Five-Minute Movie Star: Carman Barnes in Hollywood, Part 3

All through May and June 1931 the fan magazines kept up their steady stream of items about Carman Barnes and how she was taking Hollywood by storm. Paramount’s ads continued to list her among “These Great Personalities” and “Stars That Draw!” alongside such names as Marlene Dietrich, Maurice Chevalier, Fredric March, Harold Lloyd and Claudette Colbert. Strangers and Lovers was still one of “These Mighty Productions” coming soon, touted in the same breath with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Love Me Tonight, The Smiling Lieutenant and A Farewell to Arms. Readers of Screenland, Modern Screen and Photoplay were exhorted to write to her (at the studio, of course, 5451 Marathon Street, not her DeMille Drive digs) — even though none of those readers had set eyes on her unless they’d seen the pictures the magazines kept publishing.

Carman’s versatility as writer and actress continued to be a major talking point. Screenland’s “Screen News” column fairly gushed:

“A girl who looks lovely, acts well, sings, plays an instrument, can do either comedy or tragedy, is a good dancer — and is also capable of writing her own scenario a la this new little Carman Barnes, is bound to crow over less accomplished souls.”

The first tiny bubbles of doubt, however, were beginning to burble up here and there. The June Motion Picture published “An Open Letter to Mr. Paramount” by staff writer Frank Lee Dunne, wondering what was up at the studio. Beginning with the perennial question “What’s happening with Clara Bow?”, Dunne wrote:

Once I caught myself absent-mindedly penning [Clara’s] name on the fly-leaf of a book I was reading. The book was ‘School Girl,’ a most erudite exposé of school children, written by Carman Barnes, who, I understand, is also going to do big things for ‘dear old Paramount,’ as Jack Oakie says…Of course, it’s sorta funny, the announcement that Carman Barnes is being groomed for stardom. Writing an off-color book in schoolgirl style is no preparation for stardom.”

A reader combing the trades and fan mags for news of Paramount’s newest could be forgiven for getting confused over the titles being bandied about. Some were still talking about Debutante (with or without Confessions of) even as Paramount’s ads were ballyhooing Strangers and Lovers. Meanwhile, an item in Motion Picture Herald’s “Productions in Work” column on June 27 carried a bit more of the ring of authority. It announced yet a new title, The Road to Reno, as “Starting”. Only the names of Carman, Charles Rogers, Lilyan Tashman and director Richard Wallace suggested that this was the latest (and presumably final) incarnation of (Confessions of a) Debutante/Strangers and Lovers. Ominously, the author of The Road to Reno‘s original screenplay was listed as Virginia Kellogg, not Carman. (Kellogg was a 23-year-old newbie just starting out; her career would be spotty, her credits few and far between, but she would in time snag a couple of Oscar nominations, for White Heat with James Cagney in 1949 and Caged with Eleanor Parker the following year.)

Over in the pages of the July Photoplay, Cal York (“The Monthly Broadcast of Hollywood Goings-On!”) hadn’t yet got the memo about the new title, but he had some juicy details:

“Carman Barnes wrote ‘School Girl.’ She is under age. She was considered a genius.

“Someone in the East saw her and decided she was Movie material. They signed her at $1,000 a week now; $1,250 a week in a few months; and $5,000 a week at the end of three years — provided the options are taken up.

“First, she was to star in her own writings. ‘With and By Carman Barnes.’ A good thought, but when they came to adapt her story, this was discarded.

“Then she was to play the part of a Southern debutante.

“Well, she’s finally playing the rôle of a tattered gal of the South — sort of a white trash interpretation in ‘Strangers and Lovers.’

“And here’s the funny side. Eight weeks are allowed on the production schedule on a not-too-big picture. When three weeks is a long shooting schedule for pictures in this day of hurry-up talkies.

“And the eight weeks are to provide ample time for proper photography. The girl’s lines need much camera attention.

“She has one lucky break.

“Tom Douglas of stage fame has been cast opposite her.

“He can teach her much — and we understand he is willing and so is she!”

So Paramount was scheduling extra time to coax the new kid along, eh? Interesting.

And by the way, what do you suppose York meant by the coy insinuation in that last line about Carman and Tom Douglas, the co-star she found “charming, very humorous…southern and from a good family”? In her April letter, Carman also told Clara Jackson that he was “not a ‘pretty’ movie actor.” Could that have been code for saying that Douglas was definitely heterosexual? Well, let’s let it pass — Carman, Tom Douglas and Cal York are all past asking about it now.

In the next issue of Motion Picture Herald (July 4), The Road to Reno was listed as “Shooting” — and sure enough, here’s a publicity still from the July Screenland (“Oh, how they love their art!”) showing Clive Brook, Ruth Chatterton, Carman and Carole Lombard loitering on the Paramount lot waiting for the cameras to roll on their respective pictures. The photo is posed, no doubt, but at least it offers photographic evidence that Carman was reporting to the set.

In that same issue, Screenland’s editor Delight Evans, boasting of the magazine’s prescience in choosing future stars, wrote, “But meanwhile watch the youngsters like Carman Barnes and Sidney Fox and Sylvia Sidney and Evalyn Knapp — we picked them too.” (We’ve already seen what became of Sidney Fox and Sylvia Sidney. For the record, Evalyn Knapp fell somewhere in between: serials, B westerns — she played Lou Gehrig’s sister in one for fly-by-nighter Sol Lesser in 1938 — and uncredited bits. Her career petered out in 1943 and she retired to marriage and family life, dying in 1981 at 72. So much for Delight Evans’s powers of prognostication.)

Motion Picture Herald continued to report The Road to Reno as “Shooting” on July 11 and 18; then in the July 25 issue the picture’s release date was announced as September 26. One week later, on August 1, The Road to Reno — still starring Charles Rogers, Carman Barnes and Lilyan Tashman — was marked “Completed”.

At this point things get a little murky, complicated by different publications’ diverse press deadlines. For example, in the August issue of Modern Screen (published in mid-July), its “Modern Screen Directory (Players)” had the following listing:

“Barnes, Carman: unmarried; born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Write her at Paramount studio. Contract star. To make her talkie debut in ‘Confessions of a Débutante.'”

Way behind the curve.

