Wallace Beery — My Life Until Now — Part 3 (1934) 🇺🇸
This is the final instalment of the first authorized true life story from the man who has been the hero of a remarkable career in motion picture.
by Wallace Beery
as told to Eric I. Ergenbright
For very sound business reasons, I’ve never wanted to be starred. Whenever I have been given stellar billing, it’s been over my own most vehement protestations and reasonable objections.
It takes a lot of people to make a picture — and the work of each one of them is just as important to the finished film as the work of the next. The author, the producer, the scenarist, the dialogue writer, the director, the cutter — let any one of the lot flop on his job and the entire production is weakened. But invariably, it’s the star who gets the blame for a bad picture, for he’s the only member of the troupe who appears before the public. It hardly seems fair but that’s the way it stacks up And what additional reward does he get for being the “fall guy”? A little more money, which he turns over to Uncle Sam in income tax; a host of worries and annoyances which needn’t be shared by the other members of the cast; and a scrap book filled with rather stupid “notices” which are food for his vanity but darned poor substitutes for groceries after the public has forgotten all about him — as the public will the minute he slips from his banana-peel throne.
Fame’s very enjoyable — while it lasts — but it’s not profitable in the long run. Personally, I’d rather “take the cash and let the credit go.” I’ve been in this racket — and that’s all acting is — for more than twenty years; long enough to know that stardom’s the dynamite that’s blasted into oblivion and bankruptcy many a capable actor who could have gone on playing featured roles for years.
It came near blasting me out of pictures when Paramount co-starred Raymond Hatton and me in a series of feature-length comedies. I had been in constant demand ever since Lady Luck had given me a break and the best role of my career in “Robin Hood.” I’d played strong featured roles in an unbroken succession of successful pictures. My salary had increased steadily and I was “sitting on top of the world.” I should have known better than to let myself in for such a fiasco as the Beery-Hatton comedies proved to be.
“We’re in the Navy Now” coined money at the box-office — and the producers immediately lost their heads. They decided they had a gold mine and tried to work it overtime.
Were they due for an awakening?
I will answer that one myself. They were!
I’ve never been able to understand why experienced producers, who should know better, insist on thinking that a popular star can draw the public to see a poor picture. The pictures that they rushed out, trying to capitalize on the success of the first Hatton-Beery comedy, were worse than poor — they were just plain lousy! The stories were written overnight and the “gags” were carbon copies of the ones that had drawn laughs in our first picture.
Naturally, the pictures were complete flops. Ray Hatton and I took it on the chin. And the ironic thing is that Hollywood, no matter how thoroughly it knows the circumstances which are responsible for an unsuccessful picture, quickly adopts the verdict of the general public and saddles the star with the blame. Perhaps the producers are honest in thinking that a star should be able to fill the theaters no matter how flimsy a vehicle he has to work with; perhaps they are merely anxious to alibi their own blunders. At any rate, the fact remains that three box-office failures in succession are enough to “kill” any star.
Ray Hatton, one of the best actors who ever faced a camera has never recovered from the effect of those alleged comedies, and, without the intervention of Lady Luck, I’d be in the same boat. As it was, I spent more than two years hounding the studios before I got another break. To make matters worse, the screen went talkie, and every studio in Hollywood started importing stage actors from New York by the trainload. The producers entirely forgot that many of their “silent” players had had stage training and proceeded to damn them without a test.
I did a little mild boasting, earlier in this article, about my happy-go-lucky disposition, my ability to take it on the chin and come back for more, but I’ll frankly admit that those two years strained my optimism and my disposition. It looked as if I were down for the count. Fortunately, I’d been able to save quite a bit of money, so I didn’t have to worry on that score.
The picture that gave me my comeback was “The Big House.” The role of “Butch” suited me to a “T.” I could understand that mug, for brutal and uncouth as he was, he was a human being, a mixture of virtues and vices. I’ve always contended that no human being is one hundred per cent villain or one hundred per cent hero.
Since “The Big House,” I’ve had an unusually consistent run of good pictures — and don’t imagine for a minute that I’m claiming the credit for their success. Good stories, good dialogue, good direction and intelligent production have made them very nearly “actor-proof.” Let me stress this one point; no picture is better than the weakest link in the chain of its production.
Professionally, since “The Big House,” I’ve had smooth sailing; financially, I’m still riding the scenic railway, up one year and down the next.
