Life Begins at 50 (1935) 🇺🇸
Is it too late to attempt a career at 50? Of course not. These troupers prove it isn't.
by Beth Brown
You read about the copper king who shot himself. You read about the big fight promoter who couldn’t take it. You read about the rich realtor who walked out on his secretary — straight through a window forty stories above the street.
But you didn’t read about the actor going dramatic.
The Depression had brought business to its knees — and show business was included. But you didn’t hear a murmur from the show folk themselves.
As you walked down Broadway past the Palace Theatre, you couldn’t fail to notice the empty curb, where, for years, vaudeville artists had congregated in excited clusters. As you wandered up Theatre Row, you couldn’t fail to notice how many of the legitimate theatres were dark.
You weren’t so concerned about the younger players. They could become dress models and soda jerkers. But what about the veterans? How were they breasting the storm? Well, maybe they had money in the bank or a snug annuity for life or a house out in the country.
Then, all at once, you heard the inside story of W. C. Fields.
W. C. Fields had just reached the half century mark. He could retire. He would retire. He had $250,000 cold cash in the Harriman Bank. You read what happened to the Harriman Bank. There was nothing else for Fields to do but start all over again.
He made three motion picture attempts. None of the producers called out the fire engines. He tried his hand at a series of comedies for Mack Sennett. Just as the dark horizon was brightening, Fields met with an accident on the set. They rushed him to the hospital. It was serious. He had broken his neck.
At the hospital, they placed his head in a brace. They placed his neck in a cast. They took the calendar down from the wall.
For months, he lay in bed. But he almost never slept.
Sometimes, nature, in order to make a human being stop spinning, provides an illness as a brake. The dark page of the past is turned forever. The patient emerges to the bright page of the future. So it was with Fields. Paramount was waiting with a contract. His brand of humor caught the public fancy.
Now he tells the world that “any idea I may have had of retiring at fifty must have been a mistake. The bank closed to punish me for wanting to be idle. And when I wept over that misfortune, Fate broke my neck. I want Fate to know that I don’t regret the bank failure or the broken neck and that no further accidents will be necessary.”
May Robson accepts the challenge from glamorous and alluring competitors to take from her the popularity which has only come to her in her later years.
“I’m packing,” she said hurriedly, “so I really haven’t very much time to talk on the subject. I came East to attend the christening of my great-grandchild and I’ve got to get back to the Coast. Tired? Not a bit. I’m going back to make another picture. Retire? Are you in earnest? I hope not, really. Why, I’m only getting my second wind now. That’s what my dear Marie Dressier would have said. It was her wish to die in harness and she did. No one knew how much she suffered, but she never quit. That’s my spirit, too. I’m glad I have it. I’m kept pretty busy out Hollywood way jumping from one picture to the other. There’s a demand for old ladies now, and being an old lady, I happen to be in luck.
“I’ve had fifty years of trouping, you know. So it’s quite up my alley to go back and forth across the continent. I feel as young and as strong as I did fifty years ago in London. And certainly I take life less seriously than I did at that time. Maturity teaches patience and develops a sense of humor. One’s nerves are never wracked at my age.
“I’ve seen many changes in my time. The stage has always mirrored the world, and the world has evolved. I consider myself very fortunate to have been given the privilege to have lived to see it. Many more changes are coming and I want to see them, too. One never steps out of an arena while a fight is going on unless one is a quitter. I’m not going to be a quitter until Gabriel blows his horn.”
Fifty years ago, an eighteen-year-old girl by the name of Mary Robison made her debut as Little Tillie in a play called “Hoop of Gold.” The printer made two mistakes on the programme. He left out the letter “r” in Mary and the letter “i” in Robison. That left it “May Robson” and as “May Robson” she has lived.
Her beloved Marie Dressler sold May Robson to Hollywood, and a grateful Hollywood it must be since this veteran actress has given new life to the box office. Her picture Lady for a Day established her as an actress equal in popularity to her friend Marie. “Lady By Choice” should make audiences feel that here is a woman who can make up for them the loss of Marie Dressler.
Henrietta Crosman — the grand old lady in “Menace” — told me her story without any bitterness as we sat in the gathering dusk of her beautiful home in Beverly Hills.
Miss Crosman went on the stage in 1883. She played one night stands in all sorts of weather, falling into bed at two in the morning, falling out at five to make the next jump. Some of the time, there were no Pullmans. She married a Major Campbell. Her baby came. She kept right on working. Sarah, the nurse, in lieu of a screen, would hold aloft a steamer rug in the chilly publicity of a day coach so that the mother could take care of the baby.
