I don’t socialize much outside the industry. Few of us do. It’s the only way to avoid all the usual questions about how many movie stars we know and what they are really like. If I’m at a wedding back east, or visiting my brother’s family at Thanksgiving, somebody will always ask if I know Clark Gable or Bette Davis or Ronald Colman. I have to explain to them that I work six days a week, sometimes late into the night, and I seldom get to see anyone from studios other than my own. It’s not really true, of course. Just about everybody in town knows everybody else, at least to say hello to or to wave at across the dance floor. But when outsiders ask like that, they’re really only interested in hearing gossip, and there’s enough of that already. No point in adding to it, even if you work in publicity like I do.
When a woman finds out I’m with Sterling National, it never fails: the first person she asks about is Barry Collam. Her eyes get a dreamy look, she nibbles at her lower lip, and I have to pretend not to notice the way she’s sort of absent-mindedly rubbing her thighs together. If she’s with her husband or boyfriend, she’ll sneak a sidelong glance at the guy to see if he can tell what she’s thinking. Usually he can’t, but I can, every time. Then sometimes she’ll give him a second glance, a real once-over that tells me, as plainly as if she said it out loud, that the poor guy just can’t measure up to what she’s thinking about.
There was a time when these girls might have asked about Randall Anthony, but they don’t anymore. They probably don’t even remember him. Then again, maybe they do. Maybe that’s why they don’t mention him.
Randy Anthony started with Sterling National right after sound came in. Or I should say, right after sound came in at Sterling National; it took Oliver and Hiram Sterling longer than the other studio bigwigs to read the writing on the wall. They held back, waiting to see if talkies were just a fad that was going to blow over, and while they waited they saw the returns on their pictures getting softer and softer. Finally, in the spring of 1929, they took the plunge. They closed down for six weeks and soundproofed all the stages. That alone ate up nearly all their profits from 1928, and it just about killed them to have to spend the money, but they didn’t see that they had much choice. Then they went another three million dollars into debt buying sound equipment. At any rate, some of it they bought. Some they rented from Fox, and some they borrowed in the dead of night with the help of a few bribed watchmen at the other studios.
Once the studios realized that sound was here to stay, every one of them ran to New York and raided the city for actors who knew how to talk, writers who knew how to come up with real dialogue, and directors who knew how to deal with both. The Sterling brothers were a little late about hopping on the bandwagon, and a lot of talent got snapped up by the competition while they hesitated. All the same, Oliver Sterling took the train to New York that same spring while the studio was shut down, looking for anyone we could use who hadn’t already been signed by somebody else. He figured that even if nothing came of his trip, the publicity would be good for the studio. That’s why he took Howard Grant and me along.
Oliver B. Sterling, on the whole, wasn’t such a bad guy to work for. I guess he was a notch or two above the general run of studio bigshots. He certainly liked being the boss. To the department heads like Howard Grant and some of his top stars he was “O.B”, but to everybody else, including me, he was “Mr. Sterling.” His suits were expensive but he never really seemed to be well-dressed. He looked like a day laborer in stolen clothes, beefy, broad-faced and thick-necked, with a shiny forehead on the perpetual verge of a serious sweat. He wasn’t particularly smart, but he wasn’t mean or stupid either. He wasn’t coarse or vulgar, but he was loud. When he walked around the lot you could hear him coming three stages away. He loved to tell jokes, but he couldn’t do it. One of the contract writers called him a “no-waiter”, meaning that he would start telling a joke, get halfway through it, then suddenly say, “No, wait!” and throw in something he’d forgotten to say earlier, something that would somehow manage to kill the whole joke. He laughed louder at his jokes than anyone else did, but everybody laughed because, well, he was the boss. Besides, most of us liked him anyway.
He was about forty and took pretty good care of himself. He and his older brother Hiram had gone into the picture business in their twenties, shooting one- and two-reelers in Ft. Lee, New Jersey. When they decided to set up a studio on the West Coast, Oliver was eager to make the move while Hiram stayed and ran the home office in New York. Oliver loved the California weather because it let him get in plenty of golf and tennis, which were his main activities away from work. When Oliver and Hiram got together, which was three or four times a year, it was clear which one lived where; Hiram was three years older but he looked almost like Oliver’s father, stringy and sallow, bald and pale as the fat on a slab of bacon where Oliver was tan and hearty. They looked like a pair of mismatched salt and pepper shakers.
