It’s Thrilling to be an Actress


By Faith Service

From the July 1935 issue of MODERN SCREEN.

I SAID to Kay, “Isn’t it thrilling, really, to be an actress?”

archivesitsthrillingKay’s moonstone eyes in the camellia whiteness of her face focused on me in that soft, sometimes unseeing look of hers. She said, “Thrilling to be an actress? Why, I’d never thought about it. But—yes, thrilling…” And the word thrilling seems thrilling when Kay says it in that velvety, throbbing voice of hers.

She said, “It’s thrilling, but not, to me at any rate, in the way you probably think. It’s thrilling to me, first and foremost, for this reason—because all women love to be loved and a screen actress is loved, not by one or a dozen, but by thousands and even millions all over the world. It is thrilling because all women love to be admired and even envied by other women and a screen actress, deservedly or not, is admired and envied by legions of other women.

“It’s thrilling to me to go to sleep at night and feel that all over the world people are seeing me and caring about me. It’s being more alive than I’ve ever been before. It’s being more conscious of my own existence. It’s so warm, this feeling. All of life is magnified. All of love is multiplied…It is truly thrilling.”

Just at that moment, Kay was called back to the set.

I had approached the set, where “Living on Velvet” was being made, a few moments before. And I had seen, as I neared the set, the figure of Kay, swathed in mink, and by her side, elegant in evening attire, gone a little gray and the more devastating because of it, sat George Brent.

Ha, I thought, I’ll bet it’s thrilling to be an actress! Mink—George Brent—what more do you want? No wonder pretty little stenographers and small-town Susans envy the Kays and the Joans as they pull on dollar-ninety-five sweaters, hold hands with gas station Galahads and sigh, “There, but for the grace of God, I go!”

I reached the set, all primed to ask my question about the supreme thrillingness of being an actress. Kay and George were perched on teetery stools at what was built to resemble a “Quick Lunch” counter. They were dunking doughnuts in coffee. Back of the counter stood Edgar Kennedy, regarding them with a cold and fishy eye. They themselves wore looks of despair (and dyspepsia) under their studio makeups. Director Frank Borzage amiably was enjoying them to remember that this scene was a comedy, not a tragedy, as it appeared!

There was a pause in the scene, during which Kay and I had the few words recorded above. Then came another pause while the crew made ready for the next take. Kay and George bolted to the nearest exit to remove from their mouths the last bite of doughnut. They came back to me, saying weakly, “We have eaten sixty-nine doughnuts since morning! We have eaten doughnuts in silent shots, in the sound shots, in the close-ups, in the process shots. We are still eating doughnuts. We are going to continue eating doughnuts…”

GEORGE SAID, reflectively, “There was that woman who yawned for eight days—she was front page news—“

Kay murmured, “We have eaten doughnuts for eight hours—“

George observed dispassionately and to no one in particular, “Doughnuts to you!” and strolled off to his dressing room and soda bicarb.

Kay, released from doughnutting for half an hour, took me off to a couple of camp chairs, a glass of water and a pair of companionable cigarettes. She sank down beside me.

I called to her doughnut-distracted mind the question before the house. I said firmly, “But it is thrilling to be an actress, isn’t it? You know, the old glamour stuff, the backstage mystery. Lovely ladies who are pulled through the streets in their carriages by human hands…gallant gentlemen who die with a white glove crumpled in their hands… temperament, freedom, fever… that sort of thing?”

Kay regarded me with a jaunted eye. I am afraid she murmured, “Doughnuts…”

She rallied and said, “I suppose so. The great thrill to me is as I have told you… the warm feeling of being cared about by thousands of people. Some few of them have names and identities, most of them have not. But they are there—absent lovers—and I am conscious of them. There is one young girl in England who has written me daily for years. She works and saves a great part of her money, I am afraid, to send me charming and thoughtful gifts. That is the sort of thing I mean. In the ordinary walks of life, if we have half a dozen real friends and perhaps a dozen ‘admirers,’ we are very fortunate—and very popular. An actress multiples these friends and these admirers almost innumerably. There is no sensation in the world, no thrill in the world comparable to the thrill of being loves.

I SUPPOSE I’d never thought much about the thrill part of it because the thrills an actress is supposed to have are not thrills to me. In the first place my mother, Katherine Clinton, was an actress. I was brought up in a world of theatre talk and theatre people. The mystery was matter-of-fact to me.

“The other so called thrills are terrors to me. I am shy. I am easily embarrassed. I would loathe having my carriage drawn through the public streets by human hands. The equivalent of that in our day and way is being besieged by autograph seekers in public places. I am grateful for the interest that prompts that seeking of course, but I am too frightened and self-conscious to get any authentic thrill out of it.

“I loathe all of the trimmings. I hate the publicity part of it. I’m afraid of interviews. I detest posing for pictures. I despise fittings yet I’ve been called one of the ‘best dressed women of the screen,’ which always hands me a laugh, seeing as how I never wear anything but pajamas or last year’s sports clothes when I’m not working. I probably care less for clothes, for shopping, than any woman in the world. I wouldn’t go shopping on a bet unless I have to.

“I like to be comfortable but luxury per se has no appeal to me. I still prefer lamb chops to any form of dietary delicacy. I always drive my old Ford around by myself. I have a nice house with some nice things I care about in it but it is the kind of house that any competent business girl could have if she wanted to.

