THERE is always to be found one true explanation of a man's personality and it usually goes back to his childhood experiences. Ronald Colman - frequently called shy even today, consistently called 'Hollywood's man of mystery' because he has refused to have his private life publicized - was a shy, quiet and unobtrusive little fellow who loved his privacy even at the age of six. Already he had learned that to avoid trouble it was safest to keep quietly to himself: for, being the fifth child in a family of six, he had possessed a father who believed that children should be seen and not heard.
Later, at an age when he should have been romancing, he was still "keeping quietly to himself." But then there was the mater of funds also, for by this time young Ronald held down a three-legged stool in the offices of the Britain Steamship Co., but at meagre pay.
Then came the World War (WW1). Ronald enlisted the day that War broke out. He quit his job and joined the London Scottish Regiment.
"I enlisted immediately," Ronald says, "more to get away from the office than because of the fighting spirit, which I did not have."
There was a month of training and then, in late September of 1914, Ronald's regiment was sent across to France as a unit of The First Hundred Thousand, Kitchener's famed "Contemptibles". Promptly upon its arrival in France, the regiment was broken up and Ronald found himself in the front line trenches. He saw action at the first battle of Ypres, then at Messines. He spent, in all, some six to eight weeks in the front line. It was, he says, "a very bad, a very messy business." At Messines, during an advance, a shell struck: there was an explosion and an 'inglorious casualty' - he stumbled and fractured his ankle. When he was able to leave the field hospital the doctors ordered him back to England, where he was attached to the Highland Brigade for light duties. He went into Scotland where he did mostly clerical work. After a year of this, the ankle still unhealed, the medical board discharged him altogether and, although he tried to get into other branches of the service, he was turned down.
"The War," says Ronald, a little ruefully, "certainly taught me to value the quiet life, strengthened my conviction that to keep as far out of the range of vision as possible is to be as safe as possible.
"I am not one of those 'veterans' who look back on the War with the 'happy comrade' feeling. There may have been gay times behind the lines - I'm sure there were - but I can't remember them.
"I remember a kid of seventeen who was to make his first advance one early dawn. He was frightfully keen about it, excited. The sun shone on his face as we advanced and it made him look as though he were smiling. Maybe he was. I've never been sure about it. We reached the rise of a hill and the whole of Flanders was spread out below us. Suddenly the blast went off and there came the order to lie down, to lie flat on our stomachs so that the enemy ammunition might whistle over us. In one minute we dropped; the kid never got up again. He was killed in that first second of his war experience. The smile was wiped off with his face. The futility of it remains with me as my memory of the War.
"There is another memory, also distinct: we are a column advancing into action. We climb a hill singing, 'Are We Downhearted,' singing with the phony bravado which the hypnosis of war hysteria makes you feel is genuine bravery at the time. We reach the top of the hill still singing. And meet a wounded soldier coming down, retiring. The wounded soldier with his mutilated face, laughs at us and shouts, 'Not now you're not downhearted you bloody soon will be.' These words were as true as any I heard spoken at the Front.
"I loathe war. I'm inclined to be bitter about the politics of munitions and real estate which are the reasons for war."
DISCHARGED from the Army, the next thing Ronald had to do was get a civilian job and, as he says, "get on with the business of living while the seventeen-year-old boys carried on the business of dying."
He could have gone back to his stool in the offices of the Britain Steamship Company, but he felt that he could not face that dull routine again ..."and still," he told me, "I did not know what I wanted to, what I wanted to be. If I'd had a gift for writing that would have interested me. I had a strong leaning toward the medical profession, too. The war gave me that. But to study medicine or surgery was for, financially impossible.
