Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Tuesdays with the Screen Guild Magazine

Why I Prefer The Stage To Pictures…Or Maybe I Don’t!

By Mary Astor
[Reprinted from The Screen Player, May 1934]

It has always been my opinion that one should stay in one’s own department, and while mine may not be acting, it certainly isn’t writing, so I’m going to pass the buck to Ye Ed and say that it was his idea, not mine!
Feg Murray, in the Examiner the other day, said that, although I had appeared in about eighty pictures in my fourteen years in business, and in only one stage play, I preferred working behind the footlights to working in pictures. Now, that seems to call for an explanation and maybe an apology, doesn’t it?

Well, it all dates back to the time I was about seven years old. (Don’t get scared, this isn’t going to be an autobiography.) I lived on a farm and went to a two-room country school; and if you know anything about country schools, you know that about twice annually they bust out with what is called an entertainment. All the mamas and papas come to watch their offspring do their stuff, which usually consists of a one-act play, a flag drill and an unending series of recitations---I always got in on the recitations. The usual technique was to stand up, staring straight ahead, arms woodenly at the sides, and get through it as fast as possible.

In one occasion I selected Riley’s “Brook Song” and unfortunately read it with some “expression” and a few little simple gestures. The audience tittered all through it, but I was quite oblivious, and when I came down off the stage to receive the customary congratulations, some of the kids were still laughing and whispering behind their hands. I asked the what was funny, thinking my sash was untied, or something, and one of them said, “It’s just that you make those funny motions.”

Of course, my family thought I was a potential Duse, and so, whether I liked it or not, by the time I was fourteen I found myself making “funny motions” in front of a camera. And, what’s more, I’ve been doing it ever since.

I’ve never had a great deal of ambition and never thought much of myself as an actress. I relied for years on a sort of stain-glass type of prettiness, and if I’m any good at all now, it’s simply because of the fact that you can’t work at acting for fourteen years and not absorb at least a few of the rudiments.

Along about 1929 came the talkie ogre and he swallowed me along with a lot of others. I took a test and was so frightened I couldn’t do a thing. As a result of that, I couldn’t get a job for ten months. I got so I was writing to casting directors, saying I was at liberty, and couldn’t they do something about it. I figured I was a pretty big shot and they ought to jump at the chance. They didn’t figure it that way.

At that time I was going around with a group of people that included Florence and Freddie March. Florence was very sympathetic and told me about a play she and Edward Everett Horton were going to do shortly, and there was a swell part in it, and maybe she could talk Eddie into giving me a try-out. She could and did. The show was Among the Married. It played at the old Majestic here is Los Angeles, and I’ve never been quite the same since. In the first place, I wasn’t able to see myself and see whether I was any good or not, so the result was that I thought I was pretty good. My own rushes have always given me a slight twinge of nausea.

The opening night, I went against all the rules, out of sheer ignorance. I had a huge dinner, got to the theatre early, made up, and re-read the whole play. I had no first night qualms, nothing but a pleasant glow of anticipation. Florence and I made our first entrance together, and she was sort of holding on to me. She told me afterwards that she had no idea what I might do the first time I saw the audience, and I guess she was afraid I’d fall over in a faint or something.

She kept giving me my cues very plainly and watching me anxiously. One of my first lines was a rather funny wisecrack and the audience laughed, and from them on nobody could have been happier than I was. I just relaxed and had a swell time. Florence saw that I was going to be all right, so then she started to think about herself and got jittery. We had some ad-lib conversation behind the piano upstage while the action was going on downstage, and she whispered to me, “Oh, Mary, I’m so nervous, I’ll never get through this thing.” I patted her on the shoulder and said, “There, there darling, you’re doing great.” Imagine me, a mere amateur, “there, there-ing” Florence Eldridge!

And that, children, is why I’m stage-struck and why I’ll never be happy ‘til I try it again.

There are those who may argue, “Think about having to do the same show, night after night.” True enough, but at least you have about twenty-two hours before you have to do it again, and certainly that’s pleasanter than having to do it over and over again after you’ve been squeezed dry, which happens all the time in pictures.
And think of only having to work two and a half hours a day! Think of being able to see the sun every day, if it’s shining. Think of not having to get up at an ungodly hour and hurry through breakfast, hurry to the studio, hurry through make-up, and then drag home at night to hurry to bed and grab a few hours’ sleep before starting all over again.
That’s a pretty dreary picture and probably if I’d been on the stage for fourteen years and made only one picture, I’d sing another song. But I doubt it.

With a career spanning forty-five years, Mary Astor is best remembered for her role of Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. She had a private life marked by scandal, death, alchoholism, and overdoses- all of which she overcame. She would eventually tread the boards again and in 1956 made a success of Don Juan in Hell which was directed by Agnes Moorehead. She also wrote two very successful autobiographies as well as several fictional books. 

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