The second chapter from Hollywood Undressed, a 1931 memoir attributed to the assistant of masseuse and health guru Sylvia Ulback, a.k.a. Sylvia of Hollywood, tells the story of how actress Marie Dressler became Sylvia’s first client from the motion picture industry. The book was actually ghost-written for Sylvia herself by newspaper reporter and screenwriter James Whittaker.
OUR FIRST LADY STRIPS FOR ACTION
MARIE DRESSLER is the one woman whose name is in the date book as far back as 1925, who doesn’t give me a pain. I guess everyone likes her. Even these cats that come in here with gastritis every time somebody else makes a hit in a picture can stand the idea that Marie Dressler is knocking them dead with every release. Maybe it’s because Marie is nobody’s rival for a beauty prize. What really burns them up is having new cutie breeze into town hunting for a lap to climb on. Nobody got alarmed when Miss Dressler began squeezing through the doors of casting offices. And now it’s too late to do anything about it.
The nightly prayer of the Hollywood female is: “Please, Lord, don’t send us any more lookers.” Heaven heard them once, and sent Marie Dressler.
Sylvia was giving Dressler her daily tumble before Hollywood ever did. Back in 1925, in “The Callahans and the Murphys,” Dressler was just one of the supporting crowd—an aunt or something. Nevertheless, she was Sylvia’s first movie client and her entering wedge into the film colony.
Yes, if Marie Dressler hadn’t been loaded up with fourteen quarts of near-beer a day back in 1925, Sylvia might have gone back to Chicago. And me? I suppose I’d still be holding the towel for that dentist who couldn’t pay my wages. But for Marie Dressler, Sylvia might never have hung on in Hollywood.
The boss told me about that first call to Marie Dressler’s suite in the Ambassador Hotel. You see, in those days, being just a squareheaded immigrant, Sylvia knew no more about the Hollywood film world than you can find out walking down Vine Street at lunch hour, and reading the press blurbs. And what you see from that angle is all front—the big Hollywood front. It took her a couple of years to work around to the other side of Hollywood.
The call to attend Marie Dressler came quite unexpectedly. I don’t need to say I wasn’t yet on the scene. An unknown masseuse doesn’t need a secretary to handle the appointment book and the collections. One of her patients was a Chicago woman visiting Los Angeles and staying in the Hotel Ambassador. This same woman was getting treatment by the hotel doctor, who was an A-No.1 M. D. and was on the level. So when Marie Dressler called the doc to her suite in the same hotel and showed him the symptoms of gastritis, the doc recommended Sylvia.
And so Mae Murray and Alice White and Bebe Daniels and Mary Duncan and Ramon Novarro and Ronald Colman and Norma Shearer and Ruth Chatterton and Ann Harding and Norma Talmadge and Grace Moore and Connie Bennett and Gloria Swanson followed in rapid succession, and today Sylvia stands at the top of her profession and has an electric refrigerator and a hired girl in the kitchen.
Well, meanwhile, before going up to the Dressler suite, Sylvia stopped in to thank the hotel doctor for the boost. And she got to telling him how this was like a dream coming true—
“Because I worked a year in Chicago to save up enough money to come out to Hollywood,” she told him. “I doped it out, doctor, that the one thing they want out here is to hang on to their good looks, which they can’t do without some professional help. Now, this Marie Dressler—tell me confidentially, doctor. She isn’t so sick, as she’s afraid she’s lost her shape or her complexion. Isn’t that it?”
You see, Dressler was just a name to the boss, who hadn’t been spending much money or time on the movies. The doctor got wise that Sylvia thought she was to go to work on the alabaster surface of a piece of living Hollywood statuary. He let it ride.
“The poor girl’s a little overweight,” is all he said—with a poker face.
“Any bets I can’t take it off? said Sylvia.
“I’m not a betting man,” he replied.
So Sylvia went on up to suite A3 to get her first peek at Hollywood beauty languishing luxuriously in its lair.
As Sylvia tells it, she thought the girl’s mother let her in. As Marie Dressler tells it, a straw-blonde midget came in through the letter slot, took one look at Marie, and looked ready to cry. Sylvia thought this was a put-up job, the doctor’s little joke.
The fact is, both were so surprised they could hardly talk—Sylvia, to see a movie queen beyond forty and over 160; Dressler, to see this half-size visitor, the popular idea of a masseuse being something like a big sister to a wrestling champ. Dressler got her tongue back first. And Sylvia got her second surprise.
“What’s your birthday?” snapped Dressler, looking at Sylvia the way she does—as if she saw where you’d hidden the spoons.
“April sixth,” stammered Sylvia.
With that, another woman came rushing from the bedroom, pointed a finger at Sylvia, and challenged:
“Did you say April?”
Sylvia stuck to it, hoping it was a good answer. By now she saw what it was all about. The newcomer was an astrologer, and was already casting up a chart based on the April birth date. Dressler helped in the feverish scribbling. The other woman consulted a book and looked around at Sylvia with a violet-ray stare.
