Authors: Stefan Kanfer
On the strength of their recommendation, Perlberg offered Lucille a contract at $75 a week, half what she had been making with Goldwyn. She sighed and she signed—anything for a crack at comedy. “I wanted to learn,” she was to write. “And my forte, I figured, was that. I didn’t know what I was getting into.”
That was not quite true. Everyone in Hollywood knew about Columbia and its Neanderthal head of production, Harry Cohn. With his brother Jack, and Joel Brandt, a pal from New York, the high school dropout and former song-plugger had founded Cohn-Brandt-Cohn Film Sales in 1919. While Jack and Joel stayed in the East, Harry moved to Los Angeles. There he leased studio space for CBC on Gower Street, known to the movie colony as Poverty Row because it housed so many companies specializing in low-budget, “quickie” productions. Cohn-Brandt-Cohn was typical; it turned out so many cheap, slam-bang comedies that actors said “CBC” stood for Corned Beef and Cabbage—reason enough for Harry to change the name to Columbia Pictures.
Beneath the new sign the Cohn philosophy remained the same: low budgets and fast schedules. A number of talented actors and directors chose to work with Columbia anyway. The reason was as basic as Cohn himself. Although he refused to underwrite expensive sets or locations, he respected established talents and gave them the freedom they required. Director Frank Capra was one of those who stayed with Columbia despite offers from bigger studios, and when Lucille entered the place, Carole Lombard and John Barrymore were busy on the same lot. The difference was that Lombard and Barrymore were cast in
while Lucille was capering with the Three Stooges. Cohn had decreed that his new contract player would be perfect as the dumb blonde foil in Larry, Moe, and Curly’s latest effort,
The farce about college football used her mainly as a target. Again she maintained, “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” and again this was not quite accurate. The Stooges’ pratfall reputation preceded them, and not a soul in Hollywood expected them to be anything short of gross. Lucille dutifully allowed them to pelt her with lemon meringue and squirt soda in her face. All she learned from the trio, she insisted, was that “seltzer up the nose really hurts.” But all affronts to her dignity vanished when she was rewarded with something money could not buy: a screen credit. Lucille Ball was no longer an elevated extra, a supernumerary glamour girl. Heartened by the prospect of more film comedies, she wired money for the rest of the family to take the Super Chief to L.A. The reunion was only days away.
It was during those days that Harry Cohn made one of his periodic slashes of the Columbia budget. More than a dozen performers were summarily fired. Lucille remembered the collective feelings of shock and fear. “One night at six o’clock,
We were on the streets, going, ‘What
’ Nobody knew. They just—got rid of everybody. ” Lucille had a date that night with Dick Green, brother of Johnny Green, a studio musician and composer of such hits as “Body and Soul” and “Out of Nowhere.” He took note of the glum face. “Lost my job,” Lucille snuffled: Dede and her brother and grandfather were coming to stay at the house in Gower. But now—
He cut her off. It so happened that there
an opportunity. Why, this very evening RKO had an open call for showgirls.
Lucille put her tongue in her cheek.
No, Green insisted: this new Astaire-Rogers film really needed chorines.
They’re auditioning them after dark? she demanded.
Yes, she was assured, in the p.m.
Lucille showed up for the casting call, invented a long history of modeling for Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and was offered a job. The salary seemed insultingly low, as if she was backsliding rather than rising in Hollywood—$50 a week. She signed immediately.
Informed that she was going by bus to meet her mother and grandfather at the railroad station, George Raft was appalled. That was no way to greet the family. He advanced Lucille $65 and gave her the use of his limousine for the day so that she could arrive in style. As soon as DeDe laid eyes on the house on North Ogden she started to cry, moved by her daughter’s success. What seemed a striver’s dwelling to Lucille was paradise to her mother.
