The seventh 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), reveals the truth behind Sam Goldwyn‘s misbegotten and short-lived pairing of Ronald Colman and Constance Cummings.
A GALLANT EPISODE
HERBERT BRENNON [sic] fixed it up for the boss to handle Ronald Colman, and pretty near got Sylvia pinched.
Colman was living down in the Malibu Beach colony. Malibu is about the most unprivate community in the world. In the first place, the matchboard shacks are built so close together that when your neighbor takes off his shoes you call, “Come in.” But the movie people are used to getting in each other’s hair, and like it, all except Greta Garbo, who tries to stick to her own toothbrush. So the lateral propinquity, as you might call it, is not a drawback in Malibu. But the longitudinal propinquity—the nearness to sea water on the one side and an eternal automobile procession of fandom on the other side—sometimes creates trouble. You’re always finding a snail or a tourist in your oatmeal.
About the time that Sylvia went down to Malibu to look up Colman, there had just been an epidemic of peeping Toms and Thomasinas plaguing the colony. Of course, the ladies were bothered most. Fans with big goggle eyes on stems were emerging from behind the wall paper at all sorts of embarrassing moments. Believe it or not, films girls who would act in a De Mille production without thinking anything of it can get just as nervous as an Iowa schoolma’am about a funny scratching noise at the bathroom window.
But if you think it was only the girls that were bothered by peepers, you don’t know fandom. Every morning there was just as much excitement about the size-five footprints outside the boys’ windows as about the size-nines outside the girls’. The colony was all excited that Sunday morning when Sylvia reported at Colman’s shack for duty.
The boss walked in without knocking and got held up by an alarmed Filipino.
“Go ‘way, please,” he squealed, and shook a towel at her.
“Where’s Mr. Colman?” asked Sylvia with authority.
“In bed, please,” protested the Filipino, and got in front of Ronald’s door, where he prepared to die. “Go ‘way, lady!” he kept squealing.
“In bed?” said Sylvia imperturbably. “Good. That’s just where I want him. Let me by.”
“No ladies allowed,” quavered the Filipino, who was really frightened. “Be quiet! I call police!” And he got a desperate hold on the door knob of Ronald’s door and began to bleat.
His cries were answered by two men who popped out of guest-room doors. Sylvia recognized them as William Powell and Philip Strange, two cronies of Ronald’s. But they didn’t know her at all. Strange took charge of the situation in a calm, haughty British way.
“Come now, my good woman,” he remonstrated. “Tell us what you want.”
Sylvia got wise to what was eating them and amused herself by feeding their panic.
“I just want to rub Ronald Colman,” she begged, trying to put a strange glitter in her eyes. “Just let me rub him once!”
“Oh, now, tut, tut!” soothed Strange.
The Filipino began again: “Go ‘way, lady, go ‘way!”
And Colman put a sleepy head out at the door to inquire what was wrong.
“This woman wants to rub you,” Strange explained.
“Well, why not?” yawned Colman. “She’s my masseuse.”
Strutting into Ronald’s chamber, Sylvia stole a backward glance at the nonplussed trio in the living room. She got a distinct impression that Philip Strange ball well didn’t approve of such goings-on.
The boss still counted Colman among her steady clients when she got mixed up in the series of errors that turned out to be comedy but might have been tragedy, and that established Constance Cummings, the Broadway ingénue, as a newcomer in films.
A LOT has been reported about how Connie came out to be Colman’s leading woman and got shelved. The boss was looking on while all that happened and thinks it’s about time Connie’s side of the tale was told.
Sam Goldwyn “discovered” Connie on Broadway and let out a yawp of triumph that reverberated clear across the country. A girl to play opposite Colman, who is Goldwyn’s chief star, was badly needed—and Sam let the world know that the priceless jewel was found.
I’ll leave it to you to imagine whether Connie was pleased or not. Maybe she was ditching a stage career; maybe she wasn’t. But she didn’t put up any terrible fight against taking the first train west and maybe dripping a few press interviews at stations along the line. In fact, Connie took the movie offer to play opposite Colman as anybody else would: went home and kicked a few chandeliers, yelled to ma to put on her rubbers and hat, and ran to Grand Central Station because taxis lose so much time at crossing stops.
It was too good to be true, and she kept pinching herself all the way across the country. The dream lasted until she got to the United Artists lot, on to a sound stage opposite Colman, before the test camera and mike. And then—!
What happened was that the tests established that Connie, a husky, solid lass, showed up what is Colman’s most pronounced defect as a movie hero. The handsome English actor is too delicately modeled. He has ankles and wrists almost like a high-school girl’s, and a general pronounced grace of build. To dissemble this fact, it is necessary to surround Ronald with the most fragile and petite feminine players, who can make his frame seem sturdy by contrast. The strips of film taken of Connie playing scene bits opposite Ronald left an impression that his new leading woman could pick him up and juggle him.
Goldwyn’s staff got around the infallible impresario and shook heads and intimated that for once he had guessed wrong. Then the problem arose: how to inform the public that a mistake had been made. Announce that Ronald was too small for his leading woman? Unthinkable! Admit that Sam Goldwyn had gummed up the works? What!—Sam?
They sized up Connie and guessed, shrewdly enough, that they were dealing with that rarity among women, a good sport. They took a chance and sent out a curt announcement: the newcomer was “not suitable.” The things that are hinted by “not suitable”! Bowlegs, a bass voice, curvature of the spine, cross-eyes, harelip. In this charitable community the Goldwyn announcement was sure to be interpreted to mean all this, plus a slight touch of senile decay. And the Goldwyn staff darn well knew it. But there were two quivering masculine sensibilities to be spared—million-dollar sensibilities, too, whereas Connie’s was only a five-hundred-a-week sensibility.
The girl was crushed.
As she sobbed it out to Sylvia: “I got to thinking maybe I was all wrong. I looked in the mirror and what I saw looked like a hag. That’s what suggestion can do to you.”
She had been coming to Sylvia before the blow fell, and she flew to our back room and locked herself in there with the boss to bawl about the bad news.
“Why don’t you spill your side?” urged Sylvia.
“No.” Connie shook her head. “That wouldn’t be square.”
She wanted to put on three veils and sneak down and take a night train back to New York; but Sylvia wouldn’t let her.
“And if it’s a stake you need—” the boss offered. But it wasn’t that. What was eating Connie was the humiliation and the prospect of having to make long explanations to all the busybodies, without feeling free to give the true one.
Well, the boss was right. Cummings hung around, and, sure enough, Harry Cohen [sic] over at Columbia grabbed her and put her in “Criminal Code.”
Anybody can get Sam Goldwyn’s goat these days by just whispering three words: “Not suitable, hey?”