We are excited to share Part Two of the Oscar’s celebration with Howard Mutti-Mewse, who follow his brother Austin in sharing his experiences with Old Hollywood..
What and when was the first letter you wrote? What inspired you to do this?
Our grandparents introduced us to the world of English literature and American cinema. There was something about the black and white films we would watch as children which appealed to us and got us hooked. What began as a school project quickly blossomed into a series of friendships with many of Hollywood’s greatest names from its ‘silent and golden era’; from Lillian Gish and James Stewart to Bob Hope and Ginger Rogers. It wasn’t just the supernovas who interested us, but those who appeared further down the cast list. This list of characters almost came to interest us more. The actors who were celebrated during the 1920s, but who disappeared with the advent of talking pictures. Then there were those who played gangsters molls, secretaries, maids and chauffeurs; each had their own story of Hollywood to tell. They told their stories to Austin and I since we were interested – we were their new captive audience. Our friendship held no age barrier – film star and film fans.
Did you have any idea what would happen from that?
Not at all, not to begin with. However, as word got out about the twins and our network of old Hollywood grew, it quickly became apparent that there were lots of old actors out there happy to tell their story to anyone who was interested. The fact Austin and I were so young made a big difference since we would be taking their stories in to a new millennium
Out of the Hollywood celebrities you met, who maintained their onstage presence off stage as well. How did this manifest itself?
That some still believed the call would come for that comeback which never came. The film Sunset Boulevard could almost be a documentary than a work of fiction if we think about some of those we knew.
Anita Page is a prime example. Anita ranked second only to Greta Garbo at MGM when she appeared in films with Lon Chaney, Joan Crawford and Buster Keaton during the transition from silent pictures to talkies. At the pinnacle of her success, Anita Page was said to be receiving 35,000 fan letters a week. One of her greatest admirers was the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. After a quarrel with MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer in 1933, she walked out of the studio and drove up to the William Randolph Hearst estate to stay with her good friend Marion Davis (Hearst’s mistress) and waited for the phone to ring. The call never came; Mayer had found himself a new platinum blonde by the name of Jean Harlow. Anita was reduced to a few lead roles in some ‘Poverty Row’ B-movie studios before retiring for good in 1936. She still believed MGM would relent to her demands (better parts and a bigger salary to match her arch rival Joan Crawford) but her star which shone so brightly had already faded. She spent the rest of her life until she died aged 98 in 2008, believing she was the biggest of them all. She dressed like a star (blonde wigs, full stage make-up) and acted like a star, dining at popular night spots in Hollywood well in to her 90s in the hope someone may recognize her.
Out of the Hollywood stars you met, were there any who really struggled with life not on the screen?
Almost 90% would suggest if the offer came – just one more film – then they would take it. I can’t say any one of those whom we knew ever stopped missing it; the career, the fame. Even those who left Hollywood by their own accord, went on to have happy lives, children, grandchildren and great grandchildren could look back on their film careers with fond memories (the bad ones had faded with time). It was those who didn’t chose to end the careers who suffered the most; under the control of an overbearing and control-freak husband or blacklisted due to unsubstantiated rumours during the McCarthy Era of the 1950s who surfed the most; Rose Hobart, Joan Garfield, Jean Rouverol and the notorious Hollywood Ten.
I’m sure it’s really hard to choose but which are your favourite movies?
Ha ha! You are right. It is hard to choose… However, I can give you my top 20: The Crowd (1928), The Public Enemy (1931) with James Cagney, Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) with Laurel and Hardy, Dinner at Eight (1933) with Jean Harlow, The Women (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Maltese Falcon (1942) with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor, The Palm Beach Story (1942) with Claudette Colbert, Brief Encounter (1945), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) with James Stewart and Donna Reed, All About Eve (1950) with Bette Davis, Sunset Boulevard (1950) with Gloria Swanson and William Holden, North by Northwest (1959) with Cary Grant and Eva Marie-Saint, director Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), director Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) with Mia Farrow, Schindler’s List (1993), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), LA Confidential (1997), The Artist (2011) with Jean Dujardin, and Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012)
Do you think ageism, especially amongst women in Hollywood is changing for the better?
Hollywood has always been hard on women. In the early days, women were already playing old ladies by their mid-40s. Now in an industry completely dominated by youth it is equally as tough. It is really hard for women after a certain age to find a good role. For all the parts offered to Dame Maggie Smith, dame Judi Dench and Jane Fonda, there are 20 or more actresses with a cabinet filled with awards desperate to find work. There just aren’t the roles out there for older women.
Did you meet former Hollywood stars who successfully created a further career for themselves and happily left their screen career behind?