Meanwhile, in the same issue of Motion Picture Herald (August 1) that announced The Road to Reno as completed, the following appeared in the Herald’s “On the Dotted Line” column:

 “…Lilyan Tashman, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers, Peggy Shannon, William Boyd, Irving Pichel, Emil Chautard, Anderson Lawler, Caryl Lincoln in ‘The Road to Reno’…”

It was an ominous sign for any Carman Barnes fans who might have been paying attention; in fact, Peggy Shannon — who had already replaced Clara Bow in The Secret Call earlier in the year — had now replaced Carman. The Road to Reno was still scheduled for release on September 26, so reshoots were no doubt in progress, making the Herald’s “Completed” stamp a bit behind the curve, albeit not as far behind as Modern Screen.

Not as far behind as Motion Picture magazine either. In their September issue (published mid-August), under “What the Stars Are Doing and Where They May Be Found”, Carman is described as “playing in The Road to Reno — Paramount Studios, 5451 Marathon St., Hollywood, Cal.” But by that time, the following item had appeared in Motion Picture Daily’s August 28 “Off the Record” column (the reporter, fittingly enough, is anonymous):

“As mystifying as any of Hollywood’s mysteries, the story of Carman Barnes. Picked and touted by Jesse Lasky as a find, Miss Barnes was subjected to a nation-wide publicity campaign a la Paramount’s best. The excitement even extended into trade paper advertising.

“Then the Hollywood understroke came into play. Miss Barnes cooled her heels on the Marathon Avenue lot for months until the other day she walked off the lot, through with Paramount and nary a picture to her credit.”

There’s no telling what “the other day” from August 28 was, but this is the first mention in print that Carman and Paramount had come to a parting of the ways, barely seven months into her long-term contract. Motion Picture Daily presented it as Carman’s idea, but other publications told a different story, albeit weeks and even months later. In the meantime, gossip column items continued to drop her name (Motion Picture, September: Carman Barnes reports that to date no one has tried to call her ‘Car’ Barnes.”), and readers were still being told they could write Carman in care of Paramount’s Marathon Street studios. But by October the news was finally sinking in.

As usual, Cal York was Johnny-on-the-spot in the September Photoplay (which may have actually hit the stands before that Motion Picture Daily item):

“The story of Carman Barnes is one of those things that could only happen in Hollywood. Maybe you remember that Carman is the youthful authoress who wrote the sensational novel ‘School Girl’ and if school girls had acted like that in Old Cal’s day, they would have been spanked and sent to bed without their supper. Instead the authoress was signed under contract to Paramount to write her own stories and play the starring rôles in them.

“The executives raved about her — never, so the press was told, did a girl have so much of what it takes.

“The publicity department was told to give Carman a big sendoff.

“She was photographed from every angle — well, almost. She was interviewed and kowtowed to and flattered.

“Various announcements of her screen rôles were announcements, merely. She was assigned to ‘Road to Reno,’ but Peggy Shannon was substituted, and even her own play, “Debutante,” was put aside for lack of a story. Now, it seems, Paramount will not renew her contract. And she’s never appeared in a single picture nor written a line that has reached the screen!

“Well, she drew her weekly paycheck and the publicity department was kept busy for a spell.”

It’s amusing now, 86 years down the line, to see how schizophrenic some of Carman’s fan magazine coverage was becoming by this time. The October issue of Motion Picture is a case in point. Carman gets four plugs in all. One of them, in the magazine’s regular “The Hollywood Circus” feature, mentions how dinner party hostesses around town, including Carman, were having trouble catering to the finicky palate of Paul Lukas. It’s standard puff-stuff, a good way for studio publicity departments to keep their contract players’ names in print (whether Carman ever actually threw a dinner party and invited Paul Lukas is an open question).

But the others are more pointed, and surely didn’t come from the boys at Paramount. In News and Gossip of the Studios” there was this:

“CARMAN BARNES is going to write a novel of Hollywood. Let’s hope it is not based on her own experiences in the movies. There will be too many blank pages — where nothing happens.”

Ouch! Later in the same column, just in case readers weren’t in on the joke, the magazine explained it:

CARMAN BARNES — whom Variety refers to as ‘Paramount’s by-and-with girl’ — will soon be Paramount’s ‘by-with-and-out girl.’ The studio has admitted she will probably never make a foot of film, though she has been technically billed as a star for months. The pictures printed of Carman seem to reveal a rather odd screen personality, but a photographer tells me they are the few chosen from literally hundreds of portraits of the young authoress taken.”

Now this was a low blow. The reporter knew perfectly well that the studios always took “literally hundreds” of pictures of their contract players — stars like Garbo who could sit for half a dozen shots, every one pure gold, were rare.

Even worse than these, perhaps, was the issue’s very first (p. 14) mention of Carman, in “Your Gossip Test (Hollywood Knows The Answers To These Questions — Do You?)” by Marion Martone. Question no. 10:

“Who is the girl who has been publicized as a forthcoming screen star and has been cast in several pictures and yet has not been seen on the screen so far?”

And the answer, on p. 96:

“Evidently the screen camera has been unkind to Carman Barnes, who is the author of ‘School Girl,’ because she has been assigned to several pictures and then taken out of the cast.”

“Several pictures”? Well, there were certainly several titles bouncing around. Maybe that was what Marion Martone meant.

The snark had started even before that, though. One anecdote got a couple of treatments that illustrate how “Hollywood’s Newest Genius” (Silver Screen, May ’31) was fast morphing into a figure of scorn. From Modern Screen’s “Film Gossip of the Month” for September, just as the news of Carman’s retreat was getting around:

“Blasé Hollywood had a good laugh the other day. Although Carman Barnes hasn’t done any work as yet she’s been receiving her weekly paycheck from Paramount — and the checks are four-figured, too. So it was only natural that when Carman waltzed into her manager’s office and asked when her vacation started the poor man was too flabbergasted to answer.”

Early profiles of Carman had made a point of mentioning her lively sense of humor. This (if it really happened) sounds to me like a joke on Carman’s part that Modern Screen’s gossipmonger deliberately chose to take the wrong way. But the same story got an even nastier twist two months later in The New Movie Magazine. In an article entitled “Hollywood Needs a Good Scandal”, writer Herb Howe went out of his way to get his digs in, even though the subject at hand was Hollywood’s drive to cut costs in the face of the deepening Depression:

“With the Wall Street bankers moving into Hollywood there has been a move to economize. Supervisors are now allowed only four relatives on the pay-roll. But this miser policy didn’t affect Carman Barnes. She was on the Paramount pay-roll for six months without doing a part. When finally a bit was found for her she screamed: ‘But when do I get a vacation?'”

