The Troupers (1935) 🇺🇸
The stars may take the bows, but the troupers take care of the picture.
by Jeanne de Kolty
David Copperfield five weeks in production. Billed as a super-special, it had all the earmarks of a super-flop.
Charles Laughton, playing Micawber, refused to work on the film any longer. His early objections to his part were now justified. After five weeks’ continuous rehearsal and the shooting of several thousand feet of film, everyone concerned was willing to concede that the production was terrible.
Director George Cukor was visibly non plussed. What to do? Who could remedy the situation?
“We must have a good utility man to build the picture up,” Cukor decided, “someone who can be depended upon to give a sure-fire performance.”
“How about W. C. Fields?” asked an assistant.
“Get him,” came back the director. “Fields is the man!”
On a set at Paramount studios sat W. C. Fields, waiting to start work on “Mississippi,” starring “dat ole man Ribber,” for which he had been slated several weeks.
Came an emergency message from M-G-M. Fields rushed to the Culver City studios in nothing flat, skillfully evading motor cops along the way. A brief consultation with Director Cukor. A few moments to read the script, make up, jump into a costume.
Fields is a “Builder-Upper” — a trouper — one of the best on the screen today. He can be depended upon for any picture at a moment’s notice, and always gives a first-class performance. He can produce the laugh that will turn poor film fare to good. His name will sell pictures in small towns where new stars may be unknown. Chances are even a poor film will make money if it can boast of Fields in the cast.
He is just one of a dozen of his ilk. They include players of every variety, from the eye filling Thelma Todd to sad-faced ZaSu Pitts; from Donald Meek to versatile Alan Hale. Among the better known ones are Minna Gombell, Glenda Farrell, Charles Ruggles, Una Merkel, Stu Erwin, Alison Skipworth, Robert Armstrong, Pert Kelton, and others too numerous to mention.
“Troopers” serve many purposes. They are used to bolster up week films, or inject humor into monotonous stories. They help build up situations for the stars and lend their well known names to casts made up of new or unknown players.
Nydia Westman, for example, appears briefly in “Captain Hurricane” with James Barton (a newcomer from the New York stage) in the lead, and Helen Westley, Henry Travers, Helen Mack and Lon Chaney, Jr. The film had been in production two or three weeks when Director John Robertson sent Miss Westman a rush call. He had decided the picture needed another player to inject a certain humor into the plot, which seemed lacking.
Miss Westman was selected for the part of Irene Dunne’s little sister in “Sweet Adeline” at the zero hour. Mervyn LeRoy, directing, had seen Nydia on the stage in New York and was determined to have her for the pari. The studio heads were equally determined on a contract player. In the end, LeRoy won; his opponents were forced to admit that Nydia was the one trouper who could do the role justice.
These troupers are a straight-forward, simple lot, for the most part. They seldom live up to the popular conception of film people.
Miss Westman, fifth generation of a family of actors and actresses, lives in a small West Los Angeles bungalow with no company other than one colored maid and two cats. She is an artist of no mean ability and has studied painting all her life. She gives small, intimate parties, goes out very little, has many friends and attends the Art Center school in Los Angeles when time permits. On the set she keeps busy sketching portraits of her fellow players, and has a collection of drawings of the worlds most famous movie stars such as would create envy in the heart of any fan.
She drives herself around in a little Ford coupe, goes to Palm Springs for her vacations and has a delightful little garden. The garden, however, is to look at, not to work in. She doesn’t like gardening. Although she is extremely popular with the so-called sterner sex, Nydia has never been married. At present she is planning a return to the New York stage. Those directors who have come to regard her as the trouper who can be called upon to save their pictures will miss her.
A large group of the “dependables” who make bad pictures good and good pictures better are to be seen in Rudy Vallée’s film, “Sweet Music,” including Hugh Herbert and Robert Armstrong. They are being used as insurance against a fate such as overtook Vallée’s first picture, which was a miserable failure. Hugh Herbert is a favorite for this purpose. He was rushed helter-skelter through “Midsummer Night’s Dream” so he could build up “Traveling Saleslady” with Joan Blondell and William Gargan.