The climb up the unstable ladder of success was slow. But finally, she stood at the top. Her glorious titian hair had turned gray. But she had made New York audiences rise and call her name. She was famous. She was rich. She had fifty years of stage life behind her when she took her last curtain call.
She bought a beautiful home in Pelham Manor. And she retired from public life.
The stock market crashed. It swept the solid earth from under her feet. It swept the fifty years away.
She sat down and said: “What shall I do?”
People answered: “Why don’t you teach?”
She retorted: “I can’t.”
So she and her husband went on living in that big house in Pelham Manor — without anything to live on.
The house sat in a huge garden. Within this garden, was a little garden of her own, fenced all about with a tall wall. Here she would come — to be with God.
One day — and it was very black in spite of the sun that was shining and the birds that were singing and the flowers that were fragrant — she went to her garden. She was in the depths of despair. In her anguish, she called aloud to God. He answered.
Major Campbell called to her. He was shouting something or other from the doorway. It sounded like: “Would you go to Hollywood to make a picture? Fox is on the telephone.”
And so for Henrietta Crosman life began again, fifteen years past fifty.
It took misfortune in still another guise to give Guy Kibbee his lucky break. At forty, he was earning $37.50 a week, playing character roles with a stock company in Lincoln, Nebraska, and convinced that he had reached the zenith of his theatrical career.
He lived comfortably enough in a rambling family hotel. Then, as now, he was rotund of figure and bald of pate. And he wasn’t consumed with any driving ambition.
He married. The lady suggested Hollywood. He wasn’t particularly interested. The lady repeated Hollywood. You know how those things end — it was Hollywood — or Hollywood.
But once he arrived, he could not get a job. The experience of years did not count. The family fortune dwindled.
One night, over an epochal dinner, a friend advised that the Kibbees go to New York in their search for laurels. They examined their car. They had christened it “Rabbit” not because it was fast but because its natural gait was a hop. With many false starts, they finally drove out of Hollywood.
The ups and downs of that transcontinental journey were not only of the landscape. The Kibbees subsisted on crusts and slept under the stars. They had thermoid trouble and three flats. But finally they reached New York on a rainy September morning and moved in on a chap who had a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village. They were dead broke.
The very next day, over the luncheon table at the Lambs’ Club, a man rushed up to Kibbee. He was so excited that what he said made very little sense. It was something about a character part that had walked out of a sketch that was scheduled on the radio that night and would Kibbee do him a favor and play the radio that walked out for forty-five dollars and there wasn’t much time so could Kibbee come right over.
One excited man led to one exciting night. The accidental assignment led to a part in “The Torch Song” and “The Torch Song” led back to Hollywood. And Hollywood, that would not send around the corner, sent all the way to New York for Kibbee.
For more than a quarter of a century, Alison Skipworth was a name to conjure with on Broadway. Daniel Frohman had seen her in London, heard her fine contralto voice, and signed her as a prima donna. She had many successes in those twenty-five years. But mostly she talks — and laughs — about the time she appeared in twenty successive failures.
She made a silent picture. The picture made little or no impression. Too bad that fine contralto voice of hers was silent. Much, much too bad, for at the moment, the Depression was closing down the legitimate theatre.
Skipworth decided to retire to her Long Island estate. She knew she would be unhappy out of the profession but what else was there to do?
Then, like an unexpected life preserver tossed out to the drowning, the talkies came into being. Paramount heard that fine contralto voice and placed it under contract.
“I’m fifty-five years old,” says she, pointing toward leeward which in this case happens to mean her still far from white hair. (She wears a white wig, you know, in “Here Is My Heart.”) “I’m proud to admit it. People ask me why I don’t retire now that I’ve made enough money to live on comfortably, but as the stocking said to the needle that threatened to go through it, ‘I’ll be darned.’ What would there be left for me to do? Who wants to sit back and think about being an old woman? You know, so many women I know have become old before their time by growing morbid about age. They sit in a rocker all day long and think and think and think. One woman I knew had a penchant for protesting that she’d never live long enough to see anything materialize. ‘They are building subways?’ she asked me twenty years ago. ‘I’ll never live to see them finished.’ She’s still going strong, by the way. Now if that woman had had some useful and creative occupation to keep her busy, she’d have stopped thinking about not living to see grand projects completed, but would have gone out and helped make them.
