Here’s Chapter 4 of In Your Hat, the 1933 tell-all memoir by Hat Check Girl to the Stars, Renee Carroll, in which she dishes on such 1930s luminaries as Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, Ernst Lubitsch, Clara Bow, and Douglas Fairbanks.
By the way, the Lubitsch movie Carroll refers to in this chapter, the one co-starring Maurice Chevalier, Miriam Hopkins, and Claudette Colbert, is The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), which New Yorkers (and those willing to travel) can see on the big screen as part of Film Forum’s Hollywood on the Hudson series on Tuesday, August 3rd. It’s paired on a double-bill that night with Laughter (1930), which, as it happens, stars Nancy Carroll, about whom a story is told later in the chapter.
A LOT of dirt gets swept by my little booth in conversational blobs that can’t stand light from the printed page, but at the same time I frequently pick up little stories that’ll bear repeating.
I don’t say I chum around with Broadway’s best, but I know most of the crowd by their given names and I’m usually calling a spade a spade even if it’s Bill Robinson. What I crave most is respect because nowadays that’s all a girl gets that doesn’t draw interest.
But now and then somebody whispers a yarn that’ll stand repeating, and chum or no chum, it has to be given up, which reminds of the time Herr Ernst Lubitsch (the little man with the big cigar) was directing a picture at the Paramount New York studio in Astoria.
It happened that Claudette Colbert, she of the extraordinary limbs, and Miriam Hopkins, who is now a Paramount star, were in a picture together with Maurice Chevalier.
In the story Chevalier is supposed to be married to Miriam, but because she is more or less of an ugly duckling, he is particularly fond of the more comely Claudette. The story develops to the point where Claudette is caught by Miriam in her own house. It develops into a verbal bout and then rapidly into a slapping match in which both girls are supposed to slap each other, cry a bit, and then make up. The slaps, like most of the blows in pictures, were supposed to have been pulled punches. But were they? Oh boy, no! And behind that is something of a story.
It happened that in the making of the picture Herr Lubitsch became more or less attached to the luminous blonde Miriam. He believed in her as a noble actress, a conviction that has been justified since, and Ernst was interested in her sparkling personality. While the picture was being made, the two of them were seen around town together. Lubitsch would take her down to his favorite Second Avenue restaurant for some calves’ brains and wine, and Miriam was having a swell time, particularly when she worked, because Lubitsch was developing her part more and more every day.
Pretty soon Claudette began to sense the fact that in spite of her billing as a leading player opposite Chevalier and despite her rôle as the heroine of the piece, little Miriam was stealing the picture out from under her very nose.
Naturally she resented the intrusions and sensed the possibility that she might be a minus quantity in the finished film. Slight differences arose every day,—everyone felt that a blowup was due any second.
Well, the opportunity finally presented itself on the day that the slapping scene was to be shot. I suppose both girls felt that for once, at least, the microphone would get an authentic record of what slaps can be like.
Both girded themselves for the fray. If there was to be any serious slapping they were both out to do it. The studio sensed the situation and everybody turned to do honor to the winner. The scene was the bedroom of the princess, and the slapping took place while the two women were seated on the edge of the bed. After the blows were delivered they were supposed to break into tears and then fall into each other’s arms in forgiveness. Everything went fine and the two ladies were eyeing each other as fighting cocks do before being released.
Lubitsch knew that something was going to happen, but he purposely encouraged it because it lent authenticity to a scene that might not appear real on the screen. Famous fights of screen history started when those two fellows mised it in the first screen version of “The Spoilers,” but never before the cameras—that is, a battle with physical effectiveness. Hair-pulling was a sissy’s game now.
The director called for silence and the signal for silence in the studio was sounded. Everybody waited around expectantly. The contestants kept their gazes on the carpet waiting for the gong to go off. Lubitsch gave the signal to start and the motors began turning the cameras and the diaphragm opened its delicate ears for film-sound.
