The fifth chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood (but actually ghost-written for Sylvia by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker), tells what happens when Sylvia signs an exclusive contract with actress Mary Duncan and gets on the wrong side of director F. W. Murnau.
THE GREAT POISON PLOT
When Mary Duncan came along in 1928 and wanted to sign up for Sylvia’s exclusive services for a half-year, we were all against it—except Sylvia herself. A contract to massage anyone morning, noon, and night is worse than getting married. After all, a woman’s husband can get away from her some of the time. But a woman’s personal masseuse dresses her, undresses her, soothes her to sleep, spanks her awake, and (if the contract includes dietary work, as with Mary Duncan it did) watches every bite of food that goes down her throat three times a day.
I always figured that the real trouble between Mae Murray and the boss was that everlasting intimacy. They were bound to get sick of the sight of each other. It’s bad enough, in this massage business, to have to see the world without shirt and without manners. The only thing that makes it bearable is the variety when the practice is general and consists of a dozen different patients a day.
All of which I said to Sylvia, and much more—but you can’t do anything with a Norwegian.
The opposition, which was giving Sylvia the arguments why she should take up Mary Duncan’s offer, was represented by Sophie Wachner, the dress designer at Fox Studios, where Miss Duncan was starring. Miss Wachner had her own reasons for wanting Sylvia to go to work on Duncan.
“I can’t fit dresses to Mary any more on account of her hips,” was the way Miss Wachner put it up to Sylvia. “So, do a fellow a favor, Sylvia, and fit Mary to the gowns.”
It was a rush job. They were starting to shoot the silent picture called “Our Daily Bread.” The great German director Murnau was in charge, and Mary Duncan was doing the rôle of a city girl who marries a farmer and gets all messed up in some labor troubles about farm hands having nothing to look at but miles and miles of Oregon wheatfields—and you can’t blame them, not after you’ve been on location in those same wheatfields for over a month. You never saw the picture? Sure you didn’t. It was one of the last silents and it was finished just in time to get tossed into the wastebasket on account of the sound screen coming in.
Sylvia had a small part of the blame for the trouble Fox had with that picture. But that’s part of the story.
Well, Sylvia went over to the Fox Studios and though she promised not to commit herself before she left, we all knew that she was crazy to go on location with Mary Duncan and we weren’t surprised when she came home looking sheepish and with an ink stain on her finger, where she had held the pen that signed the contract.
It seems that Sophie Wachner did a job on Sylvia as soon as she get on the Fox lot. Took her into the wardrobe department and showed her the dresses Mary Duncan was wearing in the opening shots, which they had been doing in the studio. Well, Mary Duncan had been putting on an inch a day around the middle, and those dresses had been let out until the waistlines were as full of V’s as a backgammon board. Sophie Wachner was at her wits’ ends, and was tearing her hair.
In her dressing room, Mary Duncan was another picture of woe—and a reasonably attractive one. From any average point of view, there was nothing at all the matter with the girl. But the camera’s is not the average point of view. Somehow, a lens always adds ten or twenty pounds to the truth. The result is that the movie girls have to be actually underweight—considerably so. On the other hand, they mustn’t show bones. So the type that is most readily selected for film work is the small-boned girl, short of stature, on whose underlying skeleton even a small amount of meat looks like a nice job of padding. And the small-boned short girl is the very type most prone to develop along the lines called buxom. Mary Miles Minter, whose misfortunes caused her to let go and become what nature willed, has turned out now a plump and roundish little person—typically the figure that the majority of Hollywood girls would be but for strenuous battling against the tendencies of nature.
So Mary Duncan was in nothing worse than blooming health—and yet the Fox people were frantic.
The arrangement was that Sylvia should accompany Mary immediately to Pendleton, Oregon, where Murnau and the rest of the huge company concerned in the production of “Our Daily Bread” [released in 1930 as City Girl—Ed.] were already quartered.
