The Disillusions of a Dream Girl 1916
The Disillusions of a Dream Girl 1916
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter focuses on Mae Murray’s arrival in Hollywood and her disappointment in what was still a sleepy little Southern California village. Her first film appearances were equally as disillusioning, particularly her work on To Have and to Hold, directed by George Melford, who had little patience with her. She credited co-star Wallace Reid with getting her through her humiliating experience. In this chapter, Mae marries James Jay O’Brien and meets the man who became her third husband, director Robert Z. Leonard. This chapter explains how Murray became known for her “bee-stung lips” and covers her early successes in such films as A Mormon Maid, The Big Sister, Sweet Kitty Bellairs, and The Dream Girl.
When actress Madge Bellamy arrived in Hollywood after a stint on the New York stage, she was ready to turn on her heel and catch the next train home. “I was frightfully disappointed and disillusioned,” she said. “I had it built up in my mind that it was as large as New York, and you can imagine coming from all those tall buildings to one street of one-story buildings.” Eleanor Boardman, covered in soot from the cinders that blew in her face on her train ride from New York, stepped out of the station and was overwhelmed by the fragrance of orange blossoms. When Lina Basquette's family moved to Hollywood in the late 1910s, their bungalow was across the street from “weeds and cow dung.”1
The Hollywood into which Mae Murray twirled in late 1915 was still a sleepy little Southern California village. Pepper trees, evergreens, and eucalyptus shaded narrow lanes. Orange groves filled the air with perfume. Ranches still encompassed miles in every direction. One-story, ranch-type houses, later known as California bungalows, dotted the streets.
The center of town was at the intersection of Cahuenga and Hollywood boulevards. “Beyond Cahuenga there wasn't much except the rambling Hollywood Hotel,” said writer Scoop Conlon. “No Beverly Hills, no Bel Air, no Westwood; nothing but ranches until one reached—by streetcar—the tiny beach towns of Santa Monica, Ocean Park and Venice, which spread along the Pacific Ocean. They were as sleepy and peaceful as Hollywood. Time was not the essence in those halcyon days.”2
Then, while Hollywood slept, the gypsies came with their cameras and turned their barns into movie studios. Movie-struck people, lured by the promise of gold at the end of their camera lenses, flooded the area by the (p.48)
Mae firmly believed—and expected—that Zukor would arrange for a brass band to welcome her to Hollywood. “I remember the day I agreed to go to Hollywood,” she wrote. “I walked down Broadway [New York], my head thrown back looking at the clouds and imagining I would dance (p.49) around them in Hollywood where a great band would play for me and yards and yards of carpet would be thrown across the ground for my toes to touch. I could follow my own fantasies over that carpet to the tune of that blaring band.”4
As it turned out, there was no red carpet for her tiny feet to tread and no brass band to announce the arrival of Hollywood's latest star.
When I got to Los Angeles, I was waiting as the train slowed up. No band. I didn't hear one. Finally I got to the little vestibule, before you get off, and there was a man standing with red roses. I peeped out and he said, “You're looking for someone?” I said, “Where's the band?”
When I think of it now, how naïve! He said, “No band. I'm here to escort you to the studio.” I said, “No red carpet?” At least that would have meant I was something. He said, “No, I wasn't told to bring a red carpet.” I felt like just getting on the train and going straight back [to New York]. I felt they had fooled me. Very disappointing, soul-searing for a youngster.5
The driver took her into Hollywood. They passed a large orange grove at the corner of Hollywood and Vine and came to a stop at the corner of Selma and Vine, the nondescript Lasky Studios, which bore no resemblance to the ornate New Amsterdam Theatre.
Jesse L. Lasky welcomed her to the studio and assigned her to her first picture, To Have and to Hold (1916). A disappointed Mae had been led to believe in New York that she would be assigned Sweet Kitty Bellairs, based on the popular book that had been turned into a Broadway musical in 1904.