Only a few minutes before this scene was to be shot the two actresses were rehearsing another scene at a piano. Claudette was to play the piano in a jazz tune and Miriam was supposed to pick it up and go into some sort of musical ecstasy, the idea being that she had found freedom from her old-fashioned self.
La Cobert played—that is, Johnny Green, the young composer, played on the sidelines, while Claudette made the motions on a dummy piano, and Miriam listened attentively. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Claudette flared up. In a typical movie heroine fashion she blared:
“Jeese, Miriam! You’re not doing much to help!”
“I’m doing what I’m supposed to,” Miriam answered.
“Like hell you are!”
Lubitsch answered in time.
“Now plizz, gurruls, vee haff not much time.”
The rehearsal ended there with the two ladies glaring at each other and Claudette wandering off saying “Jeese” over and over to herself.
Now the slapping scene was being shot and the dialogue for the scene began. It ran something like “I’ve caught you trying to steal my husband’s love for the last time,” and “Well, I can’t help it if he loves me instead of you.” Then Miriam was commissioned by the script to slap Claudette.
The first offense was carried out successfully. The slap was delivered with such accuracy of aim and precision that the man in the sound booth immediately turned down his receiver to record the following blows. Claudette responded nobly with a sock to Miriam’s jaw that almost knocked the little blonde over onto the cushions. Then Miriam came back with a slap that jarred the brunette so that for a moment she forgot to retaliate. But answer she did with a crack on the other’s face that left a vivid hand-print showing through the makeup.
The shock of the slapping had for the moment just stunned the girls, but now it was beginning to have a more drastic effect. Both burst into tears. They cried so realistically that the bed shook violently. Lubitsch watched everything from the sidelines and his expression at first was one of concern, but later he looked on in amusement betting with himself as to the outcome. He realized he never could get a scene like this one again, and he let the film run until the spool was empty.
The slapping continued a while longer until both girls had vented their anger and then, according to the script, they were supposed to dry their tears and make-up. This they did and at the conclusion, looking up suddenly to find a gallery of spectators had gathered to enjoy the scene, walked sheepishly to their respective dressing rooms. It was Miriam, in the end, according to the critics, who stole the picture.
And speaking of Lubitsch brings up the old story of the athletic prowess he displayed in Hollywood. Not long after he had come to America, he was asked by Mary Pickford to direct a picture for her. Lubitsch consented and soon found himself on the Pickford-Fairbanks lot in Hollywood.
Before any picture gets under way it takes weeks for the studio to get things properly prepared for its inception. Sets must be designed, costumes made, locations selected and approved, expenditures checked and a hundred other detail jobs completed. And Doug wasn’t making any picture at the time, either, so the studio was relatively a quiet place.
In those days Fairbanks was much more the athlete than he is today. He was in the prime of his career, and to keep himself fit he indulged in every manner of game possible. To do this and to find people who would romp with him, he would often stop production on a picture he was making to engage his cameraman or prop crew in a hundred yard dash or a run around the studio lot.
This came to be pretty much the thing on the Fairbanks set, and it was not an uncommon sight to see most of the workers jogging around the place in running pants, throwing the discus or even jumping the hurdles. People who worked for Fairbanks began to grow exceedingly healthy in spite of the California weather.
Well, at the time Lubitsch came to the studio, there was no picture in production, and the staff amused itself by performing stunts on the lot and in the gymnasium which Doug had built for himself. Very few of the men could beat Fairbanks at anything, and they all liked him for it and tried harder to win.
One day Lubitsch, the little German Jew, dark, paunchy and more addicted to long black cigars and good beer, not to mention weiner schnitzel and other heavy foods,—who would rather sit in a beer haus and guzzle than run around a cinder track, came upon the scene of a decathlon. Everybody in the place was doing some athletic stunt or other.
The German director was an interested spectator for a while and then Doug spotted him and walked over.
“How about some exercise, Ernst?”
“No, thank you!”
“Just a short run?”
“Ach, I couldn’t think of it.”
But Fairbanks talked long and persuasively and finally convinced the German that it couldn’t harm him to run around the track once or twice. They formed a relay team and the men improvised a race.
