CANADIANS IN HOLLYWOOD
California's first motion picture was made by a Canadian and Canadians rank high on the roster of screendom's celebrities
CINDERELLA tales of phenomenal rises to fame and fortune have come forth from sun-baked Hollywood, not to echo unheard in the towns and cities of Canada. The glamor of a screen career has appealed to Canadians. The lure of Hollywood has crossed an international border line, and young Canadians have been drawn to the magnet.
The Canadian contribution to “America’s fourth largest industry” has been no small one. By countless hundreds, Canadians have journeyed, filled with ambition and hope, to the world’s film centre. They have succeeded—and failed.
Of the failures I prefer to know nothing and say less. In the stories of those who have succeeded there is the drama of hope and despair ; there’s humor and struggle, the story' of hardship overcome and endeavor rewarded.
From the very beginning, when the first motion picture to be made in California was given its humble birth, Canadians have been important in picture-making. When the first camera was set up and the first foot of film ground out, a Canadian prepared the screen story; a Canadian designed the set; a Canadian cast the picture and directed it.
He was Al Christie, a boy from London, Ontario. Like a Horatio Alger hero, his rise to the top of his particular sphere of movie-making has been a colorful one.
Ambition and Bananas
'VrOUNG CHRISTIE had a flair for the theatrical from X his earliest days. That possibly is why he joined the militia and wore kilts. Later, still in the town where he spent his youth, Al landed a job as stage carpenter at the old London Opera House, and in next to no time became stage manager. This is not the jump it may seem, for. truth to tell, stage carpenter and stage manager in those days, in the London that then was, were pretty much the same thing. There is a lesson and encouragement for young men in
all lines of endeavor in the fact that Christie fell down on the job. It did not signify that failure was to follow him always.
He became a train butcher, and developed a system of subsisting on the bananas he failed to sell up and down the aisles of the trains.
Mr. Christie does not now eat bananas.
His theatrical inclinations persisted, and he graduated from fruit and magazine hawking on the railroads to a minor connection with the Nestor Company of New York. The Nestor Company was in the strange and ill-reputed business of making moving pictures. Christie became a comedy director; and when a situation developed where a certain motion picture patents company made things trying for the Nestor Film Company someone conceived the idea of retiring to California, noted for its sunshine, to make pictures.
Christie went west—and a humble beginning was made by the Canadian boy who had worn kilts in London, Ontario.
Al Christie is now among the foremost of those men who have devoted their lives to the creation of laughter. While he is one of the most stolid citizens of the parish, commodore of the Los Angeles Yacht Club and regarded by his fellow citizens as one of them, Mr. Christie still regards the Ontario city as his home. The same may be said of brother Charles Christie, who later joined Al as general manager of the Christie Film Company.
“America's Sweetheart” is a Canadian. She. was little Gladys Smith, of Toronto; Gladys Smith to the children she rolled hoops with on University Avenue, but “Mary Pickford” to you and you and you.
As a child, Mary Pickford made her theatrical début with a Toronto stock company. Later she toured Ontario tank towns in a play called Convict's Stripes, probably as bad as it sounds. Next in the Pickford career came The Fatal Wedding, and you can just about guess the answer to that one.
At thirteen Miss Pickford, still little Gladys Smith at the time, played in Edmund Burke with Chauncey Olcott,
and her histrionic ability became definitely established.
With big sister Lottie and big brother Jack, troupers all, Mary Pickford ventured to New York and obtained stage work at the old Thalia Theatre on the Bowery.
She “made” Broadway when the late David Belasco became charmed with her youth and beauty and impressed by her determination. She was cast in'The Warrens of Virginia.
A more or less chance meeting with D. W. Griffith at the old Biograph Studios started the young Toronto girl on a skyrocket ride to the very pinnacle of screen stardom. Her first picture was titled Her First Biscuits—500 feet of flickers, and enough to mark Mary Pickford as a success.
In this prehistoric drama of passion amid the pots and pans Mary Pickford appeared with those pre-u'ar favorites, Florence Lawrence and William Courtwright. If you missed seeing this early epic, don’t feel put out. The current Pickford picture is Kiki—and worth the price of admission.
Mary Pickford, socially Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks, and once Gladys Smith, is among the most respected and admired personalities of the film colony. Amazing salaries and the acclaim of millions of admirers have changed her very little.
