking film to be made in England. It starred Anny Ondra, who is now Mrs. Max Schmeling, and Donald Calthrop, the erratic one.
As I was watching the stunning Anny Ondra, hardly daring to blink my eyes in case I missed any move she might make, I was approached by an egg-shaped individual with a pontifical manner, who bowed with a slow seventeenth-century grace and said, "I am the director of this phantasmagoria and my name is Alfred Hitchcock." He pronounced it as if it were two words—Hitch Cock. One of the gay spots in those days was a place called Skindles on the Thames at Maidenhead, about twenty miles southwest of London. It was the setting for strange, very chic mesalliances. One could have an excellent lunch in the garden at the edge of the river.
Strangely enough, I wasn't thinking of Hollywood. I was seeing New Mexico and Arizona and the Utah of Zane Grey and the far Pacific. When I came to, I was standing outside the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, the MGM showcase. I don't remember the name of the picture, only that Charles Bickford and Kay Johnson were playing in it. I went in and sat through it twice. I devoured every tree, every street, every set, and every face. I kept marveling at the prospect that I could be seeing these very places and people in a matter of weeks. Could this be happening to Reggie? Suddenly I was very tired and saw that it was almost midnight, and I wanted to go home and dream and be alone.
There was a large bed facing us and in the middle of it was a tiny little woman who looked like a gnome. She had short cropped hair that looked ragged and alert black eyes with very dark shadows under them. She looked ill. She had a bottle of some black liquid in her hand, and on the nightstand stood almost a dozen more. Ah, I thought, a dope fiend of some kind. Robert Lisman (a talent scout who worked for MGM) introduced me and said, "And this is Anita Loos, who is going to help us." Miss Loos was a successful author, known for her play, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She looked at me very clinically and said, "How are you? Have a Coke." I shook my head. "No, thank you, Miss Loos." I wasn't going to touch that stuff!
I went down to the dining room at Hotel Plaza, ordered a seafood salad and a tall whiskey and soda. The waiter said he could get me the salad but the whiskey was out. I asked him why. He replied, "I don't know where you've been, sir, but this is the United States and we have a thing here called Prohibition." I discovered a compensation. Chocolate malted milk! So thick you almost had to eat it with a spoon. MGM kept me in New York for five days, and during that time I saw two shows and a dress rehearsal. One was George White's Scandals, in which I was fortunate enough to see three of the funniest performers of this or any other time, Jack Benny, Phil Baker, and Patsy Kelly. The other was a rather dull play, but with a wonderful actress, Laura Hope Crews. The third one was a dress rehearsal of The Warriors Husband. The leads were played by Franchot Tone and Katharine Hepburn. I boarded the Twentieth Century for my journey to California, and frankly, I wasn't sorry to leave New York. To me, New York was not an attractive city and it is even less so now.
With the exception of the Plaza Hotel and a few other buildings, since torn down, I thought it angular and dingy, with the dinginess of squalor, not age. Admittedly, it was just after the big stock market crash and the Depression was setting in, but I've paid hundreds of visits since and the city hasn't improved. Quite the opposite. Chicago seemed a suburb of New York. That night I caught the Chief for Los Angeles. The next morning I began to get a little worried. Where were the lands that Clarence E. Mulford had promised me? The lonely plains and quiet rivers of James Fenimore Cooper? Later that day I began to feel easier. The country began subtly to change. Great vistas started appearing, tawny deserts. Far in the distance one could sense mountains, and suddenly there was Gallup, New Mexico. And Albuquerque and my first real Indians in all their regalia, sitting on the bricks of the railway station. I bought a silver and turquoise brooch from one of them to send to Aunt Luisa. My America really did exist.
Then came the cactus and the Joshua trees, the deserts and orange groves of California and, before I was ready for it, Los Angeles. It was a bright and sunny Saturday morning and already very hot. As I stepped off the train I was approached by an exquisitely dressed young man who inquired, "Are you Mr. Milland?" I nodded and he introduced himself. "My name is Jerrold Asher and I'm in the publicity department of MGM. I'm supposed to look after you and see you settled in your hotel. We've got a room for you at the Ambassador for a week, but after that I'm afraid you'll be on your own. Ever been in America before? No? Well, don't worry about it. I'm always at the end of a phone and I'll be glad to help any way I can." With that, we collected my luggage and climbed into a huge limousine and drove off. We finally arrived at the Ambassador, which, for those days, was an amazing place.
Huge gardens, swimming pools, restaurants, and of course, the famous Cocoanut Grove. Asher turned out to be a delightful character who seemed to enjoy a pose of bitter disillusion. He knew everyone, it seemed. But when his ashes were put away thirty-eight years later only my wife and his brother-in-law were there. Before he left he told me that Robert Lisman, the MGM talent scout, who had arrived the day before, would be picking me up at six o'clock that evening together with a Mr. and Mrs. Rohde, who were writers. We would have dinner at the Brown Derby and then go on to a premiere at the Pantages Theatre. When he left I went downstairs to the coffee shop and had a chocolatemalted milk. It was even thicker than the ones in New York. I saw people at the Brown Derby whom I had never really believed existed. There was Tom Mix, dressed in white leather, and much shorter than I expected.
