Actor: 'How Green Was My Valley', 'My Friend
Flicka', 'Planet of the Apes', and many more
I was born in 1928 in England. My mother was mad about the movies; she was one of those creatures who were totally mesmerized by that new art form. She managed to put both her children — my sister and me — into the movies. I did some quick-quota films — with Will Hay, George Formby and others — I did about twenty-five. Then, when war broke out, we came to America and through a fluke, within two weeks, I'd landed the part in How Green Was My Valley. I was twelve then, and I was in movies for the next ten years.
That period was very exciting for me. I loved being in the movies. My schoolroom was at 20th Century Fox and MGM, where I worked. I didn't meet anyone outside the business. I didn't feel spoilt, though I know it was a very privileged life. Some of the studio kids didn't like it, but I liked it very much. I loved the movies and went three times a week. I was also tremendously interested in silent films, which were an anachronism by then. There was a movie theatre on Fairfax which showed silent films and I used to go there. I met a lot of those actors, and retained lifelong friendships with Pola Negri, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton ... No one else paid much attention to them by then, but they were just riveting to me.
A studio pretends to be a big, benevolent, happy family but actually it was a rather cold, commercial business. Every case is individual, it doesn't matter if it's a child or an adult — it's as tumultuous for some people as it's rewarding for others. We all fantasize and glamorize the profession, which is part of its mystique. But most of the glamour, you know, is fabricated. It's really just a lot of people working very hard. In my childhood I thought I 'belonged' to this family, but I didn't because actually there was no such thing. That was hard to swallow because I wanted to belong.
Was I spoilt? Not really — in fact, one of the problems, in my early adult life, was that I was overdisciplined and overpolite. It was very hard for me to let it all out. This is because it's a very organized life. Everyone has to go through 'their rebellion' to find out who they are, but it's very hard if you're a child actor, or a child of enormous wealth, or great poverty. Then there are tremendous obligations; the pressure is enormous.
As a child I had talent but no craft. I had concentration; I had a fertile imagination and I cared enormously, so I could commit myself. There was no problem when I was working with wonderful actors and directors. But if I got into films that were less than that, I didn't know what to do. So I'd think of what had worked before. I was derivative, stealing from myself — not even stealing from anything I knew anything about! I was stealing from my own remembered instincts.
The fascinating thing was that when I began to investigate the craft of acting as a grown-up, when I went to New York, it took me months to realize what everyone was talking about. A lot of people remain brilliantly instinctive and talented and never have a lesson in their lives. I was one of those mechanisms that was enormously self-conscious in my adolescence. My mother couldn't understand it because, after all, I was a star. But I didn't know that I was doing, which was embarrassing.
When I was seventeen my agent said to me that I'd never work again. I felt 'That's rubbish! My life can't be over now.' So I went to New York. I was fortunate because it was a very productive time, it was the beginning of live TV. Otherwise, I don't know what would have happened to me. It only lasted for a decade, that live TV bonanza.
But I was still insecure — I still am! Acting is the only profession I know where the accumulation of your expertise and excellence counts for nothing. It's a very peculiar profession. It's not like being a lawyer or a dentist — you hang out your shingle and some fool's going to come in because you've got a DDS after your name. I still feel that the last job I've done is the last I'll ever get, that the phone may not ring again — and so many times it has been! The slings and arrows of so many careers!
Bette Davis — she had three or four careers. She once took an ad, saying 'I need a job'. Joan Crawford, she had terrible problems. It's fascinating when you know about it and you know the film that re-established their careers. With Gary Cooper it was High Noon, and Dietrich it was Destry Rides Again. And careers can be short-circuited by the most peculiar things over which actors have no control — it has nothing to do with talent. What caused the demise of Gloria Swanson was the Depression. There was nothing wrong with her but the public couldn't accept, in the Depression, the opulence of her screen persona. That's why Shirley Temple, Will Rogers and Marie Dressler became operatic sort of successes — society needed and could deal with that sort of hope. At the end of the war, the reason Montgomery Clift became such a huge star was because the public was sick of all that macho stuff and they needed a new voice and spirit, something gentler.
And take a film like It's a Wonderful Life, in 1946 — it was a sensational disaster! It broke the company that made it; Jimmy Stewart thought he'd never work again. It was too schmaltzy. Society couldn't accept the Capra canon, because there had been a war. The Capra dream didn't have any hold on reality, at all. But now it has a hold — now it's revered! It's part of the American Dream.
It's always difficult, growing up, but it's more difficult if you're under a magnifying-glass. Even as an adult, when someone looks at you in the street it's normally because of some sexual persona you have. There's no other reason they would turn around. But if you've been famous, you never know for sure. Are they looking at 'you', or are they looking at you?
Calman at the Movies
© Mel Calman 1990