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.
* * * *
PORTRAIT OF A CASUAL SOPHISTICATE
BY JOSEPH HENRY STEELE
HE arrived in New York in 1920 with fifty-seven dollars, three clean collars and two letters of introduction.
He looks more Latin than English.
He is characterised by an earnestness which is tempered with a keen sense of humour; is 'regular' without verging on the professional good fellow; reserved without being affected.
He never smokes a pipe; likes starchy foods, and dislikes being chauffeured.
He made his first professional appearance at the age of seventeen as a banjo player at a Masonic smoker.
His full name is Ronald Charles Colman.
His next door neighbour is Jack Benny* - both are lively friends, and he would rather have been a writer or singer, could he have excelled in these arts. He was married to Benita Hume, English actress, at Santa Barbara, California, on September 30, 1934.
He speaks deliberately, decisively, and clips his sentences sharply. He taught himself the piano which he plays only indifferently and when alone.
He was born at Richmond, Surrey, England, and never wore a moustache until he went into the movies. He loathes being interviewed and is reputedly the best "careless dresser" in Hollywood.
He dislikes using an electric razor.
He takes life in stride, is strongly introspective, and never takes a cigarette before eleven in the morning.
He likes wearing sport shirts of blue, beige and tan, and his viewpoints are direct, forthright, well thought out.
He prefers biographical novels and has a very special affection for Remarque's 'The Road Back' and Aldington's 'Death of a Hero'.
His eyes are frank, penetrating and brown.
He has an innate aversion for routine and order. He is not considered a wit by his friends.
He is especially fond of French and Italian cooking, is very punctilious in personal matters, and swims only fairly.
He responds readily to satire and broad burlesque in literature or drama, does not play golf and seldom experiences moments of depression.
If Ronald Colman had to spend the rest of his life on a desert isle and could choose only two authors he would elect Dickens and Shakespeare.
His early youth was strongly influenced by the essays and letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. He goes shopping only under duress.
He wears high ankled shoes when playing tennis, due to his war injury.
He seldom goes to Hollywood parties and when he does he is usually the last to leave.
He wears no jewellery. He rarely wears a hat when formally attired, is fond of wire-haired terriers and attends a prize fight and a football game about once a year.
Ronald Colman loves leaving a port and hates arriving at one. He has never worn spats.
He has never had a physical trainer, his clothes are tailored wherever he happens to be, and he considers "Beau Geste" his best picture.
He is a fatalist.
He considers his first year in the United States the most valuable from the standpoint of lessons learned. He dreads personal appearances and thinks good health and a decent philosophy the most important things in life.
His favourite silent picture was "Intolerance" and he is convinced that good breaks have played a more important part in shaping his life than his own premeditated plans.
He speaks a smattering of French, German and Italian. He has been happiest in California and does not care for Mexican food.
He has a strong aversion to killing animals, never goes hunting, and is inordinately fond of oysters and clams.
He has never been in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, once made a futile attempt to read James Joyce's "Ulysses," and confesses that life has given him far more than he ever expected from it.
HE is both an idealist and cynic, sentimentalist and realist. His birthplace was a small country town on the edge of a river.
He is intolerant of neurotics.
He prefers playing in comedies, dislikes talking about himself and as a boy dreamed of becoming an engineer.
He is always tanned and prefers wearing comfortable tweeds.
He took singing lessons for one year at Guildhall School of Music, London, but his vocal talents never jelled. He does not indulge in the British custom of afternoon tea except when entertaining English friends.
He is genial, cautious and prudent.
He has not varied more than five pounds in weight during the last fifteen years. He has never had a nickname. He smokes cigarettes.
He never carries a cane and believes Edinburgh, Scotland, has the most beautiful main street in the world. He has no hobbies.
He is Scots-English, considers "The Unholy Garden" his worst picture and believes life was pleasantest in the Gay Nineties. He likes old book stores and antique shops.
He does not think the average person's life any happier now than it was a hundred years ago.
He believes talking pictures have lost much by leaving less to the imagination. His father was a silk importer of modest circumstances. He says pictures are meant to be seen rather than heard.
He was shy of girls as a youth and was given to silent and distant adoration.
Ronald Colman considers "Talk of the Town" and "Random Harvest" his best pictures in years. He is five feet ten inches all.
His first job was as office boy for a British steamship company at two dollars and fifty cents per week.
He ranks principle above policy and fights stubbornly to keep faith with himself. He considers a man fortunate indeed who can afford to put up such a fight. He is descended from George Colman of eighteenth century theatrical fame.
His closest friends are Charles Boyer and Herbert Marshall. He loathes being interviewed because in an exhibitionist community he is one of the few who is genuinely shy and modest. He has never played gin rummy.
He was for years President of the Hollywood Division of British War Relief and is still indefatigable in war work. He is a director's delight, never needing directorial guidance, and takes an unselfish and paternal interest in advising the younger actors in his pictures.
He adores his gay and beautiful wife who is one of the most energetic women in the screen colony in sundry war activities. He loves good stories and chuckles warmly when the point is reached. He seldom carries a cigarette case, though he owns a fine collection.
He never drinks before six in the evening, then takes several Scotch highballs before dinner, and rarely anything after dinner. His wife works three nights a week, five hours each stretch, as a "spotter" in the Los Angeles air-raid charting room.
He serves on the Hollywood Victory Committee and is one of the few survivors of the original British Expeditionary Forces of World War 1 who wears a Mons Medal with the 1914 bar.
He recalls with wistful amusement that a London casting office once listed him as "Does Not Screen Well". He has contributed to various causes during the past eighteen months more than a hundred thousand dollars of his radio time.
He is religiously punctual and becomes boyishly embarrassed and apologetic when he is unavoidably late. He is being hailed in Hollywood as the 1942 Academy Award winner for his performance in 'Random Harvest. He has assiduously avoided acquiring
histrionic tricks or mannerisms. His contributions to various war causes and charities average twenty-eight percent of his net income.
He recently went on an exhaustive Bond-selling tour for the Treasury Department at which time he visited Virginia City, ghost gold-mining town of Nevada. He addressed the hundred or so citizens of this picturesque old town in the famous Crystal Chandelier bar and at the end of his speech, said, "Well, I don't know what else to say to you - except - that the drinks are on me." Whereupon he went behind the bar and mixed the drinks.
His favourite story concerns an applicant for a commission in the Army who, on being asked whether there had been anything hereditary in his family - serious illnesses or accidents - thought a moment, then replied: "Well, when my mother was carrying me, my father struck her over the head with a Victrola, but it never affected me ... never affected me ...never affected me ... never affected me ..."
His first picture was a two-reel comedy, which, to his great relief, was never released. He was disabled at Messines, near Ypres. He appeared in 1922 in "la Tendresse", supporting Ruth Chatterton and Henry Miller. He was discovered in this by Henry King, the director, who gave him the male lead in "The White Sister" starring Lillian Gish. He played in Los Angeles in the road company of "East is West" back in 1921, but the movie studios did not think him a good type.
The star of M-G-M's "Random Harvest" has a scar parallel with his right eyebrow which he got in a fall at the age of four.
Ronald Colman likes to quote from a George Bernard Shaw play in which the Irish dramatist admonishes play producers to leave the interpretation of a role at the discretion of the actor. He feels that he cannot too often remind Hollywood producers of the wisdom of this advice.
3. Photoplay, January 1943, Portrait of a Casual Sophisticate by Joseph Henry Steele, p.30, p.78
*. In fact Jack Benny never lived next door to the Colmans but in the "Jack Benny Radio Program" poetic licence is used to present him as the refined Colmans' annoying next door neighbour.