Back in the late 1920s, Anita Page could never have dreamed that eight decades later she would be a celebrity of sorts: The Official Last Surviving Silent Film Star.
In truth, Anita Page was never a star in silent movies. She appeared on screen later in the decade, right at the time when the part-talkie The Jazz Singer was revolutionizing the industry. In those final days of the silent era, she played leading lady roles — that often amounted to extended supporting parts — opposite the likes of William Haines, Ramon Novarro, and Lon Chaney. But since every adult silent film performer who’s ever had his or her name above the title is now dead (am I forgetting anyone?), Page has become a silent film star by default. (I should add that minor supporting player and leading lady Barbara Kent is reportedly still around, at age 100.)
In 1928, Anita Page had her big break in the popular Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (dialogue-less) Jazz Age melodrama Our Dancing Daughters, in which she, the up-and-coming Joan Crawford, and minor leading lady Dorothy Sebastian were hot mamas who discover that in life there’s always the morning after.
Following Our Dancing Daughters, Crawford went on to superstardom, the capable Sebastian faded from the scene rather rapidly, while Page — big break or no — remained at MGM for a few more years, usually cast in second-rank leading-lady roles.
The one exception to that rule was her lead in The Broadway Melody, a mammoth musical that became one of the biggest box-office hits of the 1920s and the first talkie to win a best picture Academy Award. Despite the film’s success — perhaps because most of the raves for the acting in The Broadway Melody went to fellow player Bessie Love — the studio never gave Page a vehicle tailored to her talents.
And what were those talents?
Well, personally, I’ve always appreciated Page for both her prettiness and her (on-screen) blondness, both of which displayed more shades and nuances from film to film than most of her roles. But then again, what was a pretty, blonde girl to do but look very pretty and very blonde while William Haines speed-raced, Ramon Novarro flew planes, and Lon Chaney creeped it up?
Unfortunately for Anita Page, in the early 1930s the pretty, blonde Leila Hyams and the stage-trained (and pretty and blonde) Madge Evans began landing roles that might have gone to Page a mere couple of years earlier. By the mid-1930s, Anita Page, all of 22 or whereabouts, was a figure of the past.
I met Anita Page in 1998. I went to her Los Angeles-area home to interview her for my biography of Ramon Novarro. Health issues — including a couple of strokes — had seriously impaired Page’s memory, and she had very little to tell me about her Hollywood days.
Yet, it was thrilling to be in that ornate living room, sitting next to someone who had played in films belonging to a long-vanished era, opposite men and women who were long gone. You can’t get much more Twilight Zone-ish than that. (I’ve included a photo of the occasion near the end of Part II of the Anita Page q&a.)
Author Allan Ellenberger, who’s currently working on a biography of actress Miriam Hopkins, has generously answered several questions I sent him about Page’s film career. Allan, who has known Anita Page since the early 1990s and has interviewed her for his own Novarro biography, offers lots of direct quotes Page gave him throughout the years. Those are the old MGM days as recalled by Anita Page, the Last Surviving Silent Film Star.
Addendum: Anita Page died in her sleep on September 6, 2008. She was 98.
Photos: Courtesy Allan Ellenberger
1910s serial star Kathlyn Williams and Anita Page
First of all, could you give us an introduction to Anita Page?
Anita Page began as a silent film actress and successfully made the transition to sound films. Her career, which lasted only six years, includes her appearance in the hit The Broadway Melody (1929), the first sound film to win the Best Picture Oscar. She was also the first romantic partner of film idol Clark Gable [right, in The Easiest Way (1931)].
Anita Page was born Anita Pomares on August 4, 1910, in Flushing, New York. While growing up, obvious artistic talents produced hopes in her mother, Maude, that Anita would choose art as a career. Maude knew that Anita wanted to be an actress, but secretly hoped her ambitions would change as she matured. Either way, her education at Washington Irving High School provided an excellent art program and the chance to win second prize in a local beauty contest.
Soon after the birth of her brother Marino, they moved to the suburb of Astoria where a neighbor was the family of actress Betty Bronson. At the time, Betty was in Hollywood just getting started in film. Anita became good friends with the Bronson children — Eleanor and her brother Arthur. (Anita was smitten with young Arthur and he became her first beau.)
Shortly after Betty Bronson made a name for herself in Peter Pan (1924), the Bronson family moved to Hollywood to be with Betty. A couple of years later, Betty was filming A Kiss for Cinderella (1925) at Paramount’s East Coast studio and brought the entire family back with her. The Bronson’s had a suite at the Plaza Hotel, and invited Anita and her mother to visit.
Betty took an immediate liking to the fifteen-year-old Anita. Aware of Anita’s hopes to become an actress, Betty inquired what steps she had taken to arrive at her dream. Anita could think of only one time when she won second place in a beauty contest. Betty knew she was about to film the royal ball scene for A Kiss for Cinderella, which needed many extras. She asked Anita if she would like to try the movies. Of course, Anita jumped at the chance.
