Ann Harding — Blond — But Not Light (1930) 🇺🇸
Ann, the exquisite Harding, of "Paris Bound," "Condemned," and "Her Private Affair," is a stage import without a broad "a" to her name. Drawing-room drama does not necessarily mean, to Ann, an Oxford accent. Ann speaks American.
by Margaret Reid
But — and here's where we have you, little children of the silent screen, who nasally plead for "naturalism"— she speaks it through her throat, rather than nose, and her delivery of lines is the acme of naturalism attained through rigid training.
Contrary to the prevailing idea among local die-hards, it takes long practice to be natural. Any camera or microphone will tell you so. The pristine youths and maidens, to whom technique is a droll term covering everything they can't he bothered to learn, are the scene chewers and microphone breakers. Behind every performance which gives you the impression of looking into real life, there are many years of study and mastery of craftsmanship. Here, the invaders from the stage have a distinct advantage — a sort of background. Look at Ann Harding, one of the best things ever brought about by the talkies.
It is a pleasure to look at Miss Harding, anyway. Vigor and intelligence done up in pastel shades, she is a beauty without benefit of makeup. No cosmetics decorating her fair skin, pale-pink lips, and blond eyelashes and brows, it is only after some minutes of adjustment that one realizes the chiseled perfection of feature.
Also apropos to the ensemble is her mode of living. A big, rambling house set in rolling gardens, in Van Nuys, a hitherto unimportant village twenty miles out of Hollywood, is her home. Shared by Harry Bannister, her husband, and a very small and blond Jane, addressed by her parents as "Pink," steep hills and a broad valley form their view.
"Grass," Ann cries, "real trees — not props! A sky without smoke over it! Roses in January!"
Exiles from New York shudder at her delight. She can see olives and oranges growing. She can sit in her sunny garden and hear no traffic but the passing of birds.
“Neighbors, if there were any, would probably think me mad. I go to pieces every morning at the sight of flowers growing and goldfish in a pool. And it isn't a park! I can walk on the grass and pick flowers without trembling before signs warning me not to. Years of living in hotels and twentieth-floor apartments have made me a fool for nature." Thence to the nursery. Little Jane is dumped in the garden of a morning and brought in at night, each day becoming huskier and happier and pinker. Harry and Ann putter about the garden, planting and pruning all wrong, hut sublimely content. Fearing that if allowed to continue, she will reveal herself as in the pay of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the old reportorial instinct rears its head and urges, "to the point."
Born in Texas, an unlikely cradle for an embryo Melisande of a person. And, of all things, an army girl. Her father was an officer, later a general. Military life is nomadic, and Ann saw a good bit of America.
"The glamour of army life," Ann says, "makes a pretty tale, if you like fiction. I am an officer's daughter. So is my mother. I'd have it in my blood, if any one would. But I've seen army conditions at too close range."
In Washington there were no adequate accommodations, even for a general's family. Ann, with her mother and sister, was established in a New York apartment.
"I was at the age that demands activity. And there was nothing to do. There wasn't enough money for theaters or concerts all the time. After a few months of miserable idleness, I decided to work and make a great deal of money. So I looked in the want-ads for suggestions, and got a job with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, apprentice stenographer, at $12.50 a week.
"That was swell, but the sudden contact with the world went to my head. I developed pretentious ambition. The idea of rising rapidly to the presidency of my insurance company I discarded. I was meant for greater things. So I decided to be a scenario writer, using this as a wedge to becoming a director and reforming the movies."
Entering the office of Harry Durant, at that time head of Paramount's reading department, the extravagantly blond seventeen-year-old interrupted his bored greeting.
"I want it understood in the beginning," she informed him, "that I am not a silly girl looking for a chance on the screen. I'm not an actress and have no inclination to be one. What I am here for is to get work in your reading department."
Somewhat dazed and annoyed at having been denied utterance, Durant shoved a book into the hands of this voluble ingénue. "Here, take this. Prepare a synopsis. Good day."
The joke, if he meant it as such, was on him. Ann wrote a synopsis of the book, turned her work in and received other assignments. The additional five dollars and the impending glory of her literary career gave her impetus. Her work at the Metropolitan offices done, she remained after hours to type her synopses.
After a few months, the long hours and confinement began to tear at youthful nerves. Ann had no beaus, no frivolities. Gravely earnest though she was, this lack of amusement made natural inroads on her contentment. A craving for immediate excitement got the better of her.
"The most abandoned thing I could think of was to go down to Greenwich Village, to the Provincetown Players, tell them my name was Ann Harding — which it wasn't — and ask for a job carrying a spear."
Susan Glaspell's Inheritors was being cast, and a man who was looking over the assembled applicants pointed Ann out to the playwright. "That'll do for one of your giggling girls." Ann flinched. Was this, then, the impression she gave? However, attracted by the idea of doing something among young people, she returned next day. Jasper Deeter, the director, noticed her. Retaining her after the others had left, he asked her to read a certain portion of the script. Ann read it and was deeply humiliated to find herself weeping at the end.