And elsewhere in that same November issue:

“Paramount has finally settled with Carman Barnes for a cash consideration for the balance of her contract, which had six more months to go. Miss Barnes was discovered by Jesse L. Lasky in New York, after he was attracted to her ability as the author of a sensational book on boarding-school life. She was later sent to Hollywood where the studio applied every trick known in photography to bring out that certain screen magnetism so necessary to establish popularity, but the young girl would not respond to that mysterious element of camera lens with the result that Paramount decided it was cheaper to relieve themselves of the charge by making a cash settlement.

“Meanwhile, Miss Barnes is said to be writing a novel about Hollywood in which, rumor has it, she’ll tell tales.”

It’s too much to hope for that any of Carman’s scenes from The Road to Reno — much less any screen tests she may have made — have survived in the Paramount vaults. But wouldn’t it be enlightening to troll through the files for memos documenting some of the “trick[s] known in photography” that Paramount deployed to get her to “respond to that mysterious element of camera lens”? Ah well, maybe someday…

In any case, by Autumn 1931 Carman Barnes was well and truly gone. No more horseback riding in Griffith Park, no more lolling on the beach, no more “primieres” or bad food at the Brown Derby.

And that novel Miss Barnes was said to be writing? We’ll get to that, and other things, when we return.

Next time: Hollywood after Carman — and vice versa

 

Speak of the Devil…

I interrupt my survey of the Hollywood career of Carman Barnes for an announcement of urgent importance to movie buffs everywhere, and to fans of film noir, Ray Milland, and director John Farrow in particular:

Alias Nick Beal is returning!

If the title means nothing to you, then you have not read my 2011 post on this unsung masterpiece. You can find it by scrolling down the index column on the right to “Lost and Found: Alias Nick Beal — or by clicking on the link you just read. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

To be fair, while Alias Nick Beal is a masterpiece, it’s not entirely unsung. The late film historian Leslie Halliwell was a fan, having caught it almost by accident during its half-hearted 1950 release in Great Britain (where it was titled The Contact Man). Otherwise, the movie died unnoticed in 1949 and has been virtually forgotten ever since. Long a staple of Late Late Shows on local TV stations (where I discovered it in the 1960s), it was last shown publicly, to the best of my knowledge, on The Movie Channel in 1990.

That will change this coming Wednesday, August 2, 2017. Turner Classic Movies will screen Alias Nick Beal at 9:00 p.m. Pacific Time — that is, at 12:00 Midnight Eastern Time, in the earliest hours of August 3. A most appropriate time slot for this creepy, deeply sinister political melodrama.

A word to the wise is sufficient. Don’t miss Alias Nick Beal. After it’s over…well, pleasant dreams.

 

Five-Minute Movie Star: Carman Barnes in Hollywood, Part 2

Like her Schoolgirl heroine Naomi Bradshaw, Carman Barnes shared a suite at boarding school with two sisters, Clara and Mary Jackson. And in Carman’s case, she remained close to the Jackson girls for the rest of her life. In April 1931, Carman wrote a letter to Clara Jackson that survives in her papers at the University of Rochester. I quote it here in its entirety, with Carman’s occasional misspellings left intact:

Dearest Clara,

   No, Miss Barnes is not temperamental, glamorous or mysterious as yet. And she actually doesn’t bite. And Carman would love to have the two little Jackson girls come to visit her in the sad little town of Hollywood, if she doesn’t take that little actress away on location. You see, Miss Barnes’ first picture may be made in Florida, but even if it isn’t, Carman would be a dull hostess having to put the blonde star to bed every night at eight o’clock, tucking her in between the ermine lined sheets and smelling her breath to be sure she hasn’t sneaked a high ball. Miss Barnes will tell you that it’s no cinch being a movie star. However we’ll see how things work out, and how much breathing space she’ll get between pictures. Old writer Carman is sailing for Europe in July–believe it or not–which you probably don’t by now.

   The screen’s newest siren—who kisses—and wonders if her chin’s at the right angle (before the camera)–doesn’t attend many Hollywood parties, so it might be dull for the little Jacksons. Hollywood parties are—Hollywood parties. Very ginny, and very disillusioning. The last one Miss Barnes went to, an important studio executive engaged in a little battle on the floor with an important Broadway playwright–with much rolling gnashing of teeth, blackening of eyes, and —it is said shamefully—biting! All the sweet young thing’s were there too, Mary Brian, Janet Gaynor, Frances Dee, Philips Holmes, Betty Davis— and you know, they are very, very nice. So is Carman Barnes. She went home very ill, and it took the young thing two days to recover. But honestly, I can’t stand that sort of thing, and it happens so often and so easily here. It would be bad if it ever reached the newspapers, too. Hollywood is nutty over gossip–at any cost.

   When the young actress isn’t working, I loll on the beach, ride horseback three or four times a week. A young English boy and I ride early Sunday mornings, way up in the hills. We gallop up, swing around overhanging cliffs, almost leap off into the air, swerve, brandish our sticks, and shriek: “We have met the enemy in the passes and he is ours!” Try it some time. It’s great sport. I have a nice tan, too, and am very healthy.

   After you’ve once “been places” in Hollywood, there’s no reason to go again. Everything is of a sameness, the people are the same, movie people, they talk about the same things, movies, they eat the same thing, movies, and they drink the same thing, movies. Everyone likes to go to the Brown Derby once–but after a few times, it’s nothing but a small town café with hard seats and bad food. Primieres are fun—once, and sort of amazing, too, with thousands of people lining the side walks, great fires burning in the streets, carpets, canopies, flowers, radio announcers, ermine coats, stars swamped with orchids, glaring arc lights, and the “herd” yelling for autographs. But after one–they’re all alike, maybe the lights are bigger, the fires brighter–for one star than for another, but that’s all. Now, have I disillusioned you in your glorified conception of Hollywood. You might like it, I don’t know. There are so few people here worth knowing, so few who have any back ground, any culture, any intelligence, any humor.

