Mary Astor

At 17 years old.

Mary Astor, née Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke was an American actress born on May 3rd, 1906 in Quincy, Illinois to parents Otto Ludwig Langhanke, a German immigrant and an American mother Helen Marie de Vasconcellos

CAREER

Recognizing her beauty, Mary`s parents enlisted her in beauty pageants and a photo sent to Motion Picture`s Magazine`s beauty contest got the attention she needed.  Although she appeared in several unaccredited bit parts since 1920, she landed 2 credited roles in 1922-1923 with the films The Man Who Played God and John Smith. Having been impressed by her photo in a magazine, John Barrymore, who was 41 years old at the time asked the then 17 year old Mary Astor to play a part in his movie Beau Brummel (1924) and her career (as well as a short lived love affair with the actor in question) was launched.  Despite the age difference, John Barrymore was clearly enamored of the young Mary Astor however, her parents made sure their love affair would not last.

A scene with John Barrymore in Beau Brummel (1924)

 

Whilst Ms. Astor started her acting career in the silent film era, this tall 5 foot 6 auburn haired young woman with a good voice and excellent screen presence was able to transition to the talkies with the 1930 film Ladies Love Brutes with Fredric March followed by Holiday (1930) with Ann Harding.  In 1935 alone she was featured in no less than 5 films which kept her in the forefront of the movie industry.

Although Her most memorable role was as Brigid O’Shaughnessy with Humphrey Bogart in the 1941 movie The Maltese Falcon, in the same year, she received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress as Sandra Kovac in the film The Great Lie with Betty Davis. It was to be her only Academy Award.

With Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Receiving an Oscar for her role in A Great Lie (1941)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up until 1943, Astor was a featured artist in quite a few good movies including The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937), Midnight (1939) and Brigham Young (1940) and that`s the way she liked it. She didn`t want top billing nor the responsibility of carrying the picture as the leading star. After that she signed a contract with MGM that she regretted, as she was, more often than not, cast in what she considered another humdrum mother role.

Between the years 1951-1959, Ms Astor also played on Broadway and in television as well as on film.

She wrote My Story: An Autobiography in 1959, in which she recounts her personal struggle with alcoholism and her failed marriages, that became a best-seller as well as a follow up biography in 1971 called A Life On Film. Between 1960 and 1968, She also authored five novels.

Her film career spanned a total of 45 years and ended when she was 59 in her 109th film Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) in her role as Mrs. Jewel Mayhew. She is featured in the 10th position in IMDB`s Top 25 Best Actresses born between 1900-1909.

Her star on the walk of Fame is situated in the north side of the 6700 block of Hollywood Boulevard 

 

 

Here are four more movies that I found in the public domain and available on my Youtube channel: 

The Royal Bed (1931)   Behind Office Doors (1931)  The Kennel Murder Case (1933) Trapped By Television (1936)

PERSONAL LIFE

Ms Astor lived a long life, fraught with tumultuous relationships, starting off with her parents who after having pushed her into the movie industry at the age of 14, kept a tight rein on her and her earnings. Despite having signed a contract with Paramount that paid $500 a week, an astronomical amount in that day, Ms Astor found herself practically a prisoner in her own home.

Her parents were living well off of their daughter`s earnings and in 1925 they bought Charlie Chaplin`s house Moorcrest which sat on an acre of land in the hills above Hollywood.  At that time she was 17. By the time she was 19 years old, she was earning $2,500 a week yet had only managed to obtain a $5 a week allowance.

Moorcrest

She finally got fed up with her father`s physical and psychological abuse and escaped from her second floor window to live in a hotel in Hollywood.

After her father was persuaded to give her a savings account with $500 and the freedom to come and go as she pleased, she returned to Moorcrest but it wasn`t until she was 26 years old that she finally gained control of her own finances. Ms Astor agreed to pay her parents $100 a month after they sued her for support. Apparently, greedy star parents go back to the beginning of the film industry.

Her first marriage to Kenneth Hawks (1928-1930) at the age of 22 ended with his death while he was filming a WWI dog fight and the biplane he was in crashed.

Mary Astor and Kenneth Hawkes

 

Her second marriage to Franklin Thorpe (1931-1935) ended in divorce and scandal. The marriage was already at an end when Thorpe found her diary detailing her lovers, including the married and celebrated playwright George S. Kaufmann in 1936, to whom she referred to as `G`. A very public custody battle ensued over their 4 year old daughter Marilyn in which Thorpe leaked certain entries to the press. Florabel Muir of the Daily News got her hands on the diary and came out with an article just hours before the trial started. Thankfully, the diary was deemed inadmissible in court as parts were purported to have been forged. Ultimately, it was ruled that the custody be shared. School months with Astor and vacations and weekends with her father with expenses and decisions regarding daycare, nurses and such shared between the two.

Today`s adage of `any publicity is good publicity`was not the case in the 1930S Hollywood and this scandal could have cost Mary Astor her career due to a morality clause in her contract. Fortunately, that was not the case as Samuel Goldwyn refused to fire her despite pressure to do so. The movie Dodsworth (1936) that was filming during the trial came out to rave reviews assuring the studio that Mary Astor was still a popular star and not a liability.  Two books were written about the scandal: The Purple Diaries: Mary Astor and the Most Sensational Hollywood Scandal of the 1930`s by Joseph Egan and Mary Astor`s Purple Diary by Edward Sorel.

 

She was married twice more after that. To the Mexican film editor Manuel del Campo from 1936-1941 with whom she had a son (Tono del Campo) and then to a stockbroker by the name Thomas Gordon Wheelock from 1945-1955.

Since the 1930s, alcohol was a constant in her life but in 1949 it came to a head and she was sent to a sanitarium for alcoholics.

In 1951, she was rushed to the hospital for an attempted suicide with sleeping pills; the third such overdose in two years.

She converted to the Catholic faith and joined Alcoholics Anonymous, to both of which she credited her recovery.

From 1971 to 1987, Ms Astor lived in a small cottage on the grounds of the Motion Picture & Television Country House, the industry’s retirement facility in Woodland Hills, California,

She passed away on September 25th, 1987 at the age of 81 to respiratory failure due to pulmonary emphysema and is interred in Holy Cross Cemetary in Culvert City, California.

 

 

The Birth of Motion Pictures.

Like most people, I had always thought that the silver screen referred to the fact that the movies were in black and white when in actuality the expression originated with the projection screen used at the time, the silver lenticular screen.  The term was so widely used that the name stuck and became a common  figure of speech in the film industry.

The very first motion pictures were simply a series of photographs taken in rapid succession.  You can see this in The Race Horse by the English photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge done in 1878, shown here:

 

The following 1:06 minute film is believed to be the oldest surviving film.  It is a garden scene shot by the French inventor Louis de Prince in Oakwood Grange in Roundhay, Leeds, in the north of England in 1888.

The film industry, such as it is, started in 1895 with the silent film  which lasted until about 1936.  These movies had no recorded sound. dialogue was mimed and they were accompanied by either a pianist, a theater organist. or an orchestra.

Movies with sound tracks, or talkies as they were called in the day, began in 1927, the first of which was the film The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson.

Although it was possible to film in color since the 1930`s , the process was so expensive and cumbersome and the colors so unrealistic that the process was limited to historical and musical films until the 1950`s, therefore, the  switch from black and white was gradual until the 1960`s .