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Constance Cummings: Vastly Underrated Actress Went from Harold Lloyd to Eugene O'Neill

Constance Cummings Hollywood Actress from Harold Lloyd Frank Capra to Eugene O'Neill ShakespeareConstance Cummings: Actress went from minor, long-eyelashed Hollywood leading lady in Harold Lloyd and Frank Capra movies to starring in West End plays by Eugene O'Neill, Noël Coward and William Shakespeare.

Constance Cummings: Vastly underrated actress should be better remembered

Actress Constance Cummings, whose career spanned more than six decades on stage, in films, and on television in both the U.S. and the U.K., died ten years ago on Nov. 23, '05.

Unlike other Broadway imports such as Ann Harding, Katharine Hepburn, Miriam Hopkins, and Claudette Colbert, the pretty, sincere, and elegant Cummings – who could have been turned into a less edgy Constance Bennett had she landed at RKO or Paramount instead of Columbia – never became a Hollywood star.

In fact, her most acclaimed work, whether in films or – more frequently – on stage, was almost invariably found in British productions. That's most likely why the name Constance Cummings – despite the DVD availability of several of her best-received performances – is all but forgotten.

If remembered at all, Cummings is best known for having once been a Harold Lloyd leading lady. In the 1932 comedy Movie Crazy, she has a subordinate role as the romantic interest of the – by then fast-fading – silent era comedian.

That's not only a pity, it's downright pathetic.

From Harold Lloyd and Frank Capra to Noël Coward and Eugene O'Neill

After all, Constance Cummings had one of the leads in David Lean's delightful 1945 film adaptation of Noël Coward's Blithe Spirit – far superior to most Hollywood comedies then or now. In what could have been a colorless “straight woman” role, Cummings effortlessly steals scenes from hammy, untrustworthy husband Rex Harrison.

In the 1971 National Theatre production of Eugene O'Neill's semi-autobiographical drama Long Day's Journey Into Night, she starred opposite Laurence Olivier, earning rave reviews for her portrayal of the drug-addicted matriarch Mary Tyrone.

And in Arthur Kopit's 1979 Broadway play Wings, Cummings incarnated a former aviatrix attempting to recover from a debilitating stroke. For her efforts, she shared that year's Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.

Below and in a follow-up post you'll find an overview of the criminally underrated Constance Cummings' six-decade-plus film, stage, and television career.

Constance Cummings young and not sophisticated enough opposite Ronald ColmanConstance Cummings: 'Young and not sophisticated enough' to play opposite Ronald Colman in 'The Devil to Pay!'

Early Broadway work

The daughter of a lawyer and a concert soprano, Constance Cummings was born Constance Halverstadt on May 15, 1910, in Seattle, Washington. From an early age, she wanted to be a classical dancer, but in her mid-teens, after a walk-on as a prostitute in a San Diego Stock Company production of Austin Strong's Seventh Heaven, she switched her focus to acting and dancing in musicals.

Around that time, she adopted her mother's maiden name professionally. (Her parents had separated when she was ten; she reportedly never saw her father again.)

Following a move to New York City, the now-renamed Constance Cummings made her Broadway debut in 1928. She was one of the dancers in the chorus line of George and Ira Gershwin's Treasure Girl, toplining Gertrude Lawrence and Clifton Webb.

“I was plump and a little too corn-fed for a chorus girl,” she would tell People magazine in 1979. But too much corn or no, a year later she understudied leading lady Linda Watkins in George S. Kaufman and Ring Lardner's June Moon, and is supposed to have landed a supporting role in the Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz revue The Little Show,[1] also featuring Treasure Girl co-star Clifton Webb, in addition to Peggy Conklin, Fred Allen, and torch singer Libby Holman.

Samuel Goldwyn giveth and taketh away

Shortly after playing the female lead opposite author-actor Willard Robertson in the George Jessel-produced This Man's Town in 1930, Constance Cummings caught the attention of Samuel Goldwyn. She was to be romanced by the Hollywood producer's top star, Ronald Colman, in the British-flavored (and deplorably juvenile) comedy The Devil to Pay!.[2]

Considering how British Cummings could sound in later years, it is ironic that, as per A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn, she was dropped after ten days of filming “largely because of her strong American accent.” (If so, Goldwyn's replacement, 17-year-old Loretta Young of Salt Lake City, was an odd choice indeed.)

Making no mention of English accent issues, Cummings would tell People, “I was young and not sophisticated enough for the part. I cried and cried. It was Disasterville.” Ronald Colman himself came to the rescue by persuading an agent to take on the 20-year-old actress as a client.