   I go out with very few people. Tom Douglas, for one, the boy who is to play with me in my picture. He is charming, very humorous. He is southern and from a good family. That can’t be said of many people out here. And more than anything, he is not a ham, nor a “pretty” movie actor. I go out with a young producer and a young scenario writer, and Jack Spurlock, a boy from home who came out with us. That’s practically all. You’d be surprised how quiet the lives are that most people lead in Hollywood. Did you know that the streets were deserted by twelve o’clock?

   I’ll send you a picture, if I ever get time to mail it off. And write to me, you scamp— I still love you loads, darling-

Carman

As I said before, the kid could write.

By February 1931 Paramount was spreading the word of their new discovery. The studio sent a letter to all their theater managers — and Paramount had the largest theater chain in the country — introducing Carman and telling them (according to Variety) “how glad she is to be a picture star as well as a writer.” For good measure, managers were offered an autographed picture of Miss Barnes. It would be interesting to know if any managers took Paramount up on the offer, and if any of the photos survive. (At about this same time, reports began to circulate that Paramount had also paid Carman $30,000 for the screen rights to Schoolgirl. Whether because of the novel’s subject matter or the play’s lukewarm reception on Broadway, nothing ever came of that, and the idea was soon dropped even by the gossips.)

The seeds planted with the fan mags in January began bearing fruit in April. In Photoplay, gossip columnist Cal York’s “Monthly Broadcast of Hollywood Goings-On!” trumpeted, “Girl novelist turns actress!”:

Hollywood’s newest Cinderella is Carman Dee Barnes, eighteen-year old writer who ground out a story called “Schoolgirl” when she was fifteen.

Last fall she went west for Paramount to write. Now she’s to play the leading role in a story written by herself.

She’s reported to have said that she’s a little shy of pictures because she has to write down to her audiences!

This, from a kid writer of frenzied flapper fiction.

Are we allowed a small chuckle, or a modest guffaw? Sure!

That same month — April 18, to be precise — an ad in Motion Picture Herald listed Carman among Paramount’s “Screen Luminaries”, already placing her in such company as Harold Lloyd, Marlene Dietrich, the Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier — and yes, Clara Bow. Her first picture — the one that in January interviewers had heard about as Debutante or A Debutante Confesses or Confessions of a Debutante — had undergone a change of title, which would be the source of some confusion when those interviews finally saw print in May and June. Now, according to Paramount, the picture was Strangers and Lovers, “featuring Carman Barnes and Tom Douglas. Directed by Richard Wallace. A tale of a girl who is afraid she is wicked.”

In May, along with profiles and prominent plugs in Screenland and Silver Screen, Carman scored an item in Picture Play’s “Hollywood Highlights” column by Edwin and Elza Schallert that paid tribute to her skill at the age-old southern belle tease:

What chance will a girl in her teens now have to impress a movie producer, unless 1. She has tossed off a couple of novels? 2. She has gifts as a sculptor, playwright and musician? 3. Possesses a flair for snappy and sophisticated conversation? 4. Is — in a word — just a whirlwind of intellectuality?

Carman Barnes, eighteen-year-old Paramount discovery, sets a standard that must be wretchedly depressing to any young seeker of celluloid honors. For she has a veritable galaxy of smart attributes, including those above enumerated.

And what a free, informal soul this young maid of movieland is, incidentally! Our first glimpse of Carman was on a breezy day in the broad open spaces of the studio, clad in a futuristic-looking bath robe, and gayly diverting an audience of three wise old scenario writers with her piquant repartee. Carman was waiting photographic test time, and if the breezes blew lightly on her loose-fitting outer garment, she should worry. Persiflage and the laughter took complete precendence over the day’s chilliness or the wind’s revealing whimsies with a lady’s boudoir habiliments.

An insouciante, charming, and distinctly clever young woman from the Southland is this precocious author of “School Girl” and “Beau Lover,” who is to appear in her own story, “Débutante.” Amazing as it may seem, she sometimes photographs not unlike Garbo.

(As a side note, Mr. and Mrs. Schallert in those days had an eight-year-old son, Billy, who would grow up to be one of the most prolific actors in Hollywood history, playing — among hundreds of other roles — Dobie Gillis’s English teacher, Patty Duke’s father, and Milton the Toaster for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts. William Schallert left us last year at the age of 93.)

The change from (Confessions of a) Debutante (Confesses) to Strangers and Lovers became official in an ad Paramount placed in the May 13 issue of Variety: “Debut of a new blonde beauty who will bowl screendom over —  Carman Barnes. In a big cast with Charles Rogers, Lilyan Tashman and others of established drawing power. In a strong story of young love that will long be remembered.” So this was the fulfillment of Variety’s February 11 item — two veterans, Charles “Buddy” Rogers and Lilyan Tashman (not to mention “others of established drawing power”), were coming aboard to do some of the heavy lifting for Carman and her “co-star” Tom Douglas. And in case you’ve lost track, in less than a month the story has gone from “a tale of a girl who is afraid she is wicked” to an “absorbing drama of an innocent-wise 19-year [old] charmer in a barracks town” to “a strong story of young love that will be long remembered.” An observant reader might have thought that somebody at Paramount was having trouble remembering that story for very long — might indeed have wondered if there was a story at all.

In May and June the gossip columns were liberally salted with items keeping Carman’s name front and center. Gladys Hall in Motion Picture and Cal York in Photoplay mentioned how Schoolgirl had gotten her “expelled from” (York) or “asked to leave” (Hall) her tony New York prep school. Meanwhile, Edward Churchill in Silver Screen asserted that she did manage to graduate from Ward Belmont in Nashville (the school she was attending when she wrote that first novel) “just after her seventeenth birthday.”

An item in the June Motion Picture mentioned Carman gushing over “a star famous for her vamp roles” (Who?, I wonder; Mae Murray? Nita Naldi? Louise Brooks? Theda Bara?), and clasping her hands in admiration of the lady’s orchid corsage: “Ah! how I adore orchids! I wish I could wear them — but I’m too young!”

Perhaps most amusing of all, Picture Play’s New York correspondent, Karen Hollis, went trolling among the bellhops at Carman’s former hotel:

Is She an Actress? The announcement that Carman Barnes, the child prodigy author, was also to act for Paramount fell like a bombshell in the New York hotel where she used to live. It happens that I live there now, and all the bell boys think I ought to know her just because I, too, have a typewriter.