Four years ago, with a small fortune in stocks, real estate and bank deposits, I congratulated myself that I had enough laid away to do me the rest of my life. A year later, I was stripped down to my last cent.
First, Trans-America, in which I’d sunk nearly half of my savings, crashed and cleaned me for plenty. I consoled myself by thinking that my stock in the Bank of Hollywood and its subsidiaries was safe, only to pick up an afternoon paper and discover that the president of those institutions, my “friend,” had misappropriated a few millions and wrecked the bank. Not only did I lose my investment in the corporations’ stock and my cash deposits, but I also found myself liable, as a director, for the losses of other depositors.
Without laying claim to a halo, I can truthfully say that the thing that hurt me most in the crash of the Bank of Hollywood was the fact that I’d persuaded some of my friends to do business there. Of course, the grand jury investigation and the subsequent trial established that the president was solely responsible for the defalcations and that no member of his board of directors had known of his thefts, but, nevertheless, I felt personally responsible for the losses of my friends.
To cap the climax, my house burned to the ground, a new plane that I’d purchased crashed, killing my mechanic and two passengers, and another bank, in which I carried a sizable checking account, failed, cleaning me for the last ready cash I had in the world.
To say that I wasn’t embittered by such a string of crushing losses would be ridiculous. I was — and to a certain extent, I still am. The man who robbed the Bank of Hollywood I had considered my friend. We had hunted together, shared confidences. To discover that he was a thief of the most despicable sort was a shock and a bitter disillusionment.
But, looking around and seeing the thousands who were so much worse off than myself and remembering the hard times that I’d had in the past, I could not logically indulge in any self-pity. I’d lost my savings, but I still had a contract and a fat salary. I could rebuild— and I could profit by some of the lessons I’d learned. As long as a man can do that, he has no license to kick. And I’m not kicking.
I have every reason in the world to be happy, and I am! I’m not only happy, I’m contented — which is even better!
When I first went into this business, it was to make money — lots of money. Having never had anything more than the price of my next meal, I imagined that money was the only worth-while thing in life. I gauged success in terms of dollars.
In a way, of course, I’m still working for money. I have no illusions about “my art,” and no patience for the asinine bunk that is continually being heaped on the very prosaic business of acting. I’m no artist, I’m merely a man with a job, a better paid and more interesting job than most. I want to do it to the best of my ability.
The more I see of life — and I’ve seen it from quite a few drastically different perspectives — the more convinced I am that happiness lies in having a few absorbing interests and the leisure and means to pursue them. If that conclusion is true, I’m a rich man.
Not long ago, Mrs. Beery and I adopted a family — and I discovered how much I’d wanted kids all my life. A good part of my existence revolves around Carol Ann.
I’m profoundly interested in aviation. Incidentally, that’s the one thing for which I can thank those Bay Hatton-Wallace Beery comedies. We made a picture titled “Now We’re in the Air” and before it was finished I was sold on flying. I’ve been at it ever since. Most of the time that I can steal from the studio, I’m either in the air or studying navigation and meteorology. I’m very proud — pardonably, I believe — of my transport license and my commission as a Lieutenant-Commander in the United States Naval Reserve.
I’ve always been fond of hunting and fishing and now I have the leisure and means to follow those sports. I have a cabin on a little island in June Lake, in the high Sierras. There’s fish in the lake and deer in the surrounding hills — and it’s only a two hour jaunt by plane. Two or three times a year, I fly down to Arizona for a hunt in the Kaibab Forest, or up to British Columbia for big game.
Earlier in this article, I said that I wouldn’t change my life if I had it to live over again. On reflection, that’s not entirely true. I’ve always regretted my lack of education. A college diploma may not be a guarantee of success but at least it’s a short-cut to the enjoyment of life.
What I’ve learned, I’ve had pounded into me by hard knocks and first-hand experience. And the most important thing I’ve ever learned is that it isn’t what a man has that counts, it’s how much he enjoys it.
In my own case, Lady Luck’s been kind!
Wallace Beery qualifies as the ace of fliers in the motion picture colony. He holds a pilot’s license.
The script of “Viva Villa” was too much for Wallace, and he dropped off for a quiet little snooze.
As a gangster, Wallace Beery won great acclaim as “Machine Gun Butch” in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s great production, “The Big House.”
One of his biggest hits was “We’re in the Navy Now,” when he played with Raymond Hatton.
Source: New Movie Magazine, May 1934