To Have and to Hold takes place on the high seas, with Mae playing Lady Jocelyn Leigh, a ward of England's King James I, who joins a shipment of brides for the American colonies to avoid marriage to Lord Carnal (Tom Forman). She marries Captain Ralph Percy (Wallace Reid) though she doesn't love him. Carnal reenters the picture and tries, but fails, to send Percy to his death. Percy and Jocelyn return to Virginia to live happily ever after.
(p.50) The day she arrived on the Lasky lot for rehearsals, Mae knew her first film would be a nerve-wracking ordeal. Director George Melford had little patience with the dancer from Broadway. His biggest complaint was that Mae was constantly out of camera range, in and out of the chalk lines he had drawn on the floor. Mae insisted on watching the rushes. She hated herself on film.
“I studied the rushes, trying to figure out why I did not like myself. I kept hearing the voice of the director saying to me, as he said over and over through the day, ‘You're not in the Follies now.’ I came to believe it was the director who was suppressing me, because he thought I was some fresh kid from the Follies who knew nothing about acting.”
More than once, Mae stormed off the set in frustration. She either sought refuge in her dressing room or went to her little home, just down the street on Vine. Cecil B. DeMille, Lasky's general director, reprimanded her for ripping in half a series of publicity stills that featured her in the picture. She stomped her feet and said she was boarding the next train for New York.
Wallace Reid, her leading man, consoled Mae, reassuring her that he would help get her through the picture. Reid and wife, Dorothy Davenport, gave her pointers about performing before a camera. The company soon went on location to a little town on the coast, then over to Catalina Island to film the exteriors. Locations were less stressful; she was freer to move around.
On Saturday, February 5, 1916, the cast and crew, traveling in two ships, arrived at Castle Rock on Catalina Island for some location shots. When the afternoon skies threatened rain, George Melford called it a day and sailed around the island to Avalon. Those in each vessel thought Mae was in the other and it was not until that evening that they realized they had left Mae stranded. Melford and Wallace Reid headed the search party. When they reached the vicinity of the Rock, the rough sea prohibited their landing. After several hours, they managed to secure their position and went looking for Mae. They found her crouched by the side of the rock. Melford sent his cold, wet, and exhausted star home to Los Angeles, where she rested.6 Perhaps the story was invented for publicity. If true, it is almost certain the litigious Mae would have slapped her studio with a lawsuit.
“Here was a man who could speak with me, not block me,” Mae said of James Young. “He allowed me to speak, allowed me to explain to him. I wanted music on the set. I came from musical comedy. Music meant so much to me. I couldn't come early in the morning and emote. It was all so bleak and cold. I told him I would pay for the music. He allowed it. I felt I had a companion. I didn't feel like I was all alone. In the beginning, I did feel all alone, like Little Orphan Annie.”8
(p.53) Mae took a break from the filming of Sweet Kitty Bellairs to participate in an all-star benefit for the building of a new Elks lodge in nearby Glendale. Ruth Roland surprised the crowd with her vocal talent. Theodore Roberts, who worked frequently with Mae during this period, “stampeded the house with two dramatic readings.” Mae, assisted by Stafford Pemberton, “put on a few dance numbers that almost caused a riot.”9
When released in May 1916, Sweet Kitty Bellairs was dubbed “a delightful and entertaining picture. Mae Murray is beautiful and fascinating as the young reigning beauty of Bath, her acting having the impulsiveness, spontaneity and charm attributed to the heroine of the story.” Variety thought that while the action was “slow in getting under way,” the film was “a good program picture, in spite of the defects. Mae Murray didn't distinguish herself in the title role, having been given to over-gushing in a simulation of a flirtatious young woman and not ‘strong’ enough in the brief emotional scenes she was allotted.”10
Having heard Mae was a difficult star to handle, Cecil B. DeMille decided to find out for himself when he cast her as a San Francisco waif in The Dream Girl (1916). Written by Jeanie Macpherson, The Dream Girl focuses on Meg (Mae), a girl from the slums who loses herself in a fantasy world and dreams of being rescued by a true Galahad. Her alcoholic father (Theodore Roberts) quickly brings her into reality when he plots to pass off his rogue friend (Charles West) as a nobleman so they can charm, then con, Alice (Mary Mersch), an heiress, out of her fortune. Out of love for Alice's brother (Earle Foxe), Meg exposes the plot and discovers in him her Galahad.