Oliver had a list of people he wanted to take a look at while we were in New York, and Hiram had assigned some of his boys to put together files on likely prospects. Oliver had a couple of meetings with Howard and me on the train to talk about what we were going to do when we got there, but our compartments were too cramped for comfort and Sterling was too suspicious of eavesdroppers to talk out in the open in the club car or the diner. The first night out of Los Angeles he divided up the files that had been rush-airmailed from Hiram’s office in New York, and the three of us spent most of the trip looking them over by ourselves.
One of the files I got, mainly a handful of clippings and a few handwritten notes by whoever put the file together, was for Randall Anthony. His real name was Randolph Anthony Betzinger, born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1906. He dropped out of Penn State after a year in 1925 and went to New York to make the rounds of producers’ offices. He’d done pretty well, getting a few parts here and there and working little summer theaters in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He hadn’t made much of a name for himself. At least, I hadn’t heard of him, though I had heard of a couple of the plays he’d been in. One of them, Her Favorite Family, had even been filmed at Sterling, though we’d used our own players for the picture. Last year, according to a clipping from Variety, he’d gotten married to a vaudeville dancer named Nancy Shannon. I’d never heard of her either.
Hiram Sterling met our train when we pulled into Penn Station. He took us to lunch at Lindy’s and he and Oliver talked over the shows we had to see while we were there. We got in on Tuesday, so Hiram had us booked for a show that night, a matinee and evening on Wednesday, then evening shows on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“Listen, O.B.,” Howard said, “that’s a hell of a lot of shows. Why don’t we split them up, each of us see a couple of shows and talk about it afterward?”
“Nothing doing,” Sterling waved his big hand. “I don’t sign nobody till I’ve seen them work and liked them, and even then I don’t sign them until somebody I trust likes them too. Hiram can back out if he wants too, but you, me and Dill are seeing all of these shows.”
The first show that night was a musical comedy called What a Card! and it was more or less a waste of time, since the studio wasn’t set up to make musicals yet and this one had already been bought, along with the two stars. But it was the hottest thing on Broadway and Hiram wanted us to look at a couple of chorus girls. So we did, but Oliver only shrugged. “They can dance. Big deal.”
The next day’s matinee was Thief in the Night, an okay murder mystery. Oliver liked it and asked Hiram to see if the picture rights were available. But still there were no players he seemed inclined to pursue.
At the show that night it was a different story. The play was Losers Weepers, a love drama about a girl who falls for her sister’s fiancé. She gets pregnant by him in the second act after he’s married her sister, then in the third act she gives the baby up when it turns out her sister can’t have children. It was as corny as Abie’s Irish Rose but probably wouldn’t run as long.
What made the show interesting, for Sterling at least, was Randall Anthony. He had a small part, playing the kid brother of the two sisters. He came sailing onstage halfway through Act One in white tennis clothes with the sleeves of a sweater tied jauntily around his neck, grinning and laughing and unaware of the family melodrama. He had a couple of scenes in Acts Two and Three that showed the kid brother was beginning to grow up, and he was onstage alone with the star, the unwed sister, at the final curtain. Most actors love that, if they can’t be the star themselves.
“I like this kid,” Sterling said at the first intermission. At the second, he said, “I really like this kid. What do you think?” Howard thrust out his lower lip in thought. “He’s all right, I guess. I don’t not like him. He could have possibilities. You got something particular in mind?”
“I dunno,” Sterling shrugged. “We’ll see. Why don’t you see if we can talk to him after the show.”
Before we went back for Act Three, Howard sent an inquiry to the play’s producer. When producers talk among themselves, especially when one of them might be willing to buy something the other one might be willing to sell, it’s not always easy to tell a request from a command, and a smart producer can foster and profit by that confusion. The producer of this play, Marcus Feldman, was an expansive little man that O.B. had dealt with before, and he was eager to please. The house lights were barely up before an usher appeared to show us backstage.
There was the usual crowd of friends and fawners clustered around the two leads, and nobody noticed us as we were taken to Randall Anthony’s dressing room. He shared the room with a guy who played a chauffeur in Act One and a gardener in Act Three, but he, Anthony, was alone when we came in.