As found in her People interview, one week after the Devil to Pay! debacle she was signed to play the ingenue in Howard Hawks' socially conscious drama The Criminal Code at Columbia. A studio contract would ensue.

Constance Cummings in 'The Criminal Code,' with Walter Huston.

Columbia Pictures leading lady

In the curiously subversive – though badly dated – The Criminal Code (1931), Constance Cummings plays the cute daughter of by-the-book district attorney-turned-prison warden Walter Huston, falling in love with handsome, sweet-natured inmate Phillips Holmes. Well received at the time, the film earned screenwriters Seton I. Miller and Fred Niblo Jr. an Academy Award nomination for Best Writing, Adaptation.[3]

Cummings wasn't as lucky. In the next four years, she would be seen in a total of 20 movies, mostly minor fare and mostly at Columbia, in those days only a notch above the Poverty Row studios.[4]

Unsurprisingly, it was elsewhere that she found her most notable Hollywood effort: Harold Lloyd's comedy Movie Crazy, a Paramount release.

'Movie Crazy'

In Movie Crazy Nebraska-born Harold Lloyd, then pushing 40, plays Kansas-born Harold Hall, a youthful movie star wannabe who, due to a case of mistaken photo ID, is called to audition at a Hollywood studio. (The Midwestern hick had accidentally sent in a picture of a good-looking guy.)

Once in Los Angeles, he falls for a young actress (Constance Cummings) who has some fun with him because he fails to recognize her off the set. Harold believes he's dealing with two different women: one blonde and (generally) sweet; the other brunette, temperamental, and Spanish-accented. Compounding matters, during his audition he ruins take after take until, eventually, someone realizes the Kansan's great comic potential.

Officially directed by Clyde Bruckman,[5] Movie Crazy “was very funny – it still is – and unlike many of the other things I did, stood the test of time,” Cummings would recall in 1999. “Movie Crazy is what I'm best remembered for and what fans refer to the most. I did much better things, but get a kick out of talking about the film and working with the genius that was Harold Lloyd.”

Movie Crazy Harold Lloyd Constance Cummings Columbia player had to raise her voice to get role'Movie Crazy' with Harold Lloyd and Constance Cummings: Columbia contract player had to 'raise her voice' to get the role at Paramount.

Standing up to Columbia boss Harry Cohn

Ironically, Constance Cummings nearly lost the chance to appear in her best-known Hollywood movie. Decades later, she would tell British TV presenter Matthew Sweet:

Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, was dead against me doing the role. 'Harold Lloyd only wants dumb blondes, his leading ladies are nothing,' he said. But I'd read the script and I thought it was delightful. I'm not sure how I did it, but in the end I convinced him. It was the first time I raised my voice in Hollywood.

Regarding the time she spent working with Harold Lloyd on the Movie Crazy set, Cummings recalled:

It was almost like playing a game in somebody's house. Mildred [Davis, Harold Lloyd's wife and former leading lady] used to come down to the set and bring him a picnic lunch, and there was a very relaxed, friendly atmosphere. Harold had a couple of old boys around who used to play bit parts, and after we'd rehearsed a scene they used to come up and suggest ideas. He'd never say, 'I know what I'm doing!' He'd listen to them, and he'd make them feel important.

'Movie Crazy' vs. 'Merton of the Movies'

Curiously, Movie Crazy has a number of elements in common with another 1932 Paramount release, William Beaudine's Make Me a Star – a remake of James Cruze's silent comedy Merton of the Movies, itself an adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly's Broadway hit.

Whether or not a partial Merton of the Movies rip-off, both Movie Crazy and its star were praised by the New York Times' Mordaunt Hall, who also offered Cummings a small bouquet, calling her “charming as the blond motion picture actress who plays a brunette in the studio scenes.”[6]

And charming she is, delivering a subtly humorous performance that turns out to be much funnier than anything in Lloyd's endless array of protracted gags.

No career boost

Regardless of the good notices and a moderately profitable run, Movie Crazy did little to solidify Harold Lloyd's standing as a box office draw in the talkies. In spite of a trio of biennial attempts up to 1938, the Safety Last and Girl Shy star was never to recover his silent era popularity.[7]

As for Constance Cummings, she went back to playing mostly nondescript characters in forgettable movies.

Night After Night Constance Cummings Mae West wasn't what you'd call cozyConstance Cummings in 'Night After Night': Mae West 'wasn't what you'd call cozy.'

Constance Cummings vs. Columbia Pictures

Back at Columbia, Harry Cohn didn't do a very good job of making Constance Cummings feel important. By the end of 1932, the studio and its ingenue found themselves in court, fighting bitterly over stipulations in her contract.