That brief meeting in films led to another extra bit in the Louise Brooks film, Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926), also filmed at the Astoria studios. During filming, an assistant advised Anita that at her age, if she took dancing lessons and acting classes, she could come back in a couple years and "knock ‘em cold!" So that’s what she did.
How did Anita Page come to Hollywood?
The man who brought Anita to Hollywood was an unlikely film producer; [he was] more a man of infamy — and an assumed murderer.
On the advice of the assistant [in Love 'Em or Leave 'Em], Anita took dancing lessons from Martha Graham, studied acting under John Murray Anderson, and modeled for John Robert Powers. Anita found Powers, whose models became known as "The Power Girls," a charming man but business all the way. One day Powers sent Anita and several other models on an audition at nearby Pathé studios. Anita won the second lead in a short entitled Beach Nuts, a bathing beauty comedy made by Kenilworth Productions.
After completing filming, the director told Anita the company was moving their operations to California and invited the young hopeful along. Anita knew if she were to make it in films, Hollywood was the place to be. Considering her age, the company offered to pay the expenses for her mother and brother to join her.
On December 2, 1927, the entire Kenilworth company, including Anita and another actress, Susan Hughes, boarded the Santa Fe Chief and left New York for California. The financier and owner of Kenilworth Productions would join them in Chicago. No one knew the man’s identity or what part he was to play in their lives.
When the train stopped in Chicago, a white-haired man appeared on the platform surrounded by reporters and photographers. Members of the party began whispering and Mrs. Pomares, who instantly recognized the visitor, became agitated and insisted on leaving the train right away.
The stranger was none other than Harry Kendall Thaw, once married to Evelyn Nesbit, or "The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing" [played by Joan Collins in the 1955 film of the same name] as she was more commonly known. Earlier in the century, Thaw was twice put on trial for the murder of architect Stanford White, whom Thaw believed to be having an affair with his young wife. Acquitted because of insanity, Thaw continued to find his name in the newspapers because of his sadistic reputation with women, especially prostitutes.
Needless to say, Anita was clueless about Thaw’s past. However, her mother knew everything and wanted nothing to do with him. With her one chance for stardom dissolving before her, Anita finally was able to convince her mother to stay. Soon, Thaw boarded the train and the company continued to California.
On their arrival in Pasadena, Thaw was the first one off the train, making his way to the waiting reporters. He then introduced Susan and Anita — known then as Anita Rivers — to the press. Photos of Susan and Anita with Thaw appeared in almost every paper in Los Angeles. A reporter asked Anita what she thought of Hollywood, and she replied, "It’s great to be in Hollywood, but Mr. Thaw says we can’t have boyfriends or go to any parties."
Thaw hoped to make a deal with United Artists [which was basically a distribution entity for independent producers] to not only buy his films but also sell his actresses’ contracts. Until then, Thaw’s entourage stayed at the Ambassador Hotel. Problems soon arose when United Artists announced that they did not want Thaw’s name and reputation connected with their studio. Enraged, Thaw said if they would not use his name, they could not release his films, so the deal fell through.
Eventually Thaw returned to New York, but meanwhile Mrs. Pomares found an attorney and was able to get out of Anita’s contract. Now alone in Hollywood, Anita reconnected with Betty Bronson who introduced her to an agent, Harvey Pugh, who worked at Paramount’s publicity department. Pugh directly got her a test at Paramount. Director Malcolm St. Clair saw it and considered her for a supporting role in Beau Broadway, a Lew Cody film he was to direct on loan-out to MGM.
To make sure [she was right for the part], St. Clair wanted to see another test and called Anita to set it up. She was to go to MGM the following Tuesday to pick up her wardrobe for the test, which would be filmed on Wednesday.
As her luck would have it, Anita woke up that Tuesday with a bad cold and arrived at MGM with a puffy face and a red nose. Since the test was not until the next day, she hoped to be back to normal by then. When she arrived at the MGM gate, the guard asked her name.
"Anita Pomares," she replied. (After the Harry Thaw incident, Anita thought it was best to drop "Rivers" and use her real name.)
Looking over his clipboard, the guard said, "This says that you’re here to see [film director] Sam Wood."
"Sam Wood?" she said. "No, there must be some mistake. I’m here to pick-up wardrobe for a test tomorrow."
"Not according to this," the guard insisted. "It says here you’re here to see Sam Wood."
"Well, who’s Sam Wood," she asked?
Suddenly a man grabbed her arm from behind and led her down a long row of offices. "I’ll take you," he said. Her escort just happened to be producer Paul Bern who finally led her into an office where an attractive man with slightly graying hair was sitting at a desk. "This is Sam Wood," Bern explained.