Howard took the lead. “Mr. Anthony,” he said, “we really liked the show; congratulations. I’m Howard Grant. I’m head of publicity for Sterling National Pictures. This is my associate, Mr. Diller.” Anthony and I nodded and smiled at each other. “And this,” Howard went on, raising the pitch of his voice a little to let Anthony know he was getting to the important part, “is Mr. Oliver B. Sterling. He wanted particularly to meet you.”
I want to say right now, with everything that happened after that first meeting, that I liked this Randall Anthony right away. He was only about four years younger than I was, but, like Sterling, I already thought of him as a kid. He was thin and narrow-shouldered but tall, a little over six feet. Looking at him in camera terms, I could see he had the kind of frame that looked a little too skinny in person but would be solid and substantial on film. He had long arms and a long, handsome face with large, expressive eyes — they would photograph well, too — an aristocratic nose, and full lips that smiled easily. He didn’t overdo the gee-whiz boyish charm, and showed he was grateful for O.B.’s attention without seeming to toady or curry favor.
He invited us to sit down, but there was only one free chair (apparently it had been recently occupied by his fellow actor; the others were piled with costumes and towels), so Sterling took it while Howard and I leaned casually against the wall.
O.B. gave the kid a pleasant smile. “You did a good job tonight, Mr. Anthony, a good job. I have to tell you, to be perfectly honest, it’s not really my kind of story, and you don’t have much of a part, but I liked the way you carried it off.”
“How very kind of you to say so, thank you.” Anthony leaned forward and raised a conspiratorial hand, with his palm facing O.B. “Please don’t tell anyone I said this, but it’s not really my kind of story either.” Then he laughed, a short, loud “Ha!” like a gunshot. “How long are you in New York for? Will you be seeing many shows while you’re in town?”
Howard and I glanced at each other, and I could see we were both thinking the same thing. The kid was good and smart. Some actors, maybe most of them, would have prompted O.B. to tell them again how good they were, but he turned the conversation back to O.B. and seemed really interested in him. I was impressed, and I think Howard was too.
O.B. rolled his head to the side. “Oh, a few,” he said. “We’re only in town for a few days. Listen,” he cleared his throat, “have you ever thought about working in pictures?”
Anthony looked, or pretended to look, mildly surprised. “Well…no, not really. I mean, I think everybody has it in the back of their mind somewhere, but…well…not really. Don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing against moving pictures. I’m not one of those actors.”
He looked like he was about to go on, but O.B. interrupted. “I mean talking pictures, of course. Take my word for it, the kind of pictures we’ve been making are getting old hat. They already are. In another year they’ll be as dead as cave paintings and magic lanterns. We’re going to need people who have voices and know how to use them, who can learn lines and get through a scene on their own without a director walking them through it while a fiddle player gets them in the mood. And we’re going to want new faces to go with the new kind of pictures we’ll be making.”
He stood up. “Well, don’t let me give you any wrong ideas. I’m not offering you a job or anything. Hell, we’re so up in the air right now I don’t know what we’ll be doing next year or the year after. Just think about it, that’s all, and you may be hearing from us. Anyhow, we won’t keep you; I know you’ll want to be getting home. Congratulations on the show. Nice meeting you.”
Anthony stepped to the door to see us out and thanked us for dropping backstage. As we were leaving, the chauffeur-gardener actor shouldered past us into the room and I heard him say, “Who was that?” just as the door closed.
In the cab on the way back to the Algonquin, where we were staying, O.B. said, “Let’s let this Anthony simmer a while. See if you can get him to have lunch with us on Friday.”
“Where? The hotel?” Howard asked.
“Oh, hell no,” O.B. said, rolling his eyes. “Those noisy writers have lunch there every day and the place is always crawling with gawkers and reporters.”
“Sardi’s? It ought to be pretty quiet for lunch.”
“Yeah, but the columnists still hang out there. Listen,” O.B. shifted in his seat, “I don’t know if this kid’s gonna be any use to us. I’m thinking of maybe teaming him with Binnie Gray for a few. She could use something fresh.” Binnie Gray was Sterling National’s “flaming youth” flapper and her pictures and fan mail had been dropping off. Howard thought her time had passed and wanted O.B. to drop her, but he hadn’t pressed the point and he didn’t now. He just nodded as O.B. went on: “But I don’t want to pick up the paper Saturday morning and read some gossip columnist spouting off about how I’m interested in this rising young star. It’ll only up the ante. Bring him upstairs, we’ll have room service.”