According to the actress, Columbia had failed to notify her that they were picking up her option. Therefore, she was a free agent, able to offer her services wherever she pleased. Harry Cohn felt otherwise, claiming that his contract player had waived such a notice. The battle would spill over into 1933.

On the positive side, in addition to Movie Crazy, 1932 had provided Cummings with three other noteworthy Hollywood movies: Washington Merry-Go-Round, American Madness, and Night After Night.

'Washington Merry-Go-Round'

Directed by silent era veteran James Cruze (of the 1923 blockbuster Western The Covered Wagon), the populist political comedy-drama Washington Merry-Go-Round starred Lee Tracy as a Georgia Congressman battling corruption in the American capital during the Great Depression.

A precursor to Frank Capra's superior Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – with Tracy as an abrasive, fast-talking version of James Stewart's Jefferson Smith – Washington Merry-Go-Round features lofty ideas and ideals, besides a climactic speech in which Tracy declares, “I'm telling you, the ghost of these 56 signers [of the Declaration of Independence] would turn in their graves if they could see how crooks and gangsters and hypocrites have paralyzed our government!”

Despite a few qualms about the film's comedy-melodrama mix, the New York Times' Mordaunt Hall was generally impressed with the screenplay by Capra collaborator Jo Swerling (Platinum Blonde, Forbidden), from a story by playwright Maxwell Anderson (What Price Glory, Saturday's Children). Constance Cummings, for her part, was deemed “a good deal more than just a pretty girl.”[8]

'American Madness' clip with Constance Cummings and Pat O'Brien. With her usual sincerity and warmth, Cummings makes memorable an otherwise thankless role.

'American Madness'

One of Columbia's few A productions of the period, American Madness was another socially conscious effort with the Great Depression as its backdrop. Climaxing on a bank run (following a robbery), the film was made at a time when, as a consequence of the Oct. 1929 stock market crash, approximately one in five American banks had gone under.

Veteran Allan Dwan (Robin Hood, The Iron Mask), whose career had gone downhill since the advent of talkies, was handed the task of directing the screenplay by Robert Riskin (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).

Then known as Faith, Riskin's story was inspired by the struggles of Bank of Italy (since 1930, Bank of America) founder and Columbia Pictures patron A.P. Giannini, whose brother, known as Doc Giannini, was a studio board member. In the depths of the Great Depression, Giannini was fighting to regain control of his bank from the hands of tight-fisted board members.

Unhappy with the film's rushes, Columbia replaced Dwan with another silent era veteran, Roy William Neill (The Conquest of Canaan, The Viking). That didn't work out either. Ultimately, Frank Capra was brought on board to salvage Riskin's project.

Sole Constance Cummings-Frank Capra collaboration

American Madness marked the only time Constance Cummings got to work with the studio's star filmmaker. In the role of a secretary engaged to head teller Pat O'Brien, she once again played opposite Walter Huston, cast as a liberal-minded banker whose policies get him in trouble with the board.

Giving to Robert Riskin a good chunk of the credit for the artistic success of the film – though some will find the fanciful conclusion a bit hard to swallow – Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success author Joseph McBride refers to American Madness as “a classic piece of screenwriting which tells its story with a terseness of dialogue and a fast pace that perfectly expresses the tension and propulsive movement of the theme.”

Regarding Frank Capra, Constance Cummings would tell Matthew Sweet, “I think I rather fell in love with him.”

'Night After Night' trailer with George Raft, Constance Cummings, Mae West, Wynne Gibson, Alison Skipworth and Roscoe Karns.

'Night After Night'

Directed by Warner Bros.' Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest) and starring the fast-rising George Raft, Paramount's Night After Night is best remembered as the movie that introduced Mae West to the screen. Cummings was cast as a down-on-her-luck society girl (a role originally intended for the studio's contract star Nancy Carroll) who falls for the rough-edged owner (Raft) of a posh New York speakeasy.

This time around, Mordaunt Hall was left unmoved by the leading lady's performance, complaining that “Constance Cummings is attractive … but she never for an instant impresses one as being the type of girl who would become interested in a man who runs a speakeasy, has a closet full of machine guns and thinks little or nothing of human life.”

Perhaps Hall missed the point. Much like An American Tragedy and Little Women actress Frances Dee in Rowland Brown's raunchy Blood Money (1933), Cummings was purposely cast against type in Night After Night, the sort of eyebrow-raising – at times hilariously so – Hollywood movie that would be tragically killed off by the enactment of the Production Code in 1934.