The Mary Duncan party included Sylvia, a Sealyham pup named Topsy, Mary’s hairdresser and maid, a gallon of mineral oil (ace-in-the-hole of all reducing diets), and Mary Duncan herself. The get-away at the railroad station was just too cute for anything. You know—all innocent flutter and flashlight powders. As was shown next morning, when the party was rushed off the train at an early hour, Mary had hurried her departure so much as to forget one important item of her apparel.
They were met at the train by location executives and a mob of Pendletonians dressed in cowboy outfits and riding their ponies. The town was in the throes of a county fair, and it had occurred to some bright press-agent mind to have Mary named queen of the rodeo. They had a pony with a gilt saddle ready at the station and, when Mary was told that she was expected to ride the horse up Main Street, she was game. A bunch of the leading citizens got to kidding with Sylvia and thought she’d be great for the comedy relief, so they rustled a pony for her, too. As it turned out, Mary was all the comic relief the party needed.
For she had scarcely taken her place at the head of the mounted line and started up the street between the lines of cheering citizens, when her pony took a fancy step and sent her somersaulting earthward. A lynx-eyed kid in the crowd was the first to see there was something missing. He set up a loud-speaker yell:
“Hey! What a queen! She ain’t got on pants!”
It was too true.
Well, Pendleton’s one of those great open spaces where nobility is as common as nickels. The Pendletonians take Womanhood seriously. Any other town I can think of would have taken up the urchin’s discovery and added footnotes; but Pendleton, as one man, looked down at its boots and didn’t see anything. Though you never can tell, when a man’s wearing one of those ten-gallon hats.
Mary took the incident all in the day’s work, and pulled the best line: “I don’t know what the parade was supposed to boost, but I certainly turned it into an ad for Sylvia.”
Arrangements for the company’s welfare were first-class, as they always were in the days fo the William Fox régime. Fox prided himself on treating the hired help right, in which he was unique. The general practice of the studios is to handle the salaried bunch rough and economical, because they are too scared of their jobs to squawk. Mary had a nice frame house on a hill at the edge of town. Down in the hollow at the foot of the hill was a group of bungalows where the other important people of the company were quartered. Murnau and his manservant took the one nearest to Mary’s house.
Sylvia got the kitchen going the next day, and Mary Duncan’s house set the best table in the colony. The popular notion is that a diet is something inedible; but the rush among the company member to get invited to Mary’s table is proof that you don’t necessarily eat junk when you’re eating correctly. The rest of the actors were glad enough to horn in on meals that not only tasted okay but left them fit for the day’s work. The work was strenuous. Murnau had come up to get some big epic shots of the Oregon wheatfields—stretches of rippling grain that extended as far as the horizon, and beyond, in every direction. Sometimes the troupe would have to ride ten or fifteen miles of a morning to get to the location selected by Murnau for the day’s shooting. And, once there, the cast would have to turn unfamiliar hands to the plow and harrow. Some of them had to go out hours ahead of the rest and take lessons running all the sorts of huge engines they use on the enormous grain ranches. At night they would come back starved, and Mary, who had a big heart, would bring as many of them to the table as could crowd around it.
Somehow, without any formal arrangement being made, Murnau came to be the star boarder at Mary’s table. He had a chronic weakness, one of the mild kidney disorders, and he was eager to benefit by the dietary regulations under Sylvia’s supervision of the kitchen.
In fact, he came over one night, found Sylvia alone, and began to give out a doleful spiel about his symptoms. She thought: hurray, extra money!—and took Murnau into a back room to give him a treatment. Well, one of those misunderstandings developed. Ask any doctor about this question of handing out professional advice and services for nothing. With masseuses it’s the same thing. People don’t seem to understand that massaging isn’t a parlor trick. People who pay the grocer regularly every Saturday and who settle their bridge lessons in advance think nothing of trying to get a little friendly rubbing out of Sylvia for nothing.
I wonder what would happen if you got Rockefeller over to dinner and took him out to the garage and said: “Oh, Mr. Rockefeller, do show us how you fill a gas tank!” It all comes to the same thing. Rockefeller and Sylvia both do their stuff for a living.
