Adventures in Interviewing (1930) 🇺🇸
Further stories about Hollywood and its Famous Folk — Mack Sennett, Monte Blue, von Sternberg and others.
by Jim Tully
Josef von Sternberg, now a world famous director, was first interviewed by me when he was completely unknown. An artist with a camera, a showman by instinct, he is a sensitive, intelligent and often belligerent fellow.
One of the most gifted directors who ever came to Hollywood, he was the joke of many inferior people for some time. It was B. P. Schulberg, one of the most understanding executives in the film industry, who made of von Sternberg a highly successful director.
Within a year after he had arrived in Hollywood, von Sternberg was a sensation. He wrote and directed “The Salvation Hunters” and produced it for five thousand dollars. It received much acclaim. Mary Pickford engaged him to direct her in a film. Later he went to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios.
Most of “The Salvation Hunters” was filmed in a mud flat at San Pedro Harbor. George K. Arthur, Andreas Randolf, Otto Matieson, Stuart Holmes and Georgia Hale were in the cast.
The picture completed, Arthur prevailed on Alfred Reeves, Chaplin’s production manager, to show it to the great comedian. Chaplin interested Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in the film. Nazimova, Elinor Glyn, William DeMille, Marion Davies, Frank Keenan, Tom Geraghty, and Thomas H. Ince also praised the picture highly. The accepted formulae and traditions of screen action were disregarded.
I said at the time, “Salvation Finder for pictures.” In Wid’s Weekly, Wid Gunning said, “If this shows great direction, I’m a prima donna.” Most of the exhibitors agreed with Wid. Shortly after the picture was previewed, von Sternberg said: “I have the European idea of serving an apprenticeship. I have served in every capacity in the technical production of pictures. I have worked and I have studied, and did what I set out to do when I made the picture.”
His position was apparently propitious. However, he disagreed with Miss Pickford, and he was replaced by another director, after he had written her a story using the industrial background of Pittsburgh as the setting for the film.
At Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he directed first “The Exquisite Sinner,” and followed with “The Masked Bride,” in which Mae Murray was starred. In the midst of the second picture, his contract was broken by mutual consent. He left for Europe.
On his return he was signed by Charlie Chaplin to direct a picture starring Edna Purviance. The film was called “A Woman of the Sea.” Chaplin took a reported loss of ninety thousand dollars, rather than release the picture. Preview critics said the picture was beautiful, not human. Rumor said von Sternberg’s treatment had given the supporting players too much importance.
Although von Sternberg had been working almost continually, little of his work had been seen by the public.
He was next signed by B. P. Schulberg. He was to have charge of the photographic effects in the production of Ben Hecht ’s story, “Underworld.”
Before the picture started, he was assigned to direct added scenes of Frank Lloyd’s picture, “Children of Divorce.” The retakes were so good that von Sternberg was given “Underworld” to direct.
“Underworld” was a sensation.
The director received the major share of credit for the production, although performances of the players were noteworthy. His next picture, “The Last Command,” in which Emil Jannings was starred, was also a sensational box-office success.
The rest of his career is interesting film history. His latest assignment at Paramount is “Morocco,” in which the famous German stage and screen beauty, Marlene Dietrich, is to be starred. Miss Dietrich speaks English fluently. Her training as an actress was received under Max Reinhardt. Remembering von Sternberg’s success in directing Jannings, this next film should arouse great interest.
Monte Blue is one of the few who can say that interest in social uplift headed him on the path to success. Monte literally shouted his way to fame from a soap box.
One-time day laborer, locomotive fireman and lumberjack, he drifted to Los Angeles with the many attracted by the new Golconda — the promise of ready work in pictures. His vision of extra work at high wages vanished more slowly than his small capital. Faced with actual hunger, he sought work as a day laborer on the film lot. His wages were twenty cents an hour. He worked ten hours a day.
An amateur Socialist, he had been exiled from a Northern city for preaching to his fellow workers such fallacies as equality and universal brotherhood.
Forgetting this hard-learned lesson, he undertook to address other shovel-wielders during their lunch hours. Mounting a convenient soap-box, he launched upon his customary harangue. The future directors listened patiently, probably welcoming the novelty more than the wisdom of the speech.