Hers is in fact a remarkable performance, mixing elegance and (kinky) sexuality while holding her own against Raft himself and scene-stealers Alison Skipworth, Wynne Gibson, Roscoe Karns, and newcomer Mae West.

Regarding West, Cummings would tell Matthew Sweet, “she wasn't what you'd call cozy.”

Constance Cummings Channel Crossing Anthony Bushell the dangers of ruthless capitalismConstance Cummings in 'Channel Crossing,' with Anthony Bushell (lying down) and Douglas Jeffries: The dangers of ruthless capitalism.

Early British movies

In 1933, while still embroiled in the Columbia lawsuit and about to get married to English-born playwright/screenwriter Benn Wolfe Levy (usually referred to as Benn W. Levy; more about him further below), Constance Cummings found work on the other side of the Atlantic – at the time a haven for Hollywood has-beens (e.g., Corinne Griffith, Gloria Swanson, Don Alvarado) and American stars eager for a change of pace (e.g., Fay Wray, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.).

Cummings' two British movies were:

  • Milton Rosmer's Channel Crossing, one more Great Depression-set drama, in this case tackling the pitfalls of unbridled capitalism. Matheson Lang and Anthony Bushell co-starred.
  • Comedian-filmmaker Monty Banks' Heads We Go / The Charming Deceiver, with future Hollywood players Frank Lawton (David Copperfield) and Binnie Barnes (Holiday). In this minor comedy, Cummings plays a model who, upon inheriting a fortune, attempts to pass for a movie star.
  • In the British publication Film Weekly, articles with a Constance Cummings byline came out in March–April 1933. In one of them, she made a point of comparing the Italian-born (as Mario Bianchi) and Hollywood-trained Banks to her Night After Night director Archie Mayo.

Leaving Harry Cohn for Darryl F. Zanuck

After defeating Columbia in court, Cummings left the studio – which would lose an appeal in 1935. She then signed with Darryl F. Zanuck's newly formed indie 20th Century Pictures, which was to distribute its films via United Artists. But despite an engaging presence and a pretty face – “chic and charming even as a starlet,” wrote film historian John Springer – Cummings' movie career didn't progress as one might have expected.

In fact, her Hollywood roles were almost invariably decorative, requiring her to look blonde (her hair went several shades darker later in her career), pretty, and elegant. One exception was her supporting turn in John Cromwell's 1934 RKO release This Man Is Mine – Irene Dunne's that is, though the conniving, scene-stealing Cummings thinks otherwise. Ralph Bellamy was the man not quite worth fighting for in this conventional melodrama.

Constance Cummings gamely sings 'I Love You Prince Pizzicato' with Russ Columbo in 'Broadway Thru a Keyhole,' also featuring Texas Guinan and Hobart Cavanaugh.

Less than satisfying 20th Century phase

Things didn't improve much during her brief sojourn at 20th Century, as grade A productions went to other contract actresses or those on loan from other studios. Released in 1934, Moulin Rouge and The Affairs of Cellini toplined another “chic and charming” Constance – Constance Bennett – while none other than The Devil to Pay! leading lady Loretta Young was cast as the ingenue opposite George Arliss and Robert Young in the prestigious The House of Rothschild.[9]

Admittedly, at that time Constance Cummings got to work with the likes of Lowell Sherman and William A. Wellman at 20th Century, and William Wyler and James Whale at Universal. These, however, were smaller, now largely forgotten efforts:

  • Lowell Sherman's uninspired musical Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933), torn between crooner Russ Columbo and racketeer Paul Kelly.
  • William A. Wellman's crime comedy Looking for Trouble (1934), with a pre-stardom Spencer Tracy and Jack Oakie.
  • William Wyler's backstage drama Glamour (1934), with Paul Lukas as the older husband jilted by chorus girl-turned-dancer Cummings, and Phillip Reed as Cummings' dance partner-turned-lover who jilts her so she can return to Lukas before the final fade out.
  • James Whale's mystery comedy-drama Remember Last Night? (1935), with Edward Arnold as a district attorney whose murder(s) investigation is hindered by the potential witnesses'/suspects' hard partying. Also in the cast: MGM import Robert Young as Cummings' husband and fellow party animal, and former Fox actress Sally Eilers (Bad Girl).
  • Universal's modest answer to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's 1934 sleeper hit The Thin Man, which starred William Powell and Myrna Loy, Remember Last Night? featured Cummings and Young as witty, carefree, booze-loving amateur detectives not unlike Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence.

