Blore, Simpson, Treacher — Butlers Are Only Skin Deep (1936) 🇺🇸
Are butlers, like beauty, only skin deep? Three famous screen gentlemen’s “gentlemen” Eric Blore, Ivan Simpson and Arthur Treacher, reveal their real selves.
Scratch a butler and do you find the “gentleman’s gentleman,” his soul in the service of caviar, his heart in the honing of a razor strop?
In plain terms, if you should scratch Eric Blore as he draws the “bawth” for Edward Everett Horton or serves pigeons’ hearts and puns to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, if you should scratch Arthur Treacher as he draws back a chair for Shirley Temple, if you should scratch Ivan Simpson as he serves tea for Mr. Arliss — what would you find?
Messrs. Blore, Treacher and Simpson are Englishmen three. They hail from the Isle of Butlers. Of perfect butlers. For when is a butler not a butler might be answered thisaway — when he is not an Englishman. Still, it is reasonable to surmise that when Messrs. Blore, Treacher and Simpson were yet unbreeched they did not plan their future lives in terms of buttling for Astaire, Temple and Arliss. They doubtless expected to be buttled.
What is the man behind the screen butler like? Does servitude, even in films, nip the arrogant soul of the man until he instinctively passes the pâté de fois gras and says “Sir” to inferior young moppets?
Do Messrs. Blore, Treacher and Simpson resent being butlers? What are they like when the napkin is removed from their arms?
I scratched Eric Blore and found: A whimsical gentleman. A very charming gentleman. A most sophisticated gentleman. A gentleman who is no slouch with the ladies, who is, indeed, married to Clara Mackin, one-time actress and a celebrated beauty. The father of a son of eight. A father who disciplines his only son with Milne-esque poetry — Milne with a dark dash of Poe.
Mr. Blore read me one of his poems. He recited it with fire and fervor. He went further and gave us permission to print part of it. Eventually, it will be included in a book of Blore verse. For, among other things, I found, when I lunched with Mr. Blore, the gentleman, is that he is rated as the second best lyricist in all England. Before he recited the poem to me he said, “I recommend this to all fathers of sons. I find that it absolved me from the unpleasant duty of castigation!”
And here is a verse and chorus from “The Scroggins”:
And I wish you could have heard Mr. Blore doing “The Scroggins.” The way he rolled his S’s and his eyes when he “rang up Scranton 0-0-0” was a treat! While delving into the Blore biography, I discovered that Mr. Blore is the only son of an English professor, a professor so learned in the classics that he reads Greek and Latin as we read Walter Winchell. A father who had predestined his only son for the law, for government service. It certainly never occurred to the scholarly elder Blore, the bibliophile, that his Eric would one day be “in service.”
And what is more, Mr. Blore studied law. He passed his civil service examinations, though he tried not to.
And he then passed into an insurance office, only to pass out of it as soon as possible and onto the stage. His first stage appearance was at the Spa Theatre, Bridlington, England, in the year 1908. He then toured Australia and the provinces and then did four years at the front. He was with the Royal Flying Corps and also conducted the 36th Divisional Concert Party in France, being unable to keep the theatre out of the trenches. And at the front he first met Herbert Marshall, his friend through the years.
After the War he reappeared on the London stage, at the Wyndham Theatre, in “His Little Widows,” and audiences laughed him from one success to another, until his butler in the stage production of “The Gay Divorcee” brought him to Hollywood to repeat that character on the screen.
Eric Blore loathes buttling. He said, “I wouldn’t mind, you know, playing a butler with character, such a butler, for instance, as Wodehouse’s ‘Jeeves.’ But I do object, quite violently, to being typed. I do resent the once-a-butler-always-a-butler mold into which the movies seem to have hurled me.
“I have no objections to butlers on the grounds that might be supposed. I do not consider them inferior persons. On the contrary, a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ is often the gentleman of the two. I learned about butlers from my batman during the War. A perfect butler he was, having buttled for one of the oldest houses in England for years. And in the stilly nights he used often to regale me with the mysteries of his profession, never dreaming, either of us, that one day his profession would become mine. He told me of how the art is handed down from father to son. He told me, proudly, that being a butler to a noble house is to be a king in one’s own domain, with many underlings who are very under.
