Every once in a while, I’ve been known to go off on a tangent. Something obscure will pique my interest, and, for whatever reason, I find that I’m not able to let it go. (Does anyone remember my interest in the large school bell that was rung by the 19 year old Orson Welles in his student film The Hearts of Age?) Well, I was home with a cold today, and Clementine and I celebrated by making chicken noodle soup from scratch and watching old movies. We started with Grand Hotel, and then moved on to the even more depressing Dinner at Eight, both of which feature two of my favorite actors, Lionel and John Barrymore. Both films also star comedic tough-guy Wallace Beery. And it was a mention of Beery in a short documentary piece included on the Grand Hotel DVD that caught my interest. In describing the April 29, 1932 premier of Grand Hotel at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the narrator of the documentary segment made an offhand comment about Beery appearing in drag, and it being poorly-received by the star-studded audience. So, after putting the kids to bed, I took to Google… and the next several hours were spent going down the Wallace Beery rabbit hole, trying to figure out why he’d take the stage in drag, and why it had so upset the audience.
It would seem that Beery, who had won a 1931 Best Actor Oscar for his work alongside Jackie Cooper in the film The Champ, had a history of cross-dressing. In fact, it’s how the imposing actor originally came to make a name for himself in Hollywood, during the silent era. Berry, beginning in 1914, had starred in a series of over 30 short silent films, in which he portrayed a woman by the name of Sweedie, The Swedish Maid . (A frame of Beery, appearing as Sweedie in 1914′s Topsy-Turvy Sweedie, can be seen to the right.) While I haven’t yet been able to find the back-story, explaining how the Sweedie character came to be, I have found several allusions to the fact that Beery was known, throughout his career, to often appear in drag. As for what happened on this particular night, it would appear that Berry was encouraged by the humorist Will Rogers, who was acting as the master of ceremonies at the gala event, to imitate his Grand Hotel co-star, the notoriously reclusive Gretta Garbo.
Here’s how Will Rogers explained everything a few days after the fact:
Louie B. Mayer asked me (to introduce the cast), and I was tickled to do it. The whole thing is the biggest ‘hooey’ out here… This was an especially big one, for it was the biggest cast picture ever made… They have an intermission and everybody goes out and looks at each other, and you can’t get ‘em back in again. They would rather look at each other than the show…
Well of course you all know Greta Garbo never goes anywhere… Nobody has ever met her. John Barrymore who played with her in the picture, he has never seen her, that was all done with mirrors…
She’s a fantom. The minute you look at her, she’s not there, she is in Sweden, or Norway, or Denmark, or wherever it is these Swedes come from… She don’t go anywhere, (but) I announced that, on account of the importance of the occasion, Miss Garbo would break her rule and be there, and that immediately after the picture was over (she would) come on stage and take a bow…
Well, I had framed up a gag with Wally Berry (in) some ‘dame’ clothes. He was my Greta Garbo. Sounds kinder funny don’t it? Well it wasn’t to them. Wally did it fine. He even looked like her, but not enough to satisfy that crowd.
Now they should have known that Garbo wasn’t going to be there any more than Coolidge, but they go and believe it and then get sore at themselves for believing it. I didn’t mean any harm. Gosh, us comedians must get laughs. But these first nighters don’t want us to get ‘em at their expense…
So, that, in case you were like me, and wanted to know why people didn’t appreciate Beery in drag, on the stage of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in 1932, is the story. It wasn’t that they didn’t appreciate drag. It’s just that they didn’t like being made fools of for sitting through the movie in expectation of seeing Garbo at the end. (Speaking of Garbo, she was so anxious about being seen that her scenes with John Barrymore in Grad Hotel were apparently shot through a hole in a canvas screen, so that no one on the cast or crew could see them, except for the director, who watched through the camera lens.)
In the process of solving one mystery, though, many more came to the surface. Most notably, I learned that Beery was likely the killer of Tree Stooges founder Ted Healy in 1937. The following comes by way of a 2002 story in the Chicago Tribune.
…It could have been the O. J. Simpson story of its day, except that after a flurry of press reports, the police investigation got snuffed. The story was relegated to the status of Hollywood legend, to be whispered back and forth in the movie colony for decades.
But only recently did it surface in print, contained, bizarrely enough, in a new biography of the Stooges, who are most associated with the mock violence of rubber hammers, slipped punches and simulated eye-jabs.
According to “The Three Stooges: The Triumphs and Tragedies of the Most Popular Comedy Team of All Time,” written by Jeff and Tom Forrester, Chicago-area natives who are longtime Stooges historians, the affair unfolded on the night of Dec. 20, 1937, and resulted in the brutal death of Ted Healy, who at the time was arguably the most influential comedian in the United States, though today he is largely forgotten.
Healy, for those who may not have heard of him, was a top vaudeville funnyman and movie star of the 1920s and ’30s who is best remembered today for giving the Three Stooges their start in show business as foils for his stage act. Regarded by many show-business historians as a brilliant improv comic, who influenced a generation of stand-up comedians, from Jack Benny and Bob Hope to Milton Berle, Healy first met the three Howard brothers (nee Hortwitz) on a beach in Brooklyn one day in 1909, when all were in their early teens. Thirteen years later, by then a major star, Healy would hire his boyhood friends — first Shemp, and later Moe and Curly — to provide the madcap side of his show.
