The twelfth 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), relates the special challenge she faced in treating actress Constance Bennett, who needed to gain weight, not lose it.
THE TORTURE CHAMBER
THE boss’s bungalow on the Pathé lot got to be a hangout. Rumors got around about what went on in there. The little stucco shack got christened the Torture Chamber.
Ann Harding and her husband, Harry Bannister, were a bit responsible for the reputation of the inner chamber where the boss did her pounding. At the time, Ann was pretty unfit, meaning somewhat overweight, and she was pretty vocal about letting the world know it when Sylvia was pinching pleats out of her.
Moreover, Ann refused to see that a movie career and all the money were worth the bother and would intimate that, any time she got fed up, she would leave the movies flat and go back East.
So the Pathé executives would sneak over and implore Sylvia to do two things: take flesh off Ann but not hurt her. Which two things don’t go together. So Sylvia would compromise by taking the flesh off Ann and hurting her, same as with anyone else. Bannister would hang around outside the shack while Ann was getting her treatment, smoking cigarettes nervously, like a man waiting to hear if it’s a boy, and when Ann let out a yell, he would bust in with his hair bristling and his jaw set and stop the horrible proceedings.
As a matter of fact, a vigorous massage, when the client’s trouble is fat, does hurt a bit. But the reason for the howls that arose in Sylvia’s operating room was more that pampered sensitiveness of the patients than any agony connected with the method.
The real reason for the phenomenal success of massage in the film colony is that’s a short-cut to physical conditioning, without which beauty turns into so much lard, and it’s a method where the responsibility is shifted to other shoulders. The victims on Sylvia’s slab in the back room of the Pathé bungalow took punishment—plenty! But not without howls and shrieks of agony that drew the attention of the executive department. On a hot, quiet day the outcries from the bungalow would reach the street outside the lot.
It wasn’t the public scandal the Pathé executives minded. What worried them was the possible effect on morale on the lot. It was getting so that the frightened actors made up all sorts of excuses to get out of taking their turns on the slab. So the Pathé people went into conference and decided to put a radio set with an oversize loud-speaker in Sylvia’s bungalow. The plug for switching on the music was put handy to the slab. When Sylvia was ready to go to work on a pair of bulging hips or an inflated tummy, she just gave the radio switch a slip and the loud-speaker started a squawk that drowned out the cries of the victim.
A GOOD deal of the work on the lot consisted of setting up folks who had had a tough night—or who were simply “sunk” from nerves and lack of sleep. So one of the important pieces of equipment was an electric percolator. The best pick-me-up in the world, for quick results, is a cup of ink-black coffee, without sugar, but with about a teaspoonful of lemon juice in it.
Having hot coffee on tap, it was simply to lay in a few supplies, and the joint got to be a quick-lunch. Service started about 7:30 A. M., and there was usually a mob. You see, between the front-office men and Gloria Swanson, the boss was booked for later hours, and those who didn’t have the drag that Gloria had soon learned to get in their treatments bright and early.
Dorothy Mackaill was one of the regulars. At that time Dot was a holdout over at the First National lot. The situation was telling on her. She was losing a lot of sleep. Each morning she would arrive earlier.
Another regular was Peppy Lederer, Marion Davies‘ niece. Peppy was trying hard to break into the movies, and Marion sent her over to be beautified.
Alan Hale was the male element. He was doing a picture in which he was a sailor. The costume department handed him a pair of sailor pants that had been worn by Billy Boyd in a successful picture, and Alan got a hunch that the pants were lucky.
Alan Hale set such store by William Boyd‘s sailor pants, but it so happened that Bill was narrower in the beam than Alan. Rather than let out a seam, Alan decided to fit himself to the pants, and put it up to Sylvia to do the whittling. One morning he was on the slab when a hurry-call came from Gloria Swanson’s bungalow. Sylvia had to quit half through his treatment, and just when, having finished off the starboard side, she was set to make the larboard symmetrical. To this day he claims that his two halves don’t match.
To show there were no hard feelings, Alan left an inscribed photograph on the slab where Sylvia abandoned him. The inscription handed her a laugh: “To Sylvia—She lives off the fat of the ‘hams.’ ALAN HALE.”
TAKING it by and large, the fat with the lean, the work on the Pathé lot was turning out pleasant enough. The pets quarreled among themselves, naturally, but not obstreperously. The fat rolled off and the money rolled in—and everything was jake.
And then Connie Bennett turned up.
Pathé scouts had trailed the newest recruit to Paris and, over there, had got her to sign on the dotted line. After which they sent a bushel of raves by cable, saw La Bennett off on the boat, and sent a final blast of cables to the general effect: “Oh, boy! Wait till you see her!”
For the next few weeks executives on the lot sat around gnawing their knuckles and calling up railroad information to ask if it looked as if next month’s trains would be on time.
