When They Were Job-Hunting… (Part I) (1935) 🇺🇸
Just off the teeming thoroughfare, called Broadway, in a busy theatrical office, sits a man who can point to a dozen of the most glamorous and exciting picture stars and say, "I gave them their first jobs."
His name is Brock Pemberton, producer of such hits as Enter Madame, Miss Lulu Bett, Strictly Dishonorable and now Personal Appearance and Ceiling Zero. For years bright faced girls and eager boys have gone in and out of his office, each one hoping for the magic words, "You'll do" — and a chance to play a role, no matter how small.
Pemberton is noted for being a discoverer of talent. He takes untried youngsters and trains them because, he says, "It's fun." He has an uncanny instinct for knowing instantly who has undeveloped talent and who is without the magic spark. But how? What did people like Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, Robert Montgomery, George Brent, Margaret Sullavan, Muriel Kirkland, Tullio Carminati and Walter Huston have which got them chosen, while hundreds of others were cooling their heels in Pemberton's office without receiving a glance from the producer?
For at the time Pemberton remembers them, these boys and girls were, in appearance and desire at least, just like thousands of other ambitious ones, padding up and down Broadway looking for jobs. Yet these chosen few rose to the fame they now enjoy. They "got the break." But they had something to begin with, something that Pemberton was able to see when they sat, nervous and eager, before him. This magic spark, whatever it was, needed only a touch to release the flame of their talents.
So let's turn back the clock of Brock Pemberton's memory and look at them when they sat, young and untried, waiting, waiting, waiting in an outer office.
Pemberton was casting a play called Puppets. The principals were all assigned to their roles but there was still a small woman's part to be filled. An actress Pemberton had used in several successful plays, a Frenchwoman, told him of a cute girl, born in France, but who had lived in this country for a long time and who had great stage possibilities. And so Claudette Colbert was given a ten minute interview with the producer.
Nervous as she was, much as she fidgeted with the end of her handkerchief, the wise eyes of the stage man saw that the girl had tremendous vitality and intelligence. As he talked to her, he discovered the alertness of her mind and the keenness with which she grasped everything he said. He pronounced the magic words, "I think you'll do" and Claudette was sent, like every other beginner, to read the part before the stage director.
They saw that she was good and, after several weeks rehearsal, the company opened out of town. But by this time influences were at work over which Claudette had no control. There were large holes in the play. Scene after scene had to be re-written and by the time that this was done, Claudette's part was so changed that she was no longer the type to play it.
Yes, she had got her first job. Her vividness had impressed a producer and now she was thrown into the depths of despair. To any producer this is just a "bad break." And Pemberton was too busy languishing over his sick play to bother over a girl's sick soul. He did not know until years later — perhaps he has never known — that Claudette's heart was broken. You see, she did not know that the talent she had, the very thing which had caused Pemberton to give her the part was the thing that would get more roles for her.
The only thing that kept her going was a chance meeting with Katherine Cornell at a party. The great Cornell, already an established actress, looked deep into the girl's eyes and said, "Do not be discouraged. You are so young. You will have a hundred more chances. If you have the ability, there is nothing that can keep you back."
But while Claudette was losing her role in Puppets, a very earnest young man was working like a slave to fit himself for the stage. He was brought to Brock Pemberton by an agent, as a fellow who showed promise, and given one of the male roles in Puppets. Fred March was his name. Pemberton saw in him the vital spark and gave him his chance. But he had trouble making himself heard beyond the first few rows. All the emotion necessary was in his voice. What it lacked was volume. For weeks he took the most strenuous exercises under a competent teacher and, by the time the play opened, his voice was firm and resonant.
But Pemberton was having more trouble with Puppets. The girl who had opened out of town in the role similar to the one Claudette Colbert had and which the rewriting had changed, became ill. They realized that she must be replaced by another girl. Desperately Pemberton wired to New York to have someone for an interview the day he arrived. Worried and harassed he came into his office and was instantly greeted by the most charming smile he had ever seen. It beamed at him from a piquant little face topped by a mop of golden hair. His secretary said, "This young lady was sent up by the agent. She's done a couple of small bits in musical comedy." But Pemberton knew from that first bright smile that she had the magic that would electrify theatre audiences. Her name? Miriam Hopkins.
And all during rehearsals it was that smile that the producer and director and other members of the cast remembered.
Most of these young players were, as I've told, sent to Pemberton by someone who could vouch for them. Very seldom has the producer time to interview those forlorn, would-be actors and actresses who sit day after day in his outer office hoping for a chance for a word with him.
However, one day he noticed, amongst that motley crew a girl whose very appearance caught his eye. She was so quiet, so demure, so calm. He told his secretary to send her in. She had no agent and was merely making the weary rounds of producers' offices hoping for a break. Two things impressed Pemberton — first, her gentle manners (she was so obviously a lady) and secondly, her rich lovely voice, a naturally beautiful voice. So he sent her out in a road show of Strictly Dishonorable and eventually she had the chance of playing the leading role. That's how Margaret Sullavan got her first break.
The play Strictly Dishonorable itself has a dramatic background. Two newcomers to Broadway appeared in the New York production. One was Muriel Kirkland, picked from fifty girls who tried out for it and another was Tullio Carminati. Tullio had been a well-known actor in Italy. A film company had brought him to America a couple of months before talkies came in. When the microphone menaced Hollywood, the moguls decided that the Italian's accent would not record so he was sent on his way.
It was in a road show that someone saw him, realized his charm and suaveness and recommended him to Pemberton. And his success was instantaneous.
Bob Montgomery was another who approached Pemberton and was given a small part. And George Brent was picked for a role in Seven Year Love when he was still an unknown. Walter Huston was discovered by Pemberton in another way. Walter's sister asked the producer to see him. Huston was, at that time, playing in vaudeville. Various acts were on the bill that evening, most of them pretty dreary. And then Huston appeared. Why, the man could do everything — he sang, he danced, he acted in a little skit he had written himself. So versatile was he, of such depth was his acting that Pemberton did not bother giving him a small role. Instead, he began at once looking for a play for him. And he found it in Mr. Pitt. In this same production, by the way, was an unknown called Minna Gombell.
Amazing, isn't it, how great these names have grown? Surprising to realize that those boys and girls, like you, perhaps, today, were out job-hunting! And hunting jobs with them at the time were boys and girls whose names no one knows. When all is said and done, Pemberton, himself, hardly knows why he picked these few. One had a bright smile, another was gentle and lady-like, another was intelligent and earnest. But this fact remains, there was in each one some vital quality, some force of personality, some latent talent that shone through the awkwardness one feels in applying for a job, that overrode the nervous tension bound to be felt before so omnipotent a producer as Pemberton.
With this mysterious, undefinable quality you can't be kept back. Those first little roles were the open sesame for these stars. But had Pemberton not seen it someone else would have. Talent was there and talent cannot be buried!
- Above, Brock Pemberton, a famous Broadway producer.
- Pemberton gave Claudette her first role. He saw her talent.
- Walter Huston went from vaudeville to stage via Pemberton.
- Above, Margaret Sullavan; below, Fred March — stars today.
Collection: Modern Screen Magazine, July 1935
see also When They Were Job-Hunting (Part II)