Lubitsch sweated and puffed over his distance and nearly dropped at the conclusion of the race. But this wasn’t enough for those who had forced him into the running. They wanted to give him a good dose while they were at it. So they persuaded him, mainly by force, to attempt the hurdles. For a man unused to any sort of exercise except possibly one or two specialized forms, Lubitsch did fairly well. But he wasn’t particularly proud of his achievement at the conclusion. He dragged himself to his office where he collapsed in a chair.
“Ach, these crazy Americans! All they care about is exercise. I’m a director of pictures, not a monkey. I’ll not run again. Even Fairbanks can’t persuade me to. I’m through.”
And he went home to recuperate the rest of the afternoon. He felt as if he has been riding horseback for a month on an English style saddle.
It so happened that on the very same day the studio manager decided that the discipline on the lot was too lax. The men were on the job all right, but not on time. They couldn’t get away with that, he decided; it wasn’t efficient. As a result, an order was mimeographed to the effect that thereafter everyone was to report at the prescribed hour in the morning. There would be no more tardiness.
These slips were intended only for those whose duty it was to come to the studio at that hour. No executive or director was supposed to receive a warning. But some wag thought it would be a capital joke to put one of these notices on Herr Lubitsch’s desk.
That morning, at about eleven, when Lutitsch had finally managed to drag himself out of bed, aching in every joint from his previous day’s exercises, he crept down to his office and flopped in a chair. The first thing his tired eyes met was the official paper on his desk. He read it rapidly and then let its meaning sink in. He stared dully ahead upon the wall and then, his anger generated to blood heat, stirred himself from his office.
Down the hall he ran, madly waving the offending paper above his head. Down the hall he scuttled, shouting incantations of bad will against the studio manager, Douglas Fairbanks and every athlete who ever dared put on shorts. Into the studio manager’s office he burst.
“Why, Mr. Lubitsch? What’s come over you?”
“Ofer me, eh? You’re asking? I’m telling you! So listen!” He flung the paper into the manager’s face and then pounded the desk with his fist, all the while groaning from his imaginary wounds.
“I am hired by Miss Pickford to direct a picture. I have arrive here to direct a picture. And what do I find? A bunch of maniacs in little pants. And what do I do? Do I direct pictures? No! And why don’t I direct pictures? Because everyone is running around like crazy making races and foolishness. And do I want to do this, too? No! I don’t! But am I left alone? No! No! By God they make me run races. They make me yump and yump and yump until I am black and blue here—I’m through, I tell you, I’m through!”
And with that he rushed from the studio to catch his breath in his own bed and to nurse his aching limbs. Only the subtlest persuasion and a definite promise to eliminate javelins, dumb-bells (wooden), hurdles and discuses from his sight brought him back to work.
Movie stars, in the flesh, are pretty much like you and me. Hollywood is a city of beautiful people and if you want to belong, that’s your chief qualification. What most of them have in beauty they lack in brains. But long experience in meeting visitors, quarreling with movie executives for money, speaking to newspaper people and fighting with press agents sharpens the wits of many stars.
The little blondes who come out of the corn country for a break on rolling celluloid may in the beginning think that a boudoir is a place to sleep, but they learn and learn and in the end are probably better for it. What’s a career in pumping the town’s organ compared with flying to Caliente for the weekend, a party at the Davies hostelry, bathing at Santa Barbara, a special car to New York, pictures in rotogravure sections and the adoration of the world?
Yet I’ve seen them come and go so fast their progress looks like telephone poles rushing past train windows. One minute people are breaking down the doors to rip some stitches out of Clara Bow‘s lingerie, and the next day they’re blowing their noses in her dirty wash.
And speaking of Clara reminds me of the time that she was in town making shots for a picture that was started in Hollywood. One of the newspaper boys went up to interview her for the Sunday papers. But she wasn’t very kind to the pressman.
“You boys don’t act fair with me,” she told him.