What I’m trying to convey is that Connie Bennett’s arrival in Hollywood was built up like a musical-comedy entrance: Ta-da, ta-da–here comes the queen!
And, after Bennett got here, she personally saw to it that the excitement didn’t die down for want of fuel.
But the first effect she made on the Pathé people was—well, let’s tell what happened.
Sylvia got her first impression of the newcomer at second hand. She didn’t lay eyes on her for a while, but she looked at the faces of Joseph Kennedy and Bill Sistrom every morning, and she saw, by the way they began developing complexion troubles, that something was wrong. The boys didn’t say anything, exactly; but when they were asked when Bennett was going to start her first picture, they stalled and turned sort of green.
Finally Joe Kennedy dropped into Sylvia’s shack for the unusual purpose of inviting the boss to dinner.
Well, Joe Kennedy saw enough of the boss daytimes to be able to stand an evening away from her, and Sylvia, figuring there was a catch in it somewhere, asked him:
“And what do I do for the eats?”
“Well,” said Mr. Kennedy, trying to be casual, and failing. “Miss Bennett’ll be there.”
The boss understood. She was to be present to do her magic undressing act, which, as you shall see, is accomplished without removing a pin or a button.
Maybe this is a point that doesn’t need explaining, but it might be mentioned that Hollywood buys its beauty pretty blind. They say that on Broadway they don’t hire their stage lookers without having pretty well satisfied themselves, by personal inspection, that it’s all true—not wooden legs and stuffing. But the Hollywood boys, devilish fellows though they may be, buy their stars pretty much the way the average citizen shops for a wife—nothing to go on but having once helped the wench into a taxi. And their chances aren’t much better than the average citizen’s in the same spot. Men are such boobs at judging a woman’s points!
But even Joe Kennedy could see that there was something the matter with Bennett. The question that was turning his hair gray was, what? He wanted Sylvia’s expert opinion.
So here was the Kennedy dinner party collected—all but Sylvia, late as usual. Gloria Swanson, Laura Hope Crews, and Constance Bennett were the ladies; Kennedy and a couple of other tuxedos made up the company. After a while the boss breezed in. She took one look at the fair guest from over the seas and got medical.
“You look rotten, baby,” she started in. “What’ve you been doing to yourself? Not sleeping?”
Joe Kennedy had filed to tip off the newcomer about Sylvia’s habits and customs, and Bennett took the outburst like a sock on the chin. The others were trying to give Sylvia the high-sign to go easy, but it’s hard to stop the boss once she’s started. And, anyway, her understanding was that she was supposed to do her usual act.
“The girl’s sick,” Sylvia lectured the other guests, something like a doctor demonstrating to medical students. “Look. No flesh on her face. And”—she turned Bennett around—“and you could play a xylophone solo on your backbone, baby.”
Bennett began to look miserable. “I have been sick,” she protested. “I lost pounds and pounds in Paris. This isn’t the way I look at all.”
“Of course not,” confirmed Sylvia.
And then Kennedy managed to change the subject and, presently, to get Sylvia off into the hall, where he gave her hell for tearing into his guest that way, but ended up by anxiously inquiring: “Is that right—what she said about it’s all being due to sickness?”
“Sure, she’s a swell looker when she’s fit,” opined Sylvia.
What worried the technical people and cameramen more than anything else was that back, on which the vertebræ could be counted. The actress was scheduled for a series of those high-society comedies where about half the scenes are views are of the heroine’s bare back. And no magic of lighting would disguise the fact that every joint in this spine threw a shadow.
When the boss went to work to cover the bones called Bennett with some photographable flesh, production of Connie’s first talkie, “Rich People,” was postponed, waiting on the star’s rounding into shape. She looked more like poor people than rich people when Sylvia started massaging.
Connie was plainly a product of the metropolises, one of those high-bred, high-strung girls. As restless and jumpy as a flea, the new star seemed to have a horror of being alone. Sylvia was treating her at home. The preliminary work was a nightly rubbing of a gentle kind, to induce sleep, and it had to be done in the bed the patient was to occupy for the night.
Right away the boss had a job that isn’t usually considered part of a masseuse’s vocation. Every night she had to clear Bennett’s apartment of an assortment of friends and companions who couldn’t get it through their silly heads that an order given by a hired rubber that their hostess was to be in bed at nine each night was meant to be obeyed. The first few evenings, when Sylvia turned up and yanked Bennett off to bed at the stipulated hour, the merry company was all for crowding into the bedroom with the card table and the glasses and helping out the health program with cigarette smoke and close harmony.
The effect of going back to a babyhood régime—sleep with the sun and fattening messes for meals—soon developed Bennett into the hot looker she really is. “Rich People” got under way, and you could hear the Pathé executives whistling at their work through the open windows in the main offices.
Everything was lovely.