Mae clearly resonated with the role of Meg, as her own childhood was sadly similar to what her screen character endured: poverty and alcoholism. The skilled DeMille was able pull from Mae a solid and credible performance. As her Hollywood career advanced, Mae became comfortable and successful playing discarded youths and Cinderella-type parts, like the one Macpherson wrote for her in The Dream Girl.
Mae's performance did not go unnoticed by the critics. Moving Picture World: “In rags or in costly gowns, the new Lasky star is a magnetic little creature always spontaneously girlish.” Hartford Daily Courant: “As a child of the slums, Mae Murray surpasses any of her previous triumphs.” (p.54)
DeMille was silent on his experience with Mae. “Apart from the fact that it was the only picture in which I directed Mae Murray, I cannot see any reason for ever mentioning it again,” he recorded in his memoirs.12
After The Dream Girl, Mae was assigned the starring role in The Big Sister (1916). Because slum streets were needed for background, the studio decided to send Mae home to New York and film those exteriors on location in the Lower East Side. With script in hand, Mae boarded the California Limited, settled into her private Pullman, and thought of home.
While in the city, before The Big Sister went into production, Mae reconnected with old friends. She danced nightly at her old haunts and had lunch with her friends from the Follies. She played mother confessor to (p.55)
Jay O'Brien reentered her life and took control of her daily schedule. He begged for and demanded marriage. Mae, in a moment of weakness, relented: she agreed to an engagement for a marriage to take place some date far in the future.
In June, Mae took part in the Allied Bazaar to support Allied countries involved in World War I. She served as bartender in playwright and actress Margaret Mayo's booth and sold autographed photos of herself for $50 each.13
As her fame continued to grow, the actress kept close tabs on how her name was used in information for public consumption. She was especially astute in going after those who exploited her name for personal gain. When the novel Adam's Garden was released in 1916, Mae was furious that the author, Nina Wilcox Putnam, used her name in the text and referred to “the Mae Murrays.” Mae filed two $100,000 suits against the author and publisher, J. B. Lippincott Company.14
Filming of The Big Sister got under way in August 1916, with Mae playing a slum girl who is left to take care of her kid brother when their father is sent to jail. Serious drama unfolds when her brother is run over (p.56) by a rich man's car and she flees from being sold into white slavery. In the final reel, all ends well, with the slum girl settling down with the rich man.
The critics liked Mae in The Big Sister. Variety reported the story was “nicely told” and “magnificently photographed—and acted.” “Miss Murray is lovely,” noted Philadelphia's Evening Public Ledger. “She has adapted to the screen finely—all except her walk, which is pure musical comedy.”15
Before she left New York for California in September, Mae complained to Adolph Zukor that she hated Hollywood and the movies. Ever the diplomat, he patiently told her she was under contract, but asked what he could to do to make her happier in her career. Mae asked for an increase in her weekly salary of $900, a director who understood her, and more close-ups in her films. After some coddling, Zukor, feeling satisfied that he had found the perfect director who could handle his disgruntled star, put Mae on a westbound train.
Back in Hollywood, Mae was assigned The Plow Girl (1916), another rags-to-riches yarn about Margot (Mae), an orphaned and abused farm hand in South Africa, who turns out to be the granddaughter of Lady Brentwood (Edythe Chapman), a wealthy Londoner. Mae was putty in the hands of her new director, Robert Z. Leonard, whom Zukor lured from Universal.