“Well, on my way East,” she explained, “I was met in Chicago by a gang of that city’s choicest reporters. One of them came into my drawing room where I was playing cards with Daisy Devoe. When I refused to grant him an interview he went back to his office and turned out a story that described how Daisy and I were engaging in a contest to see who could spit most accurately at a crack in the floor. Now that’s no way to treat a lady!”
“No, it isn’t,” the reporter agreed.
As hat check girl at Sardi’s I encounter the stars during moments that are unguarded and get a better insight of them than do people who describe them for the public. When one of the “four star” specials comes in and slips me a load of what’s troubling him, I can tell you more than all the sobby sob sisters in Manhattan. And familiarity doesn’t breed contempt—it means dimes and quarters.
One of the hot summer nights when steam issued from every pore and all you needed to go limp was a touch, Olive Borden called me on the phone. You remember Olive, that dark-skinned beauty who once had a career on the screen which she sacrificed mainly for marriage.
“Renee darling,” she purred, “I’m starving up here. Do me a favor, will you, darling?”
“Come up and bring along a couple of sandwiches.”
I went into the kitchen and told the chef to make up some sandwiches to “go bye-bye for Miss Borden” and that I would take them myself. Then I asked Sardi for a couple of hours off and he agreed.
At that minute Robert Ripley was coming into the restaurant. Through the door I noticed he had pulled up in his elaborate Isotta. Now there’s one weakness I have and that’s Isottas, especially those with jewel-encrusted door handles and other gadgets. It was too warm to walk up to Olive’s place in East 17th Street so I gathered together the fraying ends of my nerve and approached “Rip.”
“Say, Mr. Ripley,” I greeted him, “would you like another ‘Believe It or Not?'”
“I’m always ready to listen, Renee.”
“Well, this is the story of the delivery clerk who delivered a forty-cent sandwich in a $16,000 automobile.”
“Is that so?” Bob was interested. “And where did or does this happen?”
“And who does it?”
“I’m going to.”
“Now! I’m going to deliver a chicken sandwich to Olive Borden via an Isotta.”
“Tell me about it? Whose car?”
But he was too good a sport, and when a waiter brought up the sandwiches, “Rip” swept me out to the car with the pomp of an ambassadress and directed his chauffeur. It was swell of him and he got a big kick out of it, as did little Renee.
A few minutes later we arrived in front of the Borden place, and Olive happened to be leaning out of the window when we pulled up at the curb. When she saw me dismount from the car, hold up the sandwiches and wave at her, she was so surprised she stood up in the window where she had been leaning on her arms.
And when she stood up, half the traffic on 17th street stopped to look because it was such a hot night that Olive had decided to shed all her clothes and walk around her apartment in the nude. And when she stood up in the window, she was exhibiting what most of young America had strained to see on the screen!
The next night Ripley got even with me for filching his car. He had been making one of his movie shorts at Brooklyn Vitaphone studio. In the course of these lecture films he shows actual examples of what he is talking about. It may be the three thousand year old man in Budapest or the Malayan tree that looks like Roosevelt or something equally strange. Well, he had just finished making one of those.
The weather had turned cooler and he wore a light top-coat when he checked with me. When he had received his check he walked off a couple of yards and then turned around.
“Stick your hand in the right pocket of my coat, Renee,” he suggested. “There’s something there for you that I’d almost forgot.”
“Oh, thanks, Mr. Ripley.”
“Rip” always gave such odd gifts. He brought me something from whatever part of the world he was in. I stuck my hand in the pocket and let out such a yell when I saw what I had drawn out that those in the restaurant came running up to find me on the floor in a dead faint.
I had discovered the shrunken head of a Borneo head hunter. It was about seven inches high, with every feature perfectly preserved and the hair flowing from the scalp as naturally as if the little fellow were alive. I think it’s the custom for an enemy to cut off the head and preserve it so it shrinks to a specific size.
“Rip” had been illustrating one of his “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” shorts for the camera and had carelessly stuck the head in his pocket. I didn’t eat any dinner that night.