Well, the situation got more and more in need of clearing up as the days went by. First, Murnau had a few little rub-downs on the spurs of the moments, as you might say—administered in the den in Mary’s quarters whenever Sylvia had a few minutes to spare. Murnau began feeling pretty good, and it occurred to him that thorough treatments at regular hours would make him feel even better. How would it be if Sylvia got up an hour earlier every morning to run down to his cottage and give him a once-over?
Meanwhile the regular eating of Sylvia’s diet-kitchen meals was also helping Murnau considerably, and he gave her a free recommendation: said he’d never felt better.
One night, after a hard day in the fields, Murnau was so tuckered out that he couldn’t face the climb uphill to Mary’s dinner table. But he didn’t want to make a break in his diet habits, so he sent his man to fetch him something from Sylvia’s kitchen.
Sylvia swears that she had no guilt in what followed. It was all an unfortunate accident. The man reported that his master only wanted a bit of salad. Sylvia prepared the ingredients of the salad bowl: vegetables, seasoning, and the inevitable bottle of mineral oil. This neutral, non-fattening oil is an obligatory substitute for olive oil in all cases where there is a disorder fo the digestive functions. However, it must be used in moderation, being a fairly efficient purge in larger qualities.
Having assembled the materials for Murnau’s salad, Sylvia was called away. She has two assistants in the kitchen. Assistant Number One came along, saw the salad fixings, and, in the spirit of helpful coöperation, mixed the dressing, using the prescribed amount of mineral oil. She went about her business.
Assistant Number Two came along, saw the salad fixings, and, in the spirit of helpful coöperation, mixed the dressing, using the prescribed amount of mineral oil. She went about her business.
Sylvia returned, noticed her salad fixings, and, in the spirit of helpful coöperation, mixed the dressing, using the prescribed amount of mineral oil. She sent the salad down to Murnau.
Accounts of Murnau’s sufferings the next day, when the company went forth to a distant location miles from help of any kind, painted a pitiful picture. Much to Sylvia’s pained surprise, she was told that evening that he had openly accused her of doing it on purpose.
For a week Achilles sulked in his tent, refusing to grace Mary Duncan’s board with his presence. He was finally driven back by need. The condition precipitated by the overdose of mineral oil persisted, and he came for relief. Sylvia was bland and gracious. She was really sorry, she swears, about what had happened, and was eager to make amends. She counseled a forty-eight-hour régime of rice water, toast, and tea without cream or sugar.
“Can you beat it?” she reminiscently exclaims when she recalls the effect of the advice on the patient. “He shook his fists and strode out of the room violently.
“He went to Mary Duncan and complained that I was certainly and provably trying to do him injury!”
According to reports, he made the complaint with a great and Prussian dignity. He thereafter “punished” Sylvia by eating in a sort of protesting and injured silence, decorated with intermittent glances of suspicion and distrust cast in her direction.
Meanwhile, Sylvia’s labors had borne fruits in the form of a noticeable reduction of Mary’s waistline. Those fruits were sweet to Mary Duncan, but, as it developed, were lemons to the Fox directorate. The wandering troupe packed up and came home to the Hollywood lot. There remained but a few interiors to shoot—on the home stages. These were the final sequences, showing the city girl back in the surroundings in which she had started the picture. And you can easily see that she to look like the girl who had started the picture—which Duncan didn’t. Slim in waist and cheeks, she looked like a different girl.
Winnie Sheehan, stern and masterful executive of the Fox lot, saw the shots of Mary Duncan taken at the end of the picture, and nearly jumped through the ceiling when he compared them with the earlier takes. He sleuthed around the lot and heard the story of Mary Duncan’s doings with a private masseuse. He summoned the star and ordered her to fire “that lemon squeezer” at once. The interview almost precipitated a break between Mary and the company. Mary rushed feverishly forth from the conference with Mr. Sheehan and rebelliously offered Sylvia a renewal, for one year, of the contract.
But Sylvia’s return to Hollywood was followed by indications that, at least, she had definitely gone over the top as a successful masseuse, much in demand. She got sense at least and saw that the real money lay in giving treatments to all comers, charging what the traffic would bear.