Nils Asther — A Fish Out of Water (1929) 🇺🇸
He doesn’t know whether he likes working in the movies or not. He really can’t decide if he likes Hollywood. So Nils Asther is going home to his Sweden. No, not for long — just long enough to slow down his new-found American speed, and look back calmly over the hectic days since he landed in New York about two years ago.
by Walter Ramsey
Because he is tall and handsome, Hollywood took to him from the first. But because he is rather serious-minded and given to simple tastes, he couldn’t quite understand Hollywood.
A few of Hollywood’s exponents of “make merry, for to-morrow we die” took his rather spiritual and shy aloofness to mean snobbishness.
The fact that he hid away in a little home in the hills, gave basis to the rumor that possibly he didn’t consider his colleagues in the movies up to his social level. And when that rumor had gone the way of all gossip, and the good-time-Charlies decided to give him another chance, it was found to the utter chagrin of all concerned that Mr. Asther’s address and telephone number were not given out except at his request. He was immediately stamped as a new, but strange form of actor life.
But now he is thinking of leaving. While he is gone, probably just a few of his thoughts might not be amiss. He has told me, in our little talks on many occasions, the reasons why he should never quite acclimate himself.
In the first place, let us understand a few things. Nils Asther is an educated young man. He would be considered, even among men of letters, quite a brilliant chap. We should not forget, in forming our opinions of him, that he is from a land where life is lived in a different way; where his name is known as a member of an illustrious family; that he is from a country which has a national theater of great artistic prominence, and that Nils Asther was the youngest actor ever to be accorded the greatest honor in Sweden’s artistic life — membership in a noted theater.
He comes from a society into which money cannot buy entree. It is the society of Stockholm, the capital of his native land — a society that recognizes only members of known families. He is an old-world gentleman.
He has made innumerable references to me of the vast differences between these two modes of living — the one he left behind, and the one he is now trying to understand. He has drawn a great array of distinctions between them, by saying over and over the things he would say good-by to when he returns to Sweden, and also what he would leave behind if he returned to America. I will try to give them to you as he gave them to me.
When he leaves America on his three-month trip home, he will say good-by to speed and commotion; to the maddening pulse of the modern generation; good-by to the “friends” whose last names he has never heard; to crowds of money-mad college graduates; to Prohibition.
Good-by to the town where every one invites you up to his place; to the town where he has never heard any one speak of having a home. Good-by to loneliness for real friends; for true, sincere handshakes; good-by to slang. Farewell to many fine actors; to talkies and the microphone; good-by to sham.
He will go to the land of the midnight sun, the land of natural blond girls, and tall, blue-eyed boys. To the home of peace and contentment; the country where schools are made for study and theaters for art. Where the poignant memories of his struggle on the stage are brought before him again in a carnival of realism.
It’s good-by to boulevards not a hundred feet wide; to popcorn stands and orange- juice counters. Au revoir to newness; to abruptness and wisecracks he couldn’t quite understand; to billboards, to publicity, to spotlights. Good-by to back-slappers and yes-men; to extras in dress suits eating at quick-lunch counters; and to speed and uncontrolled enthusiasm.
Back to the land of moss-covered stones; the home of quiet; the unuttered praise given to success. He is on his way to long winters and short summers; to northern lights and stillness, and fishermen in the never-to-be-forgotten twilight of the morning.
It’s good-by to the town where stars are made overnight; to hennaed hair and peroxide; to thin ankles, silken clad; to lips with too much rouge; to exposed knees and bare backs. Good-by to sex appeal.
His ship will be headed for the land of modesty, of shy glances and slow laughter. To a place where the permanency of the marriage relation is revered; where men walk to work in overalls; and where women are more home-loving and simple.
These are some of the things Nils has spoken of to me during our short friendship. Almost always over a cup of steaming coffee from the ever-present coffeepot. Coffee and cakes — that’s Swedish enough for you, isn’t it?
I’ve purposely left out some of his observations. They were entirely too poetic to withstand the titter of laughter they would evoke. And don’t get the impression that those few I have set down were uttered by a male who isn’t all man. He talks like an artist, looks like a poet, and boxes like a champion. That is the only way in which he resembles Valentino. Both played romantic lovers on the screen, and each preferred the manly art of a good knock-down-and-drag-out for their exercise. As I said before, don’t judge him too hastily.
He is typically Old World — slim, graceful, and as hard as steel. He wants no quarter and gives none. He is the only person I know, belonging even remotely to the picture business, who doesn’t seek publicity. Not that he isn’t quick to admit that it is a necessary part of a star’s life — but he just doesn’t like it. He is the only actor I ever knew who wouldn’t stay in Hollywood as long as he could get a contract, and the only one I ever heard say anything to the effect that he wouldn’t want to be starred, unless he deserved it by long, hard work and good acting.
Nils Asther lives so modestly that I think his fan mail would shrink from a description of his home life. The nooks and shelves of his living room and den are filled with books. Not expensively bound, as one generally sees in Hollywood, not unopened and uncut volumes, but cardboard-covered books printed on cheap paper. And they have been read and reread. His books on philosophy and psychology are a miniature collection in themselves, in several modern languages.
Getting along with one servant has never caused him any sleepless nights. Of course, it must be admitted that there are few of Hollywood’s higher-ups who deny themselves the luxury of three or four, but Nils only snickers and tries to act unconcerned. He likes horse-back riding — alone. Or the open sea in a sailboat. Frank to admit he likes wine at dinner, he is just as ready to say that American laws will always be good enough for him. He likes America.
He has traveled the world over and thinks that, aside from a tinge of homesickness, he likes to live in California. Perhaps Santa Barbara or Del Monte. He smokes English cigarettes, but without a holder.
To look at him, his outstanding characteristics are worldly sophistication and clean-cut genuineness. He is a friend, a regular, and a sportsman. Never have I known a man who could keep so still, when he was uninformed on a subject, or one who could argue so logically and eloquently when he knew the subject being discussed, even though his eloquence is hampered no little by his almost broken English.
He says that he can’t understand Hollywood. But he knows more about it than you or I, because he studies the cause to understand the effects. For instance, he knows that “open houses” are attended by people that the host has never seen or heard of, prior to their presence at the free lunch. He knows that these hangers-on eat and drink everything at hand, mingle with the host’s friends, and leave, without saying “Thank you!” or “Good-by!” We know that, too — but we’ve been too busy to sit back, as he has, and get at the reason behind it. What Nils Asther admits he doesn’t understand is the reason for the reason.
I have said he was sophisticated. He is, until American slang is used. Then he becomes almost naive. I once asked him if they plastered the streets of Stockholm with billboards. He looked puzzled and finally said, “No — plaster isn’t good enough for streets in such cold weather. We use small, square stones for paving.”
Meet my friend, Nils Asther, a gentleman from the old country.
Nils Asther lives quietly, his sophistication being a state of mind that keeps him aloof from the thoughtless gayeties of Hollywood.
All Photos by: Clarence Sinclair Bull (1896–1979)
Nils talks like an artist and boxes like a champion.
Nils Asther’s books on philosophy and psychology are a miniature collection in themselves.
He keeps himself as hard as steel.
Collection: Picture Play Magazine, March 1929