Picture Play Magazine – Volume XXIII February 1926 No. 6
The Paradoxical Mr. Colman
It isn’t possible for an actor to succeed without the tricks or traits of a Barnum, wiseacres say, but Ronald Colman has done that very thing.
By Helen Klumph
ANY old stager can tell you what it is that sets a sensationally successful actor apart from his fellows—showmanship. “It’s like this,” the seasoned veteran told me who has seen them come and go. “You get a job by the grace of good luck, and the public finds out that you’re alive. From then on, you concentrate on never letting them forget it. The more different you can be from any one else in the game, the easier you’ll be to remember. You can raise trained seals in your opalescent swimming pool, cable to the royal tailor of Afghanistan for all your costumes, or always wear a good-luck charm presented to you by the dying Khedive of Egypt. You just can’t be normal. Write lurid love poems, wear the largest black pearl in the world, or always take vour pet horse everywhere with you, but don’t ever be inconspicuous. That’s death to an actor.” As his oratorical flight died down, I asked quietly, “But what about Ronald Colman ?”
For a moment he was baffled, but the old stager can explain anything. “Either that boy’s smart, or he’s a fool for luck,” he assured me. “He probably knows that the most surprising thing in the world is an actor who isn’t surprising. He’s got everybody interested by not doing any of the fool things other actors have done.” That’s his explanation, but I prefer my own. Ronald Colman has never indulged in any of the tricks of a Barnum to bring himself before the public because such a course would never occur to him. He happens to have been born a gentleman. That his appearances on the screen have developed a huge fan following, made up in part of highly sentimental women, is an accident that he himself does not seem to understand. Other actors have put up an argument when talking to me. They have told me that the whole machinery of public life was distasteful to them, but necessary. They must feel a little hagrined to see Ronald Colman rising to almost unparalleled success on the screen without ever having departed from his quiet mode of life. He isn’t a star athlete—he doesn’t implore the public to give him their sympathy and understanding on the plea that it is the very breath of life to him—he doesn’t even give out interviews telling about his ideal woman or the psychology of love.
“Haven’t you ever suffered for your art?” I asked him, knowing well that the question would make him squirm. I had finally cornered him f or an interview after some two years of trying.
“I’m suffering now,” he told me, with entire conviction. “You’re trying so hard to make this a businesslike interview when I had looked forward to a pleasant luncheon.” Don’t think that my two years of effort were wasted on broken appointments and futile seeking. I had met Mr. Colman many times, for he is courteous and punctilious about anything connected with his work—or with anything else I dare say. I just hadn’t been able to drive him into any admissions about himself. And so, I am going to foreet for the moment that Ronaid Colman is an actor who should have some burning message to give to the public. I want to tell you about the Ronald Colman I know—a charming, companionable young man who seems wholeheartedly interested in life and amused by it. The first time I met him was just after he had made “The White Sister” in Italy with Lillian Gish.
He confided to me then that if he had a lot of money he would get a little house in Italy and live there pleasantly and indolently. “Life is so beautiful and complete there,” he said, “that it never occurs to yon that you should be useful. Italy is perfect—you can’t add anything to it.” The next time was in Hollywood where he had acquired something of the insouciant, playtime air of the studio. When some fifty or more clubwomen visited the studio, eager for a glimpse of the romantic and intense young actor who had entranced not a few of them, he busied himself with the lights and was passed by as just one more electrician. Asked by one of them where she could find Mr. Colman, he looked bewildered and assured her he had never heard of him. Little things do not disturb his poise. When Florence Vidor and I developed a passion for riding on scenic railways, he went with us and endured our hilarious shrieks as we alternately soared and plunged. He even seemed to enjoy it. Later, in a nickel dance hall at an amusement park, we kidded him about his dignity until he vowed that he would make the bouncer throw him out. But the most obstreperous dance steps he could invent failed to attract that individual’s attention. Recognizing the screen star, he merely became a little more pompous, as though impressed with the swell trade his establishment had attracted. It was after he had made “Stella Dallas” and “Mrs. Windermere’s Fan”—just at the time when “The Dark Angel” was drawing enthusiastic crowds to a Broadway theater—that he came to New York for a brief holiday and I saw him again. He chatted pleasantly about Henrv King and George Fitzmaurice and Ernst Lubitsch, his most recent directors. He is an actor without a grievance. He likes the people he has worked for and always wants to go back to work for them again.
“Mr. Goldwyn thinks I’m crazy,” he observed. “I went and asked him for the part of Perlmutter in the new ‘Potash and Perlmutter’ picture. He took me seriously. “When he put the clause in Lois Moran’s contract that she should remain ‘unmodernized and unsophisticated,’ I demanded that he put in mine that I could remain in his employ only so long as I remained modern and sophisticated.” But to my plea that he explain just what his sophistication consists of, he was deaf. So I decided on an old trick, one that rarely fails to make an actor talk about himself.
“Who is that woman over there? She has been staring at you ever since you came in,” I remarked.
“She thinks I’m Jack Gilbert,” he assured me guilelessly, switching the conversation a moment later to Shaw’s plays, his screen idol Felix the Cat, and the beautiful photography of “The Dark Angel.” Now that he is an idol, Ronald Colman finds that he likes being one—that is, he likes the generous salary and the comfort his position brings. But he did not become an actor or go into the movies by choice. He was literally shot in. Invalided home to England after the Battle of Ypres, he urged an uncle who was connected with the British Foreign Office to get him an appointment in the Orient. While waiting for this, he was offered an engagement in vaudeville in a sketch with Lena Ashwell. Before the war, he had had some success in amateur theatricals, so he took the engagement as a lark. Miss Ashwell was so delighted with his work that she introduced him to all the managers she knew and was influential in getting him some excellent stage offers. The diplomatic service moves slowly, so Colman was well established on the stage by the time his appointment to the Orient was secured. In London, he played the same role in “Damaged Goods” that Richard Bennett played in this country, and he was a great success. His interest in diplomacy faded. “The first success goes to your head terribly,” Ronald told me reminiscently. “That’s why the second goes only to your pocketbook. You realize how ephemeral and meaningless other success is.”