As the oration reached its vehement climax, the speaker suddenly stopped, chagrin and amazement flooding his face. For at the edge of the little gathering stood the great man of the lot, slouch hat pulled low over a rough hewn face. The would-be Socialist gazed with awe at David Wark Griffith.
Aimee Semple McPherson, meeting God, could have been no more chagrined.
The great director was in a benevolent mood. “Go on,” he said to Monte, “I like to hear you talk.”
At the end, Griffith said, “Do you want to. be an actor?”
Embarrassed, the day laborer replied, “No — I don’t know anything about acting.”
Griffith’s answer has eluded posterity, or myself. He had undoubtedly seen other film players and concluded that the day laborer was too modest. Some days later a scene was filmed in which a speaker was required to incite a mob of extras. Griffith remembered Monte Blue.
After playing the part, he was placed on the studio pay-roll at a weekly guarantee of ten dollars. If he worked before the camera he received five dollars for that day. However, there seemed to be very few roles which required a blustering digger of postholes. Monte Blue was an expert rider. He had a strain of Cherokee Indian blood and had been a cowboy on a Montana ranch. He therefore became official “stunt” man of the studio. He was called upon to risk his life repeatedly, in order that mediocre actors might acquire reputations as dare-devils. When not doubling, Monte Blue helped care for the horses.
Griffith decided to film “Intolerance,” the pseudo-historical debacle. Blue was given a position with the high-sounding title of “field secretary.” He served in this capacity, probably as an all-around handy-man, for over a year. Small parts led to opportunities to play with several stars. Monte Blue’s doubling days were over.
When Griffith decided to make “Orphans of the Storm,” he chose Monte Blue to play the role of Danton, the magnificent revolutionist. After years of keeping him from the screen, it is difficult to understand why Griffith cast him for a part that he was emotionally and physically unsuited to do. Perhaps the memory of the noontime speech had typed Blue as a “revolutionary character” in the director’s mind. However, the part made Monte Blue. His place in pictures was assured after the release of the film.
He is amazingly honest. He speaks of the rough years of his life with no bitterness and none of the usual dramatization of his sufferings. His sympathy, colored by intense hard years, is always with the underdog. His mentality is far above the average, he is a natural and keen student of life, and a genuine lover of books.
Lubitsch has directed him in some of his best work. It is strange that after thus proving his place in sophisticated drama he should be constantly cast as fireman, engineer, and such lowly heroes.
I wrote of him some years ago, and some words, though strewn with more flowers than I use at present, are still accurate:
“In the heart of this tall emotional actor is room for all the world. He is one of the few men in Hollywood that I have met whom life hurts. More could be said of no man.
Blue spent better than nine years in an Indian orphanage, the mother always close by, ever guiding and helping him in every way possible.
“When he returned recently to Indianapolis the city was decorated in his honor. His brother, a factory worker, ‘laid off a half day to meet you, Kid.’ A brother came from Detroit, another brother from somewhere else, and the four sons of the Cherokee Indian railroader, who never returned from his last long run, now vied with one another in making their mother happy during the week that Monte was at home.
“They quarreled at the table the same as in the old days. They did everything to make the mother recall their boyhood between smiles and tears. If there is a finer picture of American life than this, I have never seen it. It is enough to make the tired cynic believe in the homely virtues. If simple people were only tolerant, what a happy world we would have...
“Blue seems to me all that is typical of the best American manhood. The suffering of years has given him the capacity to understand. He has tolerance and sympathy for the defeated and the bigoted. For well he knows by what a narrow thread his own success or failure hung.
“There are still laurels to be won in Hollywood. I venture the prediction that many of them will be gathered by boys like Blue — from the humble homes of the nation — with mothers sitting on the front porch — hands folded on their laps — ready to say in a moment to the long wandering gatherer — Tired, dear?”
Since these lines were written — Buddy Rogers has drifted in from a small Kansas town, and Gary Cooper has registered from the wilds of Montana.
It has long been my observation that the Irish are the most sensitive of peoples. As a rule, the Irish relish a joke immensely — when it is on the other fellow.
I have interviewed three famous Irishmen in Hollywood. Sadly must I relate that I have not attended church with any of them since.
One of these men I have always liked. Since writing the following some years ago, we, when meeting, hum the old song, “We never speak as we pass by.”
“Many film critics have coupled the names of our leading cinema clowns with those of Molière and Aristophanes. One of the clowns recently asked me in a moment when he was seemingly puzzled, ‘Who’s Aristophanes?’
