Wendy Barrie — Hongkong’s Contribution (1935) 🇺🇸

January 22, 2022

Wendy Barrie is a glorious madcap, and a welcome newcomer to pictures.

by Leon Surmelian

Much has been written about Hollywood as the city of hard knocks and tragic disappointments, of sorrows, tears, and even suicide. But not always is the road to screen fame strewn with heart-breaking delays and difficulties. Sometimes the gods are generous to a newcomer — as to Wendy Barrie, for instance.

This buoyant English débutante, slender, pretty, and brisk as a lark, is one of the most delightful persons it has ever been my good fortune to write about. So-called “society” means nothing to me. My enthusiasm for her springs from the fact that she has affected me, as well as other hard-boiled Boulevardiers, like a fresh cool breeze on a sultry day.

She is so vibrant, eager, and bubbling over with excitement, as if every day is a holiday, every minute of which must be enjoyed to the full, that shortly after I met her I felt like throwing away my specs and worries and playing hop, skip and jump with her.

To gather the material for this yarn I drove to her beautiful house, formerly occupied by Myrna Loy, who is one of her close friends. The maid lead me into a sumptuous room, and presently Wendy dashed in, wearing athletic shorts and tennis shoes. “Hi” she said, giving me her hand, her gray-green eyes sparkling like a child’s, as if meaning to say, “Oh, I am so happy!”

She has a piquant type of beauty, with light brown hair and high cheek bones that give her face that aristocratic look so characteristic of her. She has already attained her majority, but looks like a girl of seventeen.

If you had seen us two minutes after we met, you would have thought we had known each other for years, and that, perhaps, I had just come from overseas to pay her a flying visit, and she was telling all about her thrilling experiences in America and showing me through her house.

Wendy is a character for a novel of the kind Michael Arlen used to write. There is a bit of Mayfair, Paris and the Riviera about her, in all of which places she has lived. Her story reads like fiction.

She was born in the British crown colony of Hongkong. Her father, Frank C. Jenkin, K.C., is an outstanding barrister in the Orient. Her mother, Nell MacDonagh, was born in Ireland and is a descendant of the Irish king Brian Boru. Wendy is a niece of Sir Richard Warren, the great English surgeon. Cosmo Hamilton, the novelist, is an uncle by marriage. Sir James Barrie is her godfather, hence, her professional name, “Barrie.” The family is distinguished, and the girl, madcap though she is, has puhlenty of class.

Robert Sherwood told her she speaks the most perfect English he has ever heard.

She has no accent, either British or American, no learned affectations of any kind in her speech. Her diction is a delight to those who know how the King’s English ought to be spoken, even though they cannot speak it themselves. And she can sling our slang as fast as a popular high school girl.

Wendy, has been a motion picture actress for over two years. She has played in half a dozen English films, including the memorable “Private Life of Henry VIII,” in which, you will remember, she was Jane Seymour, the favorite wife of that burly monarch. She has played increasingly important roles in four American productions — “It’s a Small World,” “College Scandal,” “The Big Broadcast of 1936,” and “A Feather in Her Hat.” But in spite of her success in the acting profession, of her mad adventures and escapades in a dozen countries; in spite of the fact that she has been around the world six times and has lived pretty much on her own, there is nothing worldly-wise and hardened about her, and she has all the freshness and youthful ardor of a young girl going to her first party. And it is precisely this quality of hers that “gets” her interviewers, used to poses, pretenses and outbursts of temperament among the movie great.

I said her story reads like fiction, and see if you will agree with me.

The Jenkin mansion in Hongkong is one of the show places of the town. Situated on the Peak, a high promontory, it commands a magnificent view of the picturesque harbor and the seething city below. Wendy’s earliest memories are the family dinners on the moonlit veranda of their home, with no lights or candles needed on the table, so bright was the Oriental moonlight, and ceremonious Chinese servants waiting on them. She has also fond memories of her amah, the native nurse who attended her.

She went to an exclusive school in Hongkong, but the malarial climate got her down, and, when she was ten, she was sent to London, accompanied by her mother, and placed in the Convent of the Assumption. There have been many priests and nuns in her family. It was in the sunny cloisters of this convent that she spent her most formative years and acquired the greater part of her formal education. Six or seven years later she returned to Hongkong, to find that her amah was gone and the grass looked lovelier on their lawn. She was no longer the frail child her father used to know, but a trim young lady, using lipstick and powder and with ideas of her own. Some of these ideas did not coincide with those held by the estimable King’s Counsel. She sailed back to Europe, traveling alone, and leaving an irate father behind her. She was placed at an ultra-smart finishing school in Geneva to round out her education, and here she learned to speak French fluently.