Herbert has two suppressed desires — to become a famous botonist and to go around the world. He has never had time for either. Perhaps I’d better qualify that statement. He is a botonist — a darn good one — but he isn’t famous as such. He goes in for the classics and says that “Oliver Twist” and “Count of Monte Cristo” are the two greatest books of their kind ever written. He believes strictly in the modern idea of matrimonial vacations, and since he is usually too busy to get away, his wife takes a vacation without him every year. At present she is in China, and if Herbert has his way he will find time between pictures to meet her in Paris and come home with her. Indeed, he may be eating a bouillabaisse in some Boul Miché sidewalk cafe by the lime this story goes to press.
Bob Armstrong, who also appears in “Sweet Music,” is a nephew of Rolf Armstrong, the famous artist who does the magazine covers. Like the rest of the troupers, he leads a simple life. He doesn’t dance, but attends the prize fights and plays tennis zealously.
Although they don’t often achieve first billing, troupers often receive top pay. Anne Shirley has been on the screen fourteen years, playing hundreds of roles. Yet, when she was featured in “Anne of Green Gables” she received a lower salary than either of her supporting players, O. P. Heggie and Helen Westley!
Several thousand feet of “Murder on a Honeymoon,” with Jimmy Gleason and Edna May Oliver, had been shot before Director Lloyd Corrigan realized all was not well. On the spur of the moment, he decided that the needed quantity in the production was the ever-dependable Chic Chandler. A call went out for the actor and ere the sun had set the cameras were grinding out scenes in which Chandler appeared.
Just to be needed so badly for a part is proof of this player’s ability, yet Chic denies that he has any talent. He says he can’t hope to follow in the footsteps of his famous uncle, Howard Chandler Christy, his great uncle who founded the Boston Symphony orchestra, his grandfather who founded the College of Music at Syracuse University, his grandmother, the first woman ever honored by “Who’s Who,” and his father who founded the New York State Constabulary! Whew — Chic certainly has a name to live up to!
Now and then we find a feature player and “Builder-Upper” all in one. Jimmy Gleason is an example. He has been head man in Radio Pictures’ murder series, which began with “Penguin Pool Murder,” progressed to “Murder on the Blackboard” and will end goodness knows where! Thelma Todd has been starred time and again in comedies, yet she is used to add fire or what have you to otherwise drab productions. She has “built up” everything from Harold Lloyd to a cake of ice in one of the Marx Brothers’ creations!
Instances in which these troupers gain stardom are rare; but once in a while such things do happen. Myrna Loy was so successful in this capacity that for years no one recognized her potentialities as a star. Marie Dressler built up one picture — “Anna Christie.”
Occasionally a star loses footing and ends as an Old Reliable. Reginald Denny starred for years. Today he is a top-notch “Builder-Upper.” The same applies to Adolphe Menjou, whose name often carries a picture, and many others.
Perhaps you think it’s all hooey when a free-lance knight of the celluloid announces that he does not desire stardom. Knowing Hollywood as I do, I’m inclined to take such statements seriously. The average career of a star is estimated at five years. A “trouper” may go on forever.
A star gets big money while working, but it is hard to find stories to fit stars. They often have months between pictures under contracts which stipulate they shall be paid a flat sum per film and nothing between times. The good “Trouper” can almost always find work and is often doubling on two pictures at once.
The star has the responsibility of making a good picture. The “Regular” need not worry, so long as he personally turns in a good performance.
You may take your stars. Give me my “Troupers.” To me, they are the folks who make the movies!
Joan Blondell and Hugh Herbert are both veterans. Joan has been on the stage since she used the tray of her mother’s trunk for a crib.
Anne Shirley and Helen Westley in the picture that gave Anne her name. Helen Westley is the Theatre Guild in human form.
Frankie Thomas and O. P. Heggie. Heggie is one of the reliables — sure-fire, any part any time.
Donald Meek has a splendid chance to zip up the picture in “The Whole Town’s Talking,” and he is great.
Thelma Todd is very successful in short subjects. She can always be depended on — even when supporting the Marx Brothers.
Robert Armstrong is a “builder-upper” in any cast and directors relax when he takes over.
This is W. C. Fields’ year. Freddie Bartholomew, with him, is working again — with Garbo this time. Things have “turned up” for Micawber and the fans are blocking the entrances at “Mississippi.”
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Source: Silverscreen, May 1935