Saturday 21 June 2014

The Tyrannical Wallace Beery: Gloria Swanson – Part 1

No one reached the heights of audience adoration, frenzy and fame more than the charismatic silent star, Gloria Swanson. Her short period in the top of the Hollywood spotlight as the classy, expensive and fashion-forward starlet altered trends, generated millions in sales and made her seem much taller than her five foot tall frame. Conversely, Wallace Beery appeared to film-lovers everywhere to be the epitome of the exact opposite. With his rugged, line-filled face, ape-like body and husky voice, Beery was quickly wedged into type-casted roles as villains, rough working men and hardened gangsters. The pair were not the perfect romantic match either off or on camera but for a short period early in the 20th Century they were – to the public – basking in unspoiled marriage bliss. However, decades later in her tell-all autobiography, Swanson spilled a ghastly secrets of their three year union that made Hollywood fans everywhere question the real connection between Beery’s actual temperament and his onscreen persona. Claims, such as, physical abuse, rape, drugging and forced abortions, showed the apparently terrifying reality of the short marriage.
Like with all historic scandals, time plays a crucial part in determining truth from lies and, with the lapse of almost 100 years, the facts may never surface. I have tried to dig up as much information about the relationship as possible. On the surface it appears Beery’s character to be extremely flawed if not criminal, but with an odd article from Hollywood power journalist, Louella Parsons, portraying Swanson as a manipulative starlet, one has to decide for themselves.

Gloria Swanson – born March 27, 1899 – was discover aged only fifteen. Parsons recalled the first impressions of a director working for film studio Essanay on his new find:
“Say, two good-looking extras came to work today. A girl named Gloria Swanson, who wore the most awful clothes I have ever seen, and a young slim beauty called Agnes Hinkle (Ares).” 
Swanson, 1915
Swanson despite her shabby appearance was signed by the Chicago company to feature in several pictures. Her screen debut was as an extra in The Song of Soul (1914) and for the next few years appeared in a handful of minor roles including as a stenographer in His New Job (1915) starring a young Charlie Chaplin. While Swanson was learning the ropes, Beery was already an Essanay regular having joined the company in 1913. He was a popular leading man for the studio appearing in a series of comedy shorts surprisingly in drag as a Swedish maid named Sweedie. The features in name and plot were fairly unimaginative but proved a useful stepping stone in Beery’s career.
With both Swanson and Beery on the Essanay payroll it was inevitable that the pair would at some time meet. The situation surrounding their early relationship is hazy with one source claiming it was Beery who first felt an attractive towards Swanson and was rebuffed. Beery at the time, it will be noted, was thirty and perhaps too old for the teenage Swanson. According to Parsons the relationship was completely different. She attests it was Swanson, who acting like some kind of desperate seducer, was the first to make contact between the pair:
 “Wallace Beery at that time was the owner of the fastest racing car in Chicago. Gloria took one look at that low-bodies yellow roadster and asked: “Who owns it?” “Wallace Beery,” she was told. “He is the director and star of Sweedie comedies.”
 “…first he was impervious to the little Swanson girl’s smiles. But no matter how attractive the girls with whom he was having lunch Gloria would besiege Mr. Beery with notes. Eventually, Wally, good-natured, lovable and without the Don Juan qualities of some of her later lovers, felt sorry for the little girl who so frankly let him see she was interest in him.” He then started taking her driving in his car. “At first indifferent, Wally later fell in love with the Swanson girl.”
Beery (left) in drag as Sweedie
No matter who was the instigator, the pair appeared to be in love even starring together in an Essanay production, The Broken Pledge (1915). A year later everything changed; Beery had been fired from the studio and Swanson was now an actress growing in fame and talent. After this failure, Beery left Chicago hoping to make it big in Hollywood.  Like all events surrounding Beery’s life the truth is unclear. One source claims his move to Los Angeles was due to a concealed scandal with a young woman on the set; however, Parsons, as illustrated below, has different account of events:
“Wally, to all intents and purposes, was pretty well set at Essanay until he took to speeding. Arrested four times, the judge finally told him if he again speeded in his yellow demon it would be a jail sentence. Just to make the judge’s words more emphatic, George K. Spoor, head of Essanay, sent for him and said: “Mr. Beery, if you are arrested again this company can do nothing for you.” What, then, was Mr. Beery to do when a traffic cop again gave him a ticket for speeding? He took the first train for California. He had heard Hollywood was the place for all movie actors.”  
After Beery had established himself in Hollywood, he apparently sent Swanson a postcard urging her and her mother to join him. In 1916 she agreed, leaving her contract with Essanay and moved to a house on Cahuenga Blvd that had been arranged for them by Beery.  With his help and connections at Keystone, she was hired by its owner, legendary comedy director, Mack Sennett. Swanson’s first film for the company was even featuring alongside Beery in A Dash of Courage (1916). The same year Beery proposed to Swanson. According to reports, Swanson initially gave no answer to Beery but after a week’s contemplation, she accepted him. As a romantic gesture, Swanson decided wanted to elope with Beery to Santa Barbara and marry on her 17th birthday. However, without a birth certificate, proof of age or parental permission, they were unable to marry and the pair had to return to Los Angeles to pick up Swanson’s mother. Despite the troubles and arguments, Swanson and Beery were finally marriage in March, 1916 in Pasadena.
Swanson and Beery
Get ready for part two including the scandalous wedding night and disastrous months of marriage!!

1 comment:

  1. This was really interesting - I've always wanted to learn more about Beery and Swanson's ill-fated marriage. Can't wait to read your second installment!