Wood looked up from what he was reading and looked over Anita with her puffy face and red nose. He picked up the phone. "Get me Bill Haines," he told the operator. At this point, Anita had not said one word; she was in shock. Wood now had [fast-rising MGM star] William Haines on the phone.
"Bill," Wood said, "I want you to come out to the studio and test with a girl today." Anita was horrified. He couldn’t have meant her, not in her condition.
"I hope you’re not talking about me," she said, after finally finding her voice. "I don’t want to do a test today. I want to go home."
Bern gently led Anita aside as she hurriedly explained about the test with St. Clair. Bern assured her that everything would be all right. Wood had ended his conversation with Haines, who objected to doing the test because he was preparing to go horseback riding. The actor relented, however, and agreed to stop by on his way to the stables. Meanwhile, Bern took Anita to make-up where they fixed her hair and tried to cover up her puffiness and red nose. Within an hour, Haines arrived dressed in riding clothes and the test was made.
Within a few days, Anita was offered a contract at MGM. She did, however, have one stipulation before signing. She wanted to start working right away. Every day studios signed young women to contracts and most received just bit parts, and Anita knew this. The legal counsel for the studio assured her that her first role would be the female lead opposite Bill Haines, or she would do the Lew Cody picture with St. Clair.
There was some confusion over whether Paramount had offered her a contract first but when they would not promise to begin her in films right away, Anita signed with MGM.
When Thaw died in 1947, Anita prominently appeared in his Los Angeles Times obituary.
Josephine Dunn, Joan Crawford, Anita Page in a publicity photo for the 1928 hit Our Modern Maidens.
Anita Page appeared in three movies with Joan Crawford: "Our Dancing Daughters" (1928), "Our Modern Maidens" (1929), and "Our Blushing Brides" (1930). How did they get along?
Let’s just say that they were not the best of friends. Our Dancing Daughters, their first film together, was a big break for both of their careers. It’s known that Crawford had a ruthless side and would sometimes resort to almost anything. Perhaps she saw that Anita was doing well with her role and wanted some extra assurance of her own success.
In one scene of the film, Anita’s character, Anne, is an alcoholic and crashes Diana’s (Crawford) bon-voyage party, catching her with her [Anne’s] husband, Ben (Johnny Mack Brown). Anne becomes hysterical and beats on Ben’s chest. While preparing for the scene, Joan approached Anita with words of advice. "Anita, be careful when you do this scene with Johnny," she said. "Don’t hit him too hard. You don’t want to hurt him."
Prepared to give her all to the scene, she became concerned after Joan’s warning and approached Brown. "Johnny, Joan’s worried I might hurt you in this scene," she told the former full-back. "Should I hold back?"
"No way, honey," he told her. "You give it everything you got. I know how to take care of myself." So Anita gave it everything and was effective. It was that incident that convinced her of Joan’s efforts to hold her back. But she proved to herself that she was as smart as Crawford. "Her little ploy didn’t work," she told her mother.
In fact, it was because of her mother that Anita never had a closer relationship with Joan. After an incident in Carmel during filming (which Anita refuses to talk about), Mrs. Pomares, a typical stage mother, decided Joan was not the type of young woman her daughter should associate with. From that moment, Anita could no longer spend time with Joan. Months later, Joan asked Anita to take dancing lessons with her for The Hollywood Revue of 1929, but Mrs. Pomares would not agree to it.
When it came time to do the second in the series, Our Modern Maidens, Joan continued her antics and Anita refused to associate with her. However, it was the relationship between Joan and costar Douglas Fairbanks Jr., that annoyed Anita. Joan and Doug were falling in love at this point, and would eventually marry. Their on-the-set display of affection included a made-up language, understood only to them. They would coo lovingly at each other during breaks. "After a while, the whole thing became very annoying to everyone on the set," Anita said.
Regardless of the on-set nonsense, when Anita’s contract expired a few years later and she left MGM, Joan reportedly said, "That’s very sad. I thought she was a fine actress."
That was not Anita’s last contact with her old rival. In the early 1960s, a fan sent Crawford a photograph of her with Anita from Our Dancing Daughters, asking for an autograph. "Could you have Anita Page sign it, too," the fan asked?
"I don’t know where she is, but I’ll find out," Joan wrote back. Even though she hadn’t seen her in thirty years, Joan took the time to tract Anita down. "Glad I found you," Joan wrote and asked her to sign the photo — which she did.
"That’s how devoted she was to her fans," Anita said. Although Joan Crawford was not Anita’s favorite, she had definite feelings about the book Mommie Dearest, the exposé written by her [adopted] daughter Christina. "That girl would have had a terrible life if it weren’t for Joan. Maybe Joan was a little hard to get along with … Her career was it. But you can’t blame her — she was fighting for her life and her career."
