Greta Garbo, William Boyd, and others
by Jan Labij - September 2015
Well, I'm surprisingly shy about all of this, as I just happened to grow up where and when. I grew up with a city editor (part time job) who would greet my (I thought) deftly written prose with "Jxxxs Cxxxxt, Who ever told you you could write".
My answer to him would be "Why you did, Jazzbo" (Jazzbo was his nickname because he played Bix Beiderbecke records on his phonograph at the office.) Dealing with Jazzbo was like a college education for a 16 year old. I started out as a photographer - stringer for that rag. He told me when he hired me I would have to write up what I was shooting. He told me it was a lot easier to teach a photographer to write than it was to teach a writer how to take pictures with a Brownie. He always referred to my Speed Graphic as a Brownie. I heard later that he only hired me because I had my own Speed Graphic. I didn't care how I got the job, just so I got it.
My mother (who was an also-ran movie and stage actress), a poverty row actress, had an opinion on EVERYTHING in "the biz". As a fer instance (like the spelling?) we had a kitchen conversation once when I was home in my forties about movie stars. I had made the statement that I couldn't stand the tv show starring Johnny Carson's sidekick, whose name has temporarily escaped me, calling everybody and his brother "A Star". She said there had been only two real stars in the history of Hollywood. If I'd have had false teeth, I'd have dropped my upper plate. So I replied "John Barrymore and, er I er I guess Katherine Hepburn".
She smiled and said "Good guess, but no. The greatest stars were Clark Gable and Greta Garbo."
"Greta Garbo!", I said.
"Have you seen any of her movies?" she asked me.
"Well," she said, "I stood in Times Square in a line that was at least a mile long, wound around Times Square. You know that building in Times Square that is always lit up on New Years Eve with messages."
"Sure," I said.
"Well it was lit up with only two gigantic words. The whole building. 'Garbo Talks' in thousand watt Mazdas (Mazda refers to the lamp base. The common household screw base bulb, the Edison Base, is a smaller version of a Mazda Base.)
When she got in to see "Anna Christie", she was blown away. She said try and find a copy of it and you will see what I mean. Now, they changed directors halfway through that film, so the second half is not nearly as good as the first half. But the first half is stunning! Perhaps you already know that Garbo, when she re-signed her contract, put in a clause where she had control of who her electrician, sound man, and cameraman was going to be. To me there have been three actresses who have an almost ethereal beauty, and can act. Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, and Michelle Pfieffer. But of them all, only Garbo, the self styled "poor little Swedish peasant girl" had the savvy to demand that kind of control over her pictures. I'm sorry to be so long winded. You're going to have to edit my stuff in order to be able to use it. I'm 77 now, so I tend to reminisce perhaps too much. My mother was on stage, even in the kitchen, every day of her life, so maybe I know an actress when I see one.
My mother was born Mary Lisbeth Kelly, and claimed to be of "Shanty Irish descent". "Maybe so, I once said, "but you look more "Lace Curtain" Irish to me." She laughed, and said the looks were just the luck of the draw. Her stage and motion picture name was Coleen Kelly, so as far as I know she never starred in a picture. Even for Nat Levine's "Mascot Pictures", a poverty row pic outfit that was several cuts above the norm for poverty row. She really aspired to be a stage actress, and only came back to California to make enough money to continue her efforts at a stage career in NYC. She met my father there, who was in the big-time vaudeville circuit with the then very popular "Radio Rubes" They played the RKO (Radio Keith-Orpheum circuit). He was called John Laby in those days, as it was too hard to get his last name spelled correctly on the posters that were used in the tank-town circuits he started in. Anyhow, my mother made several "Our Gang" comedy shorts for Hal Roach. These are now better known as "The Little Rascals." She played the role of "Miss Crabtree" in several of these. She told me she got $75.00 apiece for making these. This might interest you. She said they made four of these at a time, in a day. Two in the morning, and two in the afternoon. I said that wasn't much money, and she retorted that she made enough in two days to buy a new Ford. (Would have been a Model A) My father and mother were married in 1933, and soon came back to California to stay, living with her father in North Hollywood, about a block from Bing Crosby's home. Bob Hope also lived nearby. W.C. Fields lived about 10 blocks the other way on the shores of Toluca Lake. My mother was an Adagio dancer in vaudeville. And there is a story there too.
William Boyd was the Ernie Banks of the movie industry. I saw him in person several times in my teens, and he was incredibly warm in person. He had the gift of talking to kids like they were adults. "Hey, pardner" was the way he greeted them. I watched him greet little kids that way all the times that I saw him. He was very approachable to everyone. He gave a lot of time to the west San Fernando Valley communities in these "meet and greets". He lived somewhere west (actually north, but everyone called it west) of where I grew up in Woodland Hills. He had this black Cadillac convertable with a set of longhorns mounted on the hood. I kidded him once about the car. I said something about the movie industry being so tough, he couldn't afford a Packard, and he gave that famous laugh of his and said "Son, it would take a real jerk to deface a Packard Victoria with a set of horns".
I said, "You got me, you're right."
OK. Now I would like to talk about John Barrymore. My interest got picqued when my mother told me, "I was trained by John Barrymore, you know."
I said, "I didn't know, because you'd never mentioned anything to me about Barrymore except for his drinking habits."
She laughed, and said that was when she was younger, and she hated the way he poured his talent away with too much Scotch. "But I studied every picture he made, and every play I could get to in order to see him bring magic to his part."
She said he could put on a character as fast as you can get dressed in the morning. She also told me that he hated his looks, as the movie companies always tried to play up his looks. So much so, that he really enjoyed getting himself up as some character that would repell you. I told her that I wasn't impressed with him, as I'd only seen him playing weaklings, like Larry Renault in "Dinner at Eight."
Years after her death, I was sorting through the five dollar bargain bin in a large chain store, and lo and behold, it had a series of Bulldog Drummond movies from the late thirties starring John Barrymore. You know, 50 movies for five dollars. Barrymore plays Colonel Nielson of Scotland Yard - the thorn in the side (or vice-versa) of Bulldog Drummond. He brings these pictures up a full grade by the power of his acting. My mother mentioned his ability to whisper a line on stage so well that you could hear him in the balcony (cheap seats). He does that in one of these movies. The one of these that really show John Barrymore off is "Bulldog Drummond Comes Back". The woman who plays the butlers' sister is Zeffie Tilbury, an old pal and trouper from Barrymore's stage days. You get to see the famous Barrymore whisper in his scene with her. Also he goes into his hideous make up in this one. So an introduction to one of America's great actors. We are fortunate that he made films, so that we, so many years later, get to see him act. I read on some site or another that his acting is corny, and that he had no effect on later actors. Watch this and judge for yourselves. As far as his influence on later actors is concerned, every Shakesperean actor since has adopted his technique and interpretation of Hamlet. Not without controversy, however. When he went to England to play Hamlet, the English critics didn't like the way he played the role. But the proof of the pudding is everybody does that role his way ever since.