Wednesday, October 13, 2010

There's Something About Mary Astor

Beyond films that were made and shown on television and in theatres when I was a child (yes, I am that old now), among the first classic films I ever saw was The Maltese Falcon (1941). This would also lead to my first film crush. In the film Mary Astor played dark hearted femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Never mind that she was a temptress who was never into anything for love, I fell in love with her anyway. And it made curious to see Mary Astor in other roles.

There should be little wonder that I should be fascinated by Mary Astor. She was obviously a beautiful and alluring women. But beyond her obvious good looks, Miss Astor was also an actress of exceeding talent. While she is best known as Brigid in The Maltese Falcon, she played a wide array of roles throughout her career, from virginal characters to outright strumpets to loving mothers. As  I learned more about Miss Astor, I also found another reason to be interested in her. Like Steve McQueen, Walt Disney, Lester Dent, and Cliff Edwards, Miss Astor was a celebrity from my area. She was born Lucile Langhanke in Quincy, Illinois, a city a little more than an hour's drive from my home town and one I had visited for the first time while very young.

Even if she had not been a local girl, I would have found Miss Astor's career interesting regardless. She started acting when she was very young, at age 14 in silent movies. Her career having started in 1920, by 1924 she was playing opposite John Barrymore in Beau Brummel. In the film she played Lady Margery Alvanley, the unsullied love interest of the title character. Lady Margery was as different from Brigid as day from night. She was pure, sweet, loving, and perhaps a bit innocent. That Miss Astor was as convincing in the role as she was playing Brigid O'Shaughnessy was a mark of her talent even at such a young age.

Beau Brummel would seem to have been a star making movie if ever there was one, but in many of her silent films Mary Astor was simply window dressing. Of course, there were films in which she was able to do more than simply look beautiful. In Dressed to Kill (1928) she played an intelligent, young woman who becomes the mistress of the leader of a crew of burglars and who has a few secrets of her own. In the comedy Dry Martini (1928), Miss Astor played the untamed daughter intent on a romance that hardly meets her father's approval. While Miss Astor often played rather bland love interests, even before the Silent Era was over, she played some interesting roles where she could display her acting skills.

Surprisingly enough, Mary Astor almost did not make the transition into talkies. Under contract to Fox, she failed a sound test the studio gave her as Fox thought her voice was too deep. This must seem incredulous to anyone who has heard Miss Astor in her talkies, in which her voice is mellifluous. According to most sources it was the early, primitive sound equipment that was to blame and not Miss Astor herself. Released from her contract with Fox, Mary Astor took voice lessons and singing lessons during that time she was not making movies. Playing opposite her friend Florence Eldridge in the play Among the Married, Miss Astor began her comeback. She returned to making movies again with the Paramount film Ladies Love Brutes (1930).

For an actress who very nearly did not make it into talkies, the Thirties would be a very good time for Mary Astor. It would be in 1932 that Miss Astor would play one of her best known roles, that of Barbara Willis in Red Dust opposite Clark Gable and Jean Harlow.  At the start of the movie Barbara is the demure, lady like wife of an engineer, but there is more going on beneath the surface of this woman than meets the eye. Indeed, after being seduced by rubber plantation and owner Dennis Carson (Clark Gable), Barbara burns with a heat that even makes Miss Harlow seem cool by comparison. It would be a tricky role for any actress, but Miss Astor accomplished it quite well, making Barbara a woman of some strong desires without ever losing her lady like composure.

Sadly, Mary Astor's star turn in Red Dust would not lead to more impressive roles. Much of this was Miss Astor's own doing. She would turn down offers which would give her star billing, as she did not want the responsibility of being the lead for a motion picture. This naturally limited the sorts of roles in which she was cast. After Red Dust, it would not be until Dodsworth (1936) that Mary Astor would find a role worthy of her talent. In Dodsworth, based on the novel by Sinclair Lewis and the play (also based upon the novel) by Sidney Howard. In the film Miss Astor played divorcee Edith Cortright, an American living in Italy whom Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) encounters there. Edith seems a bit world weary and sad, but at the same time she is sensible and sophisticated. She is a woman who genuinely cares about other people. Indeed, she has no designs on Sam Dodsworth and even warns Dodsworth's wife against having an affair. Miss Astor did a wonderful job of bringing Edith to life, a complex, reasonable woman who ultimately helps Dodsworth reassess his world view.

