Jean Hersholt — How “Dutch” Became Mr. Hersholt (1927) 🇺🇸

Jean Hersholt — How “Dutch” Became Mr. Hersholt (1927) |

December 18, 2023

The California sun beat down so mercilessly on the little group of cowboys and Indians that their swart, leathery complexions melted and oozed to a spotted mess of grease paint — yellow and pink grease paint — sticky as warm molasses.

by Ann Sylvester

During an interval when Scott Sidney, then crack director for Thomas H. Ince, was not actually using them, they swarmed into the uncertain shade to fan themselves with old newspapers. That is, all except one. Crazily enough, he stuck to his post out in the blaze of midday sun, panting for breath, his gun poised and ready for the call, “Camera!” He was a “furriner.” Maybe he didn’t know the director had cried, “At ease — rest!” No one had troubled to tell him.

Two hours later the scene was shot — a wild, whooping scene of Indians swooping down on a covered wagon. The little band of white men were supposed to fight valiantly, bravely. As a matter of fact, only one did — “Dutch,” the foreigner. The others cracked a rifle now and then, but didn’t bother to register expressions. It was too hot. Too hot for all but Dutch, who whooped it up like a wild man, as though the camera was centered on him instead of on the curly-headed hero with the bowed lips and legs.

“Cut!” yelled the wild and terrible voice of the crack director. “What the devil is the matter with those guys in the wagon? There’s only one of them that acts alive. What’s that guy’s name who’s whooping it up?”

An assistant ran yelling to Dutch. “What’s your name?”

The guy known as Dutch said, “Jean Hersholt.”

 “Well, you come and tell Mr. Sidney about it yourself,” said the assistant, who didn’t speak foreign languages.

A slow flush rose to the face of the chosen man — a flush of pleasure and gratification. After all, art in this amazing country was not without recognition. He clambered over the side of the wagon and followed the assistant at a dogtrot.

Sidney asked Dutch his name. “Now listen,” he yelled to the others, patting him on the shoulder, “this fellow has the right idea. You watch him do it. Turn loose and show them how you did it, Mr. Harshelt.”

No prima donna ever rose to the spotlight more brilliantly. Dutch yelled and screamed and shot imaginary Indians and registered fear, hate, consternation, determination and all four at once. “That’s great! Now run back and do it for us in the scene, and you other fellows do it as he does.”

Very much the hero of the hour, Dutch climbed back into the wagon. Forgotten was his heat and thirst in his hour of triumph. The great man with the megaphone had called on him and he had shown them! All day long he whooped it up. All day long he showed them.

When the day’s work was at an end and the sweaty men crowded into one dressing room, he told them, in his meager English, that he was not going to let the opening drop. He could and would prove to the great Mr. Sidney that he had been a fine actor in Europe — an actor with a reputation, an actor capable of doing much more than shooting Indians on a July day. He would prove it so emphatically with photographs that Mr. Sidney would make him a star. Dutch chuckled to himself at the simplicity of the plan. The others chuckled, too — at the same thing. “Don’t you know,” said one of the “Indians” who wasn’t too tired to talk, “that all stars is cuties? And you ain’t no cutie, Dutch.”

Perhaps Dutch didn’t hear. Perhaps he wouldn’t have cared if he had. The next day found him outside Sidney’s office with the precious pictures under his arm — the pictures that were to establish his identity as an actor of note and make him a star for the man who recognized good acting when he saw it. When the director stepped out of his door, Dutch, beaming like the rising sun, tapped him reverentially on the arm.

“I haff some pictures,” he grinned, speaking heavily, gutturally, but smiling so that every tooth showed.

Mr. Sidney frowned.

“Don’t you remember me? I am the one that shot the Indians yesterday. I haff some pictures.” He made as though to untie the twine that held them.

“I’m not interested,” snapped Sidney. He didn’t mean to be unkind, but he was busy. “Show them to the casting director.”

The curtain is lowered to denote a lapse of time.

It rises on the office of the general manager of the Universal studio — an office luxurious with soft chairs and long mahogany tables. Back of one table sits the general manager. Facing him is a star — one of the company’s best bets. He is carefully and successfully groomed. He is not under twenty-one, nor particularly handsome, nor dimple-chinned. He is, in short, living testimony to the fact that not all stars are “cuties.”