They say she is an awfully smart kid, “Smart enough to act dumb and wistful and helpless when there is something she wants.” “Act? I should say she can. She was acting all the time, especially around the lobby and library when a flock of college boys blew in for the week-end.”

“Beautiful? Well, she’s no Claudette Colbert, but she’s pert and cute. She’ll be all right if people don’t make too much fuss over her. She loves attention. Her mother should have spanked her and torn up that dirty book she wrote.”

Reading that item, Carman the mature-beyond-her-years phenomenon suddenly sounds 18 again. Or rather, 17 — the age at which those New York bellhops knew her (and no doubt eagerly devoured “that dirty book she wrote”).

In that same June issue of Picture Play, Edwin and Elza Schallert in “Hollywood Highlights” commiserated with Carman for having “to sign her movie contract in the presence of a judge, because she happens to be a minor!…Movie companies arrange to have contracts with minors signed this way so that they may not be broken on the grounds of youthful incompetency of the player in business matters.” But this was old news by June: that hearing had happened way back in March. Still, it was publicity, and it lent the juggernaut of Carman’s approaching stardom the imprimatur of the California State Superior Court.

Anyhow, the days of magazine profiles, ballyhooing ads and gossip-column plugs, of Carman’s partying and horseback riding and enduring the hard seats and bad food of the Brown Derby, were reaching a climax — Carman was finally going before the cameras.

Next time: The rubber hits the road…and so does Carman

Five-Minute Movie Star: Carman Barnes in Hollywood, Part 1

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: For assistance in preparing this post, I am indebted to the University of Rochester River Campus Libraries, Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, and particularly to Andrea Reithmayr, Curator of the Carman Barnes Papers. In addition, Thomas M. Lizzio conducted an on-the-ground exploration of Carman Barnes’s neighborhood during her sojourn in Hollywood, and Scott Miller and Jill Katz of Aerodrome Pictures kindly provided photographs of Carman’s former home. Finally, Lee Riggs of the Shields Library at the University of California Davis was instrumental in tracking down some of Carman’s novels that are no longer available for sale.

*                         *                         *

This ad is how Paramount Pictures heralded the coming of its “ravishing new blonde discovery, Carman Barnes”. Fittingly enough, the ad appeared in the Motion Picture Herald for May 2, 1931, in a lavish 74-page full-color supplement commemorating Paramount’s 20th anniversary and trumpeting the studio’s “1931-32 Product Announcement”. This magnum opus of ballyhoo makes fascinating reading, as the studio publicity department heaps praise on everyone from Adolph Zukor on down (including contract writers, lowest of the low on the Hollywood totem pole), then unveils dozens of concept posters like this one promising exhibitors that “even bigger hits are here and on the way.”

Truth to tell, this roster of features is more a wish list than a promise. Many of its titles would indeed come along that season: the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business; Daughter of the Dragon with Anna May Wong; Josef von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Fredric March, A Farewell to Arms, The Smiling Lieutenant, Love Me Tonight. Others would show up with different titles (Sternberg’s Indiscretion with Marlene Dietrich turned out to be Blonde Venus; This Is New York became Two Kinds of Women; Cheated morphed into The False Madonna) or different stars (Paul Lukas was replaced by Herbert Marshall in Evenings for Sale and by Irving Pichel in Murder by the Clock). And some wouldn’t be along for years: Gary Cooper in Graft showed up as George Raft in The Glass Key (1935); The Strange Guest was ultimately Death Takes a Holiday (1934), with poor Paul Lukas dumped again, this time for Fredric March. Still others  — Manhandled with Clara Bow; Stepdaughters of War with Ruth Chatterton, Fay Wray and Jean Arthur — would never be made at all.

As things turned out, Strangers and Lovers was among those fated never to be — at least not under this title and, more to the point, not with Carman Barnes. This luscious specimen of Pre-Code titillation (the longer you look at it the sexier it gets) is in fact the high-water mark of Carman Barnes’s Hollywood career.

Reconstructing that career might be easier with access to the files and archives of Paramount Pictures, and maybe someday I’ll have the time and resources to delve into them. As it is, I’ve been able to draw on the few documents on the subject that survive in the Carman Barnes Papers at the University of Rochester’s River Campus Libraries, along with items gleaned from trade publications and fan magazines of the period. Fan magazines in particular must be approached with caution; they reveal a lot, but only through a glass darkly; what we read is filtered through layers of what studios wanted to share (or conceal) and what magazine writers and editors thought their readers wanted to know. It would tell us so much more if we had even a handful of memos from Paramount honchos discussing what to do with or about Carman Barnes.

In any case, Paramount first approached Carman in the late summer of 1930. By that time, she was the author of two published novels, Schoolgirl (1929) and Beau Lover (1930). Schoolgirl had been a sensation. Then came Beau Lover. For a 17-year-old even to have “lover” in her title was sensation enough, and the novel had a stylistic sophistication as eye-opening in its way as Schoolgirl‘s sexuality had been. (By way of comparison, in the 1950s teenager Francoise Sagan’s novels created a similar sensation — but Francoise was three years older than Carman had been. And French.)

On September 3 that year, Variety announced that A.W. Pezet and Carman Barnes’s Schoolgirl (“from the latter’s novel”) would go into rehearsal on September 29 with Henry B. Forbes producing. Pezet would direct. Two weeks later, on September 16, Carman (and her mother Diantha, Carman being still a minor) signed a contract with Paramount Publix. She was to be paid $350 per week for six weeks, to begin when she reported to the studio in Los Angeles “on or about the 10th day of November, 1930, to write, compose, adapt and arrange such literary material as the Corporation may assign to her”. A.W. Pezet had been in Hollywood before Carman, and a letter from him that survives in her papers gives her an idea of what to expect when she gets there. The letter also talks about the casting of Naomi Bradshaw in their dramatization of Schoolgirl, and how they had been unable to get the services of a young actress named Bette Davis, she being already committed to another play, Solid South. (Ah, the coincidences and near misses of showbiz history!) Instead, to play the 16-year-old Naomi they went with 29-year-old Joanna Roos, fresh from a well-received production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with Lillian Gish and Osgood Perkins.

