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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

MENTAL MONTAGE: The Sweethearts of Showbiz

Clara Bow gives "It" away to those more in need.

Sometimes it is hard to like celebrities. They are so rich, so lovely, so privileged... These days, it seems more often than not that a public personality is more notorious than "celebrated." One is famous for being famous, not because he or she has spent long years honing the acting craft, enduring poverty as a starving artist, or-- god forbid-- is actually talented. One can't deny that those who make it in show-business are "lucky" in many respects. Success in Tinsel Town has always been the result of a combination of one's fortitude, charm, and fortunate happenstance-- being in the right place at the right time. Yet, the stars of the bygone Studio era shine a little more brightly, not just because the system saw to it that they were perfectly varnished by the press, but because they came of age in a time when you had to work for what you wanted. Life wasn't handed to you on a silver platter, answers didn't come with the scroll of a mouse, and far away dreams of fame and fortune were seemingly impossible and not brought to you weekly via the Kardashians on E!. (I have a theory that E! stands for excrement and not entertainment, but to prove it I would have to watch that channel). In any case, those stars who got where they were going, which was all the way to the top, seemed to bear a little more integrity than today's "glamazons." They appreciated the gifts they had received, because they knew the harsh difference between hunger and gluttony. There are, of course, scoundrels in every era, but in early Hollywood, self-absorption and selfish disdain were more frequently overshadowed by generous hearts that occasionally performed life-altering acts of kindness. Here are a few of Hollywood's original sweethearts:

Clara Bow (left) didn't come up the hard way. She came up the hardest way. Thus, despite her increasing celebrity and suddenly sumptuous surroundings, she never let the vanity of the industry go to her head. All the glitz was a gag, which she enjoyed, but she too was just as comfortable sitting at home and playing a game of cards with her cook and maids as opposed to going to the hoity-toity, hot-to-trot Hollywood parties. Money meant little to her, other than to appreciate that she finally had it. She spent extravagantly on others and modestly on herself, purchasing a standard Beverly Hills home when she could have afforded the grandest mansion in the Hollywood Hills, for example. She was what is known as a "soft touch," and was always giving away her dough, hand over fist, to anyone who needed a little assistance, though these people tended to be users, hangers-on, or apathetic family members. Totally un-jaded, she too was very giving when it came to her fans. By 1928, she was getting more than 8,000 fan letters a week, an impossible sum to answer individually. Yet, Clara always tried her best to communicate her deep affection for her "fan friends," whom she credited with her career success. She knew where her bread was buttered, and it wasn't at Paramount: it was at theaters across the nation where throngs of people handed over their hard-earned money to catch a glimpse of the "It" girl. Clara was much obliged.

As such, she liked to give back when she could. Teet Carle, Paramount publicity man, became privy to this when he encountered Clara on the lot one day. She mentioned that she was on her way to Coney Island to help out a fan and wondered if Teet wanted to tag along and take some pictures. Confused but intrigued, Teet agreed. It turned out that Clara had read a letter from a young boy who worked with his parents selling popcorn at this beach-side park. Both parents had fallen ill, and the boy wrote to Clara, telling her that he knew if she came along and helped him sell come buttery kernels, he could earn enough to take care of his folks and pay their doctor's bills. Of course, he never imagined that the biggest star in the world would answer him, let alone show up at his stand. Teet Carle said he would never forget the look on the young lad's face when Clara suddenly stood before him and said, "I'm here to sell popcorn!" Needless to day, they sold a mint that day, and all of Coney Island was in a fervor over Clara's presence-- which was a homecoming, as she used to slice hot-dog buns there as a teen. Whatever the earnings that day, Clara did more than help out financially. Her presence and support of a total stranger, a scared young man fearful for his parents' health and his own livelihood, became a memory that he must have savored again and again over the years. What a gal!

John Gilbert (right) also knew a thing or two about poverty. When he first arrived in Hollywood, he was skinny as a rail and outrunning the memories of his tragic childhood. Of course, his own personal history only heightened the intensity of his screen performances. His handsome face, gentlemanly demeanor, and boyish exuberance were intensified by his human heart. Audiences responded to him because he was a nice guy, someone they could have a beer with, a laugh with, and someone women fell desperately in love with. Jack always valued his accomplishments, and was plagued by the memories of his bitter and loveless childhood. Which is why he was quick to help out a friend in need. He didn't know Dorothy Parker well, but he knew her well enough to call her "Dottie." When, Dottie was sent to Harkness Pavilion for an emergency appendectomy, she was broke as a joke. Fame and international respect had not yet reached her, nor had cold, hard cash. As such, in addition to the physical pain she endured, she was in agony over how to pay her bills. A proud woman, she didn't want to accept money from anyone, particularly some wealthy snob, so a solution seemed hopeless. Then, her friend Beatrice Ames Stewart pulled a fast one and wired "Jack" Gilbert for a little financial assistance. Without hesitation, Jack sent back $2500 dollars, no question. Dorothy was floored! She paid her bills, got better, and went on to become one of the most well-respected writers and intellectuals of her time. When she returned to Hollywood as a screenwriter, she was in a much better position than her last encounter with Mr. Gilbert. So, she sent him a moving letter expressing her eternal gratitude, and too returned every cent of her "loan." John had probably forgotten all about it, yet he replied to her gesture with the following wire: "Thank you, Miss Finland." Dorothy chuckled. You see, at that time, Finland had been the only country to pay back its war debts to the United States. It was John's way of saying that no "thanks" were necessary, and it was all in a day's work between friends.

