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.