"While I was stalling around during that troubled summer of 1916, I ran into an uncle of mine who was with the Foreign Office. I asked him if he could arrange an appointment for me with a consulate in the Orient. He said he'd put up my name. He'd let me know ... and then I collided with the theatre. I ran into some friends of Lena Ashwell's. Lena Ashwell was a sort of English prototype of Ethel Barrymore. Her friends, who were also acquaintances of mine, tole me that Miss Ashwell was putting on a sketch at the London Coliseum and wanted a young, darkish man for a small role. Remembering my work with the Bancroft Club, when I first came to London, they suggested that I dash over to see Miss Ashwell. I thought that with the dearth of young men in London at that time, young men both darkish and lightish, I might do. So I dashed along and got the job and had the thrill of playing at the London Coliseum and the thrill of earning six pounds a week. The playlet was 'The Maharanee of Arakan' by Rabindranath Tagore and I played the bit part of herald to the Princess. I wore black face, waved a flag, tooted a trumpet.
"LENA ASHWELL, incredible as it seemed to me, prophesied that I could become a great actor. Nor did she pay me compliments alone. She was kind to me in a very practical way, such as inviting me to her very exclusive luncheon parties to which only the elect of the theatre world were ever bid. She introduced me to Sir Gerald Du Maurier, Charles Wyndham and others and would always preface such introductions by saying, 'Here is a boy who will do great things in the theatre.'
"It is thanks to Miss Ashwell and to the interest that Sir Gerald Du Maurier took in me that I got my first sizable job, a bit in a play with Gladys Cooper. The play was 'The Misleading Lady' and was a tremendous success. The reviews were excellent and my name was favourably mentioned in most of them. But even then I did not say to myself, 'I am an actor, this is my job.' I still felt a passionate predilection for the theatre. But I did decide to bide my time, to let Fate decide my future for me ....
"And then occurred one of those coincidences which give to life its fictional quality. Sitting alone in my flat one evening, reading an encouraging review of my performance in the play, word came that my uncle had obtained a promise of a position for me in an Oriental consulate. I held the review in one hand, my uncle's note in the other. What to do? I knew that I had to decide, then. No flashlight exploded in my brain leaving there an illuminated answer to my problem. I remember that a mere drop of the hand, a reflex action, decided it for me. For automatically I dropped the note on my desk and went on reading the review. And my choice was made. It would be 'good copy' to say that I paced the floor, downing whiskies and sodas the while I wrestled at the cross-roads. But I didn't. I made suitable expressions of gratitude to my uncle for the trouble he had taken and that was that."
So the young man, who didn't know that he wanted to be an actor, continued on the stage and for two years things went very well with him. After 'The Misleading Lady' he went into that charming and salubrious play, 'Damaged Goods,' playing the part Richard Bennett played in the American production. 'Damaged Goods' attracted considerable attention because of its subject matter which, for the first time, brought discussion of the social diseases out of the clinics and laboratories.
"While I was in that play," Mr. Colman says, amused, "I felt my first acute distaste for public recognition. It was embarrassing to go about socially and be pointed out as the 'hero' of 'Damaged Goods.' The show played to capacity, however, and it took the air raids to darken the theatre.
"It was," Mr Colman relates, with some relish, "my success' in 'Damaged Goods' which first drew me among the shades. For George Dewhurst, one of the pioneers of the British cinema, saw my performance and came to me with a proposition.
"Said Mr. Dewhurst, 'I am going to make a two-reel comedy for the cinema and I want you for the star part. It will give you a fortnight's work and I'll do the right thing by you. I'll pay you a pound a day, not counting Sundays.'
The 'right thing' indeed! That was my foretaste of Hollywood's opulence. A pound a day! The man was Midas. But, so far as I know, the film was never released. If it had been and I had been able to see myself as others would have seen me, I am sure that I would have dashed back to my three-legged stool in a jiffy!"
For the next three years Ronald skated along on pretty thin theatrical ice. He made occasional short films as 'fillers-in' between his stage engagements.
He first saw himself on the screen when he played the role of a Jewish pugilist in a picture titled 'A Son of David.' In the Big Moment he was supposed to knock out a burly ex-professional boxer "who could," remembers Mr. Colman, "have killed me and eaten me with the greatest of ease. I went to look at this picture, took one quick gander and fled. My head looked like a rotating ball on a body abnormally too small for it. I was revolted."
