Garson THE GREAT
GREER GARSON has contributed a heretofore highly underrated quality to cinematic culture —innate good taste. In so doing she has endeared herself to millions as a movie star of whom there is no carbon copy. In Canada in 1943 she ranked as the Number One box-office attraction, according to a poll made by a motion picture magazine.
She has ability, beauty and brains to a superlative degree. So have many other women in Hollywood; but Greer Garson has never been one to underestimate an audience’s intelligence. She has never compromised moral scruples by flagrantly playing the shady lady or the demimonde. Nor has she tried to be one of those glamour queens built according to the Hollywood scale of an ample sweater, a luscious pair of legs, a bathing suit and plenty of cameramen around to photograph these feminine lures.
Rather she has portrayed womanhood honestly and with simplicity and dignity. As Mrs. Chips, Mrs. Miniver and.Madame Curie she employed none of the exaggerated overtones or coyness usually associated with the movie formula. The natural characters she portrays are neither spectacular nor amazing. But of the six pictures she has made in Hollywood, .five qf them have brought her nominations for the Academy Award—and Mrs. Miniver brought her the statuette which symbolizes the highest honor Hollywood can bestow upon an actor or an actress. All of which has stamped her with such weighty titles as “First Lady of Hollywood.” Greer, however, refers to herself whimsically as “MGM’s Glorified Mrs.”
Many actresses play themselves straight. Greer’s acting, apparently so natural, is, however, a creation of subtle technique. Off stage she is completely
different from the mature “Mrs. M.” But audiences seem to like her as she is on the screen, so it is doubtful if Greer will ever be given the opportunity to be herself in a gay and forthright modern story.
Servicemen who see her at the Hollywood Canteen are wide-eyed. “Can that gorgeous redhead be Mrs. Miniver? It’s unbelievable! Why, she’s young!”
In any discussion of her unsuspected personal glamour she is likely to say with a chuckle, “People must think I was actually born with a bustle!”
A great number of famous painters and sculptors have wanted to make portraits of her. Her hair, variously described as Florentine red or sunset gold, is loose and abundant and long with a slight natural curl. She shampoos it herself but since the war has given up champagne rinses. Instead, she gives it extra brushing. Her eyes are sea-colored. Her ftosë is piquant, and her skin has a translucent quality that comes with red hair. Her waist is one of the smallest in-Hollywood; her measurements, a tailor’s dream of
symmetry. Her gowns and hats are smart, bright in color and provocative, but in such good taste that they never invite caustic remarks or gibes. She’s five feet seven inches tall, weighs 126 pounds and likes to go bareheaded.
Greer raises her fine eyebrows at gossip column infringements on friendships. This further enhances the impression that she is staid and matronly in her off-screen life. About the theatre, pictures, books, hobbies, travels, she will talk to any length. Otherwise she is as communicative as the sphinx. She does not conform to the pattern of the typical Hollywood interview about a movie darling’s pet recipes and passions any more than she does to the stock glamour pattern.
GREER is almost international. Born in Ireland she spent most of her life in and around London. Her school holidays were spent with relatives in Scotland and she is a graduate of two universities—London, England, and Grenoble, France. She has travelled much in Europe with her mother, now lives in Hollywood and has twice visited Canada.
Greer’s red hair should have come as no great surprise in view of her ancestry. George Garson, her father, was born in the Orkney Isles, historical stamping ground for such marauding Norsemen as Eric the Red. The wild wind-swept islands, where the storms continually blow in from the North Sea, gave heritage to Greer’s fascination and love of the water.
It was at the innocent age of four that Greer took the fatal step of becoming an actress. Reciting a poem in the village town hall she was so elated and exhilarated by the applause that, uninvited, she repeated her recitation. She had to be asked to take her final bow. When she was 16 she found herself tutoring Cambridge students for their entrance exams and the chance she would become a “schoolmarm” was well-marked on the road ahead. The thought left her cold. She sides stepped the issue by securing an advertising job in London. This was merely a means to an end for it gave her a chance to investigate the theatre! The producer of a Birmingham repertory theatre offered her a start at three pounds a week. The astute Miss Garso'n asked for four and received it. It was this businesslike quality that brought Greer to Hollywood at double the salary first offered by Metro.
Greer’s redheaded beauty was to be disguised from the beginning. In her first repertory season she was assigned the role of a middle-aged Jewess in “Street Scene.” Wearing a black wig and speaking perfect dialect, her big scenes had the drama critics filling their columns with laudatory remarks.
It would be a distortion of fact, however, to report that all Greer’s early plays were triumphs. Seven out of 10 were flops—but she always triumphed individually. Offers for pictures came her way but her main objection was that she did not like to be photographed. Even today she flinches when candid cameras snap at her.
