Thank You, Canada
Montreal to Victoria with the star of "Celebrity Parade" — a trail of broken noses behind her
THEY HAD told me that Canadians were cold and undemonstrative; they had told me that Canadians were self-conscious and shy; they had told me a lot of things about Canadians which I didn’t believe, but thankfully, I was able to discount them for myself.
Back here in the comparative quiet of Hollywood, a million and one fleeting impressions are beginning to sort themselves out in my mind, and every one of them seems to be a contradiction of what I had been led to believe before I set out to see Canada in the space of three or four weeks.
It seems to me, however, that one of these statements is correct. Canadians are self-conscious, there’s no question about that. But it’s a pleasant self-consciousness, quite unlike the usual meaning read into the term, and I have been thinking that it would be a much better world if other nations shared this quality ... if they stopped to consider what the rest of the world thinks about them.
Canadians are obviously interested in creating a good impression, and wherever we went, I, as an Englishwoman, was asked somewhere near the beginning of every conversation, “Well, now, what do you think of us? What do you think of our country?”
What could I say? How can anyone sum up in a few words what one thinks of any country so large, so overflowing with the vitality of youth, so anxious to take the “foreigner” to its heart?
The press and the public called us “Celebrity Parade,” a travelling musical show raising funds for the Air Cadet League of Canada.
We had a much more intimate name for ourselves — borrowed without apology from J. B. Priestley—“The Good Companions.”
There were twenty-five of us all told — English, Americans and Canadians—who set out on this tour, and good companions we were.
There was Lady Helena Hardwicke, whom we all call “Pixie,” there was Dennis King, a British subject, though long a resident of the United States. There was Colin Keith-Johnston . . . David Tihmar, of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo who danced with me in several pictures . . . Richard Gaines, of the New York stage . .
Alfreda Wallace, Joy Harington,
George Patton, Earle Grey, Juan Root, Howard Scott, Colin Corbett, Flying Officer Robert Coote,
and the clever young dancers, Lee and Sandra.
An imposing cast such as this would have cost thousands of dollars for salaries alone but everyone worked “for free,” and not even the top-ranking stars balked at playing bit parts.
For three weeks we travelled in trains, automobiles and boats, doing shows in nine cities, often under difficult conditions. It was a hectic three weeks. Sometimes we were desperately tired, some of us were physically ill on occasion, but the driving spirit of the good companions never let us down . . . Nor did the incredible warmness of the
Canadian people at each and every stop along the route.
“Celebrity Parade” was the brain child of Air Marshal W. A. Bishop, V.C., and of my director and producer,
Herbert Wilcox. In the last war they had flown in the same squadron in the Royal Flying Corps and, while they had kept in touch with each other during the intervening years, it was not until July, 1940, that they met again.
That was in Vancouver.
Mr. Wilcox had come up with me from Hollywood to British Columbia for personal appearances in ten Vancouver theatres in a war savings drive. After the show, he and “Billy” Bishop got together in the hotel, discussed the Air Marshal’s newly-formed Air
Cadet League, and tried to think of ways and means to raise money.
Mr. Bishop suggested that I make a series of personal appearances. Neither Mr. Wilcox nor I liked the idea at all. “No,” said Herbert. “There is too much of this business of movie personalities going about the country, stepping out on a stage, saying how-do-you-do, and disappearing. The public is always disappointed in this sort of thing. Now, if we can devise some sort of show a real show ...”
Nothing happened until August, 1941, when Herbert and 1 flew to Billy Bishop’s summer home in Muskoka, Ontario. Here the plan for a show
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was developed and whipped into shape. It was arranged that as soon as we had made another picture in England, we would return to put all our efforts into promoting the Air Cadet League of Canada. Two weeks laser we left by Clipper for Lisbon.
In April of this year, we completed “They Flew Alone,” in which I have the honor of re-enacting the life of Amy Johnson Mollison. Back in Canada, we flew to Montreal, then to Oîtawa, to New York, to Hollywood —lining up stars for the show, ironing out the thousand and one obstacles which seemed to be forever cropping up in our way. Finally we were all sec, or so we thought, and we pulled into Toronto early in June to start building the show.
First Night Pangs
AFTER a painfully short week of ■ rehearsal, our production opened in Toronto. Never as long as I live will I forget that first night. Everything that could possibly go wrong did so. If the audience noticed it they kindly disguised the fact and were very enthusiastic.
