WALTER PIDGEON, who made the steep climb from Saint John, N.B., to Hollywood stardom without ever getting out of breath, attributes his success to laziness.
He grew up in Saint John, the third in a family of five boys, all of whom played the piano and sang because they liked to. Then one day his parents took him to a concert. Professional talent was rare in Saint John, and young Walter made a wonderful discovery. A man could get up and sing seven or eight songs and get paid for it.
“It looked,” he says, “like an easy way to earn dough.”
The boy made his decision then. But it was not till 1919, after high school and a year in the 65th Battery, Canadian Field Artillery, that the young man left for Boston to study singing.
Walter Pidgeon insists he’s still lazy, but rarely gets time to work at it.
Today, besides being one of Hollywood’s favorite stars, he’s becoming known as a one-man English-speaking union. A Canadian by birth, education and citizenship. An American by career and residence. And an Englishman through his fame as Mr. Miniver.
Fortunately Walter Pidgeon is a big enough man to be all three. He is six feet, three inches tall. He has big feet, big hands, big shoulders and a big laugh. His waistline is still small, in spite of a big appetite.
His face does not need to be described. To the movie public he is becoming as quickly recognizable as John Bull or Uncle Sam. The fact that he is a great deal handsomer than either is no handicap.
Off the screen he looks like Mr.
Miniver but younger. His eyes are
grey. His hair black. His suits frequently brown.
He has an easy, friendly manner and enough
dignity to prevent this from leading him into
Oddest thing about Walter Pidgeon is that he talks very little about himself. Anyone who persists eventually can get him to admit that he’s in pictures and that he’s played on Broadway and in the West End of London. He assumes no particular credit for any of these. His start came when he was in Boston, studying with the Copley Dramatic
School and selling stocks and bonds to pay the grocer. He was at a party and did what he used to do at teen-age parties back home in Saint John. He played the piano and sang a couple of songs.
The rest of the story is soon told. Fred Astaire, who was at the party, presumed Pidgeon was with a show or at least in vaudeville. When he learned he was selling securities, he sent him to see Producer Charles Dillingham in New York. Three months later, in 1921, Walter Pidgeon went on tour as a baritone soloist with Elsie Janis. Of his first
appearance in Aeolian Hall, New York, he says, “I was scared to death and a little pathetic.” Variety wrote of him, “He looked like an old and dilapidated Abraham Lincoln.”
After a six months concert tour he turned to vaudeville for a time. Then he joined Elsie Janis again and in 1923 was off to London with the revue, “At Home,” which ran for six months in the Shaftesbury Theatre. New York welcomed him back and on his return he had the thrill of seeing his name in lights on Broadway for the first time. In 1925 Walter Pidgeon took his first trip to Hollywood where he made three pictures, including “Mannequin,” with Dolores Costello, but the silent screen was a meagre medium for a man with a rich baritone voice, and he turned again to Broadway.
The next two or three years were not years of stardom for Walter Pidgeon. He wasn’t considered handsomeenough for the drawing-room type of hero that w'as fashionable in the late twenties. Because he was adequate and dependable, he was rarely out of a job.
“I was usually the other man or the villain,” he tells of himself in those days, “and once in a while a good part came along, but not enough to give me delusions of grandeur.”
In 1929 he decided to make another try at Hollywood and signed himself up for four years. This time he made four pictures and in “Viennese Nights” and “Mademoiselle Modiste” moviegoers became conscious of his pleasing baritone.
In spite of an offer to renew his film contract, Walter Pidgeon went back to Broadway again in 1933. This time his plays were almost all well-known successes such as “No More Ladies,” “Night of January 16,” “Something Gay” and “There’s Wisdom in Women.”
Finally in 1936 he cast his lot with pictures and has been in Hollywood ever since. His role as the second male lead to Clark Gable in “Saratoga” was the turning point in his career, but even then he was nowhere near the top. For some time after that his biggest fame was among the youngsters who knew him as Nick Carter, the demon detective, and thought him nearly as exciting as Gene Autry.
“I can honestly say,” Pidgeon states, recalling those days, “that I never had a better time in my life than when I was filming Nick Carters.. They were sheer fun, easy to do and a real kick. I hope to do more of them.”
He also hopes to go back to Broadway some day. “I’m still lazy,” he gives his favorite explanation, “and on Broadway you only work two and a half hours a day.”
