On with the Dance 1920
On with the Dance 1920
Abstract and Keywords
In this chapter, focus is give to Mae Murray’s screen image and her determination to shed her frocks for furs and negligees. The Leonards move into the luxurious Hotel Des Artistes and entertain lavishly. She works with new directors, Leonce Perret and George Fitzmaurice in such screen hits as The Twin Pawns, The A.B.C. of Love, On with the Dance, and The Right to Love. The Leonards sailed for Europe on a belated honeymoon. In Paris, Murray lunches with Olive Thomas before Thomas’ mysterious death after drinking mercury bichloride. While in the French capital, Murray undergoes a cosmetic procedure that takes years off her appearance.
Emerging from World War I physically unscathed and economically strong, the United States became a nation on the move. Cultural blinders were discarded, and aging sojourners from the Victorian Age roared into the 1920s with twinkles in their eyes. The country seemed to be shedding its stilted ways like a snake sheds its skin. It was an exuberant time to be an American.
“Only rarely does the national life change this fast,” wrote James Traub in The Devil's Playground. “It did so in the late 1910s and early 1920s because so many things happened at once—the stock market boom, which showered wealth in all directions, and especially in the cities; a large scale urban migration; the creation of a national culture through the new media of radio and the movies, the arrival of modern ideas, and above all those of Freud, who reduced the great edifice of Victorian morality to the status of a drawing-room comedy; and the return of several million young men and women from World War I.”1
Mae Murray, not one to be left behind, entered the new decade with change on her mind. From now on, she would no longer play ingenues on the screen. Her screen persona would grow up and she would portray an honest-to-God woman, drawing on the emotional experiences of a lonely childhood, a fractured family, and two failed marriages.
“Battling with the world since the age of fourteen is apt to teach anyone there are more things in life than curls and smiles,” Mae said.
There have been so many, many ingénues, yet who of them but Mary [Pickford] is ever remembered for very long? Whereas we can all remember instantly a dozen different actresses whose more serious work has appealed to us. There's the same sort of difference, I think, between looking at a comic sheet or a page of pretty photographs and looking at a book. While we laugh, our minds are a blank, but when we see sorrows and joy that remind us of real life, of our own experiences, we think and we remember. I'd rather try to be a good book than the funny page or the photographs.2
In addition to shedding her ingenue image, Mae's plans for building a more glamorous image for the screen also included a renewed focus on fashion. Her fans could expect to see her trading frocks for furs and gingham for negligees. While she was at it, Mae also shed eight years from her age. By 1920, she had shifted her birth year from 1885 to 1893.3
In the spring of 1919, after closing the California house, Mae returned to New York to regenerate herself after a rather strenuous schedule at Universal and a major move from the West Coast. Rejuvenation for Mae meant retreating to a New Jersey health resort, where she had gone periodically since 1917. For six weeks, she ate nothing, drank nothing, tasted nothing, thought nothing, but milk.
It was a lactation vacation.
Mae told an inquisitive reporter about her regimen. During the day at the resort, Mae took to a cot underneath trees on the lawn and sipped milk all day. “Every twenty minutes a glass three-quarters filled with milk is brought to you,” Mae said. “In this way, you consume about six quarts a day. The milk makes you drowsy, and you sleep a good part of the day and all of the night.
“Milk is the best of foods. It revitalizes. It restores nervous energy. It is a balanced ration, containing all the food elements of the body. It soothes. It induces sleep. When I am rundown and tired, I know what I need. It isn't diversion. It isn't travel. It isn't a vacation, though I get that too. It is just plain milk, M-I-L-K.”4
(p.91) As summer got under way, the Leonards rented a house in Mamaroneck, on the Long Island Sound, and invited friends from the city. They gave barbecues, swam in the ocean, and played tennis. Mae invited Picture Play reporter Grace Wyndem-Vail out for the afternoon to watch the Leonards play tennis and golf. “They had the most loud, amusing arguments,” Wyndem-Vail wrote of her visit with the Leonards. “They always pretend that the dispute is a matter of life and death. In this case it was an affaire d'honneur of the tennis court. Mae had sworn that she'd beat her husband the first day she had time, and she's just done it, to his surprise—as well as hers.”5
For several years, the Leonards had rented a lavish apartment in the Hotel Des Artistes, which catered to the movie and literary elite. Deciding to remain permanently in New York, they bought a cooperative duplex apartment in the building. Their eighth-floor suite boasted commanding views over Central Park. Mae took charge as if the apartment were a movie set. “I made it a more elaborate fairyland than the California house had been.”6 She also reconnected with old friends Corinne Griffith and Dorothy Dalton, who also had apartments in the building.