Anita Page and Ramon Novarro in a publicity shot for the aviation drama The Flying Fleet, one of MGM’s biggest hits of the late 1920s.
What did Anita Page have to say about her on-screen romantic partners — William Haines, Lon Chaney, Ramon Novarro, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Buster Keaton, John Gilbert, Charles King, Walter Huston?
William Haines: [Telling the World (1927), Speedway (1929), Navy Blues (1929), and Are You Listening? (1932)]
"When I first worked with him, I was almost afraid to go on the set. Bill was such a joker that I expected to find tacks on the chairs. But I don’t think he liked to play tricks on people unless they were the sort that could take it big." [Haines and Page appeared together in four films:
Lon Chaney: [While the City Sleeps (1928)]
"Lon Chaney happened to see the rushes for Our Dancing Daughters and obviously liked what he saw. He went to [MGM second-in-command Irving G.] Thalberg and requested me to play opposite him in his next film, While the City Sleeps. At the time I was preparing to appear in The Bellamy Trial but they reassigned me to Lon’s film. The way I used my eyes to express emotion impressed Lon. He believed you had to be photogenic, but most of the acting came through the eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul, he told me.
"Before filming began, Lon talked to me about make-up and explained the action scenes to me. Finally, he gave me one last bit of advice: ‘Never act purely on impulse in important matters,’ he said. ‘Think things over carefully. Then, when you’re sure that you’re right, go ahead. And don’t let anything swerve you from that decision.’"
Ramon Novarro: "I worked with many attractive men at MGM, including Clark Gable, but Ramon was my favorite. He was so good to me that I hope he knows that I appreciate it."
Clark Gable: [The Constance Bennett vehicle The Easiest Way, in which Gable and Page have supporting roles]
"I thought he was charming but there was never in my mind any romantic feeling. People can’t understand that, but he just wasn’t my type. We became good friends and he would dote on my mother constantly. Every morning he would drop by my dressing room to see her. ‘How nice to see you again, Mrs. Pomares,’ he would say. All this attention made Clark a big favorite of my mother’s."
"Once Clark asked if he could drive me and my mother home, but because I already had my car at the studio, I politely refused. Soon word got around the studio that I had turned down Clark’s offer. People began teasing me and said, ‘There goes the girl that said no to Clark Gable.’ He just wanted to give me a ride home, not marry me!
"Years later, after making Mogambo , Clark told a reporter, ‘Grace Kelly reminds me of my first leading lady, Anita Page.’ Of course I loved Grace Kelly so that didn’t hurt my feelings at all."
Robert Montgomery: [Free and Easy (1930) and War Nurse (1930); additionally, Montgomery was Joan Crawford’s romantic partner in Our Blushing Brides and Constance Bennett’s leading man in The Easiest Way]
"I thought Robert had a marvelous manner of acting and a great line delivery. I once asked him how he achieved this style and he said ’stage work.’ He told me that learning basic acting is essential, but real technique must come from working before a live audience. You learn how to time comic line-delivery, as well as develop your acting skills.
"When I asked if he played people like himself, he said ‘no, no. You get costumes that are entirely different.’ He also said that was one way to get rid of stage fright. It helps keep you anonymous with [the] audience — so if you forgot your lines, they wouldn’t recognize you when you became another character. You were less nervous. I never forgot Bob’s tip that day on the set, so when the door was open for me to do a live performance, I jumped on it!"
Buster Keaton: [Free and Easy (1930) and Sidewalks of New York (1931)]
"He was a fascinating man to talk to — and very funny — he thought "funny." Keaton’s comedy was more physical. [Charles] Chaplin, he was more humorous. To be as great a comedian as Keaton was, I think you have to be born with something like that in you. I don’t think it’s something you just pick up. He was just so funny! We don’t have anyone today like my dear Buster. He was one of a kind, a real comic genius."
John Gilbert: [Gentleman’s Fate (1931)]
"I became good friends with Jack Gilbert and would have lunch in his bungalow. Now, let me just say that Jack was trustworthy. He was a gentleman. I knew the people I could trust. He never once tried anything.
"During our talks he never mentioned Garbo, but he did talk about Virginia Bruce, whom he dated at the time, I believe. [Gilbert married Bruce in 1932.] I remember feeling so sad for him, but I think he was happy with Virginia. He loved to tell me about how happy John Barrymore was with Dolores Costello." [Barrymore and Costello were divorced in 1934.]
Charles King: [The Broadway Melody]
"I enjoyed working with Charlie King. When I did Crazy Quilts with him, he sang and danced in several of my numbers and it was nice having an old friend around during all of this."
Walter Huston: [Night Court (1931)]
"I was thrilled to work with Walter who was a great actor. When you work with people that are good, you get something nice out of it. You admire the other person’s talent."