The Star from Hudson Bay
AMONG other Canadians who have accomplished things
*• in pictures, you’ll find Dick Travers, Jx>m on the shores of Hudson Bay, with a real Northwest “Mountie” for a dad. Dick’s a newcomer, more or less, and still knows his way about the streets of Regina better than about Hollywood. You'll see him, hear him, and like him with Charlotte Greenwood in Stepping Out.
While we’re on the prairies, there’s Phylis Crane, hailed as the perfect flapper type and responsible for big things in So This Is College and Madame Satan. Phylis is from Calgary—daughter of Albert Francis Crane, publisher.
John Meehan, sensationally successful screen writer, is a Canadian and proud of it; and John Robertson, the director, is also eligible for membership in the Canadians in Hollywood Club.
And Marie Prévost! There’s a gal a French-Canadian from Montreal whose movie success story is almost too well known to bear repeating.
Fifi’s Happy Hop
C PEAKING of French-Canadian girls who’ve made good ^ in a large way in pictures, there are pretty, blonde Pauline Garon, and that unbelievable newcomer, the vivacious Fifi Dorsay.
Miss Dorsay’s name,, when she lived in Montreal, was Lussrer. She learned to speak English at a business college, and how well she learned you shall shortly see. Also Fifi learned typewriting and shorthand —T 63 words a minute in either languageand she can still do it !
Incidentally, Fifi’s aunt was Blanche De Sablonierre, once billed as Canada’s most beloved dramatic actress. The aunt was on Fifi’s mother’s side. Fifi’s father, a clerk in the Montreal post-office, had enough contempt for show business and moving pictures to fill your other hat, and that’s why Fifi had to sneak up on her theatrical career in the way she did.
Pa, the postman, had strained at the leash, it seems, to put Fifi through business college, and no sooner was she graduated than she landed in New York, full of bright ideas.
On Fifth Avenue she announced herself to exclusive gown shops as Fifi Dorsay from Les Folies Bergère, a civic institution in Gay Paree. Also, explained Fifi, she had modelled for certain internationally famous Parisian style creators. The Montreal girl who could type 163 words a minute talked twice that fast, to find herself in New York modelling what-nots at $100 a week.
Being a good gal at heart, we must note here that Fifi’s first act was to reimburse her father for the costs of her business schooling. Then someone saw her modelling one of the what-nots, and Fifi landed in the chorus of a Broadway musical show.
Dance? Of course she could dance. And then one day, after months of chorus work, Fifi got a break. She was rehearsing for a new show with a song that called for a French accent. They “gave her” the song.
Fifi Dorsay became Neon overnight. She took a flyer in radio, and as a star of the air proved sensational. Then came the call to Hollywood; and with the release of Those Three French Girls another Canadian was established as a star of the talking screen.
LInfortunately, Fifi’s merry mounting of the movie ladder
is not typical. The Dorsay biography is just one happy hop from carbon copies to cabriolets, whereas other Canadians in Hollywood have reached success in moving pictures only after heartbreaking months and years of struggle.
Norma Shearer! That, as you know, is one of the biggest names in the entertainment world. But Miss Shearer’s success, well deserved, was hard won.
Westmount, P.Q., suburb of Montreal, was the Shearer home town. It was at Westmount High School, in school plays, that Norma's exceptional abilities began to assert themselves.
In 1920, accompanied by a sister and a mother who had every faith in a talented and beautiful and fine daughter, Norma Shearer landed in New York to break into the movies.
Six months followed; months of gas-jet cooking and semi-starvation. Not once did this fine dramatic actress get so much as a day’s work as an extra. And not once did that fine spirit of determination crack under the terrific strain.
Then came a day when, with sixty other girls, Miss Shearer reported, hoping for work in a college picture. She was among twelve picked, and three days’ work followed.
Before long her brief work in her first appearance before a camera led to a rôle in a rough and ready Western at $100 a week. Hopes were running high, but the job lasted just one week.
There followed another agonizing period of dismal days and weeks and months, with futile calls at casting-office wickets.
Determination Plus Soda Biscuits
AN occasional day’s work came along, but Nonna Shearer *■ remained an extra on a soda-biscuit diet. Not once was that great dramatic spark recognized.
Heroic determination, however, finally began to count, and Norma Shearer won the feminine lead in The Slealers, Channing of the Northwest, and other forgotten horse operas. Her work in these vehicles resulted in a contract, and Norma Shearer was shipped prepaid to Hollywood.
Her abilities had been recognized by Louis B. Mayer— and Mr. Mayer, now president of the Metro-GoldwynMayer studios and president of the Motion Picture Producers’ Association, also, we note, is a Canadian. Halifax gave Mayer to the picture industry.