Lon Chaney's empathy is something no one need be schooled on. He exhibited it in every performance he gave. Always shying away from the spotlight in his private life, he did so not so much to protect his privacy, but to protect himself from narcissism. He felt that fame was a parasite, and he didn't want self-love to rob him of his integrity as a human being. He never lost touch with the boy as whom he started when he grew into the man he became. He had been through many rough years-- financially, romantically, emotionally-- yet he had persevered. He knew that not everyone was as lucky. Thus, he had no qualms about helping out a fellow lost soul when he felt someone was truly in need. He was very generous but particular with his charities, believing that the majority of the time, the "moolah" never went to the people that really needed it. When he saw a cause that spoke to him, he did stand up for it, even if it were one as atypical as fighting for prison reform. (Who else would have cared about a convict's living conditions, but the man who often portrayed them on the silver screen)? Like the later "Man in Black," Johnny Cash, "The Man of a Thousand Faces" had great empathy for men behind bars, and atypically answered his fan mail when they reached out to him. Yet, there was always great distance between Lon and those he helped, save in more personal cases. For example, Lon did strike up a friendship with a fellow who ran a local newsstand. The two probably hit it off by shooting the breeze each day, and soon enough-- after who knows how many visits to pick up the morning paper-- the two were considered at least casual chums. When Lon distrusted, he was ever on his guard, but when he liked a guy, he was the best ally one could ask for. As such, when Lon learned that his new pal was gravely ill, he drove him to the hospital himself! In addition, he paid for the unsuspecting man's surgery and also paid and arranged for a temporary replacement to hold his post while he was away convalescing. Thus, his job remained secure. He healed, went back to work, and all was well. Lon must've really like reading the news!

Spencer Tracy was a bigger softy than many gave him credit for. In addition to supporting his own wife and children, he always saw to it that his elder brother was employed and cared for and that all of his extended relatives were plenty comfortable. He, like Lon, was a suspicious fellow, but he wasn't quite as shrewd. He was taken advantage of from time to time, not in any back-breaking manner, but he did run afoul of a swindler or two, whom he had generously helped only to learn that they were shamming him. When someone gave him the bait, his retort was often, "Is this on the level?" Sometimes, he really couldn't tell, but what were a few pennies here and there? If someone had the gall to con him for some fast dough, they must need it more than he did. Yet, Spence did make some very smart and courteous investments. Always a bit ashamed of his own profession, which appeared from the outside to be self-serving and undependable, Spence always admired good men with solid jobs. Two professions he had considered in youth were in the priesthood and the medical field. Due to this, his head was turned when he met regular youngster Lincoln Cromwell, who had just graduated and was hoping to attend medical school at the McGill University of Montreal. Lincoln didn't know who Spence was when he first met him, but the two apparently got to talking. One day, over a glass of lemonade, Lincoln spilled his guts about his plight-- a total lack of funds to attend his dream school. Spence listened quietly. Lincoln was just glad to get the misery out of his system, and after his confession, he felt better. He would soon feel ecstatic! For no reason at all, Spence offered to underwrite all of Lincoln's expenses for his first year of school. "What?!" He then continued that if Lincoln progressed well in his studies and proved himself, he would pay for the rest of his education. Lincoln was floored! He couldn't accept it! Spence insisted that he could, and stated that he expected nothing in return except for a weekly letter describing Lincoln's classes, what he was learning, and life in general. Thus, for five years, Spence was faithfully written to by a medical student whom he barely knew. Of course, the two became close friends through their correspondence, and Spence vicariously lived another life through a young man he assuredly admired very much.

