Modern Screen, September 1940
Acting is the most unstable of the professions. It and politics are the only two pursuits of man which depend solely upon public favor. In other lines of work, you fail
or are fired because you are not efficient at your job. An actor may be completely effcient at his job but, if public favor veers away from him, that effciency counts for
The question I want to ask my fans is this: What makes a star slip? What are the contributing factors that cause a star to fall? Do you get tired of his face? Is it a
question of bad stories? How much does adverse publicity have to do with it? How great an influence is the star’s private life? In other words, just what is it that makes
a star and just what is it that breaks him? Because I know my own case history best, I feel that if I can get the clue to my own toboggan, I can get the answer to the whole question. I don’t know why I slipped. I know there are a dozen routine answers, but I’m not
satisfied that they are the real ones.
I do know just when it all began. “They” said I was slipping before I went to England to make A Yank at Oxford. The bad publicity I got in New York before I sailed, the “pretty boy” shrapnel they let me have was. “they” said, my death—knell. But curfew did not ring
that night. Because, if I’d started to slip then as disastrously as was predicted, A Yank at Oxford wouldn’t have done the business it did.
No, I skidded when I made Stand Up and Fight, and well I knew it. Don’t think we stars don’t realize when we begin to wobble. We don’t soar around with our heads blandly in the blue while our feet are walking the plank Why I slipped with this picture is one of the things that confuses me. It was a good picture and brought in the shekels, yet it was not good for me. Which seems to indicate that, for the individual actor, the play’s not always
“the thing.” You can slip even when you have a good picture.
Now it may be argued that the picture was no good for me because I played a tough guy in it—fighting with Beery, biting the dust and all that. I bet some of you said, “It’s too obvious that the studio is trying to disprove the’pretty boy’ publicity by giving Taylor a part where hecan exhibit some beef and brawn.” I thought of that, too,but it isn’t a good enough reason, because The Crowd Roars was made before Stand Up and Fight and in
that, if anyone remembers, I was a pugilist who was no palooka in the ring. If any of you had wanted to give it the “Hee-haw-they’re- trying-to-prove-that-Taylor-can-
take-it,” that was your chance. You didn’t take it. That picture was both good Box Office and good for me.
So, to a certain extent, my pictures have kept me on a see-saw, now up, now down. “Three Comrades” was a good picture for me. Stand Up and Fight, Lucky Night, Lady of the Tropics and Remember were bad for me. Waterloo Bridge gave me a swing up again and now I have hopes that Escape will put me on the up-end of the teeter-totter once again. But it’s the why of the ups and downs that I’m trying to get at.
In my case it may well be said that I skidded because I’m not a fine actor. I know I’m not. I had no experience behind me when I came to Hollywood. I still haven’t had enough training—it takes study and time to perfect any art or craft. I have a whale of a lot to learn.
Yet, you can’t say an actor loses public favor just because he’s not a fine actor. Naming no names, for courtesy’s sake, we all know actors who make no pretensions at being Booths or Barrymores and yet are very popular. On the other hand, I know one of the finest
actors of the stage and screen who can’t get a job in pictures today. He has every-
thing in his favor, seemingly, and yet you fans won’t go to see him.
Take someone like one of our outstanding feminine stars of the theatre who can
act but isn’t pretty. She can’t get a job in pictures. Take someone who is pretty
but can’t act. She can’t get a job in the movies. But it’s a combination of the
two, you say—acting and looks. But that doesn’t answer the question either, be-
cause the Hollywood “graveyard” is studded with the headstones of men who
were handsome and talented, and girls who were pretty and gifted. Somehow,
they didn’t have that “thing.”
Maybe sex appeal is the common denominator? Well, maybe, but one of the
most consistently popular men on the screen is Wally Beery, and Wally would
be the last to stake his claim to box offce favor on his sex appeal! On the
other hand, there are the Lamarrs, Gables, Boyers and Crawfords who have
sex appeal plus, and they’re doing right smart for themselves, too.
It’s all very confusing, you see. You may slip if you aren’t a fine actor, but
you may also slip if you are. You may slip if you have sex appeal; you may be
signally successful if you haven’t.
Way back when I made Broadway Melody of 1938, Barbara said to
me, “It’s coming, young man, and you won’t like it. It’s coming, but it will pass.”
What she meant was that it comes to all of us, in some measure, sooner or later.
Public favor, asking your pardons, is fickle.
Often, the reasons for our slipping are none of our doing. Some crack-pot will
sue a star on some false charge. Or some critic will lampoon us with a poi-
soned barb directed at our appearance for which, after all, we are not responsible.
We can’t help our looks. I certainly never thought my looks would be any problem
to me. I worried about my stories, my parts and my acting. If I thought about
my looks at all, it was that maybe I’d better have my nose straightened or my
ears pinned back. It simply didn’t occur to me that something for which I was
not responsible could be used as a weapon against me.
Now, how much, I’d like to know, does publicity like that affect a player in the
estimation of you, his fans? When he gets blasts like that, do you think he
should ignore them or do you think he should do something about them? For
myself, I did nothing. It seems to me that the actor who is the target for per-
sonal criticism can do nothing. A man can’t very well stand up and protest “I’m
not a Pretty Boy!” without making a pretty fool of himself. So, I skipped it.
I never went out of my way to muss myself up, break my nose, make myself
look worse than necessary. Was that a mistake or wasn’t it?