In and about Toronto you will encounter people who went to school with Walter Huston. Others remember him
when he studied engineering and dreamed about the stage.
When Huston was eighteen an opportunity came his way to work with a Toronto company then playing stock. Huston’s work was none too brilliant, but the Irish in him possibly caused him to overlook this fact, caused him to look ahead to a day when he should rank with the great of the theatrical world.
Via the Brake-Beam Route
T—TUSTON took the brake-beam route to Broadway; and after unduly discouraging attempts at finding work of any kind on any stage, he landed a three-line part with Richard Mansfield's company.
The star of The Bad Man and The Criminal Code can now afford to be somewhat whimsical in describing that first big-time experience.
“It was brief and humiliating," Mr. Huston explains. “I was letter perfect in the wings. The moment arrived foi my entrance. My heart beat with the pleasurable excitement of this début. Out I came on the stage. And out I went from the stage, for, believe it or not, I had forgotten every single word of those three lines!”
This might have been the end of the Huston career. But there was Scotch as well as Irish blood in this young Canadian, and doggedly he followed acting until 1905, when he showed up once again in Toronto. Meanwhile he had married.
Four years in engineering in Toronto failed to diminish a constant longing for the footlights. The vaudeville team of “Whipple and Huston” was formed, and Walter once again became a trouper.
Walter Huston is unusual in Hollywood. He’s strange in a city of strange things; and the reason he’s strange and the reason he’s the favorite actor of this particular interviewer is that he has never made any attempt to appear artistic or colorful or strange. Huston never went Hollywood. Always he’s looked and acted the business man. Six feet, and 180 pounds of stolidity—these are the characteristics of Walter Huston.
As a business man, he realized that vaudeville for him was not paying dividends.
He invested $5,000 of his savings in an elaborate act. Stage equipment was bought and a cast employed. Huston needed $1,500 a week to make the act pay, and Keith’s best offer was $1,250. A lesser business light than Walter Huston
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Canadians in Hollywood
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could see the possibilities in that. But it happened just at this time that one of the abortive Schubert attempts at vaudeville was being started, and Huston sold his act for twenty weeks at $1,750 a week.
It was about a year later—and Walter Huston admits that the moment was fast approaching when his wallet would be about as useful as a diving suit on the Sahara— that he happened to read a play that a friend was producing. He asked for a part, and proved more than successful in the title rôle of that successful play, Mr. Pitt.
Other Huston stage successes followed: The Fountain, Congo, The Barker, Elmer the Great, The Commodore, and then—Desire Under the Elms.
Hollywood, as is her wont, swept upon the star of so many successful stage productions, and another Canadian became an international idol. You’re certain to have been thrilled by at least one of these: Gentlemen of the Press, Abraham Lincoln, TheBad Man. The Virginian is another of Canadian Walter Huston’s greater vehicles; and, more recently, The Criminal Code.
Fay Wray’s Indigo Days
FAY WRAY is another star who claims Canada as her own. With a family of five brothers and sisters. Fay’s early years were spent far from city lights on a ranch in Northern Alberta.
When Fay was thirteen the family migrated to Salt Lake City, and it was here that the starry-eyed Canadian girl saw her first moving picture. That mysterious and contagious germ, “the movies,” then and there bit the child from a Canadian ranch, and Fay stayed bitten.
However, lier ambitions might never have been realized were it not for fate. Thousands of other girls have become movie-struck without doing anything about it, but it happened that Fay’s oldest brother was sent to Los Angeles on permanent business.
Mother Wray packed up and bundled her little family off to the film centre, because she’d heard nice things about the climate.
Fay’s dramatic aspirations took a tenpoint jump when she was given an important part in the annual dramatics of the Hollywood High School. Having had her smoldering ambitions fanned to flame by her success as an amateur. Fay finally won her mother’s permission to seek work as a movie extra during a summer vacation.
Fay Wray was an extra for just one day on a comedy lot. The second day she was given a bit to play, and on the third a slapstick leading rôle in Gasoline Love.
Weeks of stair-falling, pie-throwing comedies followed, and then came a call from the Hal Roach lot.
For a month Fay worked hard and was happy in hard-riding Westerns, and at the end of the month the Roach Studios gave her a six months contract.
Universal demanded her services at the end of the Hal Roach session, and that night Mrs. Wray heard her daughter breathlessly enthuse over the great dramatic opportunity that had come lier way.
However, the first day at Universal found Fay once more beginning a series of rough and tumble comedies and melodramatic Westerns.