One of the frequent visitors to Sardi’s is Georgie Price. Georgie is of the Cantor–Jessel–Jolson school, although Georgie doesn’t remind you so much of his mammy as do the other three. Georgie’s forte is sentimentalia of the heartbreak order, and occasionally he lapses into passable comedy. But for a while most of his comedy was obtained by persons who noticed his ears.
Now it happens that there are more than a few people in public life who are handicapped by their ears. Clark Gable, for example, and a notable one at that, has such large ones the photographers in Hollywood insist on making the majority of his closeups in three-quarter view for fear that if the ears are too prominent there won’t be enough light for the rest of the set. And Will Hays is no beauty as far as ears go. But Georgie Price’s ears are incomparable, and in open competition he would walk off with all the ribbons—and the loving cups would hide in shame. An earache to Georgie is as much pain as rheumatism all over the body to you and you.
All this, of course, before Georgie had his ears cut down to streamline because he suffered from too much wind resistance. He wasn’t safe in the streets on a windy day and if he took an ocean trip he’d increase the knottage of the ship by appearing on deck and permitting the breeze to catch in the folds. There have been rumors that the wall-paper in his home is scratched and scraped from contact.
Georgie was doing so well in vaudeville that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer thought he would be a swell bet in pictures, especially since Al Jolson romped away with all that money by being a rabbi’s son in “The Jazz Singer” for Warners. So they asked him to make a short at the old Cosmopolitan Studio.
Flattered, Georgie rehearsed his lines and songs to perfection and prepared to “knock the world into the aisle” with a rendition from the screen as never had been heard before. At the studio he was made up to look presentable. The makeup men had tried to “paint out” the ears with red rouge as is their habit, but this wasn’t much good. So they gave it up and let him go before the cameras.
When the cameraman adjusted his lens for the focus he couldn’t see anything at first because the set was blocked off by two obstructions which he later discovered to be Price’s ears.
This was in the early days of the talkies when the entire sequence had to be shot at once with more than one camera. Now they can shoot with a single camera at a time and move in for closeups. At that time the closeup, long shot and medium shot all had to be taken simultaneously.
They started the sequence and everything was going dandy until Price, of the priceless ears, looked head-on into the lens. This not only discouraged the lens, but the film buckled and the developing fluid went sour.
The director decided that something had to be done about it, so he ordered the makeup man to “absolutely eliminate those ears,” only in so many other kinds of words.
The only way out of the situation was to paste back the offending ears with adhesive tape. Everything was just dandy after this was done except that Price looked as though he had been chopped in half and was in immediate danger of catching cold, for taking his ears away was practically denuding him.
Nevertheless, the sequence was started and everything was proceeding along at the regular rate. It happens, however, that incandescent lights instead of mercury lamps are used with talking pictures, and incandescents are very much hotter than the old type lamps. During those days when the whole scene had to be shot with the lamps on full blast for the duration of the action, it got pretty warm and uncomfortable.
About halfway through the scene, Price had the center of the stage and was romancing through one of his arias when suddenly there was a loud popping noise, like someone opening a bottle of champagne.
The sound monitor stopped the sequence, ordered a retake, and the director stormed and fumed while poor little Georgie sat meekly by in the corner and apologized.
It seems that the lights had grown too hot for the adhesive tape that held his ears flat, and as a result the adhesive gave way during the song and the ears had popped out, free from encumbrances. What might not ordinarily be heard sounds like cannon fire in the diaphragm of the delicately attuned microphone, and when projected on the screen, the view of Georgie Price’s ears “popping” into full view would have sounded like a declaration of war.
After that embarrassing occurrence Georgie vowed he’d do something about his ears. And so he had his ears “shaved” down by a plastic surgeon. Price came into Sardi’s later and demanded that the caricature that Gard had made of him in the pre-operation days and which hung on the wall of the restaurant, be made over to fit his present day appearance. But Gard steadfastly refused and to this day you can see a “portrait of a pair of ears” which you will gradually recognize as Georgie Price.