While appearing in “Mademoiselle,” directed by Noel Coward, she was invited to lunch with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Tay Garnett, a Hollywood
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Meet Hollywood's "Glorified Mrs." —she has beauty, brains, good taste; Canadians rate her Hollywood's No. 1 box-office attraction
Garson the Great
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director. They tried to persuade her to sign a contract for a picture in Hollywood. The inimitable Coward interrupted the conference by telephone. “What do you mean by trying to steal my star?” he said. “Only over my dead body can you inveigle her away.” Today Garnett is directing Greer in “Mrs. Parkington.”
Louis B. Mayer, together with several MGM executives, saw Greer in a London performance. Two weeks of negotiations were necessary before she consented to sign on the dotted line for Hollywood. And it was only after Mayer’s suggestion that “California sunshine will add 10 years to your mother’s life” that Greer considered leaving London.
Success was elusive that first year in Hollywood. She dieted to attain exaggerated Hollywood slimness—a folly that led to neuritis and anaemia and much traffic for many dreary months with doctors. Exhaustive camera studies proved that here was a unique personality that could not be poured into a mold. Makeup and heavy glamour were not for Greer. What to do with such a property?
Greer says it was then that she liked people individually and hated Hollywood collectively. She passionately protested the casting system, although she was grateful that she was not forced into unsuitable roles. The last week of her contract—this is as fantastic as the usual press agent story—she was preparing to return to London when she received word that she was to play “Mrs. Chips.”
The London press was good-naturedly amused. They wrote about “our Greer, who travelled 12,000 miles to Hollywood and back here again to play her first film part.”
After the picture was finished she was obliged to return to Hollywood to attend its première. She felt her role was too small and too quiet to enhance her debut as a movie actress.
At the opening night of “Mrs. Chips,” at Carthy Circle, the movie great and near great walked down the flower-flanked celebrity aisle while the fans clustered the bleachers on all sides and cheered the favorites. Miss Garson and her mother stepped from their car and walked up to and past the microphone without any comment or fanfare. In fact the announcer failed to recognize the future “Mrs. Chips.” She slipped by unnoticed.
However, this was not the intent of Miss Garson’s studio and once inside the theatre she was ferreted out a back door and whisked around to the front where she again made an arrival and an entrance up the flower-decked aisle.
1 his time she was introduced over the loudspeaker system. Her sense of
humor enabled her to cope with this unnerving adventure, but after the showing she was given an ovation in her own right.
The meeting of Richard Ney and Greer Garson occurred at the studio. She was to play “Mrs. Miniver,” and the man who was to become her husband had been cast as her son. He discovered the renowned “Mrs. Chips” was, in actuality, a devastating young woman of wit and charm who loved to go dancing. Ney, impetuous and only slightly her junior, had the audacity to ask her for a date. She accepted. He promptly called her “Red” and they were off to a fine sf art.
On completion of the film, which also rounded out as interesting a romance as Hollywood has ever witnessed, Ney was called to report for active service. He proposed. She hesitated. Greer had doubts about marrying in wartime. Both had been married briefly before and they agreed to wait until after the war. After basic training and graduation, Ney was sent to the Aleutians and Greer, like thousands of other girls, became a war-fiancée.
Unlike her real life husband-to-be, Greer met her movie husband, Walter Pidgeon, off the set. He was once her next door neighbor. Their back yard fences met, and there they also met. “We must try and make a picture together sometime,” said Pidgeon. When she played “Blossoms In the Dust” Greer asked for Pidgeon—a definite turning point in both of their careers.
Canada Thrilled Her
It was while “Blossoms In the Dust” was making theatre history and “Mrs. Miniver” was due for release that Greer made her first personal appearance tour. It was a memorable event for it was her first trip away from Hollywood since attaining stardom. She was sent to Canada to participate in the Second Victory Loan drive.
In Montreal she spoke to French i Canadians in their own tongue, and so thrilled was she with the hospitality and spirit of the people of Canada that she volunteered to make another visit whenever she could be of use. After a government radio broadcast in front of an Ottawa theatre, she met her screen fans face to face for the first time in her life. Her visit to Parliament in Ottawa, where she met Prime Minister Mackenzie King, was a highlight in her life. So was the reception given for her at Government House by the Governor-General and Princess Alice. Greer says it was a pleasant occasion, “enlivened considerably by the electricity in the air which caused minor shocks and blue sparks to occur whenever anyone shook hands.”
Her second Canadian tour was a flying visit to the Fourth Canadian Victory Loan campaign. Her last day was to be spent in Ottawa renewing acquaintances but instead she visited a
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military hospital near Montreal where she greeted every patient.
It was a dramatic moment when one wounded hero, a veteran of Dieppe, was introduced. “I’m so happy to meet you,” said Greer. “My cousin, Surgeon Lieutenant Greer Murray, was on the last British destroyer to leave the French coast after that raid.”
“So was I,” cried the boy.
“You mean you were on the B-?”
“Sure was. It must have been your cousin who took care of me.”
Greer was so overcome she put her arms around the soldier and kissed him —much to the delight of his comrades.