There was the flashing, beautifully dressed Joan Crawford, the gross-looking, shambling Wallace Beery, the breathlessly lovely Corinne Griffith, and a rather common-looking girl with platinum hair and a surly expression, which was just about all she wore, who turned out to be Jean Harlow. And then my evening was made, for, with a joyful smile and rollicking walk, in came Victor McLaglen. I got my first apartment in a court on Hayworth just below Sunset called The Inglaterra. Living room, bedroom, bath, and kitchen completely furnished, telephone, and weekly maid service all for forty dollars a month. Oh, the phone was four and a half dollars a month extra. Ah, those olden, golden days!
The first time I stood in front of a camera in Hollywood happened the following week. It was a test for Cecil B. De Mille, who was preparing The Squaw Man. It was also a first for the man who directed my test, a young set designer for De Mille named Mitchell Leisen. I don't know which of us was the more nervous, but I think Leisen had the edge. Most of the extras dressed better than the stars, and it was always possible to be noticed and picked out of the crowd and given a special bit. A lot of stars started that way. But those days are gone now. You've got to belong to the right union. I met a most attractive girl who was taking lessons from an Austrian instructor. You know, it's a strange thing when a foreigner first comes to the States. He is struck by the fact that some Americans speak more attractively than others. To a foreigner, they all speak exactly the same language. But some are pleasanter to listen to. And this gal was pleasant indeed. All aspects of her. She also had a wicked sense of humor. We went out dancing on Saturday night and went swimming on Sunday at Malibu. There was only one thing wrong with her. I'll call her Bernadette Conklin, which was not her real name. She lived in Glendale. I defy any stranger to find his way back from Glendale to Hayworth and Fountain at one o'clock in the morning, and I was no exception. I got lost every time.
There was a peculiar contractual distinction in the studios in those days. If you were earning a hundred dollars a week or less, you were a "stock" player and therefore could be called upon to do all kinds of publicity gimmicks, go to all the openings, whether they were of outhouses, department stores, or gas stations, and you had to attend drama school. Over a hundred dollars a week and you were a "contract" player and were more or less immune to that sort of thing.
I had picked a scene from a picture called Passion Flower, soon to be made with Kay Francis and Robert Montgomery. To work with me they had assigned the cutest, prettiest little Dresden doll I had ever seen. Her name was Mary Carlisle and she was about as big as a bar of soap but luckily she had a great sense of humor. At the end of the rehearsal she said to me, "I thought you were English." "I am," I said, "but in this scene I'm supposed to be an American. Don't you think I sound like one?" "Oh," she said, "you do, you do. Yes, indeedy." When it came time for Mary and me to do our little scene, which was only three pages long, somebody obviously had left the key open, because all the way through it I kept hearing giggles and chuckles and at the end roars of laughter. One bastard was actually lying on the floor. It wasn't supposed to be a funny scene. It turned out that Miss Bernadette Conklin came from a place called Pineapple, Alabama, and I had acquired the damnedest Southern accent ever heard north of the Panama Canal. Curtain. Two weeks later I was given my first legitimate part.
It was in a picture called Bachelor Father, and it starred Marion Davies and the Englishman C. Aubrey Smith. The movie was directed by an elephantine gentleman named Robert Leonard, who immediately restored my faith in American directors. He was well-mannered and patient and very much respected. The film was produced by Cosmopolitan Pictures (owned by W. R. Hearst) and released through MGM. Before the actual shooting began it was decided that we should all go up to "the ranch" to rehearse for two weeks.
This meant San Simeon, the Camelot of California. Suddenly I felt very lonely, and nostalgia came again, only this time it was more insistent. Pedants have said it is a childish emotion that should have no place in a mature mind. If this is so, then I am a child still. It is always with me and will be until I die. I had met Rex Ross through Jerry Asher. We were waiting around on the set of Bachelor Father. Rex was one of the first friends I made in Hollywood and he has remained so. Today he is one of the most respected surgeons in California and lives just down the road from me. We arrived at the MacLeod house in Pasadena. It was a large, stone, Provençal-style house just off Colorado Boulevard with a courtyard in front and a tennis court and pool down to the right. I seated myself at the end of a foundered couch, next to an extraordinary-looking girl.