Leonard, a stage actor from the age of fourteen, entered films as an actor for the Selig Polyscope Company in 1907. Starring in many films from 1907 to 1913, he made his directorial debut in 1914 in The Master Key, in which he also played a role.
“When I was told that I was to direct an actress who had made a shining name for herself among the most critical theatergoers in the world, I was somewhat embarrassed,” Leonard wrote in 1922. “I am quite honest when I say I looked forward to my meeting with Mae Murray in fear and trembling. I was a product of the wild and wooly West; she came from the effete East. I was afraid that I would find her a pampered favorite; a woman with more temper than temperament. Imagine my surprise and pleasure when I found, on her arrival, that she was not the overbearing never-satisfied creature of my nightmares, but a real woman, kindly considerate and always willing. To cap it off, she was the most delicately beautiful human being I had ever seen.”16
Zukor—and the whole Lasky lot—breathed a sigh of relief when Mae announced, “I am happier than I have ever been.”17
Variety noted that “the little star was delightful (in The Plow Girl), although the picture did not give her sufficient time to accomplish the transition from South American plow girl to the charmingly youthful Lady Anice of the London drawing room.” “The star is a beautiful young actress, though the latter term is a bit too laudatory,” quipped the Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia). “Whatever deficiencies she may have histrionically are quite concealed by her charm of individuality and exquisite face.”18
Mae settled into her work and life in Hollywood. She shared a dressing (p.58) room at Lasky with actress Fanny Ward, with whom she had been friendly since their days in New York. Like Mae, Fanny was perpetually youthful in appearance. When she came to Hollywood in 1915 to costar in The Cheat for Cecil B. DeMille, the Broadway star was already in her midforties. Cleverly concealing her age, she continued playing ingénues into the 1920s.
Hollywood nightlife, tame by New York's standards, was restricted to the far-flung suburbs: the Vernon Country Club, the Sunset Inn at Santa Monica, the Ship Café in Venice, and Nat Goodwin's on the Pier. Mae danced at the Hotel Alexandria and dined and danced at Al Levy's, McKee's, and Fred Harlow's. The Hollywood Hotel was the famous watering hole in town and offered dances in the lobby every Thursday evening.
Early in her motion picture career, while still with Lasky, Mae was given a moniker that stuck with her the rest of her life. “The very first thing that a wonderful man out there [in Hollywood] did—have you noticed?—I have a strange construction of my mouth,” Mae recalled late in life. “He gave me this publicity of ‘bee-stung’ lips, because my upper lip is very full. I've been known all the time as ‘the girl with the bee-stung lips.’ It was very nice. I didn't object to that.”19
By 1917, Mae's bee-stung lips were being compared to Douglas Fairbanks's smile, Ethel Barrymore's poise, and Maude Adams's wistfulness.20
Mae spent most of the fall of 1917 in front of the movie cameras, as she was assigned On Record and A Mormon Maid, both under the direction of Robert Z. Leonard.
On Record tells the story of Helen Wayne (Mae), who is accused of a crime she didn't commit. Nevertheless, she is fingerprinted and spends time in jail. The no-good rival (Charles Ogle) of her fiancé (Tom Forman) gets his hands on the fingerprints and attempts to discredit her in public. She is hauled into court but manages to exonerate herself.
To prepare for the role, Mae told the press an unlikely story of spending time in the slammer and of turning herself over to being fingerprinted and questioned.
A Mormon Maid (1917), a controversial tale about the 1840s westward migration of the Mormons, was filmed at the Lasky Ranch, a tract of land in the San Fernando Valley the studio bought for locations.
Leonard, while sensitive to the anti-Mormon sentiment of the time, tried to tell a balanced story. By the time the shooting wrapped, he had eight reels in the can. He stayed up day and night cutting the film to five reels.