Never one to sit idle for long, Mae was anxious to get back to work. Before the summer was out, she contracted with French director Léonce Perret for two films: The Twin Pawns and The A.B.C. of Love. Perret arrived in the United States in 1917 and worked briefly for the World Film Corporation before starting his own production company on West Forty-Second Street in Manhattan, Perret Pictures, which became affiliated with the distributor Pathé-Exchange.
In The Twin Pawns (1919), Mae plays a double role as twin sisters, Daisy (the poor girl from the slums) and Violet (the rich girl who lives with her indulgent father). Separated since birth, they are unaware of the other's existence. Villain John Bent (Warner Oland) holds the truth and uses them as “twin pawns.” When Violet, whom Bent has forced into marriage, dies, he brings Daisy in to take her place. In no time, he has Daisy committed to an insane asylum and makes plans to take the dead Violet's fortune. Daisy's paramour catches on to the ruse and exposes the evil Bent.
Perret also directed Mae in The A.B.C. of Love (1919) as Kate, an illiterate young woman who is rescued from her poor surroundings when (p.92) she marries playwright Harry Bryant, who has fallen for her charms. Over time, he wants more than passion in his new wife—he wants intellect. He carries on with a former sweetheart (Dorothy Green), who is using him to further her own social climb. Harry is ready to end the union when he sees Kate frequenting a mysterious apartment house, only to learn in the final reel that Kate is being tutored. His love is rekindled.
With The Twin Pawns, both her fans and critics appreciated Mae's attempt to bring more solid drama into her roles. While Variety said the picture “fails to rank with the present good productions on the market,” it noted that “Miss Murray gets a chance to play all over the lot.”7
Perret appreciated Mae's camera style, declaring that, “when it comes to silent expression, Miss Murray is all there.”8
True to her word, Mae gave her fans more by wearing less in The A.B.C. of Love. Critics were less concerned about the story than they were about her emerging fashion statements. The actress “displays a wardrobe guaranteed to cause feminine hearts to flutter and to make no slight impression on the masculine heart,” Variety noted. “From lacy gossamer lingerie to frilly, girlish dancing frocks, and daring sophisticated evening clothes, to say nothing of chic little street gowns and suits, Miss Murray runs the gamut of milady's wardrobe.”9
Harrison's Reports issued a scathing warning to moviegoers. The film is “disgusting to intelligent people,” and Mae's Kate is a heroine “without an ounce of brains.” “There seems to have been no reason for the production of this picture other than to show Mae Murray's nude form. And the director avails himself of every opportunity to show it.”10
In the fall of 1919, Cosmopolitan Pictures, located in Upper Manhattan, signed Bob Leonard to direct Marion Davies in two pictures, April Folly and The Reckless Sex. Paramount signed Mae to a four-picture deal.
At the Paramount–Artcraft studios, Mae went to work for director George Fitzmaurice in On with the Dance (1920). His wife, Ouida Bergère, a talented actress and screenwriter, penned the scenario from the play of the same name by Michael Morton.
The role of Sonia, a Russian dancer in a cabaret, was a perfect match for Mae. In the film, Sonia travels to New York, where she falls in love with Peter Derwynt (David Powell), a millionaire who is involved with Lady Jeane Tremelyn (Alma Tell). The rejected Jeane marries wealthy Jimmie (p.93)
Mae was instantly taken with her new director. Fitzmaurice, she said, “had a leaning toward the exotic and bizarre, which I liked. We blended.”11
To prepare for the role of Sonia, Mae returned to her roots. She spent time in a Russian settlement in the Lower East Side, where she learned the dance she performed in the picture. Mae especially connected with the (p.94) poor neighborhood children, as she was once one of them, a desperate tot with little hope for a bright future. She later returned to the settlement, danced for the children, and invited them to her home for lunch.12
The cast and crew also traveled to Florida for location scenes and boarded a ship crowded with emigrants to shoot some of Sonia's dancing scenes.
Mae liked her role in On with the Dance because it gave her a rare chance to demonstrate her dramatic gifts. Ever an optimist, she also appreciated the subtle meaning of the title and the uplifting story. For her, it meant that no matter what the outlook for the individual, no matter how far gone along the road to despair, there was always hope for those who never gave in.