But we weren’t satisfied. As soon as we boarded the train for Ottawa, where our second show was scheduled to take place, we called a conference, dragged out our scripts and set to work on tightening the show. Perhaps we were a bit frightened of the nation’s capital, but if we were, we needn’t have been for Ottawa was friendly and warm. So was Montreal. Then came the western part of our trip, new territory to me, and I was looking forward to seeing it.
First there was Winnipeg. The morning was dull and cool. But once we had arrived, we forgot the dullness, the coolness, the long train ride, It seemed that half of Winnipeg was out to meet uscomplete with a brass band. And there were the Air Cadets, standing stiff and straight, acting as our guard of honor.
Wherever we went, the.se lads never failed to greet us. Fine, upstanding young boys who realize their responsibilities in the world, who know that some day they may be called upon to step into the shoes of their older brothers who are going overseas by the thousands to engage in this terrible battle for freedom. These are war times, and youth is shouldering a lot of responsibility and youthful Canada is shouldering it along with the very best.
The reporters wanted to know, at almost every western stop, if I had expected to see Indians and FIskimos in Canada. And I do think that they were disappointed when I, righteously indignant, dispelled that notion. Perhaps they did not know that before I became an actress I was plain Marjorie Robertson, a sailor’s daughter. And sailors’ daughters seem to know a lot about the world without ever budging out of their own homes.
Since Regina did not have a theatre with a stage large enough to house a production the size of “Celebrity Parade,” we were forced to go into Queen City Gardens, the local skat-
ing rink and horse-show palace. We worked under terrific difficulties there, but I am sure the whole cast would agree with me that the show we did was by far the most interesting.
An improvised stage was built for us at one end of the arena, behind which we dressed in the cattle pens. There were no “flies” on the stage, and this, if you know your theatre, meant that all our scenery, which normally would be raised and lowered as we needed it, had to be carried on and off by hand. It was a joy to play for the audience of 5,000 who turned out—especially when we learned that Regina hadn’t had a legitimate show since Ethel Barrymore toured through there with “Whiteoaks” some five years ago.
REGINA will always remind me, too, of Malvina. Malvina was a little girl about twelve years old. She had decided before our arrival that she was going to be my chief booster during our Saskatchewan stay, and was down at the train bright and early to welcome us. We had arrived very early in the morning and the compartment car in which we were travelling was shunted off to a siding where we waited until the official reception at nine a.m.
Malvina, however, soon found us, climbed aboard and was beginning to ferret out the bedrooms of the stars when she met our company manager. He tried to persuade her that the company was still abed and, as far as he knew, fast asleep. But Malvina would have no such nambypamby excuses. It was broad daylight, she argued, and the stars should be up and about their business. Besides which, she had to go to school, had to write an examination that day, and she needed a few autographs to see her through such an ordeal.
One thing led to another and 1 do believe there were a few heated words between Malvina and the manager, who was finally able to persuade her to leave her autograph hunting until later in the day. So the youngster disappeared off over the tracks, calling back a few opinions of what she thought of movie personalities who were still in their beds at 7.30 in the morning.
The examination over, Malvina dropped around to the hotel at noon, climbed up five flights of stairs the back way (the hotel management was detouring all aspiring autograph hunters from the front elevator) and knocked on my door. We had quite a little chat right there and Malvina forgave me for staying so long in my berth, and promised that she’d come to see the show. That night she appeared at my dressing room, gave me a frank estimate (which, I am happy to say, was flattering) of my performance and then, having obtained the autographs of every last member of the cast, the stage crew and the administrative staff, disappeared into the night and out of our lives, promising to write each and every one of us a voluminous letter.
All of which seems to lead me into a discussion of movie fans. You know, there are a great many types of fans. One of these is the “possessive” kind . . . the boys and girls (and sometimes men and women) who make it almost a profession to take a movie personality under their wings. They mean to be kind and attentive, I suppose, but sometimes the endless attention they shower on one can become a bit wearing, particularly when one is in a hurry to get somewhere and can’t move for these “ardent admirers.”
In Canada we found little of this. There were crowds, of course, who wanted to see what a movie star looked like in real life, but they were well-mannered crowds. They didn’t look at us as though we were something recently released from a zoo, and when they wanted autographs, they asked for them politely.
