Muriel Kirkland — Without Beauty (1934) 🇺🇸

Muriel Kirkland — Without Beauty (1934) |

April 13, 2023

If she had been more beautiful, Muriel Kirkland might be going to the movies in New Rochelle today, instead of acting in them out Hollywood way.

by Alyce Curtis

You see, Muriel, the youngster who attracts real attention in the role of Mimi, one of Anna Sten's friends in Nana, was the ugly duckling of the Kirkland clan. Which doesn't mean that Muriel wasn't pretty. It just means that the Kirkland women had the sort of faces that made her an ugly duckling by comparison! Such beauties as Mother and Virginia and the aunts and girl cousins, had given Muriel, with her strange little heart-shaped sort of face, with her great brown eyes and crooked smile, an inferiority complex of horrible proportions. And her voice! It wasn't like any of their voices!

Muriel, at sixteen, just out of the convent, worked herself into such a state of shyness and self-consciousness about this beauty business, that Mother and Father decided against waiting for her to get over it. Muriel in fright and dismay, heard their decision. And protested tearfully.

"But, Mother," she sobbed, "I don't want to go to the American Academy of Dramatic Art. I don't want to be an actress. I couldn't be an actress — I'm not beautiful —"

"Of course not," said mother placidly, "but you're going there to overcome all this self-consciousness, darling."

"How can I stop being self-conscious there? That's the worst place in the world for me, Mother! Dad, please, I'll — I'll be worse! All the pretty girls — their pretty voices — oh, please, Mother, don't make me go."

The firm tone which the Kirkland children knew was final, was in Mother's voice now. "You've lovely eyes and a lovely disposition and Father and I think your voice is very sweet. You're going to stop all this fretting about such things. You don't have to be an actress, darling, but you're going to avoid becoming a recluse because of your shyness!"

And so it was that Muriel Kirkland was enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Art. And there it was that after six months of agonized study she was called into the office and told that they were dropping her from their student list.

"You will never," they told her, "be an actress. We are sorry."

Muriel stood before them, a strange new emotion tugging at her heart. An emotion stronger than her shyness. How dared they pronounce her at sixteen, a failure? Suddenly she was angry. Gloriously, furiously angry! And her first ambition to be an actress was born of her defiance of the pronouncement they were making.

Her voice was strange, was it? She lacked beauty, did she? Quite calmly she looked at the head of the school.

"Thank you," she said, "you have made me an actress!" And closed the door very quietly as she left the room.

With scant opportunity for the formulating of any plan of attack, and without discussing the matter further with the family, she started at once, the dreary, usually discouraging round of the theatrical agencies. Their dreariness, their pessimism about her could not discourage such determination as she had summoned to serve her. And her first small triumph was proof that a prophet does, occasionally, find honor in his own country. She secured an engagement with a stock company in Yonkers, her birthplace!

From the first moment that she stepped on the stage, in that small Yonkers theatre, the Kirkland charm, released by her determination, held her audience.

She went from there to Louisville, Kentucky, for a season of stock. Experience was the thing she knew she needed now. And while there, Stuart Walker, ever alert to discern the potentialities of unknown players, saw and engaged her as leading woman for his company in Huntington, West Virginia.

Stuart Walker taught Muriel Kirkland the value of the voice she had thought strange. He taught her the value of those great soft eyes as a medium of expression. Under his intelligent guidance, the little red-head became an actress of rare sweetness and knowledge and infinite individuality. Finally, Mr. Walker told her she was ready for Broadway.

Nothing could have stopped Muriel then. She believed in Stuart Walker. Had he told her she could swim the English Channel, Muriel would have dived into its choppy waters!

Brock Pemberton was casting a play called Strictly Dishonorable. There is a psychic something along Broadway which prophecies the success of a play before it opens. It was in the air about this new play of Brock's. Every well-established ingenue was ambitious to play the leading role. Forty-eight such girls had hopefully read the part before the exacting audience composed of Brock Pemberton, the producer, Preston Sturges, the playwright and Antoinette Perry. An ordeal for any actress. An ordeal from which forty-eight beautiful, nervous young Broadwayites emerged without triumph.

The forty-ninth girl was a little red-haired unknown, with huge brown eyes and — confidence. Such glorious young confidence!

When the curtain rang down on the opening night, the play was a success and Broadway had welcomed a new, sparkling personality. The American Academy of Dramatic Art quickly put its official seal of approval upon her. Her name was placed on its illustrious honor roll!

When she finished her engagement in the record breaking run of Strictly Dishonorable, William Harris, Jr., sent for her to play the leading role in The Greeks Had a Word for It.

By this time, you've guessed it — the movie scouts had watched what she did to New York audiences. They had listened and been moved by the spell of that voice. Muriel was soon Hollywood bound, a movie contract with a major studio in her bag.

Muriel did not make a picture under that contract. Day after day, week after week, month after month, while the contract ran its length, she awaited an assignment. Those studio officials who had not seen her "in action" looked and listened and gave solemn decision. She would not photograph — her voice would not record.

Tell her she wouldn't photograph? Tell her her voice wouldn't register? There was something familiar about that situation. She was sixteen again — standing before the heads of the American Academy!

To increase the parallel, Stuart Walker was in Hollywood coaching embryonic stars for one of the studios. Again his influence swayed Muriel.

So the red-headed youngster was again defiant. Life is a series of repitious experiences! Her first picture was made for the studio which had not cast her in a single production while she was under contract to them!

Followed other pictures for major companies. "Cocktail Hour," "Secret of the Blue Room," "Hold Your Man," "To the Last Man" and finally — Nana.

Nana presents the glamorous new star — Anna Sten — to give real competition to other glamour ladies of the screen. It means triumph for another girl, too. Beauty surfeited Hollywood has "noticed" Kirkland.

She will nestle in your memory and in your hearts. Indomitable courage, sincerity, beauty of spirit, honesty and tenderness — her little heart-shaped face is a transparency for all of these. And, as when she won recognition in New York, you'll hear them say: "Kirkland? Of course, she's not beautiful — but after all — what is beauty?"

Photo by: William Walling Jr.

Marion Callahan is one of the eleven girls representative of Broadway showgirl beauty brought to Hollywood by Earl Carroll to appear in Murder at the Vanities.

Collection: Hollywood Magazine, June 1934