This star and the general manager are, if you want to know, in conference on the details of the film, The Wrong Mr. Wright. An inner door opens, and a director enters.

“Mr. Sidney,” begins the general manager, “I want you to know Jean Hersholt.”

“We know each other,” smiles the actor. They shake hands. “I used to work for Mr. Sidney.”

The director looks surprised.

“Used to shoot Indians for him. Do you remember when you picked me out from the crowd?”

Indeed Mr. Sidney does remember. They laugh.

“Remember when I brought my photographs around and you weren’t interested?”

Mr. Sidney looks vague. “No —”

“Well,” says Hersholt, “that’s all right.”

All of which goes to prove, as Anita Loos so aptly puts it, that “fate keeps on happening.” You never can tell where it is going to strike. Or whom. Or how.

In the interval between scenes 1 and 2 Jean Hersholt has become more than a commercial proposition to his employers, a splendid character actor to the public, and a substantial citizen in Beverly Hills. Dutch, the foreigner, has become an actor with a press agent, and if that isn’t the nth degree of success nothing is.

It was under the latter circumstances that I met him one day at the Montmartre, and over the stimulus of an elaborate salad he related the foregoing story. As he himself put it, “Funny how things happen.”

As usual, he was immaculately groomed. Unlike Wally Beery [Wallace Beery], Von Stroheim [Erich Von Stroheim], Chaney [Lon Chaney], and several other of his character-actor friends, Jean Hersholt has never seemed to find it necessary to slouch around off the set in an open shirt and a spotted cap. Lew Cody himself is no more of a sartorial display than this man who attracted attention through his portrayals in GreedDulcy, Stella Dallas, The Old Soak, My Old Dutch, and It Must Be Love, to name only a few of his outstanding successes. Perhaps this immaculateness is a reaction from the time when he boasted only one suit a year, for his career has been an inspiring pull against odds.

As he is a native of Denmark, there was when he first came to America the struggle with a difficult alien tongue.

“I came to this country as the manager of a show — its name isn’t important,” he said, smiling as foreigners always smile when they speak. “We came down through Canada into San Francisco, where the show broke up. It wasn’t,” he explained carefully, “any too good. So I think, what to do? It was very hard to get work, because I didn’t speak the language very good.”

“You don’t speak it any too well, now,” volunteered the press agent, who is also a friend.

“Ha!” roared Jean, turning to me. “That’s good.” Which ought to be an indication of his sense of humor. It’s so sure that he can see a laugh on himself. In fact, his whole personality glows with that warm humor that somehow reminds one of those pictured friars who spent their days over their beads and their nights over their mugs.

“In a little while I hear about these moving pictures” — going on with his story — “that pay actors big money. I am an actor. I put two and two together and get — get to Hollywood somehow. For a while, like I tell you, I do only extra work and carry a spear. But pretty soon they see I can look bad, and funny, and sad and silly, and they make a star of me. That’s nice.”

“That’s great!” I insisted. “And shall I say in the story that you feel just the same toward the world today as you did then? That’s always a good thought to finish with.”

“No!” protested Mr. Hersholt violently. “With all I’ve got now — a wonderful wife and a husky little boy, and a home for them, and work I love, to do — I should be a fool to say I feel the same. You can say I feel so different you wouldn’t ever know me.”

Well, Scott Sidney didn’t!

Jean Hersholt — How “Dutch” Became Mr. Hersholt (1927) |

Ed Munn, in Stella Dallas, was one of his best roles.

It Must Be Love presented him as the owner of a delicatessen.

He is starred in Alias the Deacon.

Jean Hersholt uses little make-up to accomplish his many disguises. The above photograph shows him as he looks without any.

Photo by: Roman Freulich (1898–1974)

Jean Hersholt — How “Dutch” Became Mr. Hersholt (1927) |

Jean Hersholt — How “Dutch” Became Mr. Hersholt (1927) | Conrad Veidt — A Welcome Invader from Germany (1927) |

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, May 1927