In the final sequence of our “Celebrity Parade,” I appeared as Queen Victoria in Monckton Hoffe’s brilliant playlet, “The Lady Who Wishes to be Known as Madam.” After the final curtain there was nothing I would have liked better than to go to my dressing room and get that hot, heavy make-up off. But there were always dozens of boys and girls and men and women who wanted autographs. So every night my dressing room was open to all comers. There I sat in my Victoria make-up, removing an eyebrow, a nose or a wig between signatures.
This upset our public relations man no end. “Miss Neagle,” he told me, “you are disillusioning a lot of people. Here you are, a nice pretty girl, greeting your fans in the guise of an eighty-year-old woman. It isn’t right that they should see your make-up at close range. It isn’t right at all.”
So far as I know, no one was disillusioned; Canadian movie-goers are too wise to be disillusioned by makeup. They can differentiate between real life and the make-believe world sufficiently not to let a little thing like a beak nose worry them.
THAT NOSE, incidentally, caused us a great deal of concern and was the subject of much gentle spoofing in the papers all across the country. My original make-up in the two Victoria pictures Mr. Wilcox made in England was created by Guy Pearce, a Canadian who at one stage of his career had been an It.C.M.P. constable in Regina. That make-up took four hours to put on before I could go before the camera, but for this tour a simpler job was obviously in order. Mr. Pearce made me two Victoria noses and expressed them to me in Toronto. I thought they would be sufficient to last the entire trip, but I wasn’t counting on hot weather.
Before the third show, both noses had begun to disintegrate, so we wired frantically to Hollywood for a couple of new ones. By the time we reached Winnipeg, the new ones hadn’t arrived and I was using a makeshift job. We wired Hollywood again. At Regina, no nose. At Edmonton, no nose. But we learned that they were being held up in Seattle where the poor customs men
apparently didn’t know what was happening. We wired and wired.
At Calgary, six Queen Victoria noses arrived and we all breathed more easily. But I do think our publicity man was disappointed. Up to that point the Queen’s proboscis had been making headlines.
By the time we had reached the west coast, most of us had come to the conclusion that Canada had been grossly misrepresented. Nowhere had we met with the coldness or indifference on the part of the natives. Everywhere we went there was enthusiasm, friendliness and good will.
After so many weeks in the presence of friendly Canadians I had perhaps begun to forget what my own countrymen were like. Then, in Victoria, we were invited to visit the R.A.F. station at Patricia Bay. It was a bit of a shock, I might add, suddenly to discover the bashfulness and British diffidence of these shy lads from England when we were introduced to them. To talk to them was like pulling teeth. It wasn’t that they were unfriendly anything but that. It was simply that I had forgotten how reserved we English really are. Then came the crowning blow. Two sturdy, handsome young fliers came to me and said they must apologize to me.
“Apologize?” I asked in surprise.
“Yes,” they said. “When you were coming over on the boat yesterday from Vancouver, we flew over the ship in bombers, dived and rolled about in an attempt to welcome you. When you didn’t appear on deck, we thought that you were probably asleep and that you would be angry at the roar of our motors.”
Would I sound too much like the typical Hollywood actress if I said that tears came to my eyes? Angry? How could I explain to these boys that I had been dressing in my cabin, dashing about wildly in an attempt to get up on deck to wave to them, and that when I finally got there, they had gone. They promised that when we returned to the mainland on the boat next day, they would repeat the performance. And you can bet that when they did I stood on that deck and waved like mad.
It’s all over now. The curtain has fallen; the lights are out; our band of “Good Companions” have gone their separate ways. “Celebrity Parade,” which a year ago was little more than a dream, has lived its whirlwind existence and has passed out of the theatrical scene. It wasn’t an easy job. We had our headaches and our heartaches, but it was compensation enough to know that our trip across Canada had raised $185,000 for the purpose of subsidizing these young Air Cadets who some day may have to do our fighting for us, though we all hope and pray that day will never come.
Thank you, Canada. You are an amazing nation strong, a vigorous land whose importance in the British Commonwealth of Nations and the entire civilized world is greater than you may think. Keep your friendliness, your self-consciousness and your desire to please. As long as you have that, that wonderful national pride, nothing can deter you from your purpose.—The End.