One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley interviewed stage actress Esther Howard, who would be appearing in a musical comedy, The Sweetheart Shop, in Los Angeles in a few days. This was the first time Kingsley mentioned that an interview was held long distance over the phone. Now we forget how remarkable and expensive that was.
Howard told her how she managed to get hired for her first comedy:
“Hello!” she exclaimed from the other end of the wire. “Even if it takes ten dollars’ worth of language, I’m going to explain that I’m purely an accident in the fun field. I started out playing Youth in Everywoman back in a St. Louis stock company, and you know what a swell chance a girl has to be funny in that solemn old Gloomy Gus play. The only reason I got my New York job in The Sweetheart Shop, that time I ran over to see if somebody didn’t want to put a new face on Broadway, was because Edgar J. MacGregor, the producer, said that I ‘looked funny.’ Told me that to my face.
“I felt bad a minute when he said that. Then I said, ‘Funny enough for a hit?’ and I grinned at him. I guess the grin got him. Anyway, he engaged me. And nobody could have been more surprised than I was myself at the way people laughed at my antics. I was afraid they were simply making fun of me, but no, they really liked me.”
“Really though, I don’t look so funny,” she explained in an injured sort of tone.
Actually, she was lucky not to look like a typical ingenue – that was part of her later success as a character actress in films. Esther Howard got her first job when she snuck out of high school in Boston during her senior year to audition to be part of a crowd scene with a touring company in Madame X, a Sarah Bernhardt project. Two years later, she joined a stock company in Lynn Massachusetts and after a season, she made her debut on Broadway in Eve’s Daughter (1917). It was a flop, but she continued to find work in dramas, until the fateful day she described.
She continued to work in musical comedies for the rest of her stage career. In 1930 she moved to Los Angeles and became a character actress. She appeared in over 100 films. She had many dramatic roles in films like Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), but she also continued to make comedies. She was part of Preston Sturge’s stock company and was in seven of his films. She was also memorable in several film noirs, including Murder My Sweet (1944) and Born to Kill (1947). As the Cracked Rear View blog said of her, “Her matronly looks and acting talent allowed her to play a rich, haughty dowager or a drunken old floozy with equal aplomb. Esther may not have been a big star, but her presence gave a lift to any movie she was in, big or small.” She retired in 1952 and died following a heart attack in 1965.
Caftan Woman also featured an appreciation of her work.
Kingsley reviewed The Sweetheart Shop a few days later and she liked it, and Howard, a lot:
There’s a show that for novelty, tunefulness and pep, steals right home on the second inning, over at the Mason this week. It’s called “The Sweetheart Shop,“ is by Anne Caldwell and Hugo Felix, and opening to a capacity house it struck a hit gait right at the start…The other outstanding personality is that of Esther Howard, who has a very clever method all her own, a very pepful, eccentric method, and whose Greenwich Village Vampire satire is one of the real achievements of the season in musical comedy land. She corners the laughs at every turn.
Kingsley’s interview showed that Howard was funny without a script. Because opening night was Valentine’s Day (women in the cast were going to toss candy hearts from the stage), Kingsley asked a silly question: would she marry a Los Angeles man, and Howard said yes, if he weren’t a motion picture actor, because they don’t take marriage seriously enough. She added “Anyhow, line up the prospective bridegrooms at the station when I get in. And please be on hand to help me make a choice.” That’s about the best answer there could be to such a dumb question. She didn’t bother to mention that in 1919 she’d married stage actor Arthur Albertson.
Saturday night there was a star-filled Mardi Gras party at the Ambassador Hotel, and Kingsley reported that the outfits were fabulous, the speeches were short, and “a good time was had by all.” But the best story involved movie actress Ethel Shannon, who, like Howard, had no interest in getting to know a film actor.
That clever young lady sweetly handed the glad old binge to one of our handsomest screen idols in the course of the evening. It seems this handsome screen idol, looking upon Miss Shannon and finding her good, yea easy to look at, bet another man he could cut her escort out. Somehow the little girl found it out, and though she secretly admired him just like all the other girls, she decided to get even with him when he began his fine work with her.
The screen idol was introduced to her under an assumed name. He began telling her how charming she was, and all about what her eyes did to him, but she kept her fingers crossed, and when the repartee along this line began to burn low and smell of wick, the screen idol asked her who her favorite actor was. She answered promptly “Sessue Hayakawa.” “But don’t you like anybody else?” persisted the screen idol. “How about Blank—” naming himself.
“Why,” back-fired little Miss Shannon, “I think he’s the worst idiot on the screen, and you look like him!
Hee hee. I’m glad Miss Kingsley preserved that story. I wonder who the idol was – it’s just mean that she left that out.
Ethel Shannon went on to star in films like Maytime (1923) and Charley’s Aunt (1925). It seems like she liked screenwriters more than actors: her escort to Mardi Gras was Finis Fox, and in 1927 she married Joseph Jackson and retired from acting.
Axel Nissen, “Madame Noir: Esther Howard in Born to Kill (1947)” In: Mothers, Mammies and Old Maids, Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2012, p.107-113.