And so, when I do my buttling on the screen, I think of the trenches and of my batman. I realize that a butler has indeed all of the characteristics of a perfect gentleman. He is quiet of voice and manner. He is never obtrusive. He is the soul of reticence and honor. The butler I played in ‘Top Hat’ was modelled definitely from my batman (now a banker, I believe). For it is literally true that the butler will say, from his heart, ‘We have lumbago this morning,’ or ‘We are riding to hounds today.’ The identification of master and man is absolute. In other words, in ‘Top Hat’ Edward Everett Horton and I were not two men, but one. And a kinder gentleman than Mr. Horton I never served!” — and Eric gave me the Blore smile that we have all come to know so well.
“Even so,” said Mr. Blore plaintively, over his sardine sandwich, “I resent perpetual buttling. Not because it does anything to me. Not because I find myself passing the mustard ofif the set. No, I am still master in my own home. But because it bores me. Buttling bores me. Buttling bores me horribly. I must be the same butler, movies without end. I am an actor, not a butler. I want to act. I should like to do, let us say, Goodbye, Mr. Chips — characters. To play a type incessantly is not acting. It is, indeed, monotony to the point of madness. I shall go berserk one day and anoint one of my gentlemen with the onion soup, I’m very much afraid.”
And wouldn’t Mr. Blore make a perfect Mr. Chips? And ah, there, fans, look out for that onion soup... for the Blore smile conceals a k-nife!
I scratched Ivan Simpson and found: A charming, elderly man with the Queen’s English beautiful and rich at the tip of his tongue. A man who has played Shakespeare in England, in the provinces, on Broadway. A man who, at the age of eight, learned by heart the first eight pages of Macaulay’s “History of England.”
Mr. Simpson has played with John Drew and with George Arliss. And it was with Mr. Arliss that he first “went into service.” For he played the butler in the stage production of “The Green Goddess” and when, later, Mr. Arliss did the play in pictures he would have Mr. Simpson and none other buttle for him. And Mr. Simpson has buttled for Mr. Arliss ever since.
In between he has tutored several of our screen stars in the use of the English language for their screen roles. He first tutored Frances Howard, who became Mrs. Sam Goldwyn. He coached Loretta Young. He knows all there is to know about the theatre. He loves the stage with the authentic passion of the old-time actor to whom grease paint is incense and backstage the holy of holies.
He is married. He has a grown daughter. He is, he says, almost at the end of the road, where nothing is very important any more and life begins to appear in retrospect. He recently appeared in “Splendor” and the successful Mutiny on the Bounty.
I asked him how buttling affected him and he said:
“I should know. I have probably opened and shut more doors than anyone in Hollywood. And constantly I have been asked, ‘Can’t you shut that door without making so much noise?’ Why in thunder studios don’t build the jambs of beaver board I cannot understand. It would minimize sound considerably and spare me many a round rating, I can tell you.
“I hate playing butlers for several reasons. One is the studios want to pay me a butler’s wage no matter how important the part may be. If they have a king in the picture, and even though he says only a couple of lines, they pay him a royal salary. But I have to be satisfied with much less.
Then, I have little sympathy with the person who is willing to be a subservient character. Of course, I do believe that a person who does his job well, whether he be president or cobbler or butler is a gentleman. Doing your job to the best of your ability, loving the job you are doing, is the essential thing in life. If a waiter waits upon me perfectly I bow reverently to him when I leave._ If I happen to be waited upon by a waitress I try to curtsy properly, even though my limbs are now too stiff to do this with any dignity...
“It is my luck to be cast always as the loyal old retainer who goes on working for years without salary. I often wonder who is supposed to pay my laundry bills as my linen has to be impeccable in spite of the family poverty. I also save my employers from suicide on more than one dramatic occasion, and that is absolutely contrary to my conscientious convictions which are that any person who wants to drop the responsibilities given him to shoulder should be permitted to do so without hindrance.
