Melvyn Douglas — Famous Overnight (1932) 🇺🇸
Melvyn Douglas was a hit in his first appearance in pictures and he is steadily gaining in popularity.
by Dena Reed
How does it feel to become famous overnight?” I asked Melvyn Douglas over our stew in the Paramount Cafeteria.
Melvyn might be English for all the emotion he displayed.
“I’m not aware of any sudden fame, yet,” he replied, smiling ever so slightly.
He was eating in his make-up, and his blue eyes were lined in such a fashion that his smile couldn’t help seeming cynical. The slight mustache which — in case you don’t know — is a penciled one. was the final touch to make him the young man of the world.
“Oh, come now,” I said, “you must know you’re the newest feminine heart-throb. The blond Clark Gable is what they’ll label you — see if they don’t!” “Do I have to be labeled! Oh, well —.” And he sighed.
He had had a particularly trying morning. For an hour I had stood waiting for him on the set, watching him and Claudette Colbert rehearse a scene for “The Wiser Sex.” She had been reading a speech about how he would leave her alone nights if she married him, and his reply was “You just won’t understand,” which he had to say and walk away from her at exactly the proper instant. I guess after that hour Melvyn had decided that no one would understand anything. I could see he was eating that scene with his lamb stew.
“Can’t you step out of character over lunch?” I chided. “And I wish you didn’t have that make-up on.”
“Make-up is in the mind — not in grease-paint,” he returned.
“Well, concentrate on Melvyn Douglas and not on the upstanding young hero of the picture, won’t you?”
“Sure,” he replied. “I’m sorry. Where shall I begin?”
Right there he proved that make-up is in the mind, for he became his very nice self, and the upstanding young hero was gone. Not that Melvyn isn’t upstanding himself — he is, but there is just enough man-of-the-world about him to make him intriguing. He was born in Macon, Georgia, suh, but you’d never guess it by his speech. Not a trace of a Southern inflection remains. In its place is a pleasant English diction, spoken in a resonant voice, that, taken with his fair hair and blue eyes, makes you imagine that he must be one of those charming Britishers. That’s as much as you could say, and therein lies his charm and the success of his screen personality.
He is the only one besides Gable whose virility is overpowering, but then the story is only half told. Gable is the dark smoldering Latin type who can be counted upon to react in certain ways to certain emotions. Melvyn appears the intelligent, suave, cool and detached “citizen of the world,” expressing subtleties by the lift of an eyebrow. You think “he may look cool and detached, but he might be anything but that.” That “might” puts Melvyn Douglas in a class by himself. Women know Gable, but there is a pleasant air of mystery about Melvyn. No wonder he has become famous overnight.
But all he has to say about that is “It’s nice to come to the front.”
I thought it must be especially nice for Melvyn because he has been married less than a year to Helen Gahagan who was well-known as an actress before she went to Europe to have her voice trained. When she returned she was famous as both an actress and a concert singer. Belasco starred her in “Tonight or Never” and Melvyn was her leading man.
Now, during the years that Helen was a famous star, Melvyn was touring the middle west in stock companies. He was the co-ed’s hero in college towns but he wasn’t known in New York, even though he played the gambler in the stage production of “A Free Soul.” He was noticed, yes, but his shows in New York had a short run and it seemed his destiny to take New York shows out on the road. He played opposite Laura Hope Crews in “The Silver Cord,” opposite Mary Nash in “The Command to Love,” and he was in the two-character play, “Jealousy” — but not in New York.
Then finally he got the leading male role in “Tonight or Never.” People came to see Helen but they went away talking about her leading man too. And Helen liked it because she had fallen in love with him.
Last Easter Sunday, on Melvyn’s birthday, they married, and after the show closed they ran around half of Europe on an eighteen-day honeymoon. When they returned, there was Samuel Goldwyn waiting with a five-year contract in his pocket. It wasn’t for Helen, the star, but for Melvyn, her leading man. As a beginning he was wanted to play his original role opposite Gloria Swanson in the screen version of “Tonight or Never.”
I was curious to know how this change in their fortunes affected Melvyn, and I asked bluntly, “How did it feel to be down when Helen was up and be up when she’d be down?”
“But she’s not at all down,” broke in Melvyn. “She’s just finished playing ‘Tonight or Never’ at the Coast and she made such a hit in it she’s been invited to sing with the symphony orchestra. And since I’ve come East she’s written she’s taking picture tests. There’s no one in pictures who’s had the background of both a successful stage and concert career. Wait until she begins!”
“You don’t like being separated much, do you?” I laughed.
“It’s awful,” he said in true benedict fashion. “But it won’t be for long. She’s coming East after she finishes the singing engagement — that is, if she doesn’t sign a picture contract at this time. If she does, she’ll sign picture by picture— that’s the best way if you can do it.
“I signed my long-term contract and we went to the Coast because it was the quickest means to the end we have in mind — a theatre of our own.”
“Like the Lunts,” I put in, as always.
“Yes,” agreed Melvyn his eyes shining. “Oh, we probably couldn’t do it for at least five years, but it’s something to work towards. We’d have a good director and do the plays we love — light operas too — everything, the way they do in Europe. But it takes a lot of money — Basil Sidney and Mary Ellis probably gave up their theatre for economic reasons. We figure the pictures will give us the money — “
“And a following,” I put in.
“I even thought of that too,” he laughed.
“But you wouldn’t leave pictures after you’re a star?”
“You like to jump ahead, don’t you? — No, I probably wouldn’t leave pictures entirely in any case. But our theatre, well, you know I’ve wanted my own theatre ever since I began acting.”
Yes, I knew. One season after finishing a Shakespearean tour in the west Melvyn went back to Chicago to visit his family and he organized an outdoor theatre in a backyard. He put on a biblical play about Moses, but the neighbors, judging by the scant costumes of the cast, thought it was some sort of bacchanalian revel and had them all arrested. It took a tall lot of explaining on Melvyn’s part to get them out of jail.
Melvyn Douglas has always been a character actor and his one fear of the movies is being “typed.”
“So far, I’ve been lucky,” he observed, “even though I’ve been loaned out. I’ve been a man-about-town in ‘Tonight or Never’, an army officer who goes to pieces in a tropic climate in ‘Prestige’ and, as you say, an Upstanding Young Hero in ‘The Wiser Sex.’”
“Yes, but I’m afraid you’re already a marked man since ‘Tonight or Never’ opened — the last word as the man-of-the-world.”
“Don’t say that,” he begged. “Remember our theatre.”
“I’ll not only remember it,” I promised. “I’ll write about it.”
And I’ve kept my promise for two reasons: First, because I believe there is no other couple of the stage and screen better fitted to do a “Lunt-Fontanne” than Melvyn Douglas and Helen Gahagan; and secondly because a theatre of his own has been Melvyn’s lifelong dream, and I know you, his fans, want to make it come true. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t have made Melvyn Douglas “famous overnight.”
Blond Melvyn Douglas has played leading man to Gloria Swanson, Ann Harding and Claudette Colbert. His next role is opposite Garbo in “As You Desire Me.”
Source: The New Movie Magazine, June 1932