And if you come into Sardi’s you’ll find many other strange sights on the walls and if you’re lucky you’ll find the subject sitting underneath his portrait so that the rubberneckers can’t make any mistake about it. But one thing is certain and that is that you won’t find Ted and Betty Healy sitting underneath their joint portait because they’re divorced now. And Jack Donohue won’t be there either.
Before Jack died I used to watch him come into the restaurant every noon hour and between bites of food he would be working on one thing or another. His last work was Letters of a Hoofer to his Ma and he plugged like a Trojan on it until his death. Once I said to him:
“Gee, Jack, you oughtn’t to work so hard.”
“It’s a tough grind, Renee,” was his reply, “and there isn’t much time.”
He seemed in the know about his future and was getting in the whacks before fate did. When he died Sardi pasted the newspaper obituaries on the back of his caricature.
Very few of the celebrities put on airs and a hoity-toity manner, but there are a few who forget that they once pronounced Third Avenue so it rhymed with Freud.
Once Nancy Carroll, the red-head of your dreams, or maybe I’m wrong, came in wearing a new coat. It was of a soft fur, obviously expensive, and luxuriously made for a motion picture star. Nancy was looking particularly stunning that day and checked her new coat with me. She has always been formal with me, being a star of such glittering magnitude. And I suppose I should have known better than to do what I did, but the opportunity was tempting and I forgot myself.
All I did, to make it short, was take Nancy’s coat off the hanger and try it on. I just couldn’t resist the feel of a movie star’s garment against my skin, especially Nancy Carroll’s coat. I not only tried it on, but strutted up and down in my tiny booth, primping and telling little Renee how stunning she looked in the coat, and that after all it was clothes that made the star.
To make it even shorter, I was frozen in my tracks by the summons of a cold, hard voice that curtly ordered me to “take that coat off or else—” I whirled around and Nancy was eyeing me and breathing so hard it seemed like an over-acted scene out of one of her pictures when she was about to be attacked by Sir Horace. I began to stutter my apologies as I tried to slip out of the coat.
But she wouldn’t listen. She continued to berate me in her very best Avenue English. She was sure she shouldn’t have checked her coat with me and wouldn’t ever again. All in all, after taking bawling-out because I knew I was wrong, I felt as though I had disclosed the plans for the rape of Jehol.
Meekly, I handed over her coat and she grabbed it and rushed from the restaurant—and didn’t leave a tip.
I suppose I’ve no right to play Cinderella because I know, like every youngster brought up on Broadway, that Cinderella is as good as nothing at all and that if you’re waiting for a coach and four to get your places, you might just as well dig down and ride on the Interborough. But if a movie star is going to act that way with a former fan, then she hasn’t got much imagination and I won’t write any more fan letters.
And fan letters, incidentally, may make a player. You see, as the letters come in at the studio, they are sorted and checked against a star’s name. The star who gets the most checks wins, it would seem. And there are always plenty of lumbermen up in Washington or some place where there are trees, whose only ambition is to tell a movie star that he would like her company for a night. Even nice people write letters like that from untraceable places, and when the letters are turned over to the postal authorities for prosecution, the writers rarely are found. But the star knows that she’s the object of perhaps a hundred thousand seething and heaving breasts, and it makes her sleep easier, or more restlessly, as the case may be.
Sometimes the nuts send presents ranging from houses made out of toothpicks to costly lingerie and wearing apparel. Foreigners frequently enclose things they have made themselves. And sometimes the gift can’t be shown to anybody but is thrown into a furnace shortly after it’s received.
The names signed to letters are usually authentic, but frequently they assume names of such Rabelasian quality that you wouldn’t care to read them twice. Spinsters from all over the country long for the Gables and Rafts, and under a pseudonym spill out their love thoughts that they have been brooding over for so many decades. It’s all usually very embarrassing to the star to realize he or she has so much sex appeal. But that’s what creates what Variety terms B.O., box office receipts, and who cares for anything else?