Schoolgirl opened at New York’s Ritz Theatre on West 48th Street (now the Walter Kerr). Opening night was November 20, 1930, Carman’s eighteenth birthday (with whoever laid out this playbill having separated the title into two words). Later, in an interview in Screenland Magazine, Carman told writer Margaret Reid, “It went over pretty well, but it got hell from the critics!” The show hung on for 28 performances before closing sometime in December. In fairness, 28 performances back then wasn’t the humiliating flop it would be now (Joanna Roos’s Uncle Vanya had run only 71), but it was far from the sensational hit Carman’s novel had been. (And by the way, if you’re thinking Bette Davis must have dodged a bullet, she didn’t do much better: Solid South opened on October 14 and closed 31 shows later. Shortly thereafter, Davis decamped to Hollywood and a screen test at Universal; Broadway wouldn’t see her again until 1952.)

In December Carman and her mother also left for California to embark on her six-week contract with Paramount. It’s reasonable to conclude that she reported for work at the studio on December 10, because exactly six weeks later, on January 21, 1931, she signed another contract with Paramount Publix. This one was for five years, at $1,000 a week, “to render services…as an actress and writer”. The contract hasn’t survived — not in Carman’s papers, anyhow — but she did preserve a copy of the petition filed with the California Superior Court requesting approval for this contract with a minor.

What brought about the change from one contract to the next? Again, without access to Paramount’s files, we can only surmise. But here’s where those fan magazines really come in handy. It’s clear from reading their profiles of her that Carman had considerable personal charm to go with her precocious writing ability. And this portrait that ran in Silver Screen Magazine suggests that Sydney Valentine’s Screenland article comparing her to Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich may not have been as over-the-top as it sounds.

So what was Carman Barnes like at 18? She was five feet five inches tall and weighed 111 pounds — “slender,” one interviewer wrote, “to the point of breakability.” She had large, clear, almond-shaped brown eyes that tipped slightly upward. Phrases like “Garbo-ish eyelashes” and “[Gloria] Swansonesque nose” crop up in interviews. One magazine described her hair as red, another as “corn-colored”, and a third (a month later) as “blondined”. She spoke softly through full, rounded lips, in a voice “with the slightly plaintive inflection of the South.” Margaret Reid of Screenland flirted with cattiness by saying, “Her hair shows evidence of relations with a bottle and her nails are too tangerine — but she dresses in excellent, sub-deb taste and uses little make-up.” Her skin was youthful (of course) and palely translucent. She enjoyed writing, reading, sculpting, painting, swimming, horseback riding, dancing — more or less in that order. She expected to marry someday, and to have children (“I wouldn’t miss that experience for anything.”), but was in no hurry (“I have too much I want to do, and be.”). She struck people as level-headed, with a lively sense of humor. Self-confident without being conceited. Not conventionally beautiful, but attractive, even striking. And they noticed an indefinable quality about her that they cast about for words to describe — arresting, startling, exotic, transparent, fascinating.

As Gladys Hall put it in Motion Picture, “Jesse Lasky discovered that Carman was that rare apparition, a literary lady with looks“, and more than one magazine identified him as the instigator of the five-year contract, the raise from $350 to $1,000 a week, and the change in her job description from “writer” to “actress and writer” — in that order.

Paramount was indeed looking to replace Clara Bow. Clara had weathered the transition to talkies well enough — her voice suited her screen image and she was still popular. On the other hand, mike fright was never far off, and it sometimes paralyzed her; much of the fun had gone out of making movies. Meanwhile, her too-public private life had been just heedless enough that some of the lies and slanders about her were beginning to stick (and do to this day), adding to her emotional instability. Clara was worth indulging to a point, but the studio was losing patience with the continual sick-outs, rests and retreats. Couldn’t they find someone just as sexy, just as “now”, and as young as Clara was when they found her, but without all that baggage?

In that interview with Gladys Hall, Carman appears to address this very point. “The most important standard is to be discreet,” she told Hall:

“No matter what a girl does, if she is quiet about it, it’s all right and she’s all right. If she is noisy and advertises what she is doing, it is not all right.

“I know many a girl who has done all there is to do and has been quiet about it, gone her own way and said nothing, and she is admired and respected by everyone who knows her. I know other girls who have never done anything they wouldn’t do in Sunday School, but who make up glaringly, wear daring clothes and otherwise advertise themselves, and everyone thinks the worst.

“It isn’t what we do that matters. It is the way we do it.” [Emphasis in original.]

Even now, 86 years down the line, this mini-manifesto has an unmistakeable air of throwing-down-the-gauntlet about it. Certainly, to a fan reading it in 1931, there could be no mistaking — well, if not who Carman was talking about, then at least who Gladys Hall was thinking of when she wrote the article.

By the time this interview and others appeared in May 1931, the publicity push for Carman had been in full swing for some time. Any monthly magazine dated May would have hit the stands in mid-to-late April, and been in production for weeks before that. Certainly that 74-page color supplement in Motion Picture Herald (the one with the Strangers and Lovers poster that leads off this post) had been in the works for months. Indeed, in the 1931 Motion Picture Almanac (published in January) Carman is already listed among Paramount’s “New Leading Players” along with Ginger Rogers, Norman Foster, Miriam Hopkins, Stuart Erwin and others. In a paid Paramount ad in the same Almanac (“REASONS FOR THE MIGHTY DEMAND FOR PARAMOUNT ARE EASY TO STATE”), Carman — as well as Marlene Dietrich, the Marx Brothers, Maurice Chevalier, Ruth Chatterton, Charlie Ruggles, Kay Francis, etc. — appears under “Reason No. 4, such seat-selling personalities as:”though of course Carman herself had yet to sell a single seat.

May and June profiles of Carman in Silver Screen (by Edward Churchill), Screenland (Margaret Reid) and Motion Picture (Gladys Hall) had been in the hoppers at their respective magazines since mid-January, when the writers interviewed Carman in the first flush of her new contract. By the time they appeared in print, Carman’s story was already changing. Margaret Reid in the May Screenland, for example, says that Carman and her mother are house-hunting (“I’ve been looking at houses all morning. I’ve never seen so much rococo in my life!”). But by then the hunt was long over, and Carman and Mama Diantha were ensconced in this house at 1975 De Mille Drive (shown here in a more recent photo). Today De Mille Drive is part of the exclusive, private gated community of Laughlin Park, but back then it was simply a semi-upscale residential street midway up the hill from Hollywood to the high ground of Griffith Park; C.B. De Mille himself lived just up the road. (The house is currently the home of Aerodrome Pictures, a design studio that provides graphics and branding for a range of entertainment companies.)