Meanwhile, Mae, mentally and physically exhausted from film work, found herself in the middle of a real-life drama when her fiancé, Jay O'Brien, arrived from the East Coast and reminded her of her commitment to marriage.
The accounts Mae gave about her hasty marriage to Jay O'Brien changed almost as much as the year she gave for her birth. One account stated they were married at the Lasky studio with the litter of scenery and props strewn about. Mae concocted a more dramatic tale about Jay showing up at the studio, kidnapping her at gunpoint, and having an acquaintance, one Pud Sickel, drive them to the Sickel home in Pasadena, where a judge performed the ceremony.
The marriage certificate sheds light on the facts but leaves the motive and circumstances to speculation. What is clear is that Jay O'Brien and Mae Murray (she gave the name Maria Koenig) were married in the evening of December 18, 1916, by Robert W. McDonald, justice of the peace, in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. J. Harrington Sickel. Mae gave her age as twenty-four—she was actually thirty-one—and Virginia as her place of birth. The groom was thirty-six, but claimed thirty-four.21
What happened next depends on who told the story. Mae maintained that after the ceremony, O'Brien shot his gun in the air before the wedding party drove to the swanky Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles for dinner. There, she said, she slipped out a bathroom window, hailed a taxi, and headed to the Lasky studio, where she collapsed into the arms of Robert Z. Leonard.22 Then again, in later court testimony, she said she simply went home and cried herself to sleep.
Anita Loos, whose recollections are also not to be totally trusted, remembered that the newlyweds showed up fresh from the ceremony at the (p.61) Hollywood Hotel during the weekly Thursday night dance (the O'Briens were actually married on a Monday). “We all stopped dancing to applaud the glowing bride as she made her way toward the broad staircase on the arm of Hollywood's first socialite bridegroom,” Loos recounted. “But it is dismal to report that a brief two hours later the bridegroom booted the bride down the same staircase, out into the night. What happened between those honeymooners in the bridal suite is a mystery still.”23
The story of Mae Murray's marriage to the Beau Brummell of New York may never be known. The truth is, the union was doomed from the beginning; it was history before the “I do's” were said. Now that Mae was satisfied in Hollywood and with her career, O'Brien was a leftover from another period in her life. Hollywood was a foreign world to this New York night owl.
(1.) Madge Bellamy to Michael G. Ankerich, 1989; Eleanor Boardman to Michael G. Ankerich, 1990; Basquette, Lina.
(2.) McCallum, Scooper.
(3.) Kobal, Hollywood.
(4.) Murray, “Intimate Recollections.”
(5.) Murray, “Reminiscences.”
(6.) “Lasky Star Marooned,” Moving Picture World, February 12, 1916.
(7.) New York Times, March 6, 1916; New York Tribune, March 6, 1916; Variety, March 3, 1916.
(8.) WQXR-FM radio interview, 1960; courtesy of Anthony Slide.
(9.) “Kalem Elks Benefit,” Moving Picture World, March 1916.
(10.) Grand Rapids Press, May 25, 1916; Variety, May 19, 1916.
(11.) Moving Picture World, July 29, 1916; Hartford Daily Courant, undated; New York Telegraph, July 16, 1916; Hartford Daily Courant, undated.
(12.) DeMille, Autobiography.
(13.) Cleveland Leader, June 19, 1916.
(14.) Writer, June 1916.
(15.) Variety, September 15, 1916; Evening Public Ledger, September 26, 1916.
(16.) Robert Z. Leonard, Filmplay, May 1922.
(17.) Murray, “Intimate Recollections.”
(18.) Variety, November 17, 1916; Evening Public Ledger, November 17, 1916.
(19.) Murray, “Reminiscences.”
(20.) “Ironical Fate and Mae Murray,” Green Book Magazine, September 1917.
(21.) California State Board of Health, certificate of marriage, #6626, County of Los Angeles.
(p.341) (22.) Ardmore, Self-Enchanted.
(23.) Loos, A Girl Like I.