Hollywood Secrets of the Golden Days

Two things that have never changed in Hollywood are an insatiable appetite for practical jokes and sex.

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca, c. 1942

A rather amusing classic Hollywood practical joke was vouched for as perfectly authentic when the man who had perpetrated it. Eddie Goulding is who. Even way back towards the end of the silent period and all through the first decade or two of the "talkies', was among the dozen or so most successful directors in Hollywood. He was an Englishman, and like all prominent Europeans he was frequently pestered by ‘well recommended' visitors from back home, such as a young Peer of the Realm who displayed very suitable letters of introduction. Eddie did all that was expected by instructing his assistant to show the visitor around the studio and by finally giving him a quick lunch.

Eddie was, in fact, a bachelor, so he hired the Madame of what was then the most exclusive 'Maison' in Hollywood. She was middle-aged, English-born and a very presentable ex-actress. She brought along one of her chicks who was trained to specialize for customers who liked them very young indeed; she was English born too, and a splendid little actress who could most plausibly impersonate an early teenager, at least three or four years younger served out-of-doors in delightful surroundings and at tables wide enough apart to ensure the utmost privacy. Madame played her part perfectly, prattling away about English counties and life in Mayfair and Chelsea, while the chick, saying “Yes, Daddy”, and "Oh, I'd love to, Mummy”, whenever it was required, behaved exactly like a demure little Miss was supposed to behave in those days. When they got up to take their leave Eddie was ready for the punchline, which was the object of that elaborate and by no means in expensive exercise, for obviously both Madame and her chick got the full rate for the job.

The punchline? Well, after saying how much they had all enjoyed the lunch Eddie said casually to his Lordship, (the women as Smilingly unconcerned as if he was speaking about the weather) "And if there is anything at all we can do for you while you are still here; if, for instance, you want to fuck my wife or be sucked off by my daughter, you just have to say so".

Liz Taylor and Montgomery Clift, c. 1951

On my first Hollywood journey, in the early years of the 'talkies', I was hired to script ‘German versions', whereas back home my assignments for European mags included interviews with famous stars of the silent era which, in those days, still seemed as near as yesterday. I went to see Harold Lloyd on his magnificent estate, complete not only with the inevitable swimming-pool and tennis court, but also with a sort of brook, at least twelve feet wide and circling the entire estate. It was used for canoe-racing of which Harold was very fond.

While he showed me around we talked about visual humor, understandable and effective without a scrap of dialogue. I mentioned a scene in a very old Buster Keaton movie which I well remember after all those years. Buster, with his usual earnest mien, is the only male at a female tea party, but the girls, chattering away among themselves, don't pay him the slightest attention. Then they all take out their vanity boxes and start painting their lips and doing up their faces. Having watched somberly for a moment or two Buster takes out his shaving kit and very earnestly and thoroughly starts lathering his face, none of the chattering girls paying any attention. I told Harold Lloyd that I had considered this very funny indeed and still did.

He laughed and said that he certainly wouldn't disagree with me as this happened to be his own gag. But considering it rather more suitable for Buster he had sold it to him.

"How much for?” “Fifty bucks. Exactly what I had paid one of my gag-writers for it. Doesn’t seem much now, but it was the rate for the job in those days.” "

I met an even more famous film star in rather odd circumstances. It happened at the Viertels – Berthold in those days being a prominent director and his wife Salka an actress. Their son Peter – a bright little boy of ten at the time – has been a very successful screen-writer for many years, married to Deborah Kerr.

One Sunday morning, eleven-ish, I had just arrived at their house in Santa Monica. We were supposed to go out to lunch with some people, the three of us. The two boys were farmed out' for the day, the two servants had their day off. Salka was still dressing and Berthold shaving upstairs, and when the bell rang Salka shouted down: "Do send away whoever it is, say we're out.”

When I opened the door there was a young woman with a beret and a raincoat, for it was during February when Hollywood’s few days of rain fall. She wore enormous dark glasses hiding half her face, but what struck me at first sight were her downtrodden shoes and the astonishing fact that she must have come on foot – there wasn’t a car in sight, except my own.

When I said that Mrs Viertel wasn't in she said “Doesn’t matter, I'll come some other time' and turned on her heel. When I shouted after her to leave her name and phone number, she turned round again: “My name is Garbo — but it doesn’t matter, I’ll come some other time.”

By now Salka had heard the voice through the open window, leaned out and shouted down "Greta!” She came in, took off the beret, the glasses and the raincoat and, by now, was very recognizable indeed. I felt a bit of a Charlie when introduced, but Greta was delighted that someone actually in the business had failed to see through her 'gear'. She put it all on again and spent a happily giggling minute prancing up and down the room and looking into all the mirrors.

While the women raided the fridge for a nicely improvised lunch, Berthold cancelled our lunch appointment and then rang some mutual friends, such as the Feyders, to join the party later. As a matter of fact, the unannounced impromptu call lasted about twelve hours and it was around midnight when I drove her to her apartment house – the seven or eight miles which she had walked in the morning.

Greta Garbo by Edward Steichen, c. 1955

By that time the famous I-want-to-be-alone image had just got into its full swing, a very professional swing indeed, for it was sponsored by Howard Dietz, the PR Chief of MGM and certainly the most intelligent publicity man I’ve ever met. He had been much annoyed in Greta's earlier Hollywood days by her reluctance to dress up and to appear at big receptions, gala-premières and the like. So one day he decided to make a virtue of necessity – he sent for Greta and told her that from now on she must never, never go out at all and never be seen at any of the smart places. Was she prepared to accept such 'splendid isolation'? She certainly was, so the thing was started with a bang by vastly over publicising Greta's curt refusal of an invitation to a gala-party arranged for a member of British Royalty. I think it was Mountbatten on a brief visit to Los Angeles. Dietz saw to it that huge screens were erected around any set where Garbo was working. Jacques Feyder was, of course, a famous director and his charming wife Françoise Rosay, a close friend of Greta's, was one of the most famous French actresses of the time. As I happened to do a screenplay or two for both Viertel and Feyder it was inevitable I would meet Greta from time to time.