“I love work. Work keeps one’s body young and one’s mind active. Age isn’t a matter of time, it’s a matter of thought. Some people are young at sixty and others are old at twenty. I feel sorry for these people who have nothing to do all day long but think about themselves. Between you and me, we all have an ache once in awhile and I’m no different from the rest, but with my work and my bridge games and so many things to see and do, I refuse to give in to them. I’m not the sort, you see, that likes to waste time reminiscing about the past. I’m too busy thinking about the future. No, I’ll stay around until no one wants me anymore.”
At whom would the audience laugh if we older people retired from active service?” asks Mrs. Captain Patrick Campbell, the grand and mighty queen of the theatre who for almost fifty years held first place in the hearts of young blades who saw her in the gay nineties. “Who would take the part of the old maiden aunt? Do you realize we furnish most of the comedy? Audiences like to laugh at old folks — they make them seem so superior and modern and sophisticated, but we don’t mind. One of the grand recompenses that we have is the luxury of lost vanity. We don’t have to worry about hiding our age and losing our sex appeal. We don’t have to hide our age — people usually can guess it. You know, there usually is some octogenarian in the family who has a diabolical memory and takes sadistic delight in saying, ‘Is that Mrs. Pat Campbell still alive? I saw her when I was just a little tike.’ We older actors and actresses feel that when we are chosen for a part it’s because the director knows that we’ll be good in it. In that sense we are better off than is the younger player. Then why should we retire? If one has health, then one can go on working. As long as I feel that people want to see me on the screen, I shall never stop working. I suppose my friend, George Bernard Shaw, would say that I, who have hearkened to so many cues, should know the time to quit. Well, at the moment I don’t feel that time has come.”
I don’t think it will ever come for Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Her sailing through the years has been a pretty easy one and she has held on to her trophies of popularity and affection by outdistancing any younger and faster clippers that have appeared on the horizon. Of all the famous stars of yesterday, I think it is her name which means the most to veteran audiences. She was a noted beauty and wit, the toast of her generation and the most famous interpreter of Shakespearian roles. Her fame spread over the world. She was the friend and confidante of royalty. In 1888, she made her stage debut and has appeared in such favorite plays as “The Second Mrs. Tanqueray,” “The Masquerader,” and “Electra.”
“You know,” she confessed, “at one time I actually did retire for several years. I felt my day was done. But I was restless and unhappy. I tried to fill my days with other pursuits but I kept thinking of my salad days constantly and wishing that I could live them all over again. Then a call came from Irving Thalberg who was in England at the time with his wife, Norma Shearer. He told me that his wife would start a picture upon their return to Hollywood to be called ‘Riptide,’ and asked me if I would care to play one of the leads. Would I? You could bet I would. I forgot all about my vow to retire, forgot about my salad days. I was still wanted, I could still play a featured role. Out of my retirement I came, and out of it I remained, for ‘One More River.’ I hope I shall continue to remain out of it. I’m happier now than I’ve been in years.”
Commander Helen Westley’s philosophy is probably derived from the nautical signal, “Green to green, red to red, all is well, go ahead.” Steadfastly, surely, she has gone ahead until today she is one of the powers to be reckoned with in theatrical circles. Like the good commander she is, she has charted the course of the New York Theatre Guild and has brought it safely to port through choppy and uncertain seas. If you saw her performance in “The House of Rothschild,” you will have recognized in her an actress of finish and style.
“For forty years I have been identified with the theatre,” says Commander Helen, “and I hope to continue being identified with it for forty years more.
“To me age is the most beautiful time in life. We are free, free to be alone, free to think, free to rest. We are not cluttered by the emotions of early youth, we have grown more retrospective, we see with clearer eyes. Of course there are some silly women who remain emotionally young until the end, but I feel that these are in the minority, that most of us who have reached the age of fifty have grown mature in our emotions.
“I believe that the age of mankind is divided into three parts; the age of learning when we begin to read and write and understand the strangeness of the world, the emotional age which is purely tied up with sex, and lastly, the cosmic age when we can think of the world without our ideas being cluttered up by the demands of sex. Then a woman is free to know herself, to analyze herself and the people about her.
In 1919, the Theatre Guild was formed. Helen Westley was one of its founders and is today one of its six directors. She has appeared in some of its greatest successes including “Strange Interlude.” The Guild to her is like a child and she nurtures it with hard work. What could it do without -its Commander Helen? Despite her screen contract, she returns to it every few months to see how it is coming along.
Live your life to the fullest, doing as little harm to others as possible, but live your life. That’s what it’s for.”