    Actually based on the pseudonymous Adam Hobhouse's novel Hangover Murders, the film is notable for boasting a 15-second post-Production Code kiss.[10]

Leaving Hollywood & marriage to playwright/screenwriter Benn W. Levy

In the early '30s, Constance Cummings – who at one point had been the object of affection of Universal's head of production Carl Laemmle Jr.[11] – met West End and Broadway playwright Benn W. Levy, an Englishman in his early '30s (born on March 7, 1900, in London) then working as a Hollywood screenwriter, chiefly at Universal.[12]

Not long after their marriage in June 1933 (the couple would have two children), Cummings, her Hollywood career all but stalled, would shift her professional focus to the other side of the Atlantic. Although the British film industry lacked the prestige of even a B-list Hollywood studio like Columbia, London's theater scene was arguably the most illustrious in the world.

In 1934, shortly before returning to Broadway in Samson Raphaelson's Benn W. Levy-staged comedy Accent on Youth, she traveled to London to star in the try-out of Sour Grapes, an American marital comedy by Movie Crazy screenwriter Vincent Lawrence that eventually made it to the West End.

As it turned out, England would be her way out of the Hollywood doldrums.

“Constance Cummings: Actress Went from Harold Lloyd to Eugene O'Neill” follow-up post: “'English movies and West End Theater Raves, Liberal-Minded Supporter of Political Refugees.”

Constance Cummings Actress in minor Hollywood movies became major London stage starConstance Cummings: Actress in minor Hollywood movies became major London stage star.

'Constance Cummings: Actress Went from Harold Lloyd to Eugene O'Neill' notes

[1] Curiously, Constance Cummings can't be found on the IBDb cast list for The Little Show.

However, she is included as a member of the Little Show cast in Stanley Green's The World of Musical Comedy: The Story of the American Musical Stage As Told through the Careers of Its Foremost Composers and Lyricists and in Thomas S. Hischak's Broadway Plays and Musicals: Descriptions and Essential Facts of More Than 14,000 Shows through 2007.

Making things a bit more confusing, according to a 1933 New York Times article, Cummings was merely a chorus line dancer in The Little Show.

'The Devil to Pay!' and Samuel Goldwyn

[2] Original The Devil to Pay! director Irving Cummings – no relation to Constance Cummings and best remembered for his 1940s Technicolor Fox musicals starring Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Carmen Miranda, Rita Hayworth, and June Haver – was also fired by Samuel Goldwyn. His replacement was George Fitzmaurice (The Son of the Sheik, Mata Hari), who, ironically, would be fired from Goldwyn's problem-plagued production of Nana about four years later.

It should also be noted that despite his legendary name and standing in the industry, Goldwyn launched only a handful of major movie stars: Ronald Colman, Vilma Banky, Eddie Cantor, and Danny Kaye – and to a more modest extent, Farley Granger, Teresa Wright, Dana Andrews, Virginia Mayo, and David Niven.

Constance Cummings was one of a number of Goldwyn misfires and/or wasted opportunities, some of whom, like Cummings, went on to achieve acclaim elsewhere. Among them – whether unknowns, stage personalities, or foreign imports – were Gary Cooper (who would later return to the Goldwyn fold), Evelyn Laye, Betty Grable, Ina Claire, Anna Sten, Lucille Ball, Andrea Leeds, and Vera Zorina.

Fred Niblo vs. Fred Niblo Jr.

[3] The 1930–31 Academy Award winner in the Best Writing, Adaptation category was Howard Estabrook for RKO's Best Picture winner Cimarron. Directed by Wesley Ruggles, the blockbuster Western starred Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, and Estelle Taylor.

Also, Fred Niblo Jr. is not to be confused with his father, director Fred Niblo. The elder Niblo's credits include:

  • Sex (1920), with Louise Glaum and future (dismissed) The Devil to Pay! director Irving Cummings.
  • The Mark of Zorro (1920), with Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite De La Motte.
  • The Red Lily (1924), Thy Name Is Woman (1924), and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925), with Ramon Novarro.
  • The Temptress (1926) and The Mysterious Lady (1928), with Greta Garbo
  • The Enemy (1927), with Lillian Gish and Ralph Forbes.
  • Camille (1927), with Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland.