Lots. David Rollins who had a brief career as a juvenile lead during the tale end of the silent era became a hugely successful avocado farmer. Eleanor Boardman – famous for her role in director King Vidor’s The Crowd (1928) was later a foreign correspondent for Harpers Bazaar. Joan Morgan – one of Britain’s earliest screen stars in the same vein as Lillian Gish later wrote 14 novels, a dozen screenplays and became an expert on landscape design.
The person who stands out for me though is Barbara Barondess. Her life story was far better than any role she played on-screen. She was born on Independence Day, 1907, in Brooklyn; six months later, her parents returned to their native Russia. The family home and everything they owned was confiscated during the revolution, but they managed to escape – her father being shot through the shoulder – back to New York after fleeing across Europe. In 1921, Barbara made her first headlines as the only American citizen to be detained on Ellis Island; it was only because she was born in America that her family was allowed to stay. Later she won a beauty pageant and was crowned ‘Miss Greater New York’; her trophy was a screen test. Hollywood beckoned and after a string of minor film roles, she began her second successful career as an interior designer; the Reagans, Greta Garbo and Marilyn Monroe (Barbara acted as the troubled star’s big sister) were among her clients. “It’s been a strange life”, she mused shortly before her death in May 2000. “Some people things happen to. Some people things never happen to.”
Was there ever a competitive edge between you and Austin?
Not at all. We have always been there to help the other one out. We still do. We have always been extremely close. When it came to writing the book, we decided that it should be with one voice. We have collected and recorded each story, each life of the people we knew over the years and carefully filed them. I have actually kept a day-to-day diary for more than 25 years, so of course all helped when it came to the process of writing the book. The source material was there, it just needed a careful and creative eye. Austin is the author in the sense he has written the five essays which appear in the book. He then shared them with me to edit and add in my own thoughts and memories, so it is very much coming from the two of us.
The book has received superb reviews; do you have any plans to make it into a film?
There are a few things in the works, though we can’t give the details at this stage.
Who were the most intimidating stars you met and why?
It was perhaps the personality of the people which impressed us most or in some cases intimidated us. It didn’t matter if the person happened to be a Hollywood supernova or a forgotten silent starlet. As human beings some people we warm too more than others. Have to say Marlene Dietrich was special just because she was Dietrich… an icon.
Tell us about some of the lesser known veterans you met in the industry retirement complex; The Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital.
A place where movie stars and former screen rivals live with their one-time film crew. The final home of many famous and forgotten faces of the silver screen; from director Stanley Kramer and MGM powerhouse Norma Shearer to a bevy of Laurel & Hardy co-stars and for some years, the most famous Tarzan of them all, Johnny Weissmuller. Austin and I first visited the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in 1992. A haven for old stars, it was hard to figure who we would visit first as not to upset anyone. I can remember walking the grounds of the retirement complex (based above Mulholland Drive in Woodland Hills) with the actress Rose Hobart and asking her why everyone was staring at us, “youth my friends. It is the one thing every one here craves”. Established in 1921, the Motion Picture Fund takes care of those within the industry who need medical assistance, advise or in old age a home.
You’ve also been in their houses. Which one was the most beautiful? And the strangest?
James Stewart’s house was lovely – not ostentatious in any way – homely almost. The silent star Patsy Ruth Miller’s home in Palm Desert was surreal, she’d sold almost everything in it apart from what was in her bedroom – she’d taken to her bed claiming that she’d done so much that bed was a new adventure… and the silent comedienne Frances Lee, her house in Cardiff-by-the-Sea in California resembled that of Dorothy Gale’s when it crashed landed in ‘Oz’ – Frances’ home had lemon and orange trees growing from its very foundations..
What can we expect from you in the future?
…more books about our experiences in Hollywood. Austin is currently working on a novel called ‘Pocket Venus’ based on our lives with 1930s film ingénue Mildred Shay – who features in an essay in the book. We also have the idea of a screenplay, an updated version of Sunset Boulevard.
What have you learnt from these people?
How fragile life can be. Not to take anything for granted – since in this instant fame can be fleeting. Oh… and to always embrace change and new generations however adverse one might be to it, since one day one might be the only one left from your own generation!!!
How did The Old Hollywood impress and inspire you?
I think it was the very fact the films we watched at our grandmothers’ house as children were black and white that transfixed us – especially the silent films. I’m not sure what the appeal was, but we were quickly hooked! I suppose we were stepping into another world – a lost world of black and white and it was something very different from our day-to-day lives. These films formed the very escapism for us as it did for our grandparent’s generation decades before.
What Austin and I did which was so different was that we began to take our interest further and write to the stars we would watch on-screen; some of whom were older now than our grandmother. The early correspondence and subsequent visits to California exposed us to the lives now lived of the stars from the silent and ‘golden era’ of film-making and each – no matter their star power – had their own story of Hollywood to tell. Austin and I were like sponges and couldn’t soak up enough of their memories!