Hollywood Undressed, Chapter Eight

The eighth 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), tells the tale of a run-in over Sylvia’s services between actresses Ina Claire and Alice White.

HIGH HAT

Ina ClairePHILOSOPHICAL observation: There comes a time in most lives when you begin to step on the gas; you make speed; also, you bounce!
Sylvia began bouncing the minute she went under contract to Pathé and began working on the sacred cows that were grazing on that lot. Dough, dough! But also trouble, trouble! Ooh, lots of trouble. In fact, Sylvia got hooked up professionally with all four of the following at once: Gloria Swanson, Ina Claire, Grace Moore, and Constance Bennett.
There’s a quartet for you! Maybe there’d be a fight if it was said flatly that those four were at the top of the Hollywood heap. There’s room for argument, with Greta Garbo left out—and Marlene Dietrich, and—oh well, write your own ticket. But nobody is going to dispute the statement that, in their own estimations, they are.
There was a queen of antiquity who used to protect her standing as the most beautiful woman in the world by a simple device. If any of the other lookers inside her borders got possession of some beauty secret, she would call out the head executioner and pay the rival a little call having for object a funeral and confiscation of the beauty preparation.
Since Cleopatra’s day thing have changed. Less cutting off of heads, but more beauty preparations. It has the career of the professional beauty much tougher. It was a lot simpler, maintaining supremacy by killing off the competition. It’s got so tough nowadays that a Queen of Beauty actually has to be beautiful. Not only that, but she has to stay that way. When you figure that, if left to her own devices, a woman stays at the top of her form only about three or four years (and those usually the years when nobody but her school-teachers and the neighbors’ boys are giving her a tumble), you can see what she’s up against. By the time her photographs are beginning to appear in the silver frames in jewelers’ windows, she doesn’t look like them any more.
The professional beauty has to watch two angles: building up her rep, and living up to it when she’s got it. I’ll say one thing for the girls that claw their way to the top. They they have their press agents to pull them and their beauty experts to push them, they do most of the work themselves. Being on the inside, where they are pulling all the strings and going through all the contortions of their beauty jobs—that’s excitement! To be behind the scenes and watch them feint, grab, and foul when the referee isn’t looking—that’s high comedy!
The opening scene of a sample of it is the Pasadena station of the Santa Fe Railroad, with the Chicago-New York train due in any minute. Choo-choo. Toot-toot. A general rush of press agents, cameramen, Path´ executives, porters, dogs, and dust. Who is this stranger who trips as lightly as may be from the drawing-room car?
It is Ina Claire. Look out, Hollywood!
 
THE famous Broadway actress came to Hollywood with a chip on her shoulder. They usually do. When they’ve been here a while—they get another chip and wear them symmetrically, one on each shoulder.
The boss had her first glimpse of the Eastern invader a short while later, after Ina had reported to the Path´ lot for work in her first sound movie, “The Awful Truth.” A three-alarm went out for Sylvia after the first test shots. Avoirdupois.
Hedda Hopper, our old reliable booster, was the messenger. She was on the phone with the S O S: “Ina Claire has to be taken down ten pounds in three days. Come and do it!”

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Old news is good news

The term “yesterday’s news” is usually meant to denigrate, but for fans of the Golden Age of Hollywood, old news can often be welcome news. Following, in retrospect, the career ebbs and flows — and even the day-to-day lives — of our favorite performers, writers, and directors offers a new/old insight on these fascinating figures.

A terrific resource for such digging through the past is the very worthy blog Hollywood Heyday. Each entry revisits the Tinseltown news and gossip of a particular day in a given year, leaving the reader feeling as if she’s traveled back in time.

The sources are wire services and syndicated columnists, among them such still-familiar names as Luella Parsons and Hedda Hopper and other journalists whose names are not as well known today, including Wood Soanes and Chester B. Bahn.

These tidbits provide prose snapshots of a particular time in a movie personality’s life. For example, this snippet from Soanes about comedic character actor Charles Butterworth from April 22, 1932:

Charles Butterworth, whose movie career terminated largely because his style of humor is so distinctive that he needed a special author to provide him with material, is returning to the stage for a comedy part in the next Max Gordon revue. Before that happens, however, he’ll work with Chevalier in a picture.

Butterworth was hardly through with the movies at that point in time — he went on to make more than thirty more pictures before his premature death in an auto accident in 1946 — but it’s intriguing to learn that at one point in time, it was thought he was finished in Hollywood.

Other stories remind us that now-familiar names were not always so, as in this tidbit from Bahn on the same date, April 22, 1932:

Universal failed to pick up option of Mickey Rooney, formerly known as Mickey McGuire.

It’s intriguing to think of a time when young Mickey was a) newly dubbed “Rooney” and b) getting dropped by movie studios.

One also learns of once-highly anticipated projects that never came to fruition, as in this Parsons offering regarding Constance Bennett:

“The Sun Also Rises,” to star Constance Bennett, is more than just a mere rumor. The book has been purchased and Rowland Brown is now reading it and discussing treatment, for he will direct her. Some of the considerable angles will have to be removed but it is fundamentally a splendid story and should give Connie an excellent vehicle.

To the best of our knowledge, that’s a project that never got off the ground, but learning that it was once in the works leaves us wondering just how it might have turned out.

Some of the stories provide a laugh or two, as well, like this one (source unknown):

Bela Lugosi did a laugh-clown-laugh stunt at the Carthay Circle theater the other night. He tripped back stage, fell and broke three ribs, but went on with his performance of “Murdered Alive.” He probably felt just that way.

Admittedly, few of the reports offered by Hollywood Heyday are major news, even by Tinseltown standards — they merely offer a glimpse of the daily professional and personal ups and downs of fondly remembered (and some not-so-fondly recalled) members of the picture biz of decades past. There are those who would no doubt scratch their heads and wonder at the appeal of these snippets of yesterday’s news; I think most members of the Cladrite Radio clan, though, will, as we do, find the site fascinating — and habit-forming, to boot.