DeDe kept weeping at intervals throughout the day. In the evening the two went for a drive around town. They parked at the top of Mulholland Drive, the local lovers’lane. Lights from the San Fernando Valley and the Los Angeles basin twinkled below them. The sentimental DeDe began to cry again and Lucille put her arm around her mother. “We sat there for a few minutes,” Lucille would recall, “when all of a sudden there was a cop next to us. He banged his nightstick against the running board and said, ‘Okay, you dames. None of that stuff up here. Run along, butch.’ I don’t think my mother had ever heard the word ‘lesbian’ and when I told her what it meant and that the cop thought we were necking, she cried all the way home.”
Grandpa Fred worked hard at adjusting to the new climate and the new house. Lucille eased the way as best she could, calling him Daddy, deferring to him in little matters, and creating a small studio for him in the garage. Seated behind a desk, Fred Hunt gave political lectures to his new friends, the milkman, the trash collector, and various retirees he met on his Ogden Drive constitutionals. Overhearing the talks, his granddaughter was amused to see that the old man’s radical leanings had been brought to Los Angeles intact. Harmless, she thought, and very good for Daddy to exercise his opinions as well as his body.
Not that she could spare much time for the family once everyone had settled in. Lucille was, after all, a contract player with RKO Pictures, and she was determined not to lose this job.
The company letters stood for Radio-Keith-Orpheum, vestiges of the company’s vaudeville origins. At one time it had been under the control of the financial shark Joseph P. Kennedy, now the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America. The executives had believed in the future of talking pictures, and attempted to create a rival to Warner Brothers, acknowledged leader of the revolution in sound. But that was before the Depression gutted the parent company, which fell into the hands of the receivers. Kennedy and Sarnoff were back in New York, and RKO Pictures was left to founder on its own. In the early 1930s it did better than anyone had dared to predict. No genre was left untouched. A series of revolving-door executives experimented with special effects, as in
dramas featuring the high-toned young actress Katharine Hepburn, who won an Academy Award with her third picture,
and adaptations of Broadway musicals, including
starring Irene Dunne and a newly popular dance team, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
It was for this last film that Lucille was hired, specifically as an onscreen clothes model.
is set in Paris, where Dunne plays a White Russian princess turned couturier, Rogers is an American singer posing as an Eastern European aristocrat, and Astaire is a fellow American undeceived by Rogers’s bogus accent. Lucille again tried to lobby the writers for more work, but it was no use: she was supposed to be Parisian, and French intonations were totally beyond her. Rather than give the actress additional dialogue, the director William A. Seiter excised her only speech. All that remained in the finished film was a walk-on, with Lucille striding around in ostrich plumes and silk.
The event was disappointing rather than dispiriting. Lucille was the first to acknowledge that she had a lot to learn. She would begin by devoting herself to the task at hand—any task at all. According to her testimony: “I adopted RKO as my studio family. I talked to everyone I met, from office boys to executives—possibly because of that urgent need I’d always had to make people like me—and I posed for every cheesecake picture they asked for. I could never say no.”
These frantic efforts were to pay large dividends. During the first few months she caught the eye of Pandro S. Berman. Nine years her senior, Berman had risen from editor to RKO’s most important executive, overseeing Katharine Hepburn’s films and the Astaire-Rogers musicals. He was surrounded by beautiful women on the lot and around town, but somehow, this year, 1934, he preferred Lucille’s fresh and audacious style. For her part, Lucille thought him attractive enough; since the days of her crush on Uncle George Mandicos, and through four years with Johnny DeVita, she had shown a distinct preference for swarthy Mediterranean types—even if they were married. Berman fit the mold. They started to see each other, and within a month Lucille became Topic A among the studio gossips.
This could scarcely be called a casting couch stratagem. Beguiled though he was, Berman knew the actress’s limitations and offered her no major roles. All the same, studio folk knew of the involvement and treated Miss Ball with extreme politesse. She had only one line in
Dream Too Much,
a vehicle built for the talents of soprano Lily Pons. As an American parvenu touring Paris, Lucille denounces the city’s attractions: “Culture is making my feet hurt.” A larger role came with
where she played a combative actress. This was followed by minor roles in two subsequent Astaire-Rogers features, as a dancer in
Follow the Fleet
and a flower seller in
Manifestly, her connection with the boss was not enough to elevate Lucille from the bottom rungs of RKO, a situation she discussed at a commissary lunch with Margaret Hamilton. The beaky character actress would become an icon when she played the Wicked Witch of the West in
The Wizard of Oz,
but at the time she was just another RKO performer punching the clock like the rest. “Am I ever going to succeed?” Lucille demanded. “I have financial responsibilities for my mother and I need to make money.” Hamilton could only provide a sympathetic ear; she had no counsel, and no inside information. Still, there
one avenue as yet unexplored.