And the man who spoke those words spoke from the richness of experience. At sixtv, Commander Sir Guy Standing. C.B.E., K.B.E., R.N.V.R., is still living his life to the fullest after having crammed enough successful adventure and romance into his three score years to exhaust half a dozen lesser men.
“Yes, I’ve been lucky,” he said, never a sick day in my life. That makes a big difference. The other day I realized that I never got weary. It started me thinking. Maybe there was something wrong with me — glands or something.”
Sir Guy’s life really began when he was nine. To his home in Brighton, Sussex, came an uncle. The importance of this uncle was that he brought with him a sovereign. He gave the coin to Guy and a strange metamorphosis took place. The boy became a seafarer. He bought a boat for that sovereign and still feels that he was cheated. He and two other ambitious Britons of the same age turned to and in three weeks had remade the craft. Now all they needed was a sail. Young Standing was a stout fellow, not one to stop at trifles. There was a large family table cloth.... “Of course,” says Sir Guy, “when it was reported among the missing, it caused a deal of comment. I maintained a diplomatic silence.”
When he was fifteen his actor-father, Herbert Standing, called him into conference. Guy was given his choice of two things, working his way through the University or turning to and starting his career, whatever it was to be. He painted a little, played a little and acted a little — “and did all three badly.” So he decided to act anyway.
In little or no time he strode into his father’s study, the proud possessor of a contract to play juvenile leads with a stock company up among the coals of Newcastle. His father promptly snorted. At any rate he tried to discourage the venture, saying that Guy would probably not be paid off by such a cheap and inferior company and would have to wire home.
“But, hang it all! Sir, it’s a fine company. They’re going to pay me three pounds a week to play juveniles!”
“Yes, quite so!... That proves the company is no good!”
Sir Guy’s only comment today is that his father was right — quite right. But the young actor didn’t do as his father had predicted he would. He didn’t telegraph home for money. Instead he got a job on a collier — a coal boat.
He acted whenever he could and sailed whenever he couldn’t. He went to Australia and tried his hand at gold mining and sheep raising. But he could not forget the stage.
He came over to America. Between calls on agents and managers, he went from house to house selling water colors that he painted at odd moments. He had to eat. Finally, Frohman gave him a part. He skyrocketed to success. Paramount signed him.
Then came the war.
Graciously enough, Paramount released him with the understanding that when the war ended in a few months, the actor would return to pictures.
The war lasted five years. He was knighted. He came back to America with a munificent capital of $40. It meant beginning his career all over again. He played with Jane Cowl. The company went to Hollywood.
Sir Guy did not go on at fifty — as the others had — because of a bank failure, a stock crash, or a death. He actually began his career at fifty.
Now at sixty, his advice is: “Do a kind thing now and then. Have a hobby or two. Ride them hard. Keep busy. And, when you shave in the morning, look yourself squarely in the eye and say: “This is going to be a great day. Thank God for it. And thank God I’m here to enjoy it. And life at fifty — or sixty — or seventy — or any old age — will give you usefulness and happiness.”
When Guy Kibbee was forty, he was making only $37.50 per week, playing character roles in a Lincoln, Nebraska, stock company. Today, at fifty, he has the starring role in Sinclair Lewis’ “Babbitt,” with Aline MacMahon as his costar — a fine team.
(Above, left) It was long after she had passed the fifty-year mark that May Robson was a success — in “Lady for a Day.” Her latest film with Carole Lombard is “Lady By Choice.”
(Directly above) W. C. Fields suffered terrific financial losses at fifty and turned to the movies in despair. He made good. His latest film is “It’s A Gift,” with Baby Leroy.
(Above, right) At fifty-five, Alison Skipworth doesn’t have any desire to retire. She loves her work and wants to keep right on with it. She’s in “Here Is My Heart.”
(Extreme right) Sir Guy Standing, another exponent of the work-as-long-as-you-can theory, in Lives of a Bengal Lancer.
The author talks about herself: I am small, brunette, and do not look like an author. I wanted more than anything else of life to be an author. This, I had heard, required a variety of experiences. So I up and joined a carnival show and wrote Ballyhoo, joined a burlesque troupe and wrote Applause, went to New Orleans and wrote For Men Only, went abroad and wrote Wedding Ring, went to Hollywood and wrote for the movies, and hoboed across the continent, with only a dog for a companion, to write “Lady Hobo.”
I love my work. I love red hats, seamy faces, ten-cent stores, smart clothes, watermelon, swimming, my red-haired mother, Broadway, fine etchings, midnight movies, polo, and corn on the cob.
Collection: Modern Screen Magazine, January 1935