Back in the States, with “Random Harvest” proving an even greater success than “Mrs. Miniver,” Greer made two American bond tours and for the first time met the American people face to face. En route back to Hollywood she stopped off in New York where Ney was studying for his ensign’s commission. Their farewell was tearful and when he was commissioned in November he rushed to Hollywood. They took out a license to marry and w'ould have on a Monday except that on Sunday the prospective groom was ordered to report for immediate ship duty. It was another here-again-goneagain date.
Eight months later Ney returned to Hollywood. They decided it might be a long war. Why wait? Two days before his departure, on July 24, accompanied by Greer’s mother, Nina, they slipped away to Santa Monica where they took their marriage vows. Greer’s wedding gown was orchid and her long gloves white. She wore a seagreen snood and white daisies in her hair.
At the church she gasped. What about a ring? They had forgotten a ring. To her surprise Ney produced a wedding band set with diamonds. He had purchased it the year before—just in case. Married on a Saturday, Ney caught a plane north to rejoin his ship on Monday. For the short time in between, the Richard Neys spent their honeymoon quietly at Greer’s Englishtype country home in Bel Air— a beautiful residential section of Los Angeles.
During the filming of a picture Greer starts her day at 5.45 in the morning. She drives herself to the studio and by nine o’clock she is in makeup and costume ready for work. She never diverts her attention from her role during production. Interviews are taboo. She studies thoroughly— knows the person she is portraying, as she did Madame Curie. Of the latter, critics said, “Garson made you forget Garson; she was so completely Curie.”
Between pictures her routine varies. A confirmed reader, her night bookstand holds classics, biographies, poetry scripts and occasionally best sellers. She reads far into the night—often until she hears the first twittering of the birds. Rising late she takes her hot tea, fruit, letters, telephone messages and newspapers in bed. Seldom does she miss a swim with her mother in their pool. Cycling is also a daily event, weather permitting.
Precise and neat, her gloves, her magnificent costume jewellery and her handkerchiefs are laid in immaculate order in her drawers and chests. Her nightgowns of white or pink mousseline de soie are designed with long sleeves. Before the war she ordered them from a famous Parisian designer. She does not believe in night creams and curlers and in no crisis, come burglars, fire or high water, will Miss Garson be caught surprised other than the beautiful Greer.
Maclean's Magazine, April 15, 1944
Charlotte Harding, a charming lady from Boston, Mass., assists her sometimes in answering her fan mail—mail which comes from servicemen as well as the many middle-aged men who fancy “Mrs. Miniver.” Pinup picture requests are sent to the boys in uniform and these requests equal and exceed many a glamour girl’s record.
Tops in the 1943 Canadian box-office poll, she was sixth in the U. S. poll, where she was exceeded only by one other woman—Betty Grable. The latter standing is debatable, however, for in Hollywood the poll is based on box-office receipts and it should be remembered that last year Greer Garson made only one picture to Betty Grable’s three.
Although she enjoys California ways of living, one English habit still persists. Tea at four in the afternoon is a ritual. Then whether she is on the set at the studio or at home she pours. For visitors, crumpets, Banbury tarts, little toasted marmalade rolls and muffins and sliced cucumber or cress sandwiches are in order. When alone she eats nothing, but absent-mindedly drinks five or six cups of tea.
Fond of children, her hope someday is to have a baby of her own. She will gladly take time away from the screen to welcome the stork. But innately she is an actress and once the baby was safely established in her home she would return to her career.
She likes animals, has two French poodles and a Siamese cat. Mei-Mei, the cat, recently gave birth to four kittens, and when Greer wrapped each in a pink-and-white blanket and gave them to departing guests it set off speculative rumors in the neighborhood —rumors that the Neys had had a blessed event or a stork shower.
Once during a summer vacation at Pebble Beach, Greer observed a man throwing a small object into the water. The tide washed it back and in turn he repeatedly threw it back into the waves. Later she discovered the object was a half-drowned little kitten, which was struggling heroically for its life. She rescued it, dried it off and took it home, but a week later, not realizing it had been adopted into one of Hollywood’s foremost homes, it ran away.
Mother, Daughter Inseparable
To Nina Garson she has been more than a daughter. She has been a son as well. Greer’s father died when she was still an infant but her mother’s modest income was adequate until Greer began contributing her earnings. Inseparable, these two women, mother and daughter, have shared Greer Garson’s triumphs and her disappointments, and the homage that has come with her achievements in Hollywood.
One of her ambitions is to play the redheaded Sarah Bernhardt on the screen and she would like to take part in pictures of a religious or spiritual character. She believes the public is ready for such subjects as consolation for their present troubles. She would also like to play Shakespeare.
Her current, “Mrs. Parkington,” lives through four generations—from the age of 19 to 84—in that lusty era of Empire builders when vast fortunes were made and thrown away. Locales of the film are Nevada, New York, London and Paris, and Greer delights in the 39 costumes which she wears— clothes enough to gladden the heart of any woman. Decidedly, however, “Mrs. Parkington” will be bustled.
Notwithstanding the bustles with which Hollywood has saddled its “Glorified Mrs,” she’s young and she’s gay—this redheaded Garson girl who responds to the name of Mrs. Richard Ney.