Round face, red hair, heavy pouting lips, and a black eye. And when I say a black eye I mean a shiner. She was dressed all in white and was feeling no pain at all. I had met my first real Hollywood star. She was Clara Bow. She scrutinized me for a moment or two and then said, "Hi, don't drink the Scotch, it will kill you. Take the gin. It might not." I asked her who was the fellow with Clara Bow. She said he was a well-known leading man named James Hall, and would I go back to the bar and get two more drinks. It was about fifteen minutes later, when the ice was beginning to rattle, that Miss Bow, who was beginning to get bellicose, suddenly banged Mr. Hall right smack in the beezer and charged out of the front door. It was in the middle of these two drinks that I suddenly began to feel very, very floaty. I knew I had to make a choice; either throw up or die. So I bolted for the door with Janet after me. I just made it, and when I got through I still wanted to die. Janet insisted that I should not drive home, and I insisted that I should and that I would meet her at Flintridge Riding Academy at seven thirty Sunday morning as arranged. Somehow I got home and, after throwing up again, went to sleep. As a matter of fact, it was many months before I took another drink. Very chastening.
I had gone to a late brunch and bridge party in Beverly Hills. The house was huge, part of a compound of four and all owned by a crusty little millionaire named J. J. Murdock. The story was that he'd had a tunnel built under all four of them, the other three being occupied by his executives and their families, and that he had had listening devices installed. Sounded like Nightmare Park. I had tagged along with Janet and a girl named Martha Sleeper, who happened to be Murdoch's niece. I felt a touch on my shoulder, and it was Janet with another girl in tow, to whom I was introduced. I never heard her name because my world suddenly stood still and I felt completely lost. The room was empty and there was just her, tall, with dark hair with some silver in it and eyes that were truly sapphire. Her expression was gently humorous while I mumbled some garbled inanities. I was still doing it even after they moved on. I dropped into my seat with a thud, looking and feeling very odd. The fellow on my right, Johnny Truyens, asked if I felt all right. Could he get me something? I said no, it was just that I had forgotten something and I had to get to a phone right away. And with that I left the room. I was bemused and felt the tiniest touch of panic.
Up until now I had never felt any really deep emotion; no one had ever touched me inside. I had been self-sufficient or, more correctly, self-centered and solitary. Suddenly I had met someone I wanted terribly to impress and I didn't even know her name. I had to get hold of Janet and, without arousing her suspicions, find out who she was and all about her. I set about my plan with all the deviousness of someone trying to sell a farm, with the result that at the end of the following week, after our early-morning session at Flintridge, Janet announced that she was taking me to breakfast in a house in Hollywood. Where I lived in Hollywood in those days was a most intriguing area. It was an area made up of big old California houses of stucco and wood, Victorian monstrosities straight out of Ronald Searle, trashy little Mexican apartment courts, and the most beautiful apartment houses ever designed.
Places like La Ronda, Andalusia, the Garden of Allah, none of which could be built now. Because elegance and taste and artistry seem to have died. People today are forced to live in the obscene chicken coops that have taken their place. But in those days Carole Lombard lived there, and Ernest Torrence, Allan Dwan and Gloria Swanson. And often in the still, early hours of the morning one could see tortured and pallid writers slowly plodding under the trees sweating out scenes for Black Oxen or Greed. I asked if I could call her and perhaps drop around some evening, since I lived only a block away. She supposed that would be all right; I could always get her number from Janet.
Now I don't propose to go into the long and troubled story of my courtship. I only want to say that I had been kissed by the angels and that there must have been something good in me to have been able to recognize the good in her. It took almost two weeks to get her to agree to go to the movies with me. Her reluctance had something to do with the fact that Janet was her good friend and also because she was attending USC. So Friday night was the only night available. Eight months later we were married at the Riverside Mission Inn. There were two hundred and fifty guests and three rehearsals. At what I thought was the last rehearsal, when we got to the part where the groom is supposed to kiss the bride, I didn't, whereupon my lovely bride hissed, "Kiss me. Kiss me!" I said, "No, let's wait for the real thing." She whispered, "This is the real thing!" I almost fainted, and then kissed her. During that eight-month campaign I appeared in three pictures. Two on loan to Warner Brothers, and one at MGM.
But the only one worth any comment was a picture called The Man Who Played God. I played a very small part in it, and the film itself was easily forgettable. But it gave me the opportunity to watch a true professional at work, a man completely dedicated to his trade, a man of immaculate good manners. He was George Arliss, and at that time probably in his sixties. He was a small man, thin, with bony features and a slight cast in one eye. The part of his protegee, a young girl, was played by Bette Davis, in those days a very pretty and pleasant creature, given to sitting at people's feet in rapt attention. No sign of her later arrogance and imperiousness. I suppose I must have been adequate in the small part I had been given, because Warner Brothers borrowed me again four months later for a slightly better part in a film starring Jimmy Cagney and Joan Blondell called Blonde Crazy.
