This article introduces to Photoplay readers a new screen writer.
Before joining the Photoplay Editorial staff she was one of New York's most brilliant newspaper writers. Her first assignment was a difficult one – to make Ronald Colman break his long silence about himself. How well she did it you can judge for yourself.
RONALD TALKS AT LAST
By Ruth Waterbury
I made Ronald Colman talk.
Life will never be the same again.
From now on I shall know that I am one of those fatal women. A Circe. One of those gals with Lure. I never dreamed it before. After all these years of keeping quiet and sitting back, to find that I have what Madam Glyn calls IT. Gosh!
I made Ronald Colman talk.
It was this way. Nobody knew about Ronald and everybody seemed to care. From men and women alike came the tide of interest in him. Everybody was, and is, asking questions about him, and nobody had the answers.
A particularly efficient and hard-boiled New York Newspaper Woman confessed to me that she had talked with Ronald for two hours, had a wonderful time, and learned nothing. In Hollywood, where nobody retains any privacy, Ronald has it completely tamed. Ivan St. Johns announced flatly that Ronald was a Sphinx and conversation with him was impossible. Even the distinguished editor of this family paper, from whom no secrets are hid, admitted that he knew nothing about Colman. And after all that, I made Ronald talk. My life has not been lived in vain.
It was Saturday afternoon at the Ritz, the Ritz in mid-season. Every table in the place was crowded.
All the glitter and glow that makes New York loved and hated was there. In some hidden corner the orchestra played a Chopin melody. The air stirred with perfume and softly modulated voices. Every table had its celebrity. Yet there wasn't a person in that room who wasn't conscious of Ronald Colman's presence there. Their excited whispers concerning him buzzed constantly. If he heard them, if he saw the heads turning, he gave no sign. He has the appearance of complete concentration. He gives you the feeling that, for all his reserve, you are one of the people capable of getting under it. He conveys that impression at the very moment of meeting. It's a beautiful trick. When you are introduced his first glance meets yours quite politely, but casually. An instant later his eyes flash interest, a deep interest in you whom he has just seen that moment. It's enough to make any woman glow like a red-hot stove. Of course it may be due to his being a marvellous actor. Every woman in his life must have felt that she, out of all the world, was closest to him. And afterward she must have known that she didn't know him at all. He makes you feel that he could be the most charming person in the world, the most wonderful companion, the most ardent lover. These things are in the depths of his cynical and amused eyes, in the well-bred tones of his fine voice, in his flattering attention to your silliest words.
Yes he would always retain a part of himself, a self that he could share with no-one. He is never quite revealed. He is conscious of this too. I think he regrets it a little. But the need for isolation of his own spirit is, obviously, so deeply rooted within him that I believe he will never overcome it. He is a definitely mental type. He is conscious of everything every moment. Nothing has more than one meaning for him, the unspoken meaning. He dives instantly below the superficialities of social intercourse to something harder and deeper, fraught with cosmic meaning. This is the characteristic, I feel, that has given him his reputation for a Sphinx on one hand and slightly 'rude' on the other. I can't imagine him indulging in small talk. I doubt that he knows any, and he plainly hates small talk when it is directed at him.
Complete simplicity is utterly baffling. Ronald Colman is mysterious because he knows all about himself. For that reason he is poised. He has hit rock bottom and come up again. The heights, now that he is once more among them, can't kid him.
We had discussed his childhood and it sounded like a merry, healthy one. A bunch of children in a big old house in London, a quiet English father, a Scottish mother. He has three sisters and a brother and it is his own name that he uses. 'I was quite mad about the theatre always,' he explained. 'No actors in the family or anything of that sort. It would have made it so much easier if there had been. As it was I felt rather a fool for such an infatuation. I had only my mother for encouragement. She's a rather remarkable person. Anything that any one of her children might do she'd think all right. I'm sure that if I were to commit murder her only comment would be - 'Well, Ronnie must have had a good reason for doing it, or he'd not have done it'. That sort of thing, you know.'
The deep Colman smile flashed. It made you aware of what such maternal faith had meant to a sensitive youth. 'There was no family pressure upon me, but I was quite aware that they rather wanted me to join my uncle in his business. That was out in China and it was a good chance. But I wanted to go into the theatre. So I kept putting China off. Then came the war. I went out for three years and when I came back, in common with two or three million other Englishmen, I had to look for work. I went about the theatres, feeling very shy, but somehow I got a chance at a juvenile role with a very prominent English actress. It was only a chance though, nothing set about it. And all the time there was my uncle waiting. I wrote out to him for a job and I said to myself 'I'll take whichever comes first, I'll make fate decide for me.' The day before I got my reply from him I got my opportunity at the theatre.'