Following that first brief film career in London, young Mr. Colman appeared in a few more stage plays. It was while he was playing in 'The Great Day' that he first met Thelma Raye, also in the cast, and very soon after they met they were married. Thelma Raye was the first girl Ronald had ever "gone with" at all steadily. They worked together in the theatre. They formed the habit of having supper together every night after the show. They decided that this companionship, formed by the common link of the theatre, was love. And so they were married, but the star of bright destiny did not hang over that marriage.
In 1919 the London stage suffered a terrific slump and the actors suffered accordingly. Matters finally reached such low ebb that young Mr. Colman, jobless for too long, decided to go to America.
In New York he found that employment conditions for actors were not much better than they were in London.
But the tide finally did have a definite turn for Ronald when he got the chance to tour with Fay Bainter in "East is West." That tour did many things for the young Englishman who was still being an actor "because I didn't know anything better to be." For one very inportant thing, it got his bank account up and made it possible for hm to refurnish his wardrobe "so that I would not feel like hiding in a dark alley until nightfall." And secondly, in the course of that tour he met Ruth Chatterton, a meeting and a friendship which proved to be a real turning point in his life. For in the Fall of 1922, thanks to Ruth Chatterton, Henry Miller cast him in 'La Tendresse,' which had a long and successful run at the Empire Theatre. Ruth Chatterton and Henry Miller were the stars.
It was during the year that followed that Ronald first met Bill Powell and Richard Barthelmess. And there began the three-cornered friendship, the one-for-all-and-all-for-one friendship which has become a part of the Hollywood tradition. John Robertson, the director, introduced the three young men in the lobby of a theatre. And at once a rapport sprang up which was to last through the years.
"We may not be three men with but a single thought, "smiled Ronald, "but certainly we are three men who think very much alike, and who have much the same outlook on life, share the same values, have enough in common to make us friends for as long as we live."
When a tide turns in the affairs of men it turns exceedingly fast. It was so in Ronnie's case. For one afternoon, after a matinee of 'La Tendresse,' a card was sent to the young actor's dressing room. The card bore the name of Henry King, the director. He came backstage then and told Mr. Colman that he and Lillian Gish had watched his performance, that they were planning to film 'The White Sister,' that they had searched everythwere for an actor who could 'look Italian' who had a 'touch of Valentino.' Mr. King added "I believe we have found him in you."
Ronald Colman hesitated. He had long since abandoned any idea of pictures.
"Can I continue to be in this play if I do the picture?' asked Mr. Colman.
'No,' Henry King told him, 'we must go to Rome.'
'I can't possibly do it, then. I wouldn't leave Henry Miller.'
"Mr. King explained," Ronald continued, "that I would have a sixteen weeks' guarantee at more salary per week that I had ever dreamt of for myself. I was tempted. But I repeated that it would be impossible for me to leave the play. If I did a thing like that, I said, I could not live comfortably with myself.
"But Miss Gish and Mr. King were persuasive and Mr. Miller was very kind. And so, on the following day, I was given my first screen test and on the day after that I found myself on the Atlantic Ocean, in a steamer chair, talking with Lillian Gish."
'The White Sister' was, certainly, the goddess in the machine of Mr. Colman's picture career. For, upon the completion of the picture - six months in the making - the company returned to New York. Ronald did a part in a picture with George Arliss and then went back to Italy again, with Lillian and Dorothy Gish, to make 'Romola', Henry King again directing. And it was while they were in Italy finishing 'Ronola' that Sam Goldwyn cabled Mr. Colman that he had just seen 'The White Sister' and would Mr. Colman consider coming to Hollywood as immediately as possible to play in 'Tarnish' with May McAvoy and Marie Prevost? So the mountains had come to the mummer. And so, with few misgivings, Ronald Colman came to Hololywood. There was nothing, thus far, to warn him of the lurid limelight with which Hollywood publicity would, increasingly, baptise its stars.