A prolific screenwriter of mostly B pictures, Fred Niblo Jr.'s credits include:

  • The Virtuous Husband (1931).
    Dir.: Vin Moore.
    Cast: Betty Compson. Elliott Nugent. Jean Arthur.
  • King of the Jungle (1933).
    Dir.: H. Bruce Humberstone. Max Marcin.
    Cast: Buster Crabbe. Frances Dee.
  • The Fighting 69th (1940).
    Dir.: William Keighley.
    Cast: James Cagney. Pat O'Brien. George Brent.
  • The Wagons Roll at Night (1941).
    Dir.: Ray Enright.
    Cast: Humphrey Bogart. Sylvia Sidney.
  • Four Jills in a Jeep (1944).
    Dir.: William A. Seiter.
    Cast: Kay Francis. Martha Raye. Carole Landis. Mitzi Mayfair.
  • Bodyguard (1948).
    Dir.: Richard Fleischer.
    Cast: Lawrence Tierney. Priscilla Lane. Phillip Reed.
Constance Cummings The Mind Reader Warren William replacing fellow Broadway import Bette DavisConstance Cummings in 'The Mind Reader,' with mind-illiterate hack Warren William as the titular character. She took over the subordinate 'leading lady' role from fellow Broadway import Bette Davis.

Constance Cummings movies

[4] In addition to the titles mentioned elsewhere in this article, Constance Cummings movies of the early 1930s included the following (at Columbia unless otherwise indicated):

  • The Last Parade (1931).
    Dir.: Erle C. Kenton.
    Cast: Jack Holt. Tom Moore. Constance Cummings.
  • Traveling Husbands (1931) at RKO.
    Dir.: Paul Sloane.
    Cast: Evelyn Brent. Frank Albertson. Constance Cummings. Hugh Herbert.
  • The Guilty Generation (1931).
    Dir.: Rowland V. Lee.
    Cast: Leo Carrillo. Constance Cummings. Boris Karloff. Robert Young.
  • Lover Come Back (1931).
    Dir.: Erle C. Kenton.
    Cast: Constance Cummings. Jack Mulhall. Betty Bronson.
  • The Last Man (1932).
    Dir.: Howard Higgin.
    Cast: Charles Bickford. Constance Cummings. Alec B. Francis.
  • Attorney for the Defense (1932).
    Dir.: Irving Cummings.
    Cast: Edmund Lowe. Evelyn Brent. Constance Cummings.
  • The Big Timer (1932).
    Dir.: Edward Buzzell.
    Cast: Ben Lyon. Constance Cummings. Thelma Todd. Tommy Dugan.
  • Behind the Mask (1932).
    Dir.: John Francis Dillon.
    Cast: Jack Holt. Constance Cummings. Boris Karloff. Claude King.
  • Billion Dollar Scandal (1933) at Paramount.
    Dir.: Harry Joe Brown.
    Cast: Robert Armstrong. Constance Cummings. Olga Baclanova. Frank Morgan. James Gleason. Irving Pichel. Frank Albertson. Sidney Toler.
  • The Mind Reader (1933) at First National / Warner Bros.
    Dir.: Roy Del Ruth.
    Cast: Warren William. Constance Cummings (replacing another early 1930s Broadway import, Bette Davis). Allen Jenkins. Natalie Moorhead. Mayo Methot.
'Movie Crazy' with Constance Cummings and Harold Lloyd: Her best known Hollywood movie.

'Movie Crazy' plagiarism lawsuit

[5] Clyde Bruckman, a chronic alcoholic, received sole credit for the direction of Movie Crazy. However, Harold Lloyd later asserted that he actually directed much of the film.

In 1947, the Harold Lloyd Corp. took Bruckman and Universal Pictures to court, claiming they had plagiarized three Lloyd movies:

  • The Freshman (1925) – The Andrews Sisters musical Her Lucky Night (1945).
  • Welcome Danger (1929) – The Joan Davis-William Gargan musical comedy She Gets Her Man (1945).
  • Somewhat ironically, Merton of the Movies' cinematic cousin Movie Crazy (1932) – The Billie Burke-Donald Woods comedy So's Your Uncle (1943).

Clyde Bruckman, who had received writing credit on both Welcome Danger (story) and Movie Crazy (continuity), co-wrote all three Universal films. For the specific Movie Crazy plagiarism complaint, the Harold Lloyd Corp. received $40,000.

Best Harold Lloyd leading lady

[6] Pittsburgh Post-Gazette movie critic Harold W. Cohen was even more enthusiastic about Constance Cummings' performance in Movie Crazy, asserting that she was “the best leading lady Mr. Lloyd has ever had. She gives a first-rate performance in every respect.”

