Wallace Beery — My Life Until Now — Part 2 (1934) 🇺🇸
The first authorized true life story from the man who has been the hero of one of the most remarkable careers in the films.
as told to Eric I. Ergenbright
It’s a lot of fun to look back over your life and try to figure just what might have happened if you’d taken the other fork in the road.
There I was — an elephant-man with a circus — suddenly converted into a chorus boy in musical comedy, merely because my brother was earning more money as a hoofer and a singer than I could make manicuring “bulls.”
If Noah hadn’t been on the stage, and if I hadn’t been forced as a kid to take music lessons, I suppose I’d still be with the “Big Top,” working like a slave in the Summer, loafing like a remittance-man in the Winter, and, with it all, just as happy as I am now.
I’m frank to admit that I became an actor to earn money and that I’m still an actor for that same reason, yet I’ve never acquired the champagne taste. Few actors do, for Show Business is ruled by luck, and Lady Luck’s a fickle hussy who usually provides a famine to temper every feast.
She was unusually kind to me at the start. I was in the chorus only a few weeks before a series of lucky “breaks” gave me a comedy bit — very appropriately, too, for there was more than a little unconscious comedy in a big, overgrown lout like “Jumbo” Beery, product of the Kansas City “Bottoms,” tripping gayly about in a chorus.
The only recommendation I had for such a job, in the first place, was an unusually heavy bass voice.
The only credit I take to myself is that I tried to improve my opportunities. I spent most of my spare time — and after “Babes in Toyland” closed, I had lots of it — studying music and eccentric dancing. During the summers, when the New York theaters were in the doldrums. I went back to Kansas City and played with the old Woodard Stock Company.
Stock, incidentally, offers a young actor his most valuable experience. It gives him a wide diversity of rules, and since he’s seldom allowed more than two weeks to learn a new part, it forces him to become adept at memorizing “lines.” I’ve noticed that almost every prominent motion picture director prefers actors who have served their time in stock.
The breaks continued to come my way and. a couple of years after I landed in New York, I was safely established as a featured comedian. I was walking on air, drinking in new experiences as greedily as a sponge takes up water. I became acquainted with some of the most interesting people New York has ever known.
I swapped yarns with Richard Harding Davis, boxed with Jim Jeffries, explored the waterfront with Raymond Hitchcock. Sometimes I was flush, more often I was broke: but, broke or flush, I enjoyed living. My salary, when I worked, was thirty-five dollars a week, not much if judged by Hollywood standards. but a primely fortune in those days. I wouldn’t have trailed places with a Morgan or an Astor.
In all, I was on the stage for nine years. I played in “The Prince of Pilsen,” “The Student Prince” and “The Balkan Princess.” I was with Sir Henry Irving for one season in “The Princess of Kensington.”
I had my first big break as an understudy to Raymond Hitchcock in “The Yankee Tourist.” One night, soon after the show opened, he was taken ill and rushed to the hospital for an emergency operation. I was rushed into his clothes and his role, — and played it for the rest of that season. Lady Luck again! A slap in the face for Hitchcock, one of the finest, and pat on the back for me!
Luck rules the show business, there’s no getting away from that. Mind you, I’m not depreciating ability, nor belittling the common sense that’s kept many an actor at the top of his profession; I’m merely insisting that his ability and judgment would bloom unseen without a goodly share of luck. It’s unfortunate that so many stars overlook that fact after they’ve “arrived.”
During my last few years on the stage, movies were beginning to create excitement, but like most stage actors of that day. I regarded them with contempt, especially after my first experience in a picture studio. That was in 1912.
I was flat, out of money, out of work and out of prospects. The landlady’s eye had such an unfriendly gleam that I hit on the desperate expedient of applying to the casting agent of the old Tannhauser studios in New Rochelle for a few days work. They hired me as an extra and I borrowed the necessary carfare and sallied out to earn five dollars.
It rained all day, the company couldn’t shoot, and I walked back to New York, cussing at every step and Towing that I’d go back to watering elephants before I’d ever become a movie actor. And that only goes to prove that Lady Luck plays ducks and drakes with a man’s resolves, for, just one year later, I was under contract to a motion picture studio, and I’ve been in the picture business ever since!
I was playing the lead in the Chicago Company of “The Balkan Princess” in the Fall of 1913. Several actors that I’d known in New York were working for the old Essanay studios and they persuaded me to visit them on the “lot.” Against my will. I found myself excited and interested. I began to see tremendous possibilities in “those damned movies,” and I decided that perhaps I’d been too hasty in condemning them.
I knew I had been when, out of a clear sky, Essanay offered me seventy-five dollars a week — every week — to sign a long-term contract. “The Balkan Princess” was closing and I had no other engagement in sight. I accepted.
My first screen appearance was as a raw-boned Swedish housemaid in a one reel comedy; as an angular, string-halted slavey who took one heavy fall for every ten feet of film. Comedy, in those days, was robust and virile and its success was determined, largely, by the size of the custard pie. In our dramas, we displayed a fine disregard for the realism” that Hollywood harps on today. Our heroines sighed so deeply that they broke their stays, and when our heroes fired their trusty rifles not one, but twenty villains bit the dust.
The first “Swedie” comedv was so well received that Essanay decided to produce a series and gave me charge of the unit. Louella Parsons, now a Hollywood columnist, wrote the stories; I played the leads and co-directed. We turned out a new comedy every two weeks — and had so much spare time on our hands that I was also assigned the leads in a second series of comedies based on the George Ade Fables.
