She is the newest screen star. She has just been signed to a two-year contract at a fine salary, for one of the biggest companies. She has made the hit of the season in one of the new "big pictures." She is the latest Hollywood sensation.
Who is she?
Not an ingenue. Not a Follies girl or a bathing beauty. But a white-haired woman of sixty, who never did any acting in her life until ten years ago. Margaret Mann is the latest and the greatest screen mother; you have heard of her success in "Four Sons." And now she is a star.
Here is one of the most romantic of all the romances of the movies. Not all romances are of young love. Margaret Mann's is the much more poignant romance of a woman whose dreams didn't even begin to come true until the twilight of her life. A woman who has worked hard for sixty years -- and whose eyes are as bright and as clear as a girl's. A wonderful woman, Margaret Mann. Only the movies could have rewarded her as she deserved.
She is an inspiration when she says: "It only goes to show that if you have it in you, someday, somehow, your chance will come." If you can do it, nothing can stop you -- not age, or discouragement, or trouble. Nothing! Some day, Fate will open a door and beckon you in. Though you may be old and hopeless, tired and disappointed, you will obey the summons, just the same, and you will have your reward for all those years of weary waiting.
And it's worth waiting for -- take Margaret Mann's word for it! No flapper could be getting a bigger, more satisfying "kick" out of success than this woman, at sixty. She is mellow and tolerant and kindly. She has learned her lessons, and she can enjoy her success. She is happy because she can look back and know that she has done it all herself. There has never been a screen star that fought harder for success.
A year ago she was making the rounds of the studios, an extra. Just the other night -- at the Broadway opening of her picture, "Four Sons," the Archduke Leopold of Austria came up to her and kissed her hand and told her he was proud to have played a small part in the same picture with her!
Fifty years or so ago, back in Scotland, little Margaret Mann stood on tiptoe to watch the Queen ride by, on her way to Balmoral -- Queen Victoria, her childhood idol. Today, people are telling her how much she looks like that same queen, in some of the closeups in "Four Sons." Audiences whisper that the motion picture actress has the poise and dignity associated with the memory of the great ruler. Yes -- Margaret Mann has traveled a long way in those fifty years. She has come through hazards and privation and often heartache. But, as she says gallantly, it's been worth it!
This woman whose portrayal of mother-love has been acclaimed one of the finest characterizations ever seen on the screen, is far from the movie mother of tradition. She is not bent and broken, or faded and frail. She is jolly, and broad and buxom, and straight and strong. She revives memories of mothers and grandmothers in gay gingham aprons in cheerful kitchens, cutting out cookies in queer amusing shapes for young hands to grab. She will remind you of childhood holidays -- Christmas tree and chocolate cake and colored Easter eggs. And -- although she was born in Scotland, and makes her big hit in a German role -- she is the embodiment of James Whitcomb Riley's homely, American poem, "Old Aunt Mary."
Margaret Mann has beautiful snow-white hair, a clear skin, right clear eyes. She looks successful -- prosperous -- happy. Only her hands have a story to tell -- large, capable hands, work-worn and wrinkled. She has made a living with those hands. Once she was a dressmaker. Again, she started a teashop when times were bad and made Scotch shortbread and other delicacies and served them herself. She has cooked, mended and scrubbed. And she still cooks her own and her husband's breakfast before she leaves for the studio, and cooks their dinner when she comes home at night!
When you see her in the picture, you will notice that in her big scenes she never indulges in the hysterics associated with screen motherhood. Bereaved of three sons, she expresses agony and grief of the deepest feeling, but without tears. All the poignancy and beauty and tenderness of true motherhood are revealed on that screen, and it is the audiences who weep. You forget most previous screen mothers when you see her.
She was talking about her work in the picture when somebody asked her how many children she has in real life. "I am sorry," she said. "I haven't any." She smiled a little, sadly. "All mothers don't have children," she added.
She would rather not talk about the two babies she had, who died. She loved them, and if they had lived she would probably not be playing mothers on the screen. As it is, she lavishes all her mother love on her picture sons and daughters. Like Mary Pickford, she loves all children, having none of her own to love.
She is called "Mother" by the whole studio. She started mothering extras: now she is mothering stars. (Incidentally, she still mothers the extras, too.).
If anyone had told Margaret Mann forty years ago that she would be an actress some day, all her Scotch ancestors would have risen up in wrath. She was never even inside a theatre until she was a woman. Her family, strict Scots, frowned on play acting. Margaret, one of ten sisters and brothers, had to leave school when she was ten years old and go to work. She was one of the props of the family; she mothered the younger ones and helped to feed them all. By the time she was twenty, she was an expert dressmaker. Imagine her amazement then if anyone had suggested that in another forty years she would be buying expensive gowns in one of the deluxe shopping streets of the world -- for herself! That she would be earning almost a thousand dollars a week, every week! The little dressmaker wouldn't even have laughed. It wouldn't' have seemed funny to hear such things, when she was sewing away on pretty things for other girls to wear!