"I decided then that I was either a darn fool, or an actress. And finding out which would be worth the effort. The part I had read was that of Madeleine, a grand role. Deeter, Heaven knows why, thought I could do it. In the midst of rehearsals I suddenly discovered that Madeleine was a pacifist. Indignant and seething with army traditions, I voiced my disapproval and was ready to leave, when Mr. Deeter took me in hand. During the three days in which he talked to me, with infinite patience and wisdom, I think I grew up. It was my first actual education, the first revelation of a broad world outside my own narrow track."
Her stenographic job abandoned, she still retained her synopsizing, but devoted most of her interest to the new work, for which she received $35 a week.
The eyes of Broadway managers are constantly on little-theater movements and, after the opening of "Inheritors," Ann received five offers. She grabbed the first one, before they all should vanish into mist. This was the lead opposite James Gleason, in "Like a King," at a $100 a week!
"The Gleason play was to open in the fall. I realized that if I was to take up acting as a trade, the least I could do was learn something about it. Stock is the grade school of the theater, so I joined Jessie Bonstelle's stock company in Buffalo. When I arrived, they took a fancy to my hair. I begged Miss Bonstelle to conceal the hair and find out if I could act."
After a summer in stock, Ann returned to New York and opened in the Gleason show. And very shortly thereafter closed again.
"I had never gone job hunting in the theater, and I wanted to be sure of doing it right. In the army, when one went calling, one always wore white gloves. I still owned a pair, hut they were in my dressing room at the theater. I went down for them, crossed the stage to my room, got the gloves, crossed back and went out. A man came running after me and called me in again and gave me a job.
The director handed her the script and peremptorily began giving her instructions.
"Now here you discover you are alone. And you scream."
Ann firmly handed him the script. "I'm sorry, but I can't scream. I'm not the screaming type, and I wouldn't know how to produce a scream. Besides, this girl is madly in love. I've never been in love, and I couldn't project something I know nothing about."
All of which served only to strengthen the director's decision. Ann's protests were of no avail. She was signed and put into rehearsal. The play died in Baltimore before reaching New York.
"By now I was convinced that the stage was my metier, although I was still an appallingly bad actress. But I liked the work, and I wanted to do it well. So back to stock I went, determined to learn how. This time Miss Bonstelle promoted me to ingénue. Ben Lyon was juvenile at the same time, a darling, and a corking actor."
How many, one wonders, of our little ladies of the screen still consider themselves novices after having played leads? Even if they did admit discrepancies, how few would admit them to the extent of going out and learning to correct them — not overnight, but over a period of years?
Turning her back on Broadway and the offers she continued to receive, Ann devoted her energy and intelligence to study. Advanced from ingénue to leading woman, the work was grueling, the hours long.
Ann's unwitting practice of speaking on her vocal cords instead of around them finally brought about acute laryngitis. Worn out, nervous, and on the verge of a breakdown, she gave up only when her voice flatly refused to function.
Her return to New York occasioned a renewal of offers from Broadway managers. Accepting one, she journeyed daily, between rehearsals, to a specialist who restored her voice in time for the opening night. The play was a moderate success and more and bigger offers continued to arrive at Ann's door.
"But I was still no good. I knew it. On the closing night, after the performance, I packed a bag and, without leaving word with any one, I set out for Philadelphia. Jasper Deeter had a splendid little theater there, the Hedgerow, and I threw myself on his mercy. I made him let me enter his stock group and study under his direction, than which there is no finer."
Back in New York, the principal role in Tarnish made her the sensation of the season. Stolen Fruit repeated her success. An engagement in Detroit as producer-director-star resulted in an auspicious triumph and — more important to Ann — her meeting Harry Bannister. In The Woman Disputed and The Trial of Mary Dugan, Ann Harding was established as one of the first names on Broadway.
Her entry into pictures, like her entry into the theater, was accidental. Going to California to be with her husband, who was on the road in Strange Interlude, Ann was snatching greedily at her first vacation in years.
"We wanted to see a studio, and our friend Frank Reicher took us through Pathé studio. After lunch he suggested that we have a test made. We refused, as we had refused a couple of previous suggestions from other companies. Pauline Lord and Judith Anderson had left Strange Interlude, and the Guild had offered Nina to me. I was going to continue on the road, working with Harry, which was grand."
But Reicher insisted on the test. Mr. and Mrs. Bannister consented, to please him, and did a low comedy scene, despite Reicher's plea for seriousness. Pathé, however, did take it seriously. They made an offer and continued to make more, until the Bannisters couldn't afford to refuse. Both, consequently, are under contract to Pathé.
And, additional to the fact that California is a nice place to rear little Jane, there is the satisfaction of having an Ann Harding to grace future pictures.
Miss Harding turned her back on Broadway in order to gain experience in a stock company.
Ann Harding chose to be a stenographer at $12.50 a week rather than remain inactive at home.
Photo by: Alexander
It is such vistas as this that cause Ann Harding and Harry Bannister to exult in California and the movies.
Collection: Picture Play Magazine, May 1930