So that’s how it came about that two days later I was in the lobby of the Algonquin waiting for Randall Anthony to show up for lunch. We sent him a message to the theater Thursday night inviting him and his wife to drop by the hotel at noon. Howard arranged with Marcus Feldman to make sure Anthony kept the invitation on the q.t. if he didn’t want to queer the pitch with premature gossip or publicity, and late that morning I took a chair facing the door near one of the pillars where I could see him when he arrived.
He came in at ten minutes to twelve, ushering a long-legged strawberry blonde through the door ahead of him. They were heading to the desk when I intercepted them and told him that Mr. Sterling had sent me downstairs to watch for him. He introduced me to his wife Nancy, the vaudeville dancer I’d read about in his file on the train east.
“How are you, Mrs. Anthony?” I said. “Or would you rather I called you Miss Shannon?”
She laughed and used the middle two fingers of her right hand to brush a wisp of her red-gold hair back off her forehead. “I’m famous, Randy,” she said, “he’s heard of me somehow.” Then to me, “Either one will be fine. ‘Nancy’ would be even better.”
Nancy Shannon Anthony was statuesque, standing a little higher than her husband’s shoulders. She wore a sleek gray skirt that emphasized her long legs, as if she thought they were her best feature. They were good, but they weren’t the best thing about her. At best it was a three-way tie: her legs, the strawberry blonde hair that flowed in sweeping waves past her shoulders, and her green Irish eyes. She had a dancer’s grace and the pale creamy complexion of someone who didn’t get a lot of sun. She was younger than her husband, or looked it, but she seemed somehow less ingenuous, more guarded around the eyes, which gave her the air of a careful older sister. As we walked to the elevator she had a comradely arm threaded through his, while he had his fist thrust deep into his pocket and carried his fedora in the other hand. He looked jaunty and she looked protective rather than possessive.
When we got to Sterling’s room O.B. and Howard were waiting for us. Once again, as he had in Anthony’s dressing room Wednesday night, Howard took the lead. He introduced himself to Nancy, then to O.B., adding, “Mr. Diller you already know.”
We all took our places at a table Howard had had some bellhops set up in the drawing room of our suite, then fell silent for a moment while we studied our room service menus. Myself, I studied Randall Anthony and his wife, and I think Howard did too; that sort of thing becomes second nature in our job. While Sterling phoned our orders downstairs and Howard pretended to busy himself with papers in his briefcase, I saw the couple exchange a surreptitious wide-eyed glance, a pinch-me-I-must-be-dreaming sort of look. She looked almost slyly conspiratorial; he looked like he was clenching his jaw to suppress a giggle.
Once our lunches came, Sterling led the talk for the next two hours, steering his words carefully around bites of his corned beef sandwich. He talked about his plans for the studio once talkie production was going full steam ahead, and how he thought Randall Anthony might fit into them. O.B. mentioned his idea about teaming him with Binnie Gray, asked if he could sing or dance — we were going to have to get into musicals eventually, and O.B. wanted to know how versatile Anthony would be and how much training the studio would have to invest in him.
When the subject of musicals came up, Anthony turned the conversation to his wife. She could do it all, he said, act, sing and dance. Sterling would probably be smarter to talk to her rather than to him. O.B. gave a deprecating wave; plenty of time to talk about that.
We left it at this: Randall Anthony and Nancy Shannon would make some tests for us in the next few weeks at a studio out on Long Island; Hiram Sterling would set it up. They’d do a little of everything — comedy, drama, song and dance. Then O.B. would pass the tests around to the producers and directors on the lot to see what the reaction was. Once that was done, if everything else worked out, we could talk about contracts.
The party broke up with smiles and good cheer all around. O.B. closed the door behind them, then stood there a moment with his hand on the knob, his head cocked to make sure he could hear the sound of their retreating footsteps on the hall carpet. Then he turned to me and Howard and said quietly, “Kid’s got a head on his shoulders. The girl too.”
Howard stuck out his lip and nodded. I felt the same way. I liked these two. I’d seen him in the play, and while I didn’t know what she could do, she certainly had the looks to go places. Both of them were affable and respectful, but they weren’t pushovers or softies. No matter how the tests worked out or what happened, I figured these two had what it took. They’d get by. Whether they came west to Hollywood or stayed in New York, show business wasn’t going to eat them alive.