The picture business, in those days, was less efficient, but far more colorful than it is today. We worked with crude equipment and every person in the studio held down three or four jobs. In addition to acting and directing, I filled in as an electrician and a cameraman. We worked like beavers when we felt like it, and we loafed like lords when we felt like loafing.
Most of the Essanay stars are no longer on the screen. Many of them have been forgotten.
Bronco Billy Anderson, the first great cowboy star, was one of the partners in Essanay. He’s dead now. Francis X. Bushman and Beverly Bayne were our leading exponents of romance. Ben Turpin and Bryant Washburn were Essanay stars. Virginia Valli, Rod LaRoque and Gloria Swanson were on our preferred extra list.
I fell in love with Gloria while we were working together in Chicago and wanted her to marry me then. But she was very young and my own plans were undecided, for Bronco Billy had been talking enthusiastically about moving the studio to California.
Meanwhile, in the big yellow roadster that I owned then, we burned up the roads between Chicago’s most famous cafés. I’ve always been a speed addict, and that car was the pride of my heart. I spent my evenings trying to push the throttle through the floor boards and my mornings in the traffic courts. I was directing Francis X. Bushman, my salary had been increased to $125 a week, and I felt like a Croesus. I couldn’t think of any better way of spending such wealth than on cabarets and speed tickets.
In 1915, Anderson finally decided to make his westerns in California. He bought a studio in Niles, not far from San Francisco, and installed me there as studio manager and second-string director. I handled the comedy units and among others, directed Charlie Chaplin.
Anderson’s venture in Niles never prospered and only a few months after we started shooting there the company went broke and folded. In a way, I was glad to be rid of the responsibilities that had been heaped on me. I enjoyed hiring people, but I couldn’t stomach having to fire them. And all the dollar-and-cents details of production irked me. They still do.
After a wild-goose jaunt to Japan with a picture company that went broke before we had time to get our luggage unpacked, I came to Hollywood and was lucky enough to land a contract with Keystone as a featured comedian.
I chucked overboard all my ambitions to direct, decided that comedy was my cake and thanked Lady Luck for the icing. My salary was $125 a week, enough, I figured, to get married on. I wired Gloria, advised her to come to Hollywood immediately, and busied myself looking for a cottage.
By the time she had arrived, I had found her a regular berth with the Keystone stock company.
We were married in 1916. Soon afterward, things began to go wrong for me. I lost my contract and went for weeks at a time without work. Production was at a low ebb, principally because of the upset conditions brought about by the war. Prices were soaring, and, to make a long story short, the Beerys fell on hard days. Meanwhile, Gloria and I began to realize that our marriage had been a mistake.
We were divorced in 1918 and, for more than a year afterward, I was down and out. I hounded the studio casting offices, applied for extra work, tried everything without being interested in anything. I couldn’t find a job. And, mind you, not more than two years previously, I’d been a star.
My fortunes improved almost as quickly as they had crashed. Just when it seemed that my parents, who had followed me to California, and I were certain to go on a starvation diet, Mickey Neilan gave me the chance to play a German army officer in his “The Unpardonable Sin.”
The picture was a hit and it reinstated me, not as a comedian, but as a “heavy.” There happened to be a ready market for heavies just then. I played in “Behind the Door” with Hobart Bosworth, and with Valentino in “The Four Horsemen.”
I worked harder than I’d ever worked in my life. For the first time, I took time out to do a little serious thinking about my work. The deep-eyed villains that I was playing didn’t seem real to me — they weren’t human or believable. I decided to temper my heavies with a touch of humor.
I tried out my ideas in “The Devil’s Cargo,” and they “clicked” so emphatically that since then I’ve never played a heavy without trying to humanize the role by adding a little humor.
My salary had been increasing steadily, I’d managed to build a comfortable bank account, and I’d bought a new home. I had time enough and money enough to go hunting and fishing several times a year. Things were rosier for me than ever before.
And then, to cap the climax, along came Douglas Fairbanks to give me the one role that I’d have crawled on my hands and knees to get — King Richard the Lion-hearted in “Robin Hood,” which to my way of thinking still remains the greatest picture ever made.
I can thank “Robin Hood” for many things — but for nothing more than for my introduction to Rita Gilman, who is now my wife. She was working as an extra and I fell in love with her at first sight.
“Robin Hood” made me a star — to my sorrow! I’ll leave it to those of you who have never had first-hand experience with Hollywood to envy the stars. After twenty-one years in pictures, my most fervent wish is that I might never be classed as a star.
My experience, as a result of being co-starred with Raymond Hatton in a series of unusually stupid comedies, is a perfect explanation of my objections to stardom.
Just twenty-one, thank you! An old family picture of Wallace Beery.
At the right, Wallace Beery in “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
Above, as he appeared in his favorite United Artist role of King Richard in “Robin Hood.”
Nobody can ever forget the world-famous Beery smile of today.
At the left, Beery in one of his early-day comedy roles, impersonating a Swedish housemaid.
Above, you will find him in an extremely different role in the Paramount picture, “Chinatown Nights.”
Read the next thrilling chapter in Wallace Beery’s own dramatic life story in the May New Movie Magazine.
Source: New Movie Magazine, April 1934