One thing I do remember, though, was Cagney's lousy piano playing. Several years later I asked him if he had ever finished his mail-order course of piano lessons. "Nah," he replied, "the goddam neighbors got a court order and I had to send the piano back." We got to know each other quite well over the years. He and his brother Bill could have been twins except for temperament—Bill being ebullient and gregarious where Jimmy was something of a loner. Our friendship was based upon our mutual love of boats. We never talked about the theatrical world, just boats. We knew the faults and shortcomings of every boat from San Francisco to San Diego together with the faults and perversions of their owners. At one time Jimmy owned a small and lovely old Gloucester schooner called the Martha and I was the proud owner of a Sparkman and Stephens yawl called the Santana. About two weeks before I got married a small incident occurred which almost nipped my career in the bud.
I had been cast in another picture with Marion Davies called Polly of the Circus and as I mentioned earlier her leading man was Clark Gable. At that time Gable was just making his mark as something new on the Hollywood horizon, a leading man who did not conform to the pattern, big, tough, and with a calculated disrespect for women. Well, for him it worked. I don't remember what sort of character he played in the movie, but I had been cast as a young gym instructor in a boys' club. He was supposed to visit the club and put on a boxing exhibition for the benefit of the boys and I was the goat. It was just a thirtysecond scene and quite well rehearsed. One of my instructions was not to hit him in the face.
He was big and very strong and outweighed me by about thirty pounds. But he was just a little bit slow, and he wore a partial bridge in the upper left side of his mouth. About halfway through the scene he stuck a straight left in my ear and I countered with one of my own, purely reflexive, done without thinking—and out popped the bridge, only to fall right under my foot. From that day on Gable never really trusted me, although we met two or three times a month at different parties over the next thirty years. We also belonged to the same golf club and played in foursomes together dozens of times, but he would never take me as a partner, there was always that touch of suspicion.
The events that led up to the first separation between my wife and me were caused mainly but not solely by my father-in-law's dislike of me. Even after we were married he had the irritating habit of not quite remembering my name, and whenever we were invited over there for dinner, he would be overly polite, as if I were a visitor he had just met. This drove me into towering rages which I tried not to take out on Mal, but I'm afraid I distressed her terribly. They were a very tightly knit family and my father-in-law always succeeded in making me feel like an interloper who just wasn't good enough. It broke my heart to see my wife change from the gay and gentle willow wand I had married to a bewildered, sad, and unhappy child. Mal was just twenty-one and quite unable to divide her love and loyalties. I spent five months watching this and trying to keep my temper and frustrations from boiling over.
Two weeks after Payment Deferred was finished MGM dropped my option and I was out of a job. Normally, I wouldn't have cared a hoot. I was twenty-five years old and the world was wide open, just a great big candy store, and I would have gone on my wide-eyed way. But things were different now. I was a married man and I had responsibilities, and the future had suddenly intruded. For the first time in my life I felt the cold touch of worry. I had absolutely no belief in my talents as an actor and was there without the buckler of dedication and confidence that is so necessary in the theatrical profession. In the five months that followed I got only one job, and that was in an experimental film that was never released, but I made seven hundred and fifty dollars, which was pure manna. Finally things came to a head and it was decided that I would go back to England and start all over again, that the cachet of two years in Hollywood might open a few doors. Also, my depression was being made worse by increasing nostalgia. If by any chance I should get lucky, then my wife would join me. In the meantime I saw Mal once or twice a week, and we talked on the phone every day. We also agreed not to set up housekeeping again until I had three thousand dollars in the bank and an honest job. But the way the Depression kept hanging on it was going to be a long haul.
As my car had been repossessed, it became extremely difficult for me to run around trying to find an "honest" job of some kind. I did make the effort, though, even to taking the bus down to the main offices of the Shell Oil Company in downtown Los Angeles. One Friday morning I got a phone call from a Mr. Beynon, asking me if I could drop by the Shell offices before ten o'clock that morning for an interview. I put on my best blue suit, hopped on a bus, and was there on the dot. Fifteen minutes later I was hired on a trial basis as assistant manager of a Shell station at Sunset and Clark, salary $27.50 a week, to report at seven a.m. Monday morning. As I waited for the bus to take me back to Hollywood, roseate dreams of myself as a future captain of industry began to float through my mind. Then the bus came and I hopped on, only to find that I had one dime in my pocket, which meant that I would have to get off at Van Ness and Melrose and walk the other three miles home.
Four blocks beyond where I got off stood the gates of Paramount Pictures, the best studio in town. As I came abreast of the Log Cabin Coffee Shop, a hundred feet from the gate, the casting director, Joe Egli, walked toward me, stopped, and crooked his finger. "Just a minute," he said. "You're just the guy I'm looking for." He replied that they had run into a problem that morning on a picture called Bolero with an English actor who had just been stabbed by his boyfriend the night before. Egli thought I would be an ideal replacement. Wesley Ruggles, the director, asked, "Can you play an Englishman?" "Yes, sir," I replied, "I am English." I shot up to the makeup department, where Wally fitted me with a fierce military moustache, because I was to portray a British army officer, fiance to Carole Lombard, who was playing a dancer. As soon as the moustache was finished I asked if I could use the phone to call my agent. I got Meiklejohn and told him that I had landed a fat part at Paramount and that I had no way of getting home. Could he come and pick me up, because I didn't have a dime.