It is unlikely that Broadway will see Walter Pidgeon for some time. After “Manhunt,” “Blossoms in the Dust” and “How Green W7as My Valley,” his studio found him too valuable to release. Now that he’s Mr. Miniver as well, his chances of getting away from Hollywood are more remote than ever. This doesn’t make him too desperately unhappy. Walter Pidgeon likes pictures, all kinds of pictures so long as they provide a good role for Walter Pidgeon. His favorite role is light comedy such as he played in “It’s a Date” with Deanna Durbin. His favorite picture is “How Green Was My Valley” because it’s an inspired dramatization of a wonderful book. If he has a favorite leading lady, he’s much too wise to say her name out loud.
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LN THE good old days Walter Pidgeon used to relax between pictures by going fishing. Twelve years ago he came up to Quebec after bass and trout and made such a good catch he’s been trying to get back ever since. This fall he finally made it, but not to fish. He came to Canada to take the platform for Canada’s Victory Loan. He was willing to go anywhere Canada wished to send him. Most of all, he wanted to visit his home town, Saint John, but the prospect gave him the first attack of stage fright he’d had in ages. “I haven’t been back in twenty years,” he explained his hesitation. “My family have gone and my friends wouldn’t remember me. I’d be the small-town boy who’s made good. I’d feel like a show-off.” Saint John didn’t look at it that way. Even though they hadn’t seen him since he went away like any other young man to make his fortune, they’d kept close track of him. Many of his friends hadn’t missed a Pidgeon picture. They regard him as the greatest actor in Hollywood. When Mrs. Miniver was released, the Kiwanis Club recognized his good work with a full page of “Thanks and congratulations for his share in so soul-stirring a drama.” Whatever picture he’s in, they like him because “Walter hasn’t changed a bit,” and they can spot the same little mannerisms on the screen that he had as a boy.
Walter Pidgeon was brought up like thousands of other Canadian j boys in a home with plenty of comfort ' and very little luxury. His father, C. Burpee Pidgeon, kept a general store in Saint John, that sold everything from jujubes to mackinaws. The store was in Indian town above j the Falls and the farmers came up in ; river boats bringing fruit and vegetables, eggs and chickens. They ! went back taking bolts of calico, new parts for the plow, and supplies of tea and sugar. On Saturday mornI ings young Walter helped his father in the store, earning his weekly pocket money. On Saturday afternoon he went bicycling or canoeing or took his best girl to the old Queen’s rink. On Saturday evenings Mrs. Pidgeon kept open house for her sons’ friends. They lived in a part of the town called Brown’s Flats, now known as Grandview, and any number of boys and girls were welcome to sit down to the lavish supper of home-baked beans, brown bread and thick, juicy apple pie. After supper, everyone gathered round the piano and Walter, with his full baritone voice, led the singing. He sang every chance he got. At home. In the choir
of the Main Street Baptist Church. And everywhere he went it was with a roll of music under his arm.
His school mates at the Alexandra and the Saint John High remember Walter as a tall, gangling boy with large feet and an awkward, adolescent charm. They recall his terrific appetite and say he never missed a clam bake. They agree that he was lazy when it was a matter of school or games or anything he didn’t care for. They say when he married pretty Edna Pickles of Annapolis Royal, N.S., he broke the hearts of all the girls in Saint John.
Although he now prefers crepes suzette to apple pie, Walter Pidgeon’s private life hasn’t caused Saint John a shudder. Hollywood scandal sheets regard him as a total loss. He’s never I been divorced. Never been sued for anything horrible.
His first marriage was in Boston in 1919. After two happy years his wife died in childbirth and he took her back to Annapolis Royal to be buried. His infant daughter he had christened Edna, after her mother. ¡ For the next sixteen years, whenever : he could, he had his mother and ; daughter with him. When the daughI ter grew up and went off to New York to art school, he married again. The second Mrs. Pidgeon, a girl from the Middle West named Ruth Walker, is known to the public only as Mrs. Walter Pidgeon. She’s never been in pictures. Outside their circle of friends, people know very little about her. She’s exactly a foot shorter than he is, is red-headed, pretty and “a swell girl.” When there was more time, she used to ride and play tennis with him. Now he’s either making pictures or away on war work. She wears a uniform and does war work too.
Other members of the actor’s family with him in Hollywood are his youngest brother and his mother who is eighty-three, white-haired and as spry as when she was sixty. Another brother, Capt. Ira Pidgeon, is a doctor in the United States Army. The two eldest, Col. Don and Major Dave, still live in Canada, one in Simcoe, the other in Toronto.
Dogs But No Peacocks
IN HOLLYWOOD Mr. and Mrs.