At the height of his success, he came to the United States to try his fortune and had four failures, one right after another. The plays never even reached Broadway. So after a long period of waiting for another opportunity, he went on the road with Fay Bainter in an old Broadway success and played for nearly a year. When the troupe got to Hollywood, he tried to break into motion pictures. A test was made of him, but nothing ever came of it. That was in 1920, the year of the great slump in motion pictures, and no one was looking for new talent. They were too busy finding engagements for the actors already under contract. He was playing in “La Tendresse” with Henry Miller and Ruth Chatterton when the opportunity came to make “The White Sister” with Lillian Gish. Colman was not in the least interested. He thought the movies a crazy, unstable business, judging from what he had seen of the 1920 slump. But his manager persuaded him to make the one picture, and after that, Colman’s love for the stage dwindled. After his second picture, the astute Sam Goldwyn offered him a contract that guaranteed him the best stories and best directors that could be had. He recognized, just as the public did. that a new idol—a brand new type of idol—had come to the screen. Ronald Colman is too much interested in his work, however, to insist upon posing before the public only as a handsome hero. An instance of this was his acceptance of the part he played in “Stella Dallas.” For a voung man just become popular as a romantic lover, it was not a particularly pleasant part, this role of a matter-of-fact father who was beginning to gray at the temples. But Colman’s willingness to play it, or anything else that may offer, proves him to be a real actor, and one who will find .a much more permanent place in the movies than if he refused to take anything but the most attractive roles.
“Just as long as they will have me. I shall go on making pictures,” he says. “And all I ask is that some day I’ll have another part as strong and sympathetic as the one in ‘The Dark Angel.” I even liked that duffer myself.” No need to tell you that he is handsome and magnetic and gracious—his every appearance on the screen shows that. But it is remarkable that, in spite of all that, men like him whole-heartedly. Those girls who live in Hackensack or Walla Walla can take what comfort they can from the fact that they know Ronald Colman almost as well as his fellow players do; he reveals himself much more completely and more intensely in pictures than he does in person. And the sentimental yearnings of those in the audience are shared by many a girl in Hollywood. Don’t I know! Just because I sat next to him at some dinner parties in Hollywood, several well-known screen ingenues have assured me of their undying enmity. There are actors who can make me forget momentarily that I am watching a performance in a theater; there are actors who can flatter me into thinking for the moment that my opinions are of importance to them; but there is onlv one actor who impresses me as always being entirely sincere and never acting when he is away from the camera. That is Ronald Colman. On or off the screen. I like him the best of any actor I know.
The Terribly Honest Mr. Colman.
By Dorothy Manners
Ronald Colman said he felt sorry for me. He said he felt sorry for any one who interviewed him, because he “never said anything.” “I’ll not be a bit of help to you,” he apologized. “Now, if I had met you at dinner, or tea, or a dance I could think of all sorts of things to say.” But unfortunately, the occasion was not a tea, a dinner, nor yet a dance. A press agent, Mr. Colman and I met in Henry King’s office of the Samuel Goldwyn production building. We had come to dedicate a portion of the morning to discussing the movies, and particularly Mr. Colman’s relation to them. I have a vague hunch Mr. Colman had requested the presence of the press agent in case he ran out of small talk. Maybe he hadn’t. But I think he had. He lived to regret it. Not that that particular p. a. isn’t one of the finest and so on, but—We will take that up in more detail in a few paragraphs.
He is of medium height and darkish, this Mr. Colman. Undeniably he has a way with the ladies. I like him immensely, and I don’t like all actors. They are always nice and, for the most part, complimentary to lady interviewers, but in nine cases out of ten, the compliments don’t ring true. Having been said too often, they are like a much-thumbed book—a little frayed at the edges. Mr. Colman didn’t once tell me that he thought it was perfectly splendid I was self-expressing myself. Yet without the aid of stilted phrases, he managed to convey deference, courtesy, and flattering attention. Oh, very undeniably, he has a way with the ladies. We dallied around with the weather without getting anywhere with it, when somehow or other Valentino came into the conversation. Mr. Colman said he was a splendid actor.
I said he was in a precarious position. Then the p. a. said he attributed Valentino’s slip to the fact that men didn’t particularly care for him. “Now,” he went on, with a proud papa inclination of the head toward Mr. Colman, “Mr. Colman here has a very large following among men.” Mr. Colman squirmed uncomfortably in Henry King’s swivel chair. Right there is where I think he wished the p. a. had been called to the phone. “Yes,” went on the p. a., “he a lot of mail from men and boys. The swivel chair squeaked nervously. “Do you get more letters from men than women?” I asked. “No, I don’t,” said Mr. Colman, completely wrecking that man-from-the-open-spaces effect, for which I liked him all the better.
Later it came out that in his latest picture, “Stella Dallas,” he had played the father of a sixteen-year-old girl. Most actors tell me they live for characterizations. I asked him if that had been his favorite role. He said, “Not by a long way. I liked playing in ‘The Dark Angel’ and ‘The White Sister’ much better.” I could have cheered at this. Instead, I gave him another hurdle. I asked him if he didn’t get tired of the monotony of pictures—if he didn’t often long to be back on the stage. The terribly honest Mr. Colman smiled. “No, I don’t,” he answered; “not with everything’ so rosy in pictures.” Now there is no getting away from it : a press agent can’t do anything with a man like that, but I could have decorated him. May he cross my path often.