Carole Lombard, a smashing girl, a true original and a hell of an actress. When she was annoyed, her language was that of a stevedore. She loved practical jokes and could tell a bawdy story with the best of them. In any company, her taste was impeccable. A far cry from today's crop of beaded beatniks. They're so nauseatingly natural, so bloody earnest, so dull.
I have known George Raft for forty years and I have always found him to be a kind man, a taciturn sentimentalist, and a true romantic, though he has spent a lifetime hiding it. Wesley Ruggles, just looked amused. It was one of the few times I ever saw him smile. We finished the picture on the morning of Christmas Eve, 1933, and Carole threw a party for the cast in her dressing room at midday. I called up Mr. Beynon of Shell Oil and told him that I had broken my ankle getting off the bus and would he hold the job at the Shell station for a month. He said he would. I figured that if I flopped in the picture I'd still have something to fall back on. No use burning one's bridges. But I needn't have worried, I remained at Paramount for twenty-one years.
Norman Taurog, a delightful man, said to me, "I think this studio should put you under contract. I'm going to call the front office and tell them so. That okay with you? Even if nothing comes of it, my call won't do any harm." And he went right to the wall phone and did it. Three minutes later he came back and told me I was to go to the front office and see the chief production executive, at that time a man named Al Kaufman. I tried to thank him but I'm afraid I was quite tongue-tied. "Ah," he said, "maybe nothing will come of it. But if something does, do your best. I'll be watching you." Then he waddled away and I suddenly wanted to go somewhere and cry. There's so much kindness.
It took me ten days to convince Mal that a contract with Paramount was a hell of a lot more attractive than three thousand dollars in the bank and an "honest" job, that I had the world in my hand, anything was possible. So what if Paramount was selling at 2 x. The whole country was in the depths of a depression and had only one place to go, up! Why, the house I was born in was old before this continent was even thought to exist. It's just been the victim of its own exuberance. After a few hours of this Mal sighed and said, "All right, but call that Beynon and tell him the truth." What a performance!
I was proud of myself and deliriously happy. One week later we were ensconced in a little duplex in an apartment building called "Les Maisonnettes" on Fountain, three blocks from her family home. We furnished the whole place out of Barker Brothers' basement for four hundred dollars. And then everything slowed down to a crawl. Unless you were a very highpriced contract player you were ignored, sort of relegated to a grab bag of reserves, to be used only in case of an emergency, practically forgotten. You still had to get out and make a name for yourself before they'd notice you, even though they were paying you every week. It was a very constricting situation, the fact that you were tied to one studio. I did one or two inconsequential things in a couple of forgettable pictures before my restlessness began to become a problem. "Darling," Mal said, "there was a phone call a half hour ago from the studio.
You're to call a Mr. Hackensack [Joe Pasternak] at Universal Studios because Paramount has loaned you out to them for a wonderful part that has to start right away." By this time she was shaking me and pointing to the telephone, her mouth half open, breathing quickly, and her eyes, God, I can't describe them. Normally, my wife is a tall, elegant woman, quietly humorous and absolutely stunning to look at. But at this moment she was like a seven-year-old child on Christmas morning. I held her tight.
Ordinarily it takes three to six months after completion before a picture hits the screen, but Three Smart Girls, which this one was called, had its first showing within sixty days because of Universal's need of ready cash. The reviews were ecstatic and the picture turned out to be a blockbuster. Universal was back in the chips. The cast members' options were picked up, Pasternak and Koster were the golden boys of Lankershim Boulevard, and a little of the glow even fell upon me. But during that sixty-day hiatus I had done two inconsequential parts for Paramount, who assigned me to help in a series of tests designed to find a new girl to play in a contemplated picture called The Jungle Princess.
In all, they tested about a dozen girls and I appeared with every one. Finally they picked a smashing young girl, whose figure lent itself beautifully to a sarong and who had long brown hair that hung below her waist. She was a singer with Herbie Kay's dance band and quite unknown in Hollywood, and I thought easily the best of the bunch tested. Now, the question arose, where were they going to find a suitable leading man? We'll make some tests, they said. Then the girl they had just picked upped and said, "But what about the actor who played in the test with me? I thought he was the leading man. I can't think of anyone who would be better." They looked at her as if she had some foul disease; this broad was going to be a troublemaker with these revolutionary ideas. Let's call the casting director, Joe Egli, they said, and see what he can come up with. But Egli's opinion was the same as the girl's, God love her.
Her name was Dorothy Lamour, known in her circle at that time as "The Dreamer of Songs," and a simpler, nicer individual doesn't exist. When the reviews of Three Smart Girls came out, the part was mine, the first in a series of three pictures in the same genre. When I kissed her she sat back on her haunches as if she had just tasted her first banana split. Then a look of absolute joy came on her face and she leaped on top of me wanting more.