More important, all three articles mention Carman’s first project at Paramount as either Confessions of a Debutante, A Debutante Confesses, or simply Debutante, which Carman is to write and star in — but by May that was already obsolete. On February 11, Variety (always more on top of the entertainment news than any of the fan mags) ran an item headlined “Soft-Pedaling Barnes”:

Despite all the heavy advance plugs on Carman Barnes, girl writer, as a new Paramount star, she will be given merely featured billing on her first picture.

Billing will be freak, reading “Debutante,” by and with Carman Barnes.”

It was, in retrospect, an ominous sign.

Next time: Carman Barnes at work and play in Hollywood

Say, What Ever Happened to Carman Barnes?

I can hear you now: “WHO???”

Frankly, that was exactly my reaction when I first encountered Carman Barnes’s name (and no, that’s not a typo: it’s “Carman”, not “Carmen”. Her great-grandmother was married three times, the last time to a man named Carman. Carman’s parents liked the sound of that, and there you are).

I was combing through some old fan magazines researching a post on Clara Bow’s talking picture career (that post, by the way, is still simmering on a back burner, refusing to come to a boil). In the May 1931 issue of Screenland Magazine I found an article by Sydney Valentine, “Danger Ahead for Clara Bow” (“She’s always taking chances! And now — what’s to become of her?”). Valentine offered unctuous advice to Clara on her floundering career and scandalous private life (one having largely caused the other), and he warned her:

Right now, out in Hollywood, there are more promising new girls than ever before! And at least two of them are apparently being groomed “to take Clara Bow’s place.”

Then he listed several of them, most of whose names will be at least vaguely familiar to any self-respecting classic-movie buff. Valentine emphasized that any one of them might supplant Clara as “the spirit of youth” (Clara herself was still only 26), so I’ll take them more or less in descending order of their ages as of May ’31, with some of Valentine’s remarks:

Sidney Fox (23 years, 5 months) “…very young…brunette, with lovely big dark eyes, and a warmth and sweetness to her that the camera will gulp in great big bites. She’s Universal’s find, and Junior Laemmle has big things in store for her.” As things turned out, Sidney Fox became one of Hollywood’s sad cases. Petite (only 4′ 11″) and (as Valentine suggests) angel-faced, she made a name for herself in a couple of Broadway plays. That brought her to the attention of Carl Laemmle Jr., who signed her for Universal. She made her film debut in The Bad Sister, released just two months before this article. Based on Booth Tarkington’s 1913 novel The Flirt, it was also the debut of Bette Davis — and oddly enough, it was Fox who had the title role; Davis was her timid older sister. Sidney Fox’s best-remembered picture is 1932’s Murders in the Rue Morgue (she was even billed over Bela Lugosi), but she’s not what it’s remembered for. Gossip had her carrying on with Junior Laemmle (some even linked her with Carl Senior as well), and she became damaged goods. Marriage in 1932 to a Universal story editor was stormy and abusive, and a couple of European pictures in 1933 failed to reignite her career. Her fifteenth and final picture came in 1934; after that there was a little stage and radio work, but the game was pretty much up. Ill and depressed, she decided to call it a day in 1942 with an overdose of sleeping pills. She was 34.

Lillian Bond (23 years, 4 months) “A sweet little siren with irreproachable diction and frank ambitions to create a new type of vamp on the screen.” Actually, the name was Lilian, though for much of her career she was billed with the double-L. Those vamp ambitions never quite materialized, but Bond gave it a decent shot. A couple of classics: she played Charles Laughton’s chorus-girl squeeze in James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), and contributed a memorable cameo as Lily Langtry in the last scene of William Wyler’s The Westerner opposite Gary Cooper and Walter Brennan. Apart from that, it was mostly supports and bits, sometimes uncredited, then a sprinkling of television work before she retired from acting in 1958. She died in 1991, age 83.

 

Sylvia Sidney (20 years, 9 months) “Lovely. Lush. Terribly young. Terribly keen, and smart. Knowing in the New York manner. Sure of herself — a little too sure, maybe; but so exquisite you can’t worry about that.” In fact, Sylvia Sidney had already replaced Clara Bow on one picture, City Streets opposite Gary Cooper, released the month before Valentine’s article appeared. We all know what became of her: She went the distance in every sense. She never quite made it to superstardom, but she was a star, no error, and she worked steadily for over 60 years with directors from Josef von Sternberg, Henry Hathaway and Fritz Lang to Tim Burton, Wim Wenders and Joan Micklin Silver. Her last performance was in 1998 on the rebooted Fantasy Island TV series (with Malcolm McDowell as Mr. Roark) and she died at 88 in 1999 — no doubt still looking forward to her next job.

 

Marian Marsh (17 years, 7 months) “…the lovely little girl who looks like Dolores Costello with a dash of Constance Bennett, and who has been chosen by John Barrymore to play opposite him in ‘Svengali.'” “Marian Marsh” first came into existence when this young actress signed with Warner Bros. (born Violet Krauth, she had made a few minor film appearances as Marilyn Morgan). That Svengali gig, which went into release the month Valentine’s article appeared, was a good beginning. Barrymore did indeed choose her to play Trilby for her resemblance to his wife Dolores Costello, and he reportedly coached her throughout production (we all know what that can mean; read Mary Astor’s autobiographies). She had a good run for several years, first at Warners’, then Columbia, Paramount and RKO, before winding up on Poverty Row at Monogram and rock-bottom PRC. She retired from acting at age 30 (except for a couple of TV one-shots in the 1950s). Eventually, she settled in Palm Desert, Calif., a town founded by her second husband Cliff Henderson, and she in turn founded Desert Beautiful, a nonprofit conservation organization. She outlived Henderson by 22 years, dying at 93 in 2006.

So those were some of Sydney Valentine’s candidates for The Next “It” Girl. But the one he mentioned first, gave pride of place, was Carman Barnes (18 years, 6 months) “Something brand new — exciting — with a dash of the exotic, too. In fact, if you can imagine anything so fantastic — if there could be a combination of Garbo, Dietrich and Bow, Carman is it!”

