Mary Astor — Gone Are Her Languors (1929) 🇺🇸

Mary Astor — Gone Are Her Languors (1929) |

November 04, 2023

This madness called a film career is one of the most deliriously inconsistent things in the universe. You have perhaps heard that before, but it is always good for a repetition, and none the less true.

by William H. McKegg

A newcomer will start out full of ambition. He will get his break. A smooth future unfolds itself before him — but he finds that he is not accomplishing any of the great things he had hoped to do. Do not blame him. You don't know the precarious movies. Neither does the aspiring newcomer.

As examples, take Richard Arlen, Hugh Allan, Clara Bow, and Esther Ralston. All had been in pictures several years before they won their spurs. Suddenly they flashed to the front in a particular picture, long after their first chance. It seems that a player's second chance is often the better one in the movies.

All that's a long introduction to the main issue — Mary Astor. Like these other players, she has spent several years in pictures — but only now is she flashing to the fore, and surprising the fans. Don't blame her because she was such a long time proving she could do something worth while.

"I had been kept down to the sweet, fainting heroines," Mary declared, with a whine of simulated despair. "Never would any one in the studios believe I could do anything else. I was always the meek, little girl, ready to faint at the least provocation."

But how far from fainting is the Astor of to-day! In Dressed to Kill she had no chance to faint, having to keep her wits among a gang of crooks. In Dry Martini she carried on so gayly in Paris that she shocked her sophisticated father, who was a real Parisian boulevardier at that. Mary is now, as we say, showing the world.

"When I look back on all the long struggle, it is with a smile and much amusement, Mother and I often laugh about it. Yet, at the time —

She smoothed some cold cream over her face.

Perhaps I should have said that I was in her bungalow dressing-room, once occupied by Olive Borden, and that Mary was making up for The Woman from Hell.

"Without stressing the old point too much, I admit that ever since I was a kid I was always crazy to act. School theatricals, or any public event, called forth my ambitions. Mother had wanted to become an actress, but she had been born in too early a period. There was tradition. The stage was bad, and so forth. However, she did not let old-fashioned ideas hamper my attempts to make a start."

The cold-cream massage over, the Astor picked up her cigarette and caused the red-gold end to blaze brightly as she drew in the smoke. Then she returned to her facial duties.

"Dad was a language professor. He was without work at the time, so we sold what we had and went to Chicago, because some bogus schools there promised a rosy future on the screen to all who enrolled. Like many others, I believed what I read. How many dollars we spent, studying make-up and supposed dramatics!

"To tide us over, and to educate me, mother obtained a position as a teacher of elocution in a private school. Her salary paid for my tuition."

The cold cream was by now all wiped off, and a thin layer of pink grease paint was being patted over the Astor's features.

"Then the great event came," Mary continued, turning the shades of the electric lights above the dressing table to afford more illumination on her face. "A magazine contest was being conducted in New York. The winner would get a five-year contract, or something, and much publicity. There was only one thing to do. We scraped up enough to get the three of us to New York.

"I had photographs taken, and sent some in. I was one of the first eight winners. At tea one day we met Charles Albin, the artist. He said he'd like to photograph me, and would I sit for him? Of course, mention of the contest was made. Mr. Albin saw some of the pictures I had submitted. 'Terrible,' he said. 'They're nothing like the pictures you should have had.'

"Until Mr. Albin's portraits were finished, I didn't know that proper lighting could do so many wonderful things to a person. I hardly knew his pictures were of me. The editor of the magazine saw them. 'That settles it,' he remarked, with grand decision. 'She wins right now.'

"Another celebration was justified. I think we each ordered a steak on that occasion. But — another girl was given first prize, and poor Mary was handed only a gold medal as winner of the second prize. I still have that medal. I keep it as a memento."

Miss Astor can laugh — not that superficial giggle, nor the mechanical "number six" expression of the movies, but a smile that radiates with humor. She laughed now, as she recalled her failure to win the contest.

"By plugging away after work, I was eventually chosen to play in a series of artistic films — rather interesting, little stories written around famous paintings. The first was The Beggar Maid, Sir Edward Burne-Jones' canvas. Reginald Denny was the leading man. There was also The Young Painter, based on Rembrandt's masterpiece. Pierre Gendron was the hero of that. Watts' Hope was the other I made — don't I look a freak!"

Miss Astor had just coated her face with white powder and, indeed, looked like nothing on earth.

"Well, not much happened after that. I was under contract to Paramount for six months, but never got anything to do. I played a small part with Gareth Hughes, in Sentimental Tommy, but the entire sequence was cut out.

"To add to our depression those artistic pictures failed to get a release. They got tied up in some way. I was pretty much discouraged. Then I found work in a picture which took me to Canada. On my first evening back in New York, I went to see a play. Just as I came up from the subway near the Rivoli Theater, I faced MARY ASTOR, in  THE BEGGAR MAID — all in electrics!

"It was a good thing mother was behind to prop me up, for without doubt I would have fallen down into the subway again. That was my first great thrill. I'll never forget it."

Miss Astor carefully brushed off the superfluous powder, leaving on her face a thin mask of make-up. Deftly she touched up her lips and eyes, all with the nonchalant ease that comes from long practice.

The phone rang. Her maid informed the caller that Miss Astor would be on the set very shortly. Whereupon the star said, "I'll have to chase you out while I get into my costume. I'll meet you on the set in a few minutes."

I was shooed out, and went to "hell" — that is, the set built for Miss Astor's new picture, The Woman from Hell.

The rest of Mary's screen history is well known to the fans, for she has had a following ever since she appeared with John Barrymore, in Beau Brummel and Don Juan. Then followed her contract with First National. Rose of the Golden West, with Gilbert Roland, was very romantic, but that was all. Even in that Mary had to faint among the folds of her billowing silks.

Miss Astor revolted against playing "dumb" roles. She wanted something with a little more naturalness in it. Her contract had expired. Mary hied herself to the golf course. Sol Wurtzel, general superintendent of the Fox atelier, was also giving a little time to golf that day.

"I'm looking for a job," Mary bluntly stated, without any diplomatic reserve, when Wurtzel asked what she was doing.

"There's a picture about to go into production over at our place," he said, "but I don't think it is a part you'd care to play. It's entirely different from anything you've ever done. It's a crook picture."

"That's just what I'm after, Mr. Wurtzel," Mary exclaimed, and made a neat drive.

Mary got the role, as you know. In Dressed to Kill, she was an entirely different person". Whoever thought that the young Astor, generally given to sighing and fainting on the screen, would ever reveal such acting? Fox signed her on the strength of the success she achieved in that picture.

Moreover, she married Kenneth Hawks, brother of the director, Howard Hawks, himself a supervisor on the Fox lot.

In the cavernous recesses of the hell set I was eventually joined by the lady herself, in a few spangles.

So far, Mary Astor has never had a big story, nor a big director — two essentials for the ultimate making of any star. I have no hesitation in saying that were she to come under the guidance of a Borzage [Frank Borzage] or a Murnau [F. W. Murnau], she would give the world a greater surprise than she has already done in mere program films.

Without doubt she will. She has been kept long enough in a rut. Right now she is showing us what she can do. Mary is stepping out.

Mary Astor — Gone Are Her Languors (1929) |

Mary Astor's dream of really acting carried her through several uneventful years, until Dressed to Kill put her at ease with crooks. Now's she on the up and up.

Photo by: Carsey

Mary Astor — Gone Are Her Languors (1929) |

It's a far cry from the poetic Beggar Maid, her first film, to The Woman from Hell, her latest.

Mary Astor — Gone Are Her Languors (1929) |

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, June 1929