Now, that's actually less impressive than it sounds simply because Harold Lloyd – much like Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and other major comedians of the silent era – almost invariably worked with minor and/or inexperienced actresses who had little to do on camera. In Lloyd's case:

  • Barbara Kent (the talkies Feet First and Welcome Danger).
  • Ann Christy (Speedy).
  • Jobyna Ralston (Girl Shy, The Freshman).
  • Future wife Mildred Davis (Never Weaken, Safety Last).
  • And, an exception to the rule, Bebe Daniels. Lloyd's leading lady in his Lonesome Luke shorts and other such fare of the 1910s, Daniels went on to become a major star in the 1920s (Monsieur Beaucaire, Miss Brewster's Millions, Rio Rita).

Harold Lloyd's talking pictures

[7] According to Tom Dardis' Harold Lloyd: The Man on the Clock, Movie Crazy cost $675,353. The film reportedly brought in an impressive $1,439,000 in North America, but due to its relatively large budget Movie Crazy was hardly as profitable as Lloyd's silent comedies.

There would be only four post-Movie Crazy Harold Lloyd star vehicles:

  • Sam Taylor's The Cat's-Paw (1934), with Una Merkel.
  • Leo McCarey's The Milky Way (1936), with Adolphe Menjou, Verree Teasdale, and Helen Mack.
  • Elliott Nugent's Professor Beware (1938), with Phyllis Welch.
  • And Lloyd's comeback comedy The Sin of Harold Diddlebock / Mad Wednesday (1947), a flop directed by Preston Sturges and featuring Rudy Vallee and Arline Judge.

[8] The title and milieu – but not the plot – of Washington Merry-Go-Round were taken from the 1931 bestseller penned (anonymously) by journalists Robert Sharon Allen and Drew Pearson.

[9] As found in Robert Birchard's Cecil B. DeMille's Hollywood, Constance Cummings was one of many actresses considered for the female lead in DeMille's 1935 period drama The Crusades.

The Devil to Pay! and The House of Rothschild leading lady Loretta Young eventually got to play opposite Henry Wilcoxon in the big-budget Paramount release.

'Remember Last Night?' and James Whale

[10] Information on Remember Last Night? can be found in Gregory William Mank's Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration.

As found in Mark Gatiss' James Whale: A Biography, or, The Would-be Gentleman, Cummings would say about the director of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein: “He was a most delightful man. Urbane, gentle and very warm, with a nice off-beat sense of humour.”

James Whale's other film credits include:

  • The Old Dark House (1932).
    Cast: Charles Laughton. Melvyn Douglas. Gloria Stuart (decades later, of Titanic fame). Boris Karloff.
  • The Invisible Man (1933).
    Cast: Claude Rains. Gloria Stuart.
  • Show Boat (1936).
    Cast: Irene Dunne. Allan Jones. Helen Morgan.
  • The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).
    Cast: Louis Hayward. Joan Bennett. Warren William. Joseph Schildkraut.

Ian McKellen received a Best Actor Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of James Whale in Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters (1998), also featuring Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave.

Carl Laemmle Jr.

[11] Carl Laemmle Jr. was the son of Universal co-founder Carl Laemmle. Besides James Whale's horror-comedy classic The Old Dark House, the sci-fi thriller The Invisible Man, and the musical Show Boat, among Laemmle Jr.'s nearly 150 credits as a movie producer/executive producer were:

  • Best Picture Academy Award winner All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).
    Dir.: Lewis Milestone.
    Cast: Lew Ayres. Louis Wolheim.
  • Dracula (1931).
    Dir.: Tod Browning.
    Cast: Bela Lugosi. David Manners. Helen Chandler.
  • Frankenstein (1931).
    Dir.: James Whale.
    Cast: Colin Clive. John Boles. Boris Karloff. Mae Clarke.
  • Best Picture Academy Award nominee Imitation of Life (1934).
    Dir.: John M. Stahl.
    Cast: Claudette Colbert. Warren William. Louise Beavers. Rochelle Hudson. Fredi Washington.
  • The Good Fairy (1935).
    Dir.: William Wyler.
    Cast: Margaret Sullavan. Herbert Marshall. Frank Morgan. Reginald Owen.

Gregory William Mank mentions the Carl Laemmle Jr.-Constance Cummings connection in Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration and in other publications.

In Hollywood Dynasties, Stephen Farber and Marc Green state that Cummings and Junior Laemmle (as he was known at the time) were briefly engaged, but Carl Laemmle nixed the marriage because she wasn't Jewish.

Ironically, Cummings would end up marrying Benn W. Levy, who also happened to be Jewish.

