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Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Judy Garland writes to her favorite movie star while singing
the classic, "Dear Mr. Gable."

In Tinsel Town, it could be said that a star is worth his weight in fan mail. Studios were able to gauge the popularity of their contracted players based not only upon their box office receipts but also upon the amount of gushing fan letters they received every week. This method also helped to predict soon-to-be stars, for when admirers sent letters requesting more of "that blonde" or asking "Who was that handsome chap...?" in such-and-such scene, studios would know who to beef up in the publicity department. In fact, before there even were "movie stars," film-goers were pestering Biograph and later IMP trying to find out the name of their favorite leading lady. Carl Laemmle would give them what they wanted, staging a huge publicity gag to introduce Florence Lawrence to the world, and thus dub her the first official Movie Star.

The biggest stars got bags, truckloads, thousands of fan letters a week. People wrote in to RKO, MGM, or Warner Bros. begging for a picture, an autograph, or-- God help us all-- a written response. Some celebs like Mae West and Joan Crawford, the true diva pros, would insist on answering all of their mail, however not every one was that ambitious. It was impossible to keep up, to respond to everyone, to sign that many photos without getting chronic carpal tunnel. Most leading ladies and gents would have had no time left over to make movies! For example, at one point, Veronica Lake (left) was receiving somewhere around 1,000 letters a week. Though she tried to answer at least 1/5 of them, she fully admitted that she couldn't answer them all. The majority of her mail was answered by an expert forger who would respond to hopefuls with a signed Ronni photo. (This is why you can't trust all of the "autographs" out there-- most are scams. Caveat emptor)!

However, the most touching of all Ronni's fan letters would reach her long after her hey-day in Hollywood. You see, Veronica Lake had a brief love affair with Marlon Brando (right). I'm a little uncertain when their relationship took place, though it is safe to assume that they crossed paths when Marlon arrived in Hollywood in the early '50s, coincidentally at the same time that Ronni's film career was taking a nosedive. (Though, it is possible that they rubbed elbows in New York as well, which is where Ronni moved after her immediate exit from California). In any case, their affair was heated, brief, and mutually and amicably ended. Reflecting on Marlon, the ever humble Ronni would say: "Our romance was short but sweet. He was on the dawn of a brilliant film career, and I was in the twilight of one. Of course, my career could never compare with his." However, despite his eccentricities, Marlon could be oddly loyal and was in truth a very compassionate person. When he read in the paper that his former flame, the Veronica Lake, was working as a cocktail waitress at "The Martha Washington Hotel" in NYC, he sent her a $1000 check. Ronni was floored! However, proud woman that she was, she never cashed it. Instead, she had it framed, and it adorned the wall of her later Miami home.

Marlon's respect for disappearing Movie Queens is equally reflected in his treatment of the eternal flapper and "It girl," Clara Bow. Long after her day as the #1 box office star at Paramount Studios, Clara (left) had succumbed to the increasing deteriorations of schizophrenia-- something she had in common with Ms. Lake. After her fear of the mic and the brutal treatment by the salacious tabloids all but chased her from Hollywood, Clara had spent the remainder of her life trying to make a go of it on her ranch with husband Rex Bell. Her increasingly erratic behavior led to her psychotherapy at "The Institute of Living," where-- after unearthing the shattering sexual abuse she had experienced as a child at the hands of her own father-- her mental disease was also diagnosed. Later, separated from her husband and two sons and living alone at the Los Altos Apartments, Clara's health continued to decline, and except for the occassional emergence of her old, spunky spirit, she faded easily from the public consciousness. She would get a little boost in her later days when she heard that Marlon admired her, for she was equally enthralled by his raw, new performances. She even made a visit to  meet him at his home, which the (by then) sheltered lady never did. Marlon must have been equally effected by the meeting for, a few days later, Clara received a signed photo of Marlon in the mail. It said: "To Clara Bow Bell, A Memorable Personality Who Has Given So Much To So Many, With Sincere Respects, Marlon Brando." It warmed her heart to no end and reassured her that what is temporarily forgotten is not always completely gone.

Interestingly, there was always one fan letter that Clara wished she had written-- to her favorite actress, Marilyn Monroe (right). When witnessing Marilyn's cataclysmic and whirlwind career, Clara couldn't help but draw comparisons between her own pressure-filled rise and fall and the latest blonde ingenue's journey. In fact, Clara would not be the first nor the last to note the similarities between the two ladies: sexual dynamos with a hovering shadow of mental illness (both of them had mentally ill mothers) who were constantly mistreated and abused by the press. For this reason, Clara always wanted to reach out to the little girl who reflected so much of her own torments and pains. She never did, and both ladies were too shy to ever meet. It was probably shocking to Clara when Marilyn suddenly died in 1962. Clara would outlive her by three years, finally passing away in 1965. So much was left unspoken.