“Even Mr. Gilbert Seldes called Mr. Mack Sennett ‘the Keystone the builders reject.’ He also made the unwise statement that Mr. Sennett needed encouragement. Court jesters were born through the tyranny of kings. Too much encouragement made them lazy, wealthy and indifferent. They began talking of philosophy and art. The kings were forced to behead them. When clowns become serious, wise men weep.... Mack Sennett comes of Irish stock. His real name is Michael Sinnot. He “was born in the Province of Quebec. He is a big man. His face is red, puffy and sagged. He has shrewd glints in his eyes. They are those of an Irish general who has won a great victory in Jerusalem...
“Many people ridicule the idea that Sennett helped Chaplin on to fame and fortune. I do not. Sennett is elemental — of the earth. He swaggers with impudence and thumbs his nose at the stars. Born among lumberjacks, he would have been the Paul Bunyan of the tribe...
“It was Mack Sennett who first engaged Gloria Swanson, Marie Prevost, Mae Busch, Mabel Normand, Phyllis Haver, Alice Lake, Mary Thurman, and divers other beautiful girls...”
Miss Swanson has had perhaps the most diverse of screen roles. She played in the Sennett bathing beauty brigade for several years. Cecil B. DeMille saw her in one of them. He recognized her talent. He starred her in a number of pictures. More famous as a clothes-horse than as an actress of great merit, she later discarded the elaborate hair dressing and exotic gowns and took her rightful place among the great emotional actresses. She has also succeeded as a comedienne of the first rank.
Mae Busch, who is seen too infrequently on the screen, is one of the most talented women in Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin has called her “a great actress”. Her poems have considerable merit. She was a contemporary of Gloria in the bathing beauty days.
When I wrote before of Sennett, little Mabel Normand was still living. I said: “Strange and wayward, cynical with the laughter of life and the pity, missing nothing on the journey and forgiving all, happy indeed will ever be the nation that can produce two such people as Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett.
“May their gorgeous spirits never be submerged by the waves of fanaticism that ever and anon sweep over this world of ours. For they and their like are the troubadours whose life’s work it is to keep its heart from breaking.”
Mabel Normand once said of Sennett: “He’s a fine fellow Jim — as gentle as the dew in Killarney — when you get to know him.”
A few weeks ago I sat near him at the ringside of a famous fight. A Negro pugilist had won nine of ten rounds. He was knocked out in the tenth round by his white opponent.
A broken piece of bronze, the game Negro was dragged to his corner. The crowd went mad over the victory of the white conqueror. The applause lasted for some minutes,
I watched Mack Sennett as he gazed across the ring at the prostrated colored fighter. There was pity in the eyes of the Irish maker of comedies.
When the Negro was carried from the ring, Sennett was the only man who applauded. Remembering Mabel’s words, I wondered at the complexities of humans, while Sennett’s gaze followed the broken bruiser as he was carried from the ring.
Monte Blue was discovered by D. W. Griffith while making a socialistic oration from a soap box. Up to that time Blue, who is part Cherokee Indian, had been a day laborer, cowboy, locomotive fireman and lumberjack.
Josef von Sternberg, says Mr. Tully, is an artist with the camera, a showman by instinct. He is a sensitive, intelligent and often belligerent fellow. von Sternberg had a tough lime getting a foothold in Hollywood.
“Underworld” was a sensational hit — and made Director von Sternberg famous. In it, George Bancroft rose to fine histrionic heights and Evelyn Brent gave a really corking performance.
Mack Sennett is one of the great among film pioneers. His comedies were landmarks of screen progress and his discoveries have helped fill the celluloid heavens. His greatest finds were Mabel Normand and Gloria Swanson.
Next month, Jim Tully will start telling New Movie readers about his adventures as an actor. Mr. Tully calls the series —
Almost an Actor
Mr. Tully has been playing a role with John Gilbert in “Way for a Sailor.”
You will be fascinated by his graphic account of his studio adventures — and his reactions to grease paint and directorial orders. Watch for this feature.
Not the Unholy Three! No, indeed. Just Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy posing with their director, James Parrott, who sends them falling from roofs into mortar beds and down chimneys covered with soot. Yet they seem to be friends.
Source: New Movie Magazine, October 1930