Constance Cummings and husband Benn W. Levy (in drag) are briefly seen in this early '30s Frankie Darro short.[13]

Screenwriter and one-time director Benn W. Levy

[12] In the early-to-mid-'30s, Benn W. Levy's few but hardly minor screen credits – whether solo or in collaboration, on both sides of the Atlantic – included the following:

  • The dialogue for Alfred Hitchcock's first talkie, Blackmail (1929), starring Anny Ondra and John Longden.
  • James Whale's 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge, featuring Mae Clarke and Douglass Montgomery.
  • Richard Boleslawski's surprisingly entertaining spy comedy-drama The Gay Diplomat (1931), toplining Genevieve Tobin, Betty Compson, Ivan Lebedeff, and Ilka Chase.
  • James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932).
  • Paramount's Marion Gering-directed romantic triangle drama Devil and the Deep, starring Tallulah Bankhead, Gary Cooper, and Charles Laughton.
  • Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast's Topaze (1933), based on a Marcel Pagnol play which Levy himself had adapted for the Broadway stage. John Barrymore and Myrna Loy starred.
  • Victor Saville's British-made Loves of a Dictator / The Dictator (1935), a Mayerling-like historical drama starring illicit lovers Clive Brook (as Dr. Friedrich Struensee) and Madeleine Carroll (as Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark).

In England, Levy also acquired his one and only screen credit as a director:

  • The Alfred Hitchcock-produced Lord Camber's Ladies (1932), a crime drama starring stage legends Gerald du Maurier and Gertrude Lawrence, in addition to future Ronald Colman wife Benita Hume and Nigel Bruce (Dr. Watson in Universal's Sherlock Holmes movies of the 1940s).

Lord Camber's Ladies is notable as the only film produced but not directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Benn W. Levy on Broadway

Among Levy's early 1930s Broadway credits were the adaptation of Pagnol's Topaze (1930), starring The Wizard of Oz actor Frank Morgan; and Springtime for Henry (1931–32), with Leslie Banks, Nigel Bruce, Helen Chandler, and Frieda Inescort.

Directed by Frank Tuttle and adapted by Tuttle and Keene Thompson, a 1934 film version of Springtime for Henry was released by Paramount. Otto Kruger, Nancy Carroll, Nigel Bruce, and Heather Angel starred.

That same year, Victor Saville directed the British musical Evergreen, based on a Levy play. Jessie Matthews, Sonnie Hale, Barry MacKay, and silent era veteran Betty Balfour starred.

In Encyclopedia of British Humorists: Geoffrey Chaucer to John Cleese, Volume 2, edited by Steven H. Gale, Levy is described as a “highly literate, socially conscious dramatist whose sharp wit of both mind and language resulted in the writing in a variety of dramatic genres whose styles and thematic concerns are a mirror of their age, an age that embraced the so-called twilight of the Shaw era and the English stage revolution that began in 1956.”

Frankie Darro autograph hunter

[13] Besides autograph hunter Frankie Darro, Constance Cummings, and Benn W. Levy, the short features the following:

Cummings' Night After Night co-star George Raft. Miriam Hopkins. Fay Wray. Gene Raymond. Jean Harlow.

Richard Dix. Jeanette Macdonald. Paulette Goddard. Charles Chaplin. Arline Judge. George Bancroft.

 

List of Constance Cummings movies via the IMDb.

Constance Cummings' Film Weekly comment via Anthony Slide's A Special Relationship: Britain Comes to Hollywood and Hollywood Comes to Britain.

John Springer quote found in They Had Faces Then.

Constance Cummings photo of the early 1930s: Columbia Pictures publicity image, via Doctor Macro.

Harold Lloyd and Constance Cummings Movie Crazy image and clip: Paramount Pictures.

Walter Huston and Constance Cummings The Criminal Code clip: Columbia Pictures.

Warren William and Constance Cummings The Mind Reader image: Warner Bros.

American Madness clip with Constance Cummings and Pat O'Brien: Columbia Pictures.

Alison Skipworth, Wynne Gibson, Mae West, George Raft, and Constance Cummings in Night After Night trailer and Cummings image: Paramount Pictures.

Russ Columbo and Constance Cummings Broadway Thru a Keyhole clip: United Artists.

Image of Douglas Jeffries, Anthony Bushell, and Constance Cummings in Channel Crossing: Gaumont British, via britishpictures.com.

An earlier draft of this Constance Cummings article erroneously listed Wesley Ruggles as the director of Night After Night. Ruggles actually directed Mae West in another movie, I'm No Angel (1933), co-starring Edward Arnold and Cary Grant.

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1 Comment to Constance Cummings: Vastly Underrated Actress Went from Harold Lloyd to Eugene O'Neill

  1. Maria

    I think Constance Cummings was a great actress and I enjoy seeing all of her old movies. She had a beautiful smile that came from within. Thank you for the mini biography on her film career.