She had the pioneer spirit, this little Scotch girl. She decided she could do better away from the hometown of Aberdeen. South Africa appealed to her imagination -- and one day she up and sailed for Johannesburg! It was, although she didn't realize it at the time, her first step toward fame and fortune. That trip picked her right up out of the rut and set her on the right tack -- the broad highway of ambition. In Johannesburg she met James F. Smythe, an Englishman, and they were married. Seven years in South Africa -- and the pioneer urge exerted itself again. Margaret Mann Smythe suggested that they pull up stakes -- and seek their fortune in a new land -- America!
They lived in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A., where James Smythe found work in his capacity as accountant. There they stayed for years, and they might be there today if -- once more that little pricking imp of ambition hadn't teased the wife. She had heard so much about California. It called her with a siren call that couldn't be resisted. It seems strange to her, looking back, that she should have answered it. But she did. And almost as soon as she and her husband set foot in that sunny, fragrant state, her career began! Her real career, that she had been waiting for all those years.
Perhaps because of her gracious manner and her poise, she was asked to impersonate Martha Washington in a pageant at San Diego Commemorating the father of this country. Of course, she accepted -- and made such an impression that everybody began to urge her to try the movies. Armed with the brand of Scotch confidence that doesn't come out of a bottle, and one lone picture of herself, Margaret Mann went to a film studio to apply for work. And she was given extra work immediately!
At first it was as easy as that. Extra work, as well as bits, came her way. Then a real part -- the mother in Allen Holubar's "Hearts of Humanity," one of the first of the big war pictures. Margaret Mann loved the work from the start. She liked the people she met -- young people, for the most part, whom she could encourage, and pat, and cheer along. From the first she realized that she "belonged." She was a born actress, although it took her forty years to find out!
She can forget herself, the director, the camera and the carpenters and the lights, and submerge herself in her character. In the very first "bit" she ever played, she was so much engrossed in it that the director had to make retakes.
It was a party scene, with the extras seated around at tables in all their finery. Margaret Mann must have looked an important and handsome dowager, for the director picked her out of the mob for a "bit."
"I'll give you a title to speak," he said. "Look around at all the guests and smile and say: 'What a wonderful gathering this is!' Get it?"
Margaret Mann got it. She performed her part, as she thought, perfectly. She gazed at the assembled "guests," smiled graciously, and spoke the title. She was surprised when she heard the director shout, "That's fine -- that's great! But next time, for gosh sake, turn toward the camera, not away from it!"
To this day, she prefers not to face the camera if she can help it. And in these days of intelligent direction, some of the finest scenes are the apparently spontaneous "shots" which give the impression that the camera is concealed somewhere. In "Four Sons" two of Miss Mann's best scenes are not close-ups, but medium and long shots; and one effective scene is played with her back to the camera.
There were lean times in Margaret Mann's career when work was scarce. At one such period, she opened her little restaurant, where she "featured" her own Scotch shortbread and mutton pie. The venture didn't make money as it should -- they say because she spent too much money on the food to make a profit. Yes, she is Scotch, with Scotch sturdiness and determination. But she is not thrifty. She doesn't like to talk about money or to think about it much. She bought a typewriter at the usual price to print menus for her teashop. Then she became interested in psychology and sold the typewriter in a hurry for twenty-five dollars to take a course in psychology. She's a modern woman.
She made as much as $175 a week for her work in one picture. As soon as it was finished she was doing extra work again for $7.50 a day! A born trouper, she kept busy whenever she could. She was doing extra work at Fox in "Mother Machree" when Director John Ford noticed her and picked her out of the crowd to do a "bit" for him. She played a mother -- one of the poor kind, with a shawl -- and went through her emotional paces. She forgot her surroundings, as usual -- forgot everything except the make believe mother -- until she heard the sound of sobbing. It was Belle Bennett, the star of the picture, herself a famous actress of screen mothers, who was crying as if her heart would break! Later Miss Bennett said to Margaret Mann: "You've spoiled my make-up, but I'll forgive you, because that was fine work."
John Ford remembered. When Fox gave him "Grandma Bernle Learns Her Letters," and told him to make a big "special" of it, he sent for Margaret Mann to give her a test. He needed a real actress to play Grandma Bernle. The studio wanted a "name": an actress of established reputation, who would bring the crowds to see the picture on the strength of previous performances. Before the director went to Germany for local color, he tested many applicants for the role. Well-known character women tried out for it. It was the character women's Peter Pan or Lorelei Lee. Everyone wanted it. But none of the well-knowns seemed to suit. Ford went to Germany. When he returned the testing began all over again. Once again he sent for Margaret Mann. After the test he said to her: "Well, Mother -- I think we've got something this time."
"I hope so, Mr. Ford," said "mother." "You know me well enough by this time to know I'm not afraid. If I get the part I'll give all that's in me. But if I don't get it, I wish the lucky one success, and I know you will make a fine picture. And thank you for giving me a chance."
Then she went home and waited, and waited.
"Weren't you on pins and needles all that time?" I asked her.
"My dear," she said, "when you have been working in pictures ten years you don't get excited hoping for things. Too many times you are all worked up, only to be disappointed. You get so you don't count on anything. You take what comes, and thank God for it!"
And it did come. The call from the studio -- Miss Mann
to report the next morning -- for Mr. Ford's picture, "Four
Sons"! The plum was hers. And then she was excited!
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