A young Billie Whitney
of the Hollywood Kind
By William W. Whitney
At first I thought it a bit pretentious to presume to write an article consisting mostly of deliberate name dropping. I am sure there are people with much more intimate and direct experiences of the Hollywood scene. Then I realized there are not many who can tell of seeing a great director of the 1920s directing his masterpiece, of criticizing another legendary director's latest opus in his presence and in the company of his internationally famous star, or of offending the leading box office motion picture actor of 1928. The fact is that the ranks are thinning of those who were actually there in the 20s and 30s whose accounts are from personal experience. Reflecting on this, I am emboldened to proceed.
The significance of my earliest encounter with Hollywood legends of the Golden Age was revealed to me in a magical and most unusual experience. In 1922 or '23 when I was six or seven years old, I visited my aunt in San Francisco, who lived in the Mission District. One evening, we looked down from her back windows onto 18th Street. I believe it was a brown-shingled schoolhouse, either kindergarten or primary. There were lights coming from the windows and people peering in. We were curious.
We went down and looked into a window of the building. There was a man playing a small melodeon, another playing a violin -- rather sad music. The man in charge was giving orders, particularly to a distraught woman. We knew that a film was being created, but I never knew the name of the film.
Decades later, I attended a showing of "Greed" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I watched the film with interest. Suddenly before my eyes there appeared the scene I had witnessed as a child, exactly as I had seen it. Deja vu indeed. Then I knew: The man giving orders, much as he did in "Sunset Boulevard," was Erich von Stroheim; the object of his attention Zasu Pitts; the film "Greed."
My next encounter with a Hollywood luminary was with another legendary director, also German and another von -- Joseph von Sternberg. The year was 1934. I was a student at the University of Southern California and was invited along with two or three others from a creative writing class to attend a studio preview at Paramount. Why or how we were selected I don't know. The screening room seated about 20 or 30 people with a very select audience indeed consisting of Sternberg, his muse Marlene Dietrich and their encourage of production and studio brass numbering about seven. This group sat in the two back rows of the long, narrow room of about 15 rows of seats. I and fellow students were seated in the front rows.
The film shown turned out to be "The Scarlet Empress," a Sternberg fantasy based on the life of Catherine the Great that was an excuse for elaborate costumes and sets and lingering close-ups of Dietrich, all filmed in the superb soft focus photography for which Sternberg's films were known. The closing scenes of the film were accompanied by a rousing rendition of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. At the conclusion, the lights went up. After a brief pause, someone from the back row asked if there were any comments on the film. This of course was an invitation to sing the praises of the work in the presence of director and star.
Without a moment's hesitation and with the naive confidence of sophomoric wisdom, I rose and stated that the 1812 Overture was played in resounding crescendo during the final scenes, but the events portrayed in the film occurred a generation earlier, circa 1770s. Pause and pervasive silence. I, undaunted, sat down. Finally the same official asked, "Any further comments?"
It was in the mid-30s that my cousin, the artist Mac Harshberger, arrived in Los Angeles from New York. In the late 20s his studio had been a gathering place for fellow artists, writers and people in the theater. Among these were Gladys and Edward G. Robinson. At that time they were little-known actors working with the Theater Guild.
During Mac's short visit he was invited by the now-famous Robinsons on several occasions for cocktails, dinner or other social events. Since I provided transportation for Mac, I was included. Robinson, then most famous for his gangster role as "Little Caesar," was much like the characters he portrayed on the screen, sans menace.
I particularly remember that, following dinner, he took from the sideboard a lethal instrument, the horn of some African animal about three feet long, to which was affixed a lighted spirit lamp. In a grand gesture he passed this to guests to light their cigarettes. As he did so, Mac caught my attention. In his eyes there was a veiled, amused, conspiratorial twinkle, not unkind or condescending. I felt I was being taken into Mac's confidence, that I should know -- and I did. This flattering complicity Mac conveyed to many, as if to say, "Only you and I understand."
More about William W. Whitney