One of the clichés of Hollywood, Lucille was to observe, is “Behind every successful actress is a hairdresser and a mother.” “Hairdressers come and go,” she wrote, “but Ginger Rogers has only one fabulous mother, a woman who played mother to many of us on the way up.” In order to further her daughter’s career, and to give herself something to do, the restless Lela Rogers had founded an acting school on the RKO lot. Lucille made a point of matriculating at this institution, headed by a most unusual woman.
Lela Rogers had several ex-husbands but only one child, and she resolved to make that girl famous. The goal required concentration and discipline, two attributes Lela had acquired as a female Marine during World War I. Returned to civilian life, Lela applied them to her daughter, training the child for a career in show business. At fourteen Ginger won a Charleston contest in Dallas; after that there was no stopping mother or daughter. Lela hired some dancers, wrote original songs and special material, and arranged a vaudeville contract for Ginger Rogers and Her Redheads. On the road she served as Ginger’s press agent and tutored her in academic subjects. The troupe played the circuits until Lela pronounced the appealing little blonde ready for New York. In 1929, at the age of eighteen, Ginger Rogers made her debut in a Broadway musical; the following year she appeared in her first film,
Man of Manhattan.
At RKO, with Lela’s backing, she sang and danced in the films that would make her reputation as Fred Astaire’s partner, doing everything he did, as she liked to point out, backward and in high heels.
When Ginger was not on the set, she polished her craft in Lela’s acting classes. Lucille joined the group of apprentices and found herself in a position of considerable delicacy. She wanted to improve her skills, to secure larger roles, to become
At the same time, Lucille could not threaten Ginger, the focus of all this schooling, by letting her ambition show. The humble attitude worked so well that after one class Lela took Lucille aside.
“What would you give to be a star in two years?” the older woman demanded. “Would you give me every breath you draw for two years? Will you work seven days a week? Will you sacrifice all your social life?”
Lucille nodded her assurance.
“Okay, let’s start.”
For Lucille, the Lela Rogers regimen meant getting her teeth straightened, wearing dresses instead of slacks and shirts, reading English literature to improve her vocabulary and get a better understanding of character, taking elocution lessons in order to lower her voice by four tones. Of all the counsel Lela dispensed, Lucille had trouble with only one piece of advice: to her instructor, sex was “more of a hindrance than a help to a would-be star.” More actresses, she insisted, “have made it to the top without obvious sex appeal than with it.” This contradicted all that Lucille had experienced, but what Lela wanted Lela got: her young pupil learned the value of subtlety in performance and deportment.
These lessons were not absorbed all at once; there were times when Lucille forgot she was a lady and reverted to Jamestown rebel. Early one morning she was preparing for yet another publicity photograph when Mary, Queen of Scots, strode into the makeup room. The staff whisked Lucille to the adjoining wardrobe department as Katharine Hepburn, dressed as Mary, studied her script and settled luxuriously into the chair. Lucille peeked through a small window and saw that she had left behind in the makeup room a box of caps for her teeth. She tried to catch the eye of the makeup man; he deliberately snubbed her. Furious, Lucille grabbed a container of coffee and hurled it through the window at him. The missile missed its target and hit a chair, spattering coffee over Hepburn’s costume.
Mary of Scotland
would not be filmed that day. The postponement cost RKO several thousand dollars and infuriated the front office. But Hepburn, forever skirmishing with RKO management, refused to blame Lucille. Pandro Berman argued that it was just an accident that could have happened to anyone, and Lela advised the bosses that Lucille Ball happened to be the most promising student in her class. The transgression was overlooked, but unforgiven; Lucille would have to work twice as hard merely to stay in place.