Ishbel M. Ross, writing for the New York Tribune, praised Mae's performance for its “intensity that has not been apparent in her screen work in the past. She is less of the ingénue and more of the emotional actress.” Variety concluded that Mae “is at her very best.” “Her dances were the most extraordinary bit of movement ever caught by the camera,” noted Theater magazine. Harrison's Reports seemed distressed about Mae's scantily clad figure, noting that the “principal object for which this picture was made is to exploit Miss Murray's shape. In the dancing scenes, she appears as close to the nude as it is allowable in some places.”13
About the time On with the Dance was released, talent agent John Livingston filed suit against Mae for $966, the remainder of a commission he said was due him for securing her contract with Léonce Perret. Representing herself before the court, Mae contended that she had given Livingston the agreed-upon $500, which represented a tenth of one week's salary ($5,000). The agent appealed the verdict. In December, the decision in Mae's favor was upheld.14
Hoping to capitalize on the success of On with the Dance, Paramount again teamed Mae with George Fitzmaurice and David Powell in The Right to Love (1920) and sent them on location to an island off the coast of southern Florida. Ouida Bergère's story has Mae flitting around in as little as possible and enduring the cruel treatment of her husband, Lord Falkland (Holmes E. Herbert). Along comes an old lover, Colonel Richard Loring (David Powell), who offers her happiness and the right love.
Like Mae's attire, the story was weak and flimsy. Variety surmised that Mae, “burdened by a poor part,” filled in the weak characterization by skirting “close to the ridiculous. She is an eccentric and purposely exaggerates her peculiarities of bearing on and off the stage.” Her performances, the publication noted, never “strike an average. Sometimes they are excellent. This one isn't.”16
“This situation is too revolting even for a book, let alone a picture,” barked Harrison's Reports. The New York Times was equally as critical. Idols of Clay “is just a usual piece of movie fiction which gives Miss Murray an opportunity to be the Mae Murray known, and presumably approved, by movie fans.”17
Variety laid the blame at the end of Fitzmaurice's megaphone. The director had a chance, but failed, to “slip over stark melodrama at its most moving.” What remains is “crude and often gets decidedly on the nerves. Mae Murray is not the cleverest girl in pictures, but properly handled she can be made to do something. Since On with the Dance, Fitzmaurice has failed to put her over. Is this her fault or his?”18
Mae, never one for critical self-reflection, gave the question no thought. When filming wrapped on Idols of Clay, she approached her boss, Paramount's Adolph Zukor, about a vacation. Zukor agreed. Her three films with Fitzmaurice had been successful at the box office and profitable for Paramount, having brought in an estimated $1.5 million in domestic and foreign sales.19 She would complete the fourth film for Paramount when she returned.
“Go to Europe,” Zukor was quoted as saying. “For heaven's sake go (p.97) to Europe so you can come back and make us another picture and fight for whatever you want, girl. You're gold at the box office.”20
Leonard, who had completed his work with Marion Davies, booked the couple on the luxurious S.S. Olympic, which featured opulent dining rooms, Turkish baths, elevators, grand staircases, and elegant suites with fireplaces, mahogany woodwork, servants' quarters, and private baths. For the rich and famous, this floating palace was the only way to travel.
According to his passport application, the Leonards intended to visit Great Britain, France, Switzerland, and Italy. They expected to return to the United States within six months.21
With only days left before she sailed, Mae made a list of necessities and went shopping. She bumped into Olive Thomas, who was making her own plans to travel to Europe. She confided in Mae that her three-year marriage to Jack Pickford had been turbulent at best. This trip, she hoped, would rekindle their passion. Mae and Olive made plans that afternoon to meet for lunch at the Ritz in Paris.22
The Leonards, along with their steamer trunks full of furs, shoes, picture hats, and chiffon, sailed for England on August 4, 1920. Mae was photographed on board with actress Lucy Fox and Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton tea fame.
In Paris, Mae visited a skilled surgeon who explained the recent medical advances European surgeons had made in cosmetic surgery after the war. Innovative surgeons, dedicated to treating wounded soldiers with horrific facial and head injuries, now turned their scalpels on society's elite. Early in her trip, Mae underwent a face-lift that took years off her still youthful appearance.23
In The Self-Enchanted, Mae told her biographer that she met fans at every corner, spent time with French actress Cécile Sorel, lunched with Sarah Bernhardt, traveled to Spain, and performed the Russian dance from On with the Dance—quite a schedule for someone recovering from a little nip and tuck, but Mae was energetic and driven, so perhaps she managed to fit it all in.