I don’t know what your answer will be but, personally, I really don’t think looks
have anything to do with it, one way or the other. Rudolph Valentino was cer-
tainly an extraordinarily handsome man, but it didn’t seem to hurt him any. Wal-
lace Reid was a handsome chap and was tops till the day he died. Ty Power has all
the looks he can do with, and he’s a regular Fourth of July conflagration at the
box office; he’s that “hot.” On the other hand, a very good-looking boy went
down to defeat a few years ago just because he was branded as “too good-look-
ing.” Wally Beery, again, is no Greek god, and yet he’s as big box office as he
ever was. So, for my money, appearance one way or the other, is not the answer
Perhaps it’s that bad publicity can only do you harm in proportion to how much
people are ready to believe. Maybe it’s not so much what you have that’s good
as how little you have that’s wrong. Take Tracy and Gable, for instance. I don’t
believe anything could be said about them that would affect their popularity.
People believe what they want to believe, and they want to believe only the best
of Tracy and Gable. I like to think that maybe people were inclined to believe
all that twaddle handed out about me before I went to England, because they
didn’t know me very well then. They were on the fence as far as I was con-
cerned and so were ready to believe anything. I like to hope that, with the pass-
ing of time, they’ve come to know me better and to accept me as a friend.
But even the premise that, when you slip as a human being, you slip as a star
is open to question. Because, regular fellows though Gable and Tracy are,
there are other regular fellows in this business of whom people are ready to
believe the worst at the drop of a poisonous paragraph. And, too, there are some
men and women in this business, as in any other, who are not regular at all and
yet occupy choice sites on the Movie Milky Way. Why? You tell me.
Yes, my personal guess is that a player’s private life has little or nothing
to do with his popularity. Not anymore. It used to be said that marriage hurt
young players of both sexes. Well, most of the ranking stars of today are married
and it hasn’t affected their box office. When Barbara and I married, we didn’t
get any unfavorable reaction. Or if we did, we didn’t know about it. Clark and
Carole married and are bigger than ever. Ty Power married, and it certainly hasn’t
hurt him. Boyer’s marriage hasn’t destroyed his attraction in any way.
Some of the actors have scandals break over their heads. But their heads and
-their box offce value remain intact. In fact, I rather believe that the public likes
a dash of scandal with its stars now and then. Though it may be a sad commen-
tary on us humans, it’s true that most of us get more of a kick out of hearing that
Mr. X eloped with his stenographer or that Mrs. X murdered her paramour than
that Mr. and Mrs. X sit quietly at home playing pinochle.
Then I ask myself how much temperament has to do with it? Maybe tempera-
ment is the trick that captures the public imagination. Should an actor be erratic
and diffcult, or should he be businesslike, stable and quiet? That’s a tangled
question, too. Because it seems if you’re too “colorful,” people resent you; if
you’re too tame, they’re bored.
Me, I haven’t much of the stuff. I’ve been criticized at times for being “too
dignified, too reserved.” It’s been said that I never let myself go, never seem to
show any emotion over things. Maybe I should put on an act. Yet I can’t quite
believe that. Gable and Tracy are not temperamental, and they do all right.
Ronald Colman is a monument of reserve, and the same goes for Bill Powell.
Some say it’s a matter of how hard you work, how seriously you take your work.
Muni would seem to prove that this is so. Yet one of the biggest, longest established
stars in this business says, openly, that he considers his work a “racket,” that he
never even reads his script until ten minutes before he steps on a set. And I must
say that in spite of the nice things said about me in “Waterloo Bridge,” I didn’t
work any harder, didn’t take the part any more seriously than I did in, say, “Lucky
Night” which was, for me, a flop-pola.
Some people say that when you’re “tops” too long, you wear out your wel-
come. That when your name is on everybody’s tongue, you’re like a book fans
hear too much about and so don’t bother to read. But that doesn’t satisfy me,
either, because men like Gable, Boyer, Tracy and girls like Bette Davis and
Vivien Leigh confound that argument.
It’s been said that it’s a matter of “cycles.” That when comedy pictures
are having a run, you’re out of the race, at least temporarily, unless you’re doing
crazy comedies. But, during a comedy cycle, I’ve seen a tasty tragedy come
along and be a big hit!
Spencer Tracy, more than anyone or anything else, confuses me when
I try to answer the question I’m passing on to you. There’s nothing about Tracy
that anyone can pick on. He’s not too good-looking, he isn’t “diffcult,” he never
gives a bad performance. Yet, before he came to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he was
skidding! And not because he hadn’t had good pictures.
Don’t think that an actor doesn’t worry about this matter of slipping. He worries
just as much as the little grocery clerk who fears for his job. And for much the
same reasons. Money, for instance. If I get fired, I can’t maintain my present
standard of living. “So what!” do I hear? “You’d still be living cushy on the
street called Easy, wouldn’t you?” The answer is “Yes.” But everything is com-
parative. Every man gets geared to a certain way of life, and it hurts when
that way of life is no more.
But it’s not so much the money angle that makes a star dread a skid; it’s pride.
It’s the fear of having so big an audience witness his debacle. When the little
grocery clerk loses his job, his fellow workers know about it, his family, his
personal friends—that’s all. But when a star gets fired, the whole world knows it.
There is another thing the grocery clerk has over the picture star. If he loses his
job, he can, reasonably enough, hope for a better job. If a star slips, he may get
another job, but you can bet it won’t be a better one. A “dead” star is the deadest
thing on this earth—and least liable to resurrection.
What – brings some stars to this tragedy of early entombment? What gives other
stars comparative immortality? What makes them slip? What made me slip?
That’s what I want you fans to tell me.