“I never do anything about my personal appearance. I mean, I eat anything I want to eat, and if I do gain an extra pound or two, I never know it. I never go in for a beauty parlor stuff. I never have massages or facials. Sunshine and fresh air and keeping my face clean are my ‘Helpful Hints to Beauty.’ I like to play tennis, bridge and backgammon. I like to watch football games and sixty-day bicycle races. I adore to read detective stories. I spend every available spare moment on my schooner, the ‘Pamet-Head.’ I have two dogs, two cats, a parrot, a rabbit, a canary, some gold fish, some very refined frogs.

YOU may want to know what all this has to do with the thrill of being an actress? Just this: the things that make up my personal life could easily be a part of any moderately successful woman’s life. The thrills that are popularly supposed to belong to an actress—orchid-like cultivation of one’s beauty, sensational public appearances, gorgeous clothes with intensive time and attention given to them, diets of caviar and peacock’s tongues, night clubs and all the rest of the glitter and glamour are not my thrills at all.

“But,” said Kay, “I have my thrills. My kind of thrills. I’ve told you about the greatest of them all. There are others. Being an actress is a job to me. And right there is where my next big thrill rears its startling head. It’s thrilling to me to have a job. Any kind of a job in these difficult days. I’m grateful for it. Grateful that I’m independent, able to do for myself, beholden to no one. I’m even more grateful and more thrilled that I’m able to do pleasant things for my mother and for others I’m fond of.”

Speaking of doing things for those others she is fond of, reminds me of an odd predilection of Kay’s. She never gives Christmas presents. That is, not on Christmas. She says that Christmas is a very sacred festival to her and that she feels it should be kept sacred and kept—a festival. And that this very spirit is being murdered by the hard, commercial spirit of commercial exchange which has crept into the world of late. The calculating spirit of “She or he is going to give me something and I’ll have to return it in kind.” And so Kay does it all differently. All through the year, all of the time, she sends a gift to this friend or that, whenever she happens to see something she knows that friend will really care about. If such a gift happens to present itself around Christmas time, all right. But if it happens to come her way in May or June or July, she sends it then. I like that, don’t you?

“And then,” Kay was saying, the pale smoke from her cigarette making a mist about her night-black head, “and then there is the thrill of knowing that I am contributing my small share to the entertainment and pleasure of thousands of people. I am one of those who may be said to have a ‘Mission in Life.’ And I believe in helping people to take their minds off themselves and their own problems, even for a little alleviating space of time.

“Oh, I’ve had one or two of the expected thrills, too, of course. Anyone who can eat sixty-nine doughnuts in the course of a morning is human, all too human. I had a thrill when I first saw my name on a four sheet, for instance. I was going by train, I remember, from Los Angeles to San Francisco. On the way up, I happened to glance out of the window, and there on the billboards, as tall as the sky, was the name KAY FRANCIS in—whatever the picture was. I’ve forgotten. But I’ve not forgotten that I did feel a very genuine thrill.

THERE was the time when I bought my first, and only, mink coat. This one. Like most other girls and women, I’d dreamed of the day when I should own a mink coat of my own. Back in the days when I was doing secretarial work, when I was working in the real work, when I was working in the real estate office, even when I was ‘just a housewife.’ I’d see a lovely, sumptuous ladies swishing about in mink and things. I’d sigh, and wonder whether I, too, might own a mink…! Then the day came when I could. I gave many days to it, as a matter of fact, I shopped that time. I compared mink with mink. I determined to have nothing but the best. I got it—and the real thrill was not so much the mink coat, as the fact that I was buying it for myself!

“Having a job, independence is a real thrill to me, you see. I’d feel the same way about any work I might happen to be doing so long as it was my work and I was making my own money and standing on my own two feet.

“Independence is the supreme thrill—it is the one I am working for. And when I have it, I shall retire from the screen. Yes, I know…everyone has said that and no one ever does it. But I shall. I might, in my retirement, make a picture or do a play, now and again, if I was asked to. But for all practical, day-by-day purposes I shall be retired. I’ll live simply. I’ll travel, I’ll read, I’ll have my schooner. Then, and only then, will the real thrill of being an actress come home to me—when it has become the thrill of having been an actress!

“I get a thrill out of my mother’s thrills. The first time my name was ever on Broadway in electric lights, my Mother went down to that theater and walked around the block a dozen times, just so she could look at it. She even took a camera with her and made a picture of it…”

Kay smiled, that rich and luscious smile of hers. She said, “I hope I haven’t disappointed you. I should have been able to tell you feverish tales of lovers and rendezvous—of freedom to live my own life—and temperament—of trysts and orchids and gold bath tubs and champagne massages—but we work too hard to have many rendezvous. We have less freedom than any other group of people in the world. If we have a little fit of temperament, it is front page news within the hour. Happiness is difficult to snare and to secure because happiness roots best in peace—and there is no peace. Orchids and gold bath tubs and champagne dips are the kind of thrills other people think we get. Perhaps some actresses do. I doubt it. That sort of thing is as old-fashioned as the gentlemen who died with white gloves in their hands…archivesitsthrilling1

“No, the thrill of being an actress is, to me, the thrill of being loved by more people than could ever have known of my existence otherwise. It is the thrill of having a job. It is the thrill of being able to make my mother’s life pleasanter than it might have been without me and my work. It is the thrill of believing that I am giving my small share to others. It is the supreme thrill of being more alive than I might have been if I did not live under a magnifying glass…”

A boy staggered by bearing six mammoth boxes. The air became redolent of doughnuts. George Brent beckoned, bleakly, from the set.

Kay trod out her cigarette with a white satin heel. She gathered her mink about her. She said, “If there is any thrill in death by doughnuts, I’ll let you know… farewell…”

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