It was the beginning of a tempestuous relationship that would last, on and off, for years, with more Stooges being added and subtracted from the act until a final break with the bad-tempered Healy in 1934 sent the familiar trio of Curly and Moe Howard and Larry Fine out on their own and into the movies.
Healy was a true Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. Loose and funny when sober, he could become a vile drunk, a touchy, combative sort always ready for a bar fight. It was this volatility and mean-spiritedness that sent the Three Stooges packing. (Indeed, a favorite Healy stunt involved having the Stooges collect Los Angles telephone directories, which he’d soak in a bathtub and then drop on unsuspecting pedestrians from his penthouse apartment. Just for laughs.)
According to Jeff Forrester, there were long-standing hard feelings between Healy and Beery and the Luciano mobster, Pasquale “Pat” DiCicco, before that night in December 1937.
DiCicco, a handsome roue with a violent streak who was Luciano’s “eyes and ears in Hollywood,” according to the Forresters, knew Healy had had an affair with his ex-wife, the film star Thelma Todd. (Todd herself died under mysterious circumstances in 1934.)
Officially ruled a “suicide,” there was no accounting for her broken nose and shattered jaw. Some said she died at the hands of her ex-husband, who had been known to abuse her.) And Beery, the star of “The Champ” and “Tugboat Annie,” held a grudge against Healy for supposedly stealing scenes in their 1937 film “Good Old Soak.”
Healy, newly married, was celebrating the birth of his only child the night he was beaten. He had staggered into the Trocadero blind drunk and tangled with Beery twice at the bar, before inviting the actor and DiCicco both outside to fight. Eyewitnesses, including DiCicco’s cousin, the late Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, stated as much to the Los Angeles Police Department.
According to the Forresters’ book, a member of Healy’s Stooges troupe named Sammy Wolfe (there was a dispute between Healy and the Howards over who would retain the name and concept of the Stooges) happened to be at the bar that night and gave the following account:
“Wallace Beery was sitting at the bar with Pat DiCicco. Beery was making a lot of noise. Ted Healy was at the other end of the bar, and Ted told Beery to be quiet. Beery said, “I won’t be quiet.” It went back and forth. Then Beery gets up and punches Ted right in the side of the head, right there at the bar. Ted says, “Let’s go outside, and I’ll take care of both of you!” I guess Beery and DiCicco went out into the parking lot, but there was already another guy out there. And he jumped Ted, and then the other two guys jumped in and beat him up.’”
…By most accounts, the book says, Healy was savagely beaten in the Trocadero parking lot that night, kicked in the head, ribs and stomach. Half-conscious and bleeding, he crawled into a taxi and instructed the driver to take him to the Brown Derby restaurant.
The Forresters say that Shemp’s late widow, Babe, told them that Healy then called Shemp and told him how Beery and DiCicco and a third man whom he didn’t know had attacked him. The book says Healy also telephoned another of the stage Stooges, Dick Hakins, with the same account.
The next day, Healy became violently ill, fell into a coma and died…
The episode is also apparently mentioned in E.J. Fleming’s book The Fixers: Eddie Mannix, Howard Strickling and the MGM Publicity Machine. According to Fleming, when Beery, DiCicco and Broccoli, who would eventually go on to make a fortune as the producer of the James Bond films, killed Healy, the MGM “fixers” sprang to action, sending Beery to Europe for several months, and creating a story about Healy having been killed by three unknown college students.
And, for those of you Beery fans out there, who don’t think that the lovable “Champ” would be capable of such a thing, the evidence would seem to indicate otherwise. Not only is there this allegation of murder, but it also seems to be pretty widely accepted that he raped his first wife, the actress Gloria Swanson, and, at some point during their marriage, tricked her into drinking a concoction that induced an abortion, as he neither liked, nor wanted, children. And apparently kids sensed that. Jackie Cooper, who, as a child, worked with Beery in several films, wrote in his autobiography that Beery was, “the most sadistic person I have ever known“.
After hours of research, though, there’s still one thing that I haven’t been able to track down. I’ve seen it mentioned in two places that there’s a pencil sketch of Beery somewhere, drawn by Ted Healy. Apparently he drew it on the set of a film that they were working on together. (I’m assuming it was completed on the set of Good Old Soak, which was shot approximately one year before Healy’s murder, but I’m not certain.) So, that’s my new quest in life. I want to find that drawing and interview its owner. If you can point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate.
And one last little mystery, while we’re at it. Apparently the child-hating Beery illegally adopted an infant girl in 1939, who was never heard of again. The following is from Wikipedia:
In December 1939, the unmarried Beery adopted a seven-month old infant girl Phyllis Ann. Phyllis appeared in MGM publicity photos when adopted, but was never mentioned again. Beery told the press he had taken the girl in from a single mother, recently divorced, but filed no official adoption papers. No further information on the child appears to exist, and she is not mentioned in Beery’s obituary.
My guess is that it was just studio PR, and that there never really was an adoption at all… just a studio that wanted to eke a little more life out of an actor who, only a few years prior, had been one of Hollywood’s Top Ten stars at the box office. At least that’s what I’m hoping, for her sake. (The older girl in the creepy photo above, I suspect, is Carol Ann, the girl that Beery and his second wife, Rita Gilman, adopted during the short time they were together. (She was the daughter of Gilman’s cousin.))