Fortunately, Mary Astor would have more interesting roles following Dodsworth than she had following Red Dust, appearing in a key role in the film The Prisoner of Zenda (1937). In 1939 Mary Astor would give another impressive performance as Helen Flammarion, an ageing woman anxious for the romance of her youth and furious that she seems unable to re-attain it. Of course, it would be in 1941 that Miss Astor would play what may be her signature role, that of Brigid O'Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941). In some ways, Brigid was the cumulation of Miss Astor's best roles. Like Edith Cortright, Brigid is sophisticated and wise to the world. Like Barbara Willis she has a sexuality that is hidden none too well. Combined with a willingness to use her allure to get Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), do what she wants him to, Brigid O'Shaughnessy was the archetypal femme fatale, the one that all film noir seductresses aspired to be. That same year Miss Astor would appear as Sandra Kovak, the self indulgent but overtly sexual pianist, in The Great Lie. She won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role, but there can be little doubt that The Maltese Falcon featured her best performance.

Having played a number of overtly sexual women who are wise to the world, Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story, released in 1942, the year after The Maltese Falcon, proves that Mary Astor was a bit of a chameleon. Astor's Princess Centimillia is hypersexual in the same way some of the other women she had played, but she lacks none of those characters' sense. Given to excessive, and often hyperkinetic, speech, Centimillia gave new meaning to the word "madcap." Surprisingly, Miss Astor did not particularly care for the role, nor did she care much for Preston Sturges, whom she thought was hard to please.

It was in 1943 that Mary Astor signed a contract with MGM. It may well have been one of the biggest missteps of her career. MGM cast her in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) as the mother of the family, Mrs. Anna Smith. While Miss Astor did not care for the role, she does quite well in it, giving Mrs. Smith a bit more steel than another actress would have. Unfortunately, perhaps because of Miss Astor's success in the role, MGM would see fit to do the unthinkable--to cast an actress known for playing seductresses and femmes fatales consistently in maternal parts. She played a mother in Cynthia (1947), and Fiesta (1947), and others. There would be only a few bright spots of Miss Astor at MGM. In Desert Fury (1947) she at least played a tough mama who owns a saloon. For the most part, however, Mary Astor's only remarkable role would come in Act of Violence (1948). Once more in a film noir, Miss Astor played Pat, an ageing prostitute obviously tired of life but at the same with some rather tender emotions beneath the harsh exterior.

Surprisingly, after Mary Astor's turn in Act of Violence, MGM cast her as Marmee, the matriarch in the 1949 remake of Little Women. The film would prove to be the last straw for Miss Astor. While MGM wanted to renew her contract and even promised her better parts, she would have nothing of it. After reaching a breaking point in 1951, Miss Astor returned to acting. She would appear mostly on television, giving impressive performances in such series as The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, Robert Montgomery Presents, Climax, Studio One, Playhouse 90, The United States Steel Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Thriller. She would also appear in such films as A Kiss Before Dying (1956), The Power and the Prize (1956), and Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte would be her final role, as she retired after the film.

Sadly, except for her role as Brigid in The Maltese Falcon, Miss Astor may be best known for her personal life. In 1936 she went through a brutal divorce with her then husband Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, who threatened to make her diary public. Reportedly her diary contained details of Miss Astor's affairs with many celebrities. Surprisingly, the resultant scandal had no adverse impact on her career. Having drank for years, in 1949 Miss Astor admitted herself into a sanatorium for recovering alcoholics.  In 1951 she nearly overdosed on sleeping pills for the third time in two years. It was reported as a suicide attempt and treated as such by the press. It was afterwards that she joined Alcoholics Anonymous.

Mary Astor published her autobiography, My Story, in 1959. She followed it up with Life on Film, her reminiscences about working in movies, in 1969 She also wrote five novels: The Incredible Charlie Carewe (1963), The O'Conners (1964); Goodbye Darling, Be Happy (1965), The Image of Kate (1966), and A Place Called Saturday (1968).

Mary Astor never joined the top tier of stars, largely because she did not want the responsibility of playing the lead in a movie. Despite this, she remains remembered today because of her great talent. Miss Astor played a large of array of characters. Miss Astor's characters were often sophisticated and sometimes sexually provocative, but they were almost always complex, intelligent women with deep seated feelings which they barely concealed. With a gift for subtlety, Miss Astor never had to resort to the sort of histrionics other actresses often utilised. Although she may not be as well known as some of the movie stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood, she was definitely among the most talented.


Mythical Monkey said...

Love Mary Astor. Not to put too fine a point on it, but she is hot in Red Dust and is wonderful in Dodsworth andThe Maltese Falcon.

Your post prompted me to count up the Mary Astor movies I've seen -- a lucky thirteen as it turns out. Which means I have about 130 to go.

Something to look forward to ...

Raquel Stecher said...

Oh this is like a love letter to Mary Astor. Very nice Terry. I really enjoyed this. I didn't know about how she almost didn't make it into Talkies. How could she not pass that test? Like you said, she had a very sweet voice.

Did you see The Siren's series on Mary Astor where she does a Q&A with Mary's daughter. I thought it was quite interesting.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Raquel, it amazes me to this day that Mary Astor failed a screen test because of her voice! That would be like Ava Gardner failing a screen test because of her looks! Anyway, I did see The Siren's series on Mary Astor. It was very interesting!