I think that psychologically and emotionally I was not cut out to be an actor. It has always been a fight for me to appear at ease, to be polished and uncomplicated in a role... that niggling feeling that I was being an emotional prostitute. I've outgrown it, become almost prideful. But in those days, theatrically speaking, I was undoubtedly something of a prig, an opportunist for whom the profession was but a means to an end. The frustrating thing was that I didn't have an end in view. One morning in the fall of 1936 we awakened to find the rain pouring down, and if there's one place more depressing than Southern California in the rain, I don't want to know about it. After I'd stared out of the window for fifteen minutes, the idea suddenly hit me. "Darling, let's take a trip!" "Where can we go in weather like this?" Mal asked. "Europe!" I said. "If I don't get out of this place for a few weeks I'll go out of my mind." Then my wife began to tremble. "You hurry over to the studio right away and get the time off somehow. I've got to call Lily MacMurray. Go!"
I said, "What are you calling Lily for?" "Well, you don't think I'm going to Europe in these rags, do you? While you are at the studio, Lily and I are hotfooting it down to Magnin's and Bullock's Wilshire." Then and there I lowered the nest egg to be left in the bank from $2,000 to $1,000; I had never seen her so excited, so wonderful. After that, my session with the studio heads was a walkover. What a performance! They even gave me use of a company car while we were in London and Paris! MacMurray was working on Stage Six, so I slipped over to tell him what my wife and I were going to do. Fred and I had been signed by Paramount at about the same time. He had been playing a saxophone in a show in New York, where his darling Lily had been a model. They were our closest friends, and we hung onto each other like four Christians in the Colosseum. Now, as far as I'm concerned the Savoy Hotel is famous for only two things. The Grill and the beds. Oh, those wonderful warm and caressing beds, made only for the Savoy, so comforting that sleep in them was almost sinful.
Paris was wonderful. Mild, gray, and with all its intriguing smells and places. We stayed at the Hotel Gallia on the Rue Pierre Charon, just off the Champs Elysees: a huge sitting room, a bedroom almost as big, with those gorgeous brass beds, and a bathroom you could stable five horses in. And we had a valet and a chambermaid who were jewels. The cost? Five dollars a day! But that was Paris in the thirties. An excellent dinner at Lucas-Carton would rarely cost more than five dollars. Today, a large Scotch and soda can cost that! In those days all visitors to Paris felt like millionaires. It was in Paris that I got my first taste of what it was like to be in the public eye.
The French are very film-conscious and Three Smart Girls was a big success there. The Jungle Princess had just opened and they loved it. I don't know how the magazines found me, but they did. Very intense and dedicated people they seemed to be, insisting there was something profound in all movies. In the case of Jungle Princess what was the director trying to convey? What was he trying to say? I told them I hadn't the foggiest idea, that he had trouble ordering his lunch. I excused myself by saying that I hadn't been in the profession long enough to be profound about it. But I will say this about the French reporters in contrast with the English and American and Italian press, they never asked questions about my personal affairs or about my private and family life, except to ask me if I were married and whether I had any children. But they are like that, the French. To them their home and family are sacred. It's their bastion, their refuge, a place to which a man can retreat and throw off the facade of the boulevardier. Two things a Frenchman will always give you—good manners and directions to the nearest public toilet. That's about it.
Immediately upon arrival in California I found myself cast as "Bulldog Drummond" and did two such pictures back to back. The day after I finished the second one I was assigned to a lead in a picture called The Gilded Lily with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, directed by the same somber-visaged Wesley Ruggles who had started me out in Bolero. It turned out to be a very pleasant engagement, with just two slight flaws. Ruggles was in the middle of a divorce from his then wife, Arline Judge, and was more morose than ever.
Also I was convinced that Claudette Colbert hated me. I couldn't imagine why. I hardly said a word to her besides "Good morning" every day. Frankly, I was very much in awe of her, and the putting out of bogus charm is not something I can do. With her it wouldn't have helped anyway. Claudette was much too alert and intelligent. But I'm afraid I magnified it out of all proportion because the picture turned out to be a very pleasant engagement and most successful financially. Thereafter I made four pictures in a row without one day off.
A Robert Louis Stevenson number called Ebb Tide, at my own studio, Paramount, then a loan-out to Universal, then another loan-out to Columbia for a picture with Loretta Young, then back to Paramount for a little gem called Hotel Imperial. That one which almost wrote finis to my film career. In it I played a young Austrian cavalry officer, a part in which I felt quite at home. There was a scene that called for me to lead my trusty troop of San Fernando cowboys at full gallop after a clutch of retreating Cossacks. I woke up in the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital with a badly mangled left hand and a three-inch gash in my skull that took nine stitches to close and a slight concussion. I spent a week in the hospital and a week at home convalescing. But as the director, Robert Florey, so neatly put it, no real harm had been done.