Another unsent fan letter was penned by Olivia De Havilland. Still alive and kickin' today, this tough movie diva remains one of the final touchstones to the studio era, which she almost single-handedly brought to an end thanks to her daring court case ending in the "De Havilland Decision." Though she correctly fought against her mistreatment and abuse by the studios-- Warner Brothers more specifically-- she could still look with fondness on her glory days as a star and her countless cinematic works, most of which remain classics. Her fondest memories, of course, always went out to her constant collaborator, Errol Flynn. Errol would not fare so well as the resilient Olivia in his later days. After a lifetime of alcohol (et al) abuse, the once handsome swashbuckler had become a sad wreckage of his former self. Sometimes, friends could see the mischievous bad boy peeking out from his sad eyes, but a life of living hard and fast was driving him to an early death. For this reason, after watching a later screening of Robin Hood, Olivia decided to write to her old friend, extolling his talents and remarking on how their chemistry and partnership had truly stood the test of time. Then, before the ink was dry, she had a change of heart. Fearing that the wisecracker would find her a sentimental old fool, she tore the letter up. She regretted her decision, for Errol passed away not much later at the ripe young age of fifty. (The famous duo sit together between takes, left).

Jean Arthur ponders her opening words of praise... 
(Still is from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).

Luckily, these misfires are the exception and not the rule. While some may feel a bit silly before licking the envelope and sending their love to a comrade of celluloid, most simply see it as a way to pay their respects to those they continue to admire in the industry or new faces that they believe continue the legacy of integrity in film acting. Such was the case with Jean Arthur. Jean became enamored of Christopher Reeve (right) when she was introduced to his film work in the '70s. As a result, she made an out-of-character move when she wrote him a letter, gushing like a school girl in love. Jean was a woman not easily impressed, so Reeve must have been extremely flattered when he received her note. To be honored for his performances by one of the Queens of Silver Screen Comedy was a testament indeed! To show his gratitude and equally pay his respects, he sent her an autographed photo with a personal note.

A rare, legitimate Chaney autograph for Lt. Jay Roy Harlacher,
a Los Angeles fingerprints expert whom he conferred
with for his role in While the City Sleeps.

Lon Chaney was not a man apt to answer fan mail. Embarrassed by the attention, the notorious King of Mystery didn't get personal with his fans. Gracious, yes, but he preferred to allow the public to believe in the illusion of him over the truth. This is why a genuine signature from Lon is a rarity. They do exist, on his friend Jack Feinberg's violin for instance or in personal cards to friends, but the bulk of the pictures sent out to his multitudinous fans were signed by the studio itself. Lon always saw himself as just some guy, nothing special, so why all the hooplah? However, he too made an exception when he received an unlikely letter from stage actress May Robson. Acclaimed on the stage, May (left) was fairly unknown at the time, but would later gain further fame for her onscreen performances in films such as the original A Star is Born and Bringing Up Baby. May was deeply moved by Lon's performance as Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and penned him a letter telling him so. The genuine regard of an equal talent for his own moved Lon, and to be given validation by someone he truly respected caused him to do the unthinkable: answer her. He sat in front of his typewriter and wrote his penpal back with "humble thanks and appreciation," stating also that he hoped to live up to the great honor she had bestowed upon him. 

A photo of a very relaxed Montgomery Clift, taken by
Stanley Kubrick.

Sometimes these communications between fan and star aren't always by note. After the telephone entered every home in America, it was, of course, common for fellow stars to call and congratulate each other on a supreme piece of work or perhaps set up a future collaboration. Both Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift would get frequent calls from a devoted fan who was eager to express his admiration for them. However, his attentions at times got a bit annoying too. It was only later that Marlon and Monty would compare notes and realize that they were both being phone-stalked by James Dean. The two thespians were initially flattered, but the equal sides of their nature that embraced acting, shunned celebrity and were irked and embarassed by the attention. Monty, whose talent Jimmy favored, entertained the young Dean's frequent buzzes as much as he could, sensing in the youth a familiar thirst for artistry (as well as perhaps the pressures of internal sexual conflict). In the end there was only so much he or Marlon could do for someone who was, in reality, a stranger. Dean's desperation to reach out to them is indicative of his search for both a father figure and a support system, and the fact that he aimed so high too communicates his desire to attain the greatness these men had already accomplished. Sadly, Dean would pass away before he could fully emulate Monty or Marlon's bodies of work but not before he became a legend. When Monty heard the news, he was so disturbed, he vomited. The loss of a like soul hit far too close to home. 

Jimmy Dean, equally relaxed but less at ease...

What is most interesting about these varied correspondensces between celebs, is that it brings them down to earth. In seeing their respect for their own individual idols, we too get to see the children in them-- the dreamers who wanted to be something more than and something better than themselves. They too looked up to their predecessors and sometimes contemporaries for guidance and inspiration. Thus, we get to see a wider spectrum of the close-knit community of Hollywood, which seems so big on the movie screen but is in truth a small family of co-workers, co-stars, and collaborators, who need just as much validation for their diligent work and efforts as the rest of us. As they say, one kind word goes a long way, and sometimes a pat on the back from a friend makes all the difference.


  1. Bravo (as usual)!

    And I'll add that in her biography, "Savage Detours: The Life and Work of Ann Savage", it's stated that Savage was the first person that Brando asked to meet upon his arrival in Hollywood.

    Don't know if this is true or not, but when you see "Detour" and find her portrayal of Vera as a powder keg with a raw nerve for a fuse, it kinda makes sense.

  2. Ah, really? That's interesting. Thanks for the tip!