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