This interview with Una Merkel originally appeared in the May 1935 edition of Movie Classic magazine.
disposition, keeps this charming
young player the busiest actress
By ROBERT FENDER
THERE’S a girl in Hollywood known to directors and writers as “the pulmotor girl.” Does that mean anything to you? It didn’t to me, either, until I started thinking of those things used by firemen, lifeguards and physicians known as pulmotors. They’re the emergency machines employed to bring nearly dead people back to life.
Just so, when writers have a nearly dead story on their hands, they write in a part for this girl. And when directors see their pictures expiring dead away, they broadcast a frantic call for this very same girl. She’ll save it if it can be saved, they cry. Get her. And get her right now!
The “her” in this case, as anyone in Hollywood will tell you, is a charming little person with blonde ringlets in her hair, a twinkle in her eyes and a great heart tucked away inside her. Her name is Una Merkel. And she’s perhaps the most universally loved girl in town. Certainly she’s the busiest.
If you saw Una in a Hollywood crowd (say at a preview), you couldn’t pick her out if your life depended upon it. But ten to one she would be the young lady on your left who, on very tip-toe was jockeying for a better position to see the movie stars pass by. For Una is the most confirmed and ardent movie fan in town. She is, to my knowledge, the only one who saves all the programs of all the shows she attends—yes, and makes tiny penciled notes on the margins about players she likes best and why.
Una is so necessary to directors and ailing pictures, I suppose, because she is the only one of her kind in town. She is no more “movie actress” than you. Her unaffected laugh, tinkly and delightful to hear, differs from the average star’s studied “abandon” as a child’s laughter differs from the wearied old man’s croak. She is youth itself, mighty good for the soul, and she’ll continue to be young no matter how many years pile up on her.
“There’s so much,” she told me in her tiny feminine dressing room at M-G-M, “to be happy for. There’s so much to laugh about. Do you see that big building next door? Well, next week I’m going to have a grand big new dressing room.”
“Moving you over there, Una?”
Una laughed. “Oh, Heavens no,” she cried. “That’s going to be for the big stars. But they’ll leave their dressing rooms here and they’re going to give me a bigger one in this building. And they’re going to let me furnish it. Just as I like!” she finished, evidently carried away in high glee.
“Don’t you want to be a big star, Una?”
Una burst out laughing. “Me a star? Do you know any more funny ones?” Then she wrinkled her cute little brow and indulged in some thinking. “But,” she began, “but—even if I could, I don’t think I would. The other night I was trying to think what I’d rather be than myself and I couldn’t think of anything. Not,” she hurried, “that I think I’m pretty good but simply that I’m—I’m so darned happy!
“I love my husband, Ronnie Burla, and he loves me. I get more pleasure out of my work than anyone in Hollywood. There’s just one thing that worries me and that is that there are so many people who don’t share my good luck. I feel so sorry for people who don’t seem to have anything. I wish there was some better way of distributing money and happiness.
“What worries me is the great number of men with training and ambition who are out of work. I know any number of young college graduates, trained to be engineers and doctors and lawyers, who are just sitting in their offices (if they have any) twiddling their thumbs. I know what I’m talking about because a good friend of mine, an aeronautical engineer, couldn’t find a thing to do until he was out of college nearly three years. And the job he got then was one for which he needed no training. It’s maddening to think that all the time and money spent for an education is sometimes spent in vain. I don’t know anything about economics,” Una said, “But…,” and she straightway launched into one of the most levelheaded, sane expositions of that slippery science it has been my privilege to hear, in or out of a lecture hall.
IT IS strange to me that some writer recently referred to Una Merkel as the girl without a worry in her head… “the most carefree girl in Hollywood” was the way he put it. If he’d given his subject a little more thought, he might not have described her so glibly. One doesn’t reach a sane balance by being giddy, light-headed and planless. People aren’t funny on the screen by accident.
If Una Merkel didn’t think things through; if she didn’t have a heart that is big enough to feel for the lucklessness of others, she wouldn’t be worth two-bits as a light comedienne. It is this sympathetic spark of hers, shining through her eyes to reach our hearts, that sets her apart from Hollywood’s hundreds of “funny actresses,” that makes of her the “pulmotor girl” she is; that makes her the busiest girl in town.
In answer to my question as to how long she had been acting, Una let go with one of those musical laughs and the statement, “Longer than I can remember. Oh, longer than that. I must have been six or seven when I started my ‘career’ as a reindeer in a Sunday school pageant back in Covington, Kentucky. Later I was cast as the Spirit of Spring or something, when I was dressed in a Mother Hubbard and a daisy chain. I was so proud of my costume that I paraded down the street long before show time.
“My elegant costume brought giggles from neighbor kids and I was so mad I let them have it, daisy chain and all. While not theatrical people, my family always longed to be on the stage and were entirely sympathetic with my ambitions from the first. This was quite unusual when, in those days, smalltown folk frowned on the stage as very daring for young girls.”
“Have they kept you pretty busy in Hollywood, Una?”
Una reflected. “Well,” she started, “let’s see. In my first year I was under contract to United Artists, but they loaned me out for The Bargain. That night, as I was studying my script, the doorbell rang and a messenger appeared with another script. I told him there must have been some mistake, as I had my lines. He thought not and he was right. The script turned out to be for The [Maltese] Falcon, another picture on a different lot. So I did The Bargain in the daytime and The Falcon at night, rushing from one lot to another and changing my part from the center of my head to the side as I rushed.
“Last summer I was fairly busy. The next day after finishing The Merry Widow, we started Murder In The Private Car. The day after finishing that we commenced Paris Interlude and I did retakes on The Cat’s Paw on the side. A few days after Paris Interlude, Have A Heart started with only two days between its completion and the start of two more pictures, Evelyn Prentice and Biography of a Bachelor Girl. I did Evelyn Prentice daytimes and Biography of a Bachelor Girl at night. There was one day between the finish of Biography and another one, The Night Is Young. While doing that daytimes, I finished up work on Evelyn Prentice nights. And during this time, I was doing retakes on Biography. Oh yes, and I forgot to mention Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back. Then…”
“Stop!” I insisted, “I get the idea, Una. I agree that you’ve been ‘fairly busy’.” I tried to think of another single player (Eddie Horton included) who could equal this record. I was stumped.
I HAVE no doubt that, to a lot of Hollywood’s brightest stars, Una Merkel is “that happiness girl,” said none too kindly. It’s not at all improbable that a few of the “more important people” do a bit of smiling behind their hands at what they might consider some of Una’s more Pollyannish tricks. Not used to the real thing, they may think that Una is “just too sweet to live.”
For those people I have a vast pity and so, if she were aware of them, would Una. Life, the joy of living, has passed them by. But Una has a very tight grip on life and is squeezing from it all the fun and enjoyment possible. More important to us, she’s seeing to it that we get our share of her same brand of joi de vivre (joy of living to you). For if Una Merkel is known to directors as the “pulmotor girl,” she is likewise known to lowly studio workers as “a real guy.” And of the two, perhaps the last is the higher compliment.