Pidgeon live simply and pleasantly. They have a two-story house which he describes as “just a house.” It has no swimming pool and no peacocks on the lawn. It has two kennels, one that houses a Scotty, another the former home of Gigolo, the French poodle that’s been drafted into the Army. It has no stables and when Walter Pidgeon wants to ride he goes out like anyone else and hires a horse.
His favorite sports are riding which he learned in the Army at Kingston, Ont., and still enjoys—and tennis which he plays with his friend, actor Paul Lukas, when he can get him away from Broadway. He claims distinction at neither sport. He sticks on a horse too well to make the news, except on one occasion when his tremendous height brought his head into contact with the branch of an oak tree. Of his tennis he says,
I “I’m pretty fair. By standing in the centre of the court I can reach far
enough in all directions to contact the ball.”
When someone in Hollywood is looking for Walter Pidgeon, they don’t go to the night spots or the big Hollywood parties. He has his own small group of friends, mostly mijitary men and financiers. He still keeps his interest in finance, dating back to his years in Boston. He has never lost his enthusiasm for food, and parties at the Pidgeons frequently take the form of outdoor barbecues with Walter in a white apron and asbestos mitts, doing the cooking. The specialité de la maison is steak broiled over an outdoor fire and basted with a barbecue sauce seasoned by inspiration. His other favorite recipe is for chicken done in boiling oil with onions and mushrooms. “You serve it with spaghetti,” he says, “and go to bed with indigestion.”
Almost any travelling Walter Pidgeon does these days is in the interests of winning the war. On finishing “White Cargo” with Hedy Lamarr, he went on a two and a half weeks tour through California, Oregon, Washington and Montana. It vas a tour of one-night stands for the Defense Bond drive and, though Walter Pidgeon doesn’t mention it, his manager says, “It was one of the toughest things we ever did.” Shipyards were the chief ports of call and, in an audience of 10,000 men, Walter Pidgeon got 10,000 raised hands—100 per cent in pledges to buy defense bonds. His manager is pretty proud of that. Women can’t help falling for him, but when men go for him that’s really something. “Walter gets them,” he says.
As a Canadian citizen and a celebrity, Walter Pidgeon was called upon to help Canada in the same way. He has always refused to attach any significance to the retaining of his Canadian citizenship. “There’s too much talk about the difference between Canada and the States,” he thinks. “The differences are too slight to be worth mentioning.” Oddly enough the fact of his Canadian citizenship almost barred him from returning to his own country. It is a law in the United States that people other than Americans may not leave the country till their income tax for the current year is paid. Walter Pidgeon was permitted to come home only after the head of the R.C.M.P. had given his word to Edgar J. Hoover, as one policeman to another, that the actor would be delivered back in time to file his 1942 returns.
Dislikes Women’s Clubs, Microphones
ALTHOUGH he regards stories - about Hollywood as talking shop, Walter Pidgeon has plenty of amusing anecdotes about his speechmaking adventures. On one occasion j he addressed a luncheon meeting of Women’s Club presidents. “I hate women’s clubs,” the actor glowered. “I don’t like anything about them.” Six hundred women gasped and he continued: “The reason I don’t like them is that I am very fond of women and I resent any time they get ¡ together and bar the men.”
His dislike of microphones provided a rare moment at an official dinner in Washington. Walter Pidgeon was to follow General Marshall and Admiral Stark, both excellent speakers. Wishing to be free of the microphone, he lowered it and passed it to one side, after which he began, “I am caught between the | Army and the Navy. How can I hope to survive?” Paul V. McNutt, who was sitting beside him whispered, i “Sit down, you damn fool, you’ll never top that.” Mr. McNutt hadn’t j realized he was speaking into the j lowered microphone and his whisper boomed through the whole room.
Besides being unable to pronounce names, Walter Pidgeon can’t remember them. He gets over this by calling all men Joe. With women he has a subtler scheme. He gives them an intent look and exclaims with a happy flash of recognition, “Well, ! the woman with the dark eyes,” or I “The girl with the smile.” He doesn’t include any flattering adjectives but manages to make it sound as though he did. j
To Walter Pidgeon, the girls who : surround him demanding his autograph are a gauge of his popularity as a movie star. “When they don’t do that,” he is dismayed at the thought, “I shall be lost.” The only time he managed to travel incognito was when he went to New York wearing a mustache left over from a picture. “I won’t do it again,” he says, “I don’t like not being recognized.”
At the moment Walter Pidgeon hasn’t much time for admiring women. From now on the only autographs he gives will be on defense stamps or bonds. Between pictures he will spend his time at camps entertaining the boys in the armed forces. He has signed up with America’s Victory Committee to go overseas if they want him. England may yet meet Mr. Miniver in person.