There always used to be one picture more or less unanimously considered to be the biggest, the most important film of the year; and in 1930 that accolade, undoubtedly, went to All Quiet on the Western Front. The producer was Universal and its chief, old Carl Laemmle, was very proud of it and liked to show it off. I must have seen at least two or three private screenings of that film before and after its official première. One of them was in honour of Albert Einstein when he happened to be in Los Angeles for a few days. He had asked me to sit in the second row immediately behind him so as to be able to explain whatever he might wish to know, his knowledge of the film industry (so he explained to us) being next to nil. That was the time when Mary Pickford, still married to Fairbanks and the châteleine of Pickfair, was far and away the most famous of all film stars, a sort of Queen in Hollywood. As befits so grand a lady she swept in within the last minute before the start of the screening. Obviously recognising the celebrated face of the guest of honour and assuming a formal introduction to be unnecessary she swept straight on to the great man and said a few well chosen words about the signal honour bestowed on all of us by his visit. Then she swept on to her seat and, forthwith, the room darkened and the screening began.

""Who was this?” whispered the Professor, turning round to me.

"Mary Pickford,” I whispered back. "Who is she ‘’’’ "A film actress,” I explained, and Einstein seemed to be content with so unsurprising an explanation. For a moment I was struck by the apparent incongruity of the wisest man in the world having never heard of Mary Pickford. Then I asked myself: why should he? Remembering that Einstein had never heard of Mary Pickford, I wonder if he'd heard of Charlie Chaplin either. I shouldn't think so because Chaplin's fame was (and is) rather unique.

I forget if it was 1930 or 1931 when Sergei Michailovitch Eisenstein and his crew of famous Russian film-makers (including Tisse, the cameraman) spent their six months under contract to Paramount. The film they were to make (Dreiser's American Tragedy) was, of course, never made because they wouldn’t do it Paramount's way, and Paramount wouldn’t have it their way.

Anyway, a good time was had by all, and since I spent a lot of time with the Russian party I saw rather more of Chaplin than I might otherwise have done, for Charlie had chummed up with the Russians quite a lot and they were constantly in and out of each other's houses. More often in Chaplin's beautiful place complete with a swimming pool shaped like the famous bowler hat.

Charlie Chaplin, c. 1920's

Charlie loved parties, provided there were the sort of people there that he liked; and he loved party-games, provided he could shine in them. One of his favorite games, was to grab a pretty young woman as partner and then play some quickly improvised scene with her in 'slow motion', a 'silent movie-scene of course. He also loved to dramatize anything funny that had recently happened to him, such as a visit from Primo Carnera (the reigning Heavyweight Champion at the time) accompanied by his French manager. When Charlie impersonated the boxer he seemed to grow to over seven feet, and his Italian gibberish in a deep, deep voice was incredibly funny; then he would suddenly shrink to the diminutive size of the agent, a very agile and excitable Frenchman, jabbering away at terrific speed and with frantic gesticulations. To see and hear Chaplin impersonating these two was a fantastic comedy show, and it lost little of its appeal if one happened to hear a repetition two or three times within a few weeks.

One famous star I met in odd circumstances was Douglas Fairbanks Senior. I went along with my old friend Ivor Montagu who had come to Hollywood to prepare for the Eisenstein visit of which he was to be in charge. When we went to see Fairbanks our friend Cedric Belfrage came along to make the introductions. We were received in our host's very elegant private sauna and we were all naked. What Fairbanks knew about Ivor was that he was the son of the late Lord Swaythling and the brother of his present Lordship which, no doubt, impressed him. What he didn't know was that Ivor had been a Communist since his teenage days.

“I am very pleased to meet you, Mr Montagu,” said Fairbanks when we were all nicely settled in the sauna, "and do please tell me: how is your prince?”

Ivor is fairly quick on the uptake, but it took him some time to realise that what our host was alluding to was none other than the Prince of Wales. He had to imply, as politely as possible, that his social contacts with the Heir to the Throne were negligible.

I might as well conclude these rambling notes on the 'good old days' of Hollywood with what I consider some of the best lines of dialogue I ever heard. The cast: Mr Charles Chaplin and Mr Douglas Fairbanks Senior. The place: Chaplin's house in Beverly Hills. There was a party going on — as 'informal' as most of Charlie's parties – and I happened to be within earshot when Fairbanks arrived and the following dialogue took place between host and guest, served out-of-doors in delightful surroundings and at tables wide enough apart to ensure the utmost privacy.

"Hallo, Doug."

"Hallo, Charlie."

"How's the Duke?”

"Which Duke, Charlie?”

"Oh, any Duke!”

Madame played her part perfectly, prattling away about English counties and life in Mayfair and Chelsea, while the chick, saying 'Yes, Daddy', and 'Oh, I'd love to, Mummy', whenever it was required, behaved exactly like a demure little Miss was supposed to behave in those days. When they got up to take their leave Eddie was ready for the punchline, which was the object of that elaborate and by no means inexpensive exercise, for obviously both Madame and her chick got the full rate for the job.

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