“Oliver Cromwell! Houdini! Nicholas Murray Butler!” She read the names off the page and, with each, gave Dressler a nudge. It seems these were people born under the same sign of the zodiac, or something, as Sylvia, and Dressler’s astrologer friend finally gave Sylvia the okay as a masseuse. Personally, I can’t see the connection. The only one in the list who would have made good in our line is Houdini. Imagine getting a facial from Nicholas Murray Butler!
It seems Dressler never does much of anything without the okay of her star-gazer pal, who is Nella Webb, from New York. Seems Nella Webb told Dressler she could make good in the movies when Dressler was dying on her feet in New York theatrical agents’ offices. Dressler laughed at the idea of selling herself in Hollywood, where anything old enough to sign its own contracts is a hag. But Nella Webb kept at Dressler until, finally, Marie took a last-chance ticket to Hollywood. The way I figure it, there must be something either to astrology or to Marie Dressler. One guess!
The first thing Dressler did when she got a contract was to move into the Ambassador suite. The second was to send for Nella Webb. It seems that astrology business in New York was so strong at the time, and it’s just like Dressler to get her hands on a ten-spot and then go hunting for someone who needs five. Anyway, Nella Webb had just read her own stars, which said she was going to get a surprise. And Dressler is on the side of the stars. All the time Nella Webb was her guest, Marie Dressler spent half her time ballyhooing for her friend.
Well, Neptune being favorable, Marie Dressler stripped. At that time Sylvia hadn’t yet doped out her famous line with the movie stars. Today, when you come into our massaging room and strip for the slap, thinking maybe that, anyhow, your upper leg isn’t so bad, Sylvia starts in diagnosing your defects out loud. Sylvia’d find something wrong with the Queen of Sheba. She had several reasons for taking this line with the Hollywood clients. For one thing, they love to be insulted. Then again, they insult you if you don’t insult them first. And, anyway, Sylvia tells me she learned all her English from the Sunday comics.
But in 1925 she wasn’t riding as high as she is now, and she didn’t tell Marie Dressler what she thought of her figure. Maybe she thought something. But she didn’t put it into words. Which, in the circumstances, is a good example.
Dressler’s trouble was swelling up around that daily three gallons of near-beer. In the picture “The Callahans and the Murphys” she had a scene where she was an old souse showing her capacity. The director was one of these realists and he set up a dozen steins of near-beer (stingy!) for Marie to swallow before the camera. Then the lighting was wrong or something and they had to retake. it went on like that for a week—the same twelve steins of slop to be engulfed daily.
“You could wring her out like a wash cloth,” Sylvia told me.
In a few days, Sylvia had Dressler so that she fitted herself more comfortably, and then she went to work in earnest to reduce and beautify her. She began giving her facials—until, one day, Dressler got off the slab and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked back at Sylvia sort of mean.
“Look here, are you trying to improve my looks?” she demanded.
“Give me two more weeks,” begged Sylvia.
“And I’ll be ruined!” said Dressler. “Listen, I tried for years to get rid of this—and these—and these—and couldn’t make it. Now, just as I find out that my fat is money in the bank, you come along and want to take it away from me. Scat!”
Since then Sylvia has been seeing Marie Dressler intermittently, the job being technically one of the most interesting she has. The idea is to leave a middle-aged lady in the comfortably cushioned state that nature intended. It’s refreshing. All the rest of them want something they didn’t get. They want to walk like a boy and throw a man’s shadow. It’s a novelty to meet a Hollywood female who is reconciled to the facts of life, one of which is that women and geese were made side-wheelers.
Sylvia was treating Dressler at the time of her great gamble. As Hollywood history goes, that was so far back that it’s forgotten; but Dressler was out in the cold. After all the lean years that came before her first hit on the screen, it was tought to find herself “at liberty” once again. The studio didn’t want to boost her price, and she got herself into a position where it was back down or quit. The old studio game: they sign you up on a sliding-scale contract that starts little and works up to auto-license figures—on paper. And then, when the date for the first raise comes around, they give you a song and dance about hard times, etc., etc. if it works—why not?
That’s the way they figure. They didn’t go into the dance with Dressler. In fact, they were still vamping for the song when she was a block away—through.
In those circumstances, most stars sell the new car and retreat back to New York. But Dressler is smarter than the average. She knew the bunch she was dealing with. What she did always works—in Hollywood. She went out and rented a mansion in Hollywood Hills, got herself a second car (just a little Packard for the servants, my dear!) and laid in a winter’s supplies and a high-priced Filipino chef to cook them.
That worried the studio, plenty. Looked like the holdout has some hidden assets. Both sides settled down to starve each other out. The studio had the money, but Marie had the nerve. She judged the situation to a nicety. On the very day when the money boys were standing around their front doors, sure that the next car would be Dressler’s, bearing a repentant and humble actress, she made the win-all, lose-all move; she hopped on the east-bound express…
They met her at Grand Central, holding contracts and fountain pens. They passed her the pen and said: “Sign here.” For twice what she had been holding out for, of course. And it wasn’t the hand that held the pen that trembled—no, sir, it was the hand that held out the contract.