Montgomery Clift was always deeply curious about other people. His need to get to know different people and learn about their ways of life is one of the things that inspired him to become an actor. Having lived a fairly isolated childhood, it was no wonder that he felt a need to reach out to others in his adulthood. He had, for all intents and purposes, lived quite a cloistered life as a kid. Perhaps that was why he was so drawn to Brother Thomas, whom he came across at Grand Central Station one fateful night. The man of the cloth was very young at the time, and weeping. Monty felt sorry for him and approached, asking if he were ok. The Brother did not speak a word of English, but fortunately Monty (of course) was able to speak to him in his native French. He discovered that the religious man had missed his train, and being in a foreign place, had no idea when the next train left, nor how to ask for help. Defeated, he was lost, scared, and alone, and had fallen prey to fear, which is how Monty found him. Thomas, of course, had no idea who the heck "Montgomery Clift" was, so when the handsome passer-by offered his help, he thought that he had been approached by a saint and not a movie star. Monty saw to it that Thomas received the proper information and an updated ticket. As there was a great deal of time to spare, Monty also invited Thomas back to his place for something to eat. The two wound up having a lengthy conversation, and Monty, every-inquisitive, asked many questions of his visitor about his lifestyle and faith in God. He had a big role coming up in I Confess!, you see (left), and needed information about the priesthood. After he put Brother Thomas on his train, the two kept in touch, and Monty was even allowed to come stay at the Brother's monastery in Quebec, where he got into character for his role as "Father Logan." Such a thing would usually be unheard of, but Brother Thomas was so grateful for the help Monty had given him, that he and the rest of his fellow monks made Monty feel quite at home.

Carole Lombard was known as the "Screwball Queen," but she was a caring as she was nutty. As her fame continued to grow, so too did her generosity. She knew she was just a crack-pot from Indiana who got lucky, and she made it her mission to spread cheer and laughs wherever she went in order to help those who weren't as fortunate as she. She did this through her kooky characters and also her personal actions. For example, a crew-member she took a liking to named Pat Drew had lost his left arm in a 1930s plane crash. It's possible that Carole had a premonitory sympathy toward Pat's plight, as she would sadly end her days in a plane crash, but at the time of his tragedy, she only knew that the poor guy was certain to be out of the job due to his impairment. Thus, Carole put a stipulation in her contract: Pat was to be given a job on every film she worked on, or she would walk off the set! Thus, for the few remaining years of Carole's life, Pat was always employed. Carole was equally kind to up-and-coming tennis phenom Alice Marble. Alice was on her way to being the female tennis champion of her time when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. During her illness and time in the hospital, she grew understandably depressed, fearful that her career and possibly her life were over. She gave up. Giving into bouts of melancholia, Alice was out of shape and too battled a case of severe adult acne that further crippled her self-esteem. Then, she got a letter from Carole, who, as a fellow tennis player, shared the same instructor. She had learned of Alice's situation, and related to her the story of her own brush with death-- the traffic collision that had resulted in emergency surgery on her face, leaving her signature scar. (Carole and Alice, right).

Carole told Alice that she too had feared her career was over, that the future looked bleak, and that she was tempted to throw up her hands and give up her dreams. She didn't. Instead, she bucked up, educated herself on film-lighting and camera-work so that she could camouflage her facial scarring, and pushed harder than ever for a career in the movies. Obviously, she had triumphed. She urged Alice to do the same: to get well, to get back in shape, and to continue her passion for athletics. Alice listened. Miraculously, it was discovered that she had been misdiagnosed! She grabbed a racket, hit the courts, and with Carole as her biggest fan went on to reclaim her natural talent and destiny. In the meantime, Carole also paid for her to take costume design courses at USC, should she need a back-up career. After her later success, Alice tried to pay Carole back for all that she'd done, but Carole always waved her away with a, "Pft, forget about it!" Alice even went on to open her own pro shop, which was frequently attended by another actor who would do her service in an indirect fashion: Errol Flynn. Errol also had a love of tennis (see left), and as such he crossed paths with Carole on the courts often, and he had certainly heard all about Alice's sad state. Thus, he often came into Alice's shop, where he bulked up her self-esteem with some much needed flirting. Alice would never forget the day that Errol sauntered in with his entourage and loudly announced, "I need a jockstrap. Size: large!" Thanks to the kindness and good humor of such people, Alice more than came out swinging. Her faith in life was restored. She even won Wimbledon!


  1. I ran across this blog not too long ago, and my sister and I thoroughly enjoy it. We are both fans of classic Hollywood - my sister even interned at Turner Classic Movies her final year in college. Your blog posts are respectful and positive (even when dealing with controversial subjects), and in this case, uplifting, and I appreciate that. Looking forward to future posts!

    1. Thank you so much. It means a great deal to me to receive commenst like yours. It's clear that we share an equal love of old Hollywood. I am incredibly jealous about that internship! What a dream! ;)