True to her word, Mae met Olive Thomas for lunch on the afternoon of September 5, 1920. A sobbing Ollie poured out her heart about the man she loved, but who had left her the moment they arrived in Paris. She had (p.98) not seen or heard from Jack Pickford in a week. Mae invited her friend to join them for dinner that evening.
At seven o'clock that night, Ollie called Mae to say that Jack had appeared suddenly. Ollie hoped Mae would understand that she wanted to be with her husband, who told her he was throwing a party at a local nightclub and that he expected her to be there. As it turned out, Mae and Bob also dined at the club that evening and were spectators to the start of a disastrous evening for Olive Thomas. Mae, who had never cared for Jack Pickford, couldn't take her eyes off Ollie. Jack, the life of the party, talked and proposed toasts while completely ignoring his wife.
The next morning, Mae woke to the news that the friend she'd known since their days in the Follies had swallowed poison in the wee hours of the morning and was not expected to live. The poison, mercury bichloride, was often prescribed for syphilis and was meant to be applied topically.
Olive, having lost her speech and sight, was unable to tell her doctors or the authorities what happened that fateful evening. She lingered for five days, dying, according to her sister-in-law, Mary Pickford, after a “week of agony.”24
A police investigation and autopsy ruled the death accidental, and Jack and Olive's body were quickly shipped back to America. Suspicion tinged every scenario. Some thought Olive committed suicide; others thought Jack poisoned her; some believed she intended to poison Jack but mistakenly took the poison herself.
Mae pointed the finger of blame directly at Jack Pickford, whose drug use and philandering, Mae believed, drove Ollie to end her life.
“I tried to feel tolerant and understanding toward Jack, who had broken my friend's heart because he had been himself and therefore was unlike what she wanted him to be,” Mae later wrote. “But I could not trust myself with him. No matter how humble and remorseful Jack would have been—and I'm sure that he was intensely so—I could not risk hurting him more.”25
Several days after Olive drank poison, Mae told her husband she wanted to go home and start work on her latest picture, The Gilded Lily. Paris, she said, had lost its appeal and she had no interest in continuing to the other countries on their itinerary.
Mae struggled to understand why her friend's life ended the way it did. By her own admission, Mae was a fighter; her talons were never fully retracted. Having survived a hard childhood on the streets of the Lower East Side, Mae stood ready to take on bullying studio bosses, insensitive directors, or selfish husbands. She exuded self-confidence, stuck to her fairy tale, and generally nurtured a belief that her problems would work out in her favor. Mae took her licks in life and moved on.
(1.) Traub, Devil's Playground.
(p.343) (2.) Eleanor Dale, “The Film Forum,” Cumberland Evening Times, January 25, 1921.
(3.) Information from Robert Z. Leonard's passport application, dated July 28, 1920.
(4.) “And Now Is Mrs. Bossy Cow Hailed as Veritable Fountain of Youth,” Odgen Standard-Examiner, August 18, 1920.
(5.) Grace Wyndem-Vail, “Mae of Mamaroneck,” Picture Play, November 1919.
(6.) Murray, “Intimate Recollections.”
(7.) Variety, October 3, 1919.
(8.) Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, September 9, 1919.
(9.) Fort Wayne News and Sentinel, January 10, 1920.
(10.) Harrison's Reports, December 6, 1919.
(11.) Murray, “Intimate Recollections.”
(12.) Delight Evans, “The Truth about Mae Murray,” Photoplay, August 1920.
(13.) New York Tribune, February 17, 1920; Variety, February 20, 1920; Theater, April 1920; Harrison's Reports, February 21, 1920.
(14.) “Mae Murray Defends Herself,” Variety, February 27, 1920; “Matter of Commission,” Variety, December 3, 1920.
(15.) Esther Dale, “The Film Forum,” Cumberland Evening Times, January 25, 1921.
(16.) Variety, August 27, 1920.
(17.) Harrison's Reports, November 20, 1920; New York Times, November 1, 1920.
(18.) Variety, November 19, 1920.
(19.) Paramount financial records, Margaret Herrick Library.
(20.) Ardmore, Self-Enchanted.
(21.) Passport application for Robert Z. Leonard (b. 1889) and Mae Murray Leonard (b. 1893), #76244, July 28, 1920.
(22.) Ardmore, Self-Enchanted.
(23.) Information about Mae's cosmetic procedure came from Joseph Yranski, who heard the story from agent Alan Brock. Brock's source was Gertrude Olmstead, who married Robert Z. Leonard after his divorce from Mae.
(24.) Pickford, Sunshine and Shadow.
(25.) Murray, “Intimate Recollections.”