Whew! Down, boy!

You may look in vain for Carman Barnes on the Internet Movie Database; she’s not there. Now of course, Hollywood history has plenty of would-be superstars whose careers failed to live up to their studios’ or producers’ plans for them. Sam Goldwyn brought Ukrainian-born Anna Sten over from Germany heralding her as “the new Garbo”; she bombed. At MGM, Arthur Freed’s protégée Lucille Bremer was groomed for stardom (partly as a ploy to keep Judy Garland in line), but the public simply wouldn’t have her. Well, the public never got to weigh in on Carman Barnes; her career as a movie star ended before she appeared on even so much as a single frame of film. But Paramount (Clara Bow’s studio, and Sylvia Sidney’s) gave her quite the media blitz in the early months of 1931. There has never been a bigger buildup with less follow-through.

Carman Dee Barnes was born on November 20, 1912 in Chattanooga, Tennesee, to James Hunter Neal, a “wealthy manufacturer”, and his wife Lois Diantha Mills Neal, a lyric poet and writer of mountain folklore who published under the name Diantha Mills. Whether Carman’s mother became widowed or divorced I wasn’t able to learn (divorced, probably). In any case, she remarried Wellington Barnes, founder and treasurer of Chattanooga’s Dixie-Portland Cement Co., and daughter Carman took his surname as her own.

Carman was an only child, and precocious; in interviews she said she “cannot remember the time when she did not know how babies are born.” A sickly child, “always having measles or whooping cough or pneumonia or something”, she spent much of her childhood indoors — first reading voraciously (Bertrand Russell and W. Somerset Maugham became favorites), then writing (“Long, elaborate stories about love and tragedy and divorce and all. They were very funny.”).

By the time she was 15 those around her began to notice that she did in fact have a way with the written word. One friend gave her the usual advice: Stop writing about love triangles until you know something about them; write what you know. All Carman really knew at that point was attending boarding school, first Girls’ Preparatory School in Chattanooga, then the Ward-Belmont School for Girls in Nashville. So during her summer vacation from Ward-Belmont in 1928 she decamped to this cozy cabin on the left, her family’s summer retreat  (quaintly dubbed Once Upon a Time) on Tennessee’s Lookout Mountain. There she wrote a novel (“I’m not awfully interested in the short story form.”); she called it Schoolgirl.

Mama Diantha was pretty proud of her daughter for turning out a 47,000-word novel over one summer at the age of 15, and — perhaps cashing in a few chips’ worth of her regional literary reputation — she submitted Carman’s manuscript to publisher Horace Liveright in New York. Carman turned 16 that November and a month later, while she was decorating the family Christmas tree, she received a telegram that Boni & Liveright had accepted Schoolgirl for publication.

Carman’s mother also deserves points for (if nothing else) maternal aplomb. If Carman actually did take that friend’s advice about writing what she knows…well, many mothers in 1928 would have been pretty startled by what this youngster knew at that age, and in those days.

Schoolgirl tells the story of Naomi Bradshaw, a 16-year-old southern belle with a string of boys on the line. When a late-night gallivant with one of them — which Naomi, only vaguely understanding what she’s saying, calls an “elopement” — creates a minor scandal in the town, her indulgent but exasperated father ships her off to South Fields Prep, a girls’ school at some distance from her hometown. His hazy notion is that the closely-chaperoned life there will keep her from getting a “reputation”. Naomi throws a half-hearted tantrum about it, but the fact is she’s half looking forward to the change.

At South Fields Naomi has no trouble slipping into the social life — the “societies”, the clandestine parties after lights-out, the chaperoned outings and secret dates with boys from the town. The girls are housed two to a room, with each two-room suite sharing a bathroom. Naomi’s suite-mates are sisters Celia and Margie Morgan; her roommate is Janet Livingston (“Her eyes were kind and hazel, her mouth full, with a tender, lovable beauty.”).

Olive, one of the girls in Naomi’s dorm, casually cautions her about “crushes”: “Everybody has a crush sooner or later when they go off to school…oh, not a desperate one with petting and all, but just sort of a stage-struck, tongue-tied friendship, admiring a girl from a distance and all.” At the thought, Naomi feels “weak, repulsed, horrified”, but as the term wears on — there’s no other way to put it — she falls in love with Janet Livingston, with all the attendant insecurity and petty jealousies. When she learns that Janet “went the distance” with Jerry, her boyfriend back home, Naomi follows suit in short order, losing her virginity to Dave, the boy she’s been dating on the sly when the watchful eyes of the school were looking the other way:

…His breath against her ear, the force of his strength, his masculinity, his love crashing through her resistance.

No, it couldn’t be put into words. It wasn’t altogether passion, Naomi was sure — not all passion — but love, this exultant, flaming thing that swept her off her feet, and lifted her out of herself. She wasn’t afraid now, but the fire of fierce desire had weakened her, had made her heedless. It seemed to be the most natural thing in the world.

Despite Naomi’s “ecstatic joy” at “being thrilled by the right kind of thrill”, the subtext is clear: She takes this step not to get closer to Dave, but to feel closer to Janet, and Naomi’s most passionate moments are with her:

Frantically she drew Janet’s yielding form nearer her own, felt the rise and fall of Janet’s firm, rounded bosom surging with the emotion of remembered pleasures, and her lips met Janet’s in wild longing. Soft, soft lips! Naomi was awed by their warm tenderness. Dave’s — Dave’s had been hard and fiercely demanding. Janet’s were like the velvet petals of a flower, a red, red — dark red — flower!

This is headlong stuff for a 15-year-old in 1928. Much of Schoolgirl may strike modern readers as old-fashioned — the slang, the social customs — but no two ways about it: the kid could write.

Schoolgirl‘s episodes of sexual experimentation are about as explicit as respectable fiction could get in the 1920s — remember, the word “obscenity” was thrown around much more freely in those days, and it was still a crime to send it through the mail — and the novel’s eye-opening frankness made it a bestseller, and Carman Barnes a celebrity. A second novel, Beau Lover in 1930, gave evidence that Schoolgirl had been no fluke, and later that year Carman collaborated with Alfonso Washington Pezet on a stage adaptation of Schoolgirl, to be produced on Broadway in the fall. Carman was still only 17.

Then Paramount came calling. We’ll get into that next time.

To be continued…