I was halfway through a picture with Paulette Goddard in a little over two months after my accident. You think I was a glutton for work? Well, I thought so, too, until I tangled with Goddard. There was the hardest working female I'd ever come across. Wise, humorous, and with absolutely no illusions. My pet hate was the publicity department. By the beginning of 1939 I had acquired quite a following, including two fan clubs. I took lunch in my dressing room while giving interviews to fan magazines. In those days there were at least twenty-five, not counting the foreign press, who were usually much more cerebral and penetrating. Occasionally I would get a whole week off, and when that happened Mal and I would quickly hop a plane and take a trip somewhere, Mexico City, Vera Cruz, anywhere. We even made it to Panama once. These seemed to be the only times my wife and I were together. And the separations affected her. She was becoming subdued as I became more irritable. It was February, 1939, and I was thirty-two, when I wrecked my left hand for the second time.
The studio had put an end to my joy riding out of Mines Field, no more flying except by scheduled airlines. I had become too valuable. So, for something to do at odd moments I had outfitted a machine shop behind our garage and I had everything in it, bench saw, drill press, all-purpose lathe, shaper, planer, the works, and every piece had its own motor. There was only one thing wrong. No room to work a piece of wood longer than three feet. Nevertheless, I was trying my hand at making a small Chippendale end table and was just finishing off an extra leg, just in case, when the damned "thing slipped. My left hand went right into the circular blade, which at that time was doing about 750 r.p.m. As a result I found myself in Santa Monica Hospital minus part of my thumb and the tendons all chewed Luckily, the back of the hand wasn't even touched, so it looks quite normal. Thanks to the excellence of the surgeon who worked on it, the hand recovered 50 percent of its efficiency. I was fortunate that at the time the accident happened I was between pictures so the studio knew nothing about it. Heda Hopper on the occasion of my being suspended by Paramount - She had been lying in wait for me for about six years, since I had made a picture with Claudette Colbert called Arise My Love.
The movie turned out to be a blockbuster and my first real step to stardom. I had received a call from Hopper, who, in arrogant and imperious fashion, told me that I was to appear on her nationally broadcast radio show. I told her that I was facing a week of night shooting and that it would be quite impossible. She said, "Listen, you limey son-of-a-bitch, nobody, but nobody refuses to go on the 'Hedda Hopper Show.' You show up on Tuesday night or I'll run you out of town and don't think I can't!" I hung up on her. Stupid woman. She and her goddam hats. But half the town were really terrified of her.
There are very few things that give me greater pleasure than to watch good acting. It exhilarates me and robs me of sleep. On the other hand, really bad acting actually nauseates me. But where have they gone? these "soldiers of the king," these dependable flavor makers? I know only that they've never been replaced. Once in a while, if you're lucky, you can catch them on the goggle-box around two a.m. when you're alone and the house is silent. I don't mean to detract from the stars, many of whom were, and still are, brilliant, some of them touched with genius. But the ones who reached the top and stayed there are the actors and actresses who started in their teens and worked at it, the dedicated ones, the professionals. As an interested observer, I believe that anyone with normal intelligence can be a fairly competent actor, and be able to earn a living at it, provided he is to a certain degree intuitive and has the normal physical equipment, common sense, and logic. There are actors who have become stars without that last quality, but these are the fakers, the bogus talents much given to excess in makeup and hirsute adornments and weird infirmities.
But I see the tide is changing. Now we are being inflicted with expressionless faces, grunts, loose mouths, and tight pants. And the female stars? Ech! You see them in supermarkets, usually in curlers pushing some brat in a shopping cart and looking as if they dressed out of a Goodwill truck. Their cry is that they are being honest, being real, like the girl next door, regular. But their honesty stops when they forget to mention that they're earning a couple of hundred thousand a year that they hang onto while their mother is probably mucking out a chicken coop somewhere in Nebraska. Goddammit, can't they realize that most movie-goers are sick to death of the dingy sexpot who lives next door and the hairy oaf who's screwing her? They don't want to go to the movies and see their own drab lives depicted over and over again. They go with the hope of being transported by high adventure, by humor and romantic fantasy, to see creatures of another, almost unattainable world, not stained bedsheets and moaning self-pity mouthed by inarticulate louts. They want standards to live by, old ones, preferably, because they are sick to death of the ever-growing cesspool that is confronting them.
[On his Oscar for "The Lost Weekend"] Now the real work started, the cerebral part, the part where the thought processes become vocal, where the camera comes so close that nothing can be hidden and fakery isn't possible. Thank God for Wilder and Brackett, Wilder with his prying, probing, intuitive touch of genius, and Brackett with his kindly calm and sociological insight.There was also Charles Jackson, the author of the book, like a bright, erratic problem child, telling me of the horrors he had been through that had led to the writing of it, which only served to increase my morbidity. But my home life was deteriorating. Life didn't seem to be joyous anymore. Up until this point, with the exception of a few minor irritations, it had been one big buffet. Only now the irritations became problems: my wife without humor, my friends standoffish. One night, coming home from work I flew into a rage because I was expected to attend a dinner party given by some people I despised. I roared up the stairs, grabbed two pairs of socks and some shorts.