But apparently Wendy wasn’t a model pupil, extremely bright though she was. “I have been expelled from every school I have attended,” she laughed. “I always hated to study.”

“You look very Nordic, but you are as peppery as a Spanish girl,” I said.

“Oh, I am sure I have some Spanish blood in me! I must have. I am Irish on my mother’s side, you know. Inter-marriages were quite common between the Irish and the Spanish.”

“What plans did your parents have for you? Exactly what did your father want you to become?”

“What other plans could they have but having me presented at the Court and marrying me off to an English peer?” And she added indignantly, “My father wanted me to settle down in Mayfair or in the country and become a placid English matron.”

One day while she was engaged in an animated conversation with her young escort at the Savoy in London, where the Mayfair crowd dines, the British producer, Alexander Korda, approached her and proposed to give her a screen test. He wanted to prove to a friend that acting talent is inborn and cannot be acquired. Her facial expressions had attracted him; he was certain she could be a good actress.

Her mother disapproved of her entering the acting profession, and it was such a shock to her father that he still refuses to answer her letters, although it is said the living room of the Jenkin mansion on the Peak is littered with newspaper clippings and magazine articles describing the screen triumphs of their daughter.

“But mother and I have always been pals,” she said. “She married very young, and you wouldn’t think she could have a daughter of my age if you were to see her. People tell me I am her exact image when she was my age, that I even talk, laugh, and walk like her. I prevailed upon mother to let me take the test. It proved successful, and I was cast in ‘The Wedding Rehearsal,’ with Roland Young.”

Other pictures followed. During the filming of “Henry VIII,” “shot on the cuff,” as she says, Charles Laughton took her under his wing and taught her the tricks of the acting profession. But hardly had this picture been released when she met young Woolworth Donahue, heir of the five and ten millions, at the celebrated wedding of Barbara Hutton and the late Alexis Mdivani. Their friendship ripened into a romance. “Men never fall for me at once,” she said. “I am not pretty enough for that. I have adored four men, and in every case our romantic attachment gradually grew out of our friendship for each other. I have to be somewhat of a pal before I can love a man.”

She asked Korda to release her from her contract, and wearing a huge star sapphire on her left hand, she sailed for New York, filled with high hopes of raising a family of her own. The maternal instinct is very strong in her. But fate decreed otherwise. The reception she received from the parents of her fiancé was anything but cordial. They looked down upon her as an actress, and this hurt her deeply, because she is as proud of her family as they are of theirs. Heartbroken, she discussed every phase of the situation with the young socialite, and they decided to part, as good friends.

She found herself alone in the Big City, nervous, exhausted from the shock of her broken romance. When it rains it pours; misfortunes never come alone. She fell ill with a severe attack of influenza, and there was nobody to take care of her. Her health has never been robust, due to repeated attacks of malaria during her childhood. Those were bleak days indeed for the sunny Wendy. She came to California on an airliner to rest and recover her shattered health — and “to forget.” The desert sun at Palm Springs restored her to health and to a comparative calm. Her fair, delicate skin was tanned to a rich golden brown.

She moved to a hotel in Hollywood. She had no financial worries, as checks from the profits of “Henry VIII” kept her well supplied with funds. That picture was a cooperative enterprise for the cast, each getting a percentage of the profits.

One day, while dining at the Vendome, one of the famous restaurants catering to the appetites of screen celebrities, she engaged in a verbal altercation with a certain gentleman, which proved to be instrumental in getting her a studio contract. Zeppo Marx, of the mad Marx brothers, now an agent, happened to witness her verbal fireworks, and, fascinated, assured her some studio could make good use of her talents. Ten days later Paramount offered her a long term contract.

Paramount has big plans for her, and considers her one of its white hopes for screen honors. But she doesn’t know what fame means, and didn’t impress me as one who takes her career too seriously. When I asked her what is her great ambition in life, she said:

“To marry and have a baby.”

May the gods always be tender with her.

The piquant profile of Wendy.

The much traveled Wendy has settled enthusiastically in Hollywood.

Hedda Hopper is coaching the new import, Jan Kiepura, in diction. His new picture for Paramount will be “Give Us This Night.” It is expected that he will be a sensation in Hollywood.

Source: Screenland Magazine, December 1935