Miss Wray declined to renew her contract; determined to get her chance in dramatic rôles.
As a freelance, she encountered a dismal succession of disappointments. Fay began to receive her share of the indigo days that seem to be a part of near 1 y every screen player’s history.
Rumors travel at lightning speed in
Hollywood. When a director or producer is about to cast a new production, every freelance knows the details by nightfall. Thus Fay Wray heard that Erich Von Stroheim was making tests of many players for the rôle of Mitzi in The Wedding March.
Fay Wray never took a test for the picture. She was admitted to Von Stroheim’s office, after the usual hours of waiting, for a short interview. Von Stroheim
did not ask her to come back for the test as he brought the conversation to a close, but just as Fay was rising from her chair to leave, he said:
“You get the part. You are Mitzi.”
The girl from the Canadian prairies, the girl whose heart ached for dramatic expression, stared at the director. Then she burst into racking, uncontrolled sobs.
Von Stroheim had announced to more than twenty girls that they were to play the part, and then apparently changed his mind. Fay's emotional reaction was what the director had been seeking.
Miss Wray’s fan mail began to pour in before a single foot of The Wedding March was thrown on a public screen, and her work in the picture left no doubt but that here was another screen “find.”
She played opposite Emil Jannings in The Street of Sin, and with Gary Cooper in The Legion of the Condemned.
Other great rôles followed, and in The Four Feathers she won particular laurels.
The most recent release in which Fay Wray, product of the Alberta wheat country, is featured is that astounding creation, Dirigible.
The Girl Who Got Mad
CANADIANS, as others, have sought for themselves a career on stage or screen for many different reasons. Sheer vanity has guided some; an honest desire for artistic expression has guided others. There are dozens of reasons why people have assailed the gates of Hollywood.
However, there is only one case on record where a person is known to have become a talking picture star because she got mad.
And how mad she was!
Dressier is the name; Marie Dressier, most beloved of the screen’s character comediennes.
Here’s how it happened. Marie Dressier, or Leila Ivoerber if you must have the real name, was five years old when her theatrical career started.
Little Marie, at the age of five, found herself atop a pedestal garbed as Cupid. This was in a church theatrical in Cobourg, Ontario.
People laughed, and that’s just what they weren’t supposed to do. Marie, however, being both good-natured and five years old, failed to take offense.
Marie’s next dip into show business was when she was fourteen. This was in an amateur play in Lindsay, Ontario. Marie had no particular desire to go on the stage, but once again the audience hooted and howded at Marie’s attempt. And at fourteen the girl was capable of getting mad. She was so mad that she straightaway joined a roving light opera troupe. Slic’d show those hayseeds who was an actress !
Marie trouped along, continuing to take herself quite seriously. And then Maurice Barrymore, father of John and Lionel and Ethel, got her into a corner and convinced her that she had great comic potentialities.
Marie became a comedienne, and her success from this point on was meteoric. She starred with Weber and Fields, and supplied comedy for shows featuring Fay Templeton and Lillian Russell, and earned for herself $1,600 a week. Here was success, and Marie was still young. Young enough, anyway.
While resting up in Los Angeles after a long and strenuous season, Marie Dressier was approached by Mack Sennitt, another Canadian, and persuaded to do a picture. Tillie’s Punctured Romance is still remembered. Incidentally, supporting Miss Dressier in that early screen epic of comedy were two unheard-of players later to become famous, Mable Normand and Charles Chaplin.
Tillie’s Punctured Romance was a 100 per cent hit, but despite this fact, and despite the fact that Miss Dressler’s friends included many of the world’s most noted personalities, hard luck swooped down “like a wolf on the fold.”
Years rolled on, and the once great actress became just another “character woman” seeking endlessly for work at the casting offices of the film studios.
Talking pictures, the turning point for so many screen players, came; and for Miss Dressier, the most kindly and human soul in Hollywood, there began a swift climb to stardom.
Once again she enjoys the awards of talent and persistent effort. Her present salary is said to be far greater than at the height of her former success on the stage, and she enjoys both the love of her fellow workers, from assistant electricians to production manager, and the acclaim of one of the largest of fan followings.
From Cupid’s pedestal in an amateur theatrical to the pedestal reserved for the greatest of screen comediennes has been a long and arduous journey, with its ups and downs, its moments of discouragement and disappointment.
How many there are who have made the journey without arriving at the destination will never be known. Among them have been many young and hopeful Canadians; a hundred of them for each one who attains even minor success.