He stopped talking to eat busily. It was two o'clock but the meal was for him, breakfast. 'I was tremendously lucky,' he continued, 'and for a couple of years I was by way of being a small hit. I must have been a pretty terrible person in those days, for I can remember being inordinately proud of myself. Then suddenly came one of those awful seasons which the theatre frequently strikes in London and I couldn't get a thing. I did the weary rounds days after day. I got a chance at a couple of English movies but those two engagements were separated by months. They gave me the idea to come here and try my luck at American films.
'I was able to secure letters of introduction to people in the movie colony here and I jaunted across very confidently. I arrived during that season that all the studios were closed. Everyone to whom I presented my letters was out of work. So was I, for a long, long time. I couldn't get a thing.
'Here I was, stranded in America. I turned to the speaking stage. I didn't know a soul in that end of the business. But without introductions, or with them, I couldn't get anything there either.
'I lived obscurely. I had almost no money. I was miles from my home and so lonely it was nearly unendurable.'
'It was awfully good for me,' Ronald Colman said. 'We all ought to get some such trial by fire. When one comes up too suddenly, as I did, gets success too easily, it is a fine thing if life kicks you back to your place again. Then if you get up once more you know it is simply because life is letting you get away with murder for a little while, and not because of any marvellous talent you have over the rank and file.'
I sat very still while his dark eyes looked far out beyond the walls of the Ritz, far out beyond that afternoon, out into the past.
'Eventually, however, I got a few parts offered me ,' he continued. 'They were almost without exception plays that rehearsed in three weeks, played one in Atlantic City, then retired to the store house. I did several seasons of that, enough to keep me alive and nothing more. Finally I got the part of the heavy in 'La Tendresse' which Henry Miller brought to Broadway. That got me my opportunity in 'The White Sister'.
'Rising rapidly to the point of racing with Jack Gilbert for the title of the great lover of the screen,' I said.
He shrugged and his eyes were mocking, mocking himself as much as me.
'I have argued with my producer against advertising me as 'a magnetic lover', ' he said. 'I dislike that. I think it creates a prejudice against an actor, a title like that. PERSONALITY is the whole thing on the screen. I know that. But I wish it were possible for people to admire me for, shall I say, my artistry instead of liking me for my personality, or the way I kiss somebody. I think Mr. Goldwyn's idea is that in about a year I may be ready for stardom,' he replied to my question. 'But there is a clause in my contract, not that I shall be starred at a certain time, but that I shall not be starred without my knowledge and consent. No matter what one's box office strength is it is too dangerous to be made a star to hurry about it. I'd rather take my time. Then I won't have to fall so hard when the fans let me down.'
'I'm not so terribly ambitious, anyway. I am not one of those chaps who want to play Hamlet. I'd like to earn one hundred thousand dollars and invest it. That would give one a hundred dollars a week interest, you know. Then if you demanded luxuries you'd have to work for them. The only thing is that I don't know whether one would lose his ambition if he had a hundred a week without working for it. I'm extremely suspicious that I'd never stir from an easy chair again, but that instead I'd lie there dreaming.'
I remarked that from the Hollywood view point a hundred a week was almost poverty.
'Hollywood is the most physical city in the world,' he said. 'I don't mean sex alone. Take athletics. They all go in for them. Fine things, of course, but entirely physical. And they all have motor cars and extreme luxury. Their homes are burdened down with it.'
It was noticeable that he always said “they” when speaking of other movie people as though realising subconsciously that he is not a part of the Hollywood mind.
'I love California,' he commented, 'its beauty, its warmth, its colour. But it is almost impossible not to lose your perspective out there. There is something of the tropics about it I suppose.'
'When I finish a picture, or whenever I can get a vacation, I go away. Down to the sea, usually, but at any rate to some wild spot where I can be alone with my books and my dog.'
His charming brown eyes were upon me.
'If one has his books and his dog, he can keep his head anywhere,' Ronald Colman said.
I watched him disappear in a taxi-cab. It was pouring rain and very cold, but I didn't know it.
I had made Ronald Colman talk. I had done it with my little questions.
(Interview with Ruth Waterbury from Photoplay Magazine, 1926.)