I stormed out of the house and rented an apartment in the Sunset Towers. For two weeks I stayed there, eating at Lucy's, across from Paramount, after work and boiling my shorts and socks before going to bed, my wife thinking my depression was a dramatically staged excuse to shack up with some blond Hollywood dame, and not without reason. There had been a few previous peccadilloes, nothing serious, just the normal male revolt. It was very easy to succumb to in those days in that town. But in two weeks, when my shorts became grayer, I sneaked back home with the injured attitude that I hoped she had learned her lesson. [on his Oscar nomination] "Pictures of the five of you. That's you in the middle!" In silence I stared at myself, I didn't look at the other four, just me. Little Reggie, the tattooed kid, the boy with the horse, the friend of Gillam and Dunbar. Then I burst into tears. It was March, 1946. I was thirty-nine years old. The next four weeks were a phantasmagoria that brought me to the point of almost hating the town. With just one picture Brackett and Wilder had made Hollywood pause and take stock, and I found myself being looked upon as an authority on alcoholism. Me, for Christ's sake, me, a guy who if he took three drinks had to be carted off to bed and given up for dead! Mal insists that there is some good in everybody, and that's the way she leads her life. But I could gladly strangle some of the people with broken wings that we get stuck with. I was intolerant as a youth, and then came forty years of increased understanding laced with some compassion. Nowadays we suffer from an overabundance of lawyers with an underabundance of principles.
A more recent and much more galling example of the conceit of individuals stupid enough to think they can improve something that's already perfect is the case of Columbia's remaking Lost Horizon, Frank Capra's gem. I was fortunate enough to see the original version a few months ago, not the botched-up abortion one is likely to see on television but the picture as Capra meant it to be shown. I tell you, I was like a child waking up on Christmas morning, I was so overwhelmed by the joy and the adventure of it, the pure escapism, which is what pictures should be all about—that is, if they expect you to pay your own way in. And do you know that some birdbrain actually did a remake of John Ford's Stagecoach? I was one of the unfortunates who saw it.
You know, actors are wonderful people to be around, especially in the shank of the evening, when the squares have all gone home and they don't have to be on anymore and the girdles can be let out a notch or two. Actors are so manyfaceted, so intuitive, so basically intelligent, and, almost without exception, humorous. And by country-club standards, very moral. Of course there are exceptions, and the entire profession suffers as a result, because the exceptions are nothing if not volatile.
Very few people know that Randolph Scott, before he got sidetracked, started out as an accountant. Now he's back at it again, only this time the money he's counting is his own. Between that and playing golf he's got no time for acting anymore. And there's George Montgomery and the wonderful furniture he makes. He's truly an artist at it, and if he ever made carpentry a full-time occupation, Baker Heritage, and big-time companies of that ilk would find him serious competition. But he's too much of an artist about it, he has to examine and correct and help polish every individual piece his little operation turns out. I've only got a table of his, and it is beautiful. I envy people like this, people with extracurricular talents, because I have none. I've met very few actors I didn't like. I've been an "interested observer of the passing parade" all my life. My main fault is that I see the faults and foibles first. It is a quality that tends to make one cynical. But if there is cynicism in me it has been engendered by disillusion.
Most of my pedestals stand empty and the world seems filled with predators, so that I have come to the conclusion that my perennial nostalgia is not for a place but for a time. A time of good manners, of elegance and modesty, of honor and pride and self-respect. Many of these qualities remain with me only faintly, but I remember them and know that if I can recapture and polish them I shall be safe. The few people today who seem to display kindliness and good manners are cabinetmakers and the postman. Another cheerful troop are the men who deliver the milk in the morning. It seems that when I was a young boy everyone was like that. Of course, there were always a few sour apples, but they were a necessary leavening—one just couldn't have everyone going about with the big "Ho, ho, ho!" Life would be a big bloody bore.
I have been paid fabulous sums to frolic with and to make bogus love to the most beautiful women in the world, which on one or two cases turned out to be not so bogus. Overall, a joyous existence, but threaded through it, deep depressions and peaks as high as the stars. It is only now, when I have arrived in my sixties, that I experience sad disappointments and bothersome annoyances. In earlier days the "sad disappointments" would have plunged me into the depths of depression, in some instances with suicidal overtones, convinced that God had forsaken me. And the "bothersome annoyances" meant raging fury, revenge in its most horrendous forms, the first of which would be castration with a rusty knife. My life in those days was one long saga of agony and ecstasy. Volatile? You bet!” -"Wide-Eyed in Babylon: An Autobiography" (1974) by Ray Milland