“Another reason I dislike playing butlers is that,” Mr. Simpson smiled, “I never had one. Also, so few, so very few of my friends ever had butlers. To be absolutely truthful, I don’t really know what a butler looks like. I surmise that he has two arms, two legs, a mouth and a nose. Perhaps a soul. Who knows? Come to think of it, R. C. has a butler, also B. A. But these butlers were never given such lines as we have to speak when we buttle on the screen. If they dared to speak the lines we put into the mouths of our movie butlers their lives would_ be short, and their employers and relatives immediately relieved of them.
“My screen butlers,” said Mr..Simpson, with a wave of his very fine hand, “put me, like Christian, in the Slough of Despond. I carry them, like burdens, upon my back.”
I scratched Arthur Treacher and found: Mr. Treacher is six foot three. Mr. Treacher is droll. Air. Treacher is bored. He has an apartment here in Hollywood. He lives alone. He does not entertain nor does he allow himself to be entertained. He plays golf on his few off moments — alone. He seldom reads. He is the only son of a widowed mother, who still lives in Brighton, England, where Arthur was born. The elder Treacher was a lawyer and hoped that his son would eventually serve the people legally, too.
He chose the stage. And very early he built up a London reputation. He played with Charles Cochrane for three years. He appeared with Sir Alfred Butt. The Shuberts brought him to America and he made his Broadway debut at the Winter Garden in New York. He scored a six-foot-three hit in “The Cat and the Fiddle.” He played for over a year in the Barrymore revival of “The School for Scandal” and appeared with Mary Ellis in “The Man Who Came Back.”
He thinks almost everything is rather silly and quite awfully unimportant. Marriage, for instance. He was once burned and is thrice shy. He does not date girls nor spend time at the late spots of Hollywood. He says, “Oh, dear, no!” to all such things.
Mr. Treacher revealed himself to me over the luncheon table in the Paramount commissary. He was appearing in “Anything Goes,” at that time.
He said, “I am a bit of a recluse by nature. I am, also, a bit of a tyrant. I expect preferential treatment. That is to say, when I dine out, in a cafe or a hotel dining room, I expect waiters and maître d’hôtels to stand about a bit. I expect at least as competent service as I fancy I give on the screen.
“Hollywood takes its actors at their face value. Which means that I am frequently taken at my butler value. When I am working on a set, for instance, I am never given a chair marked ‘Arthur Treacher.’ No, indeed. I have to stand. I am expected to stand. I am a butler and butlers do not sit down in the presence of their superiors. When, on rare occasions I dine out, and am seated next to some reigning star I find him, or her, glancing at me slightly askance. They are so used, you see, to seeing me pass the soup or pull out chairs for them. They don’t quite know what they should say to me.
“I shouldn’t dream of having a man servant in my home. Seeing him open and shut doors would be a postman’s holiday and nightmare combined.
“Buttling is excessively boring. For the first butler we play on the screen is the last butler we play on the screen. We may timidly suggest some slight characterization. But the answer is, inevitably, ‘Oh, no, we want you to be the same butler as you were in ‘Curly Top,’ or whatever the last picture chanced to be. You can readily appreciate what a vicious circle it is.
“If one has not the soul of a slave...” sighed Mr. Treacher.
From which you may deduce that butlers, like beauty, are only skin deep. For we have removed the napkins from Messrs. Blore, Treacher and Simpson and we have seen what we have seen — men of might and majesty who are liable to spill the onion soup at any moment!
Arthur Treacher, screen butler de luxe with Ida Lupino in “Anything Goes.”
Eric Blore, outraged valet to Edward Everett Horton, in a “Top Hat” scene.
Ivan Simpson, the “old retainer” type, with Miriam Hopkins in “Splendor.”
Illustrations: Butlers by Ed Graham
Collection: Modern Screen Magazine, April 1936