Spanish postcard by Editorial Grafica, Barcelona, in the Estrellas del Cine series, no. 126. Photo: First National.
American film actress Mary Astor (1906–1987) was famous for her part as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941) with Humphrey Bogart. She won an Oscar as best supporting actress for The Great Lie (1941). Astor had a long acting career that already started in the silent era in 1921 and included over 100 films.
Mary Astor was born as Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Quincy, Illinois, in 1906. She was the only child of Otto Ludwig Langhanke and Helen Marie de Vasconcellos. Both of her parents were teachers. Astor’s father taught German at Quincy High School until the U.S. entered World War I. Later on, he took up light farming. Astor’s mother, who had always wanted to be an actress, taught drama and elocution. Astor was home-schooled in academics and was taught to play the piano by her father, who insisted she practice daily. Her piano talents came in handy when she played piano in her films The Great Lie (1941) and Meet Me in St. Louis. In 1919, Astor sent a photograph of herself to a beauty contest in Motion Picture Magazine, becoming a semifinalist. When Astor was 15, the family moved to Chicago, Illinois, with her father teaching German in public schools. Astor took drama lessons and appeared in various amateur stage productions. The following year, she sent another photograph to Motion Picture Magazine, this time becoming a finalist and then runner-up in the national contest. Her father then moved the family to New York City, in order for his daughter to act in films. He managed her affairs from September 1920 to June 1930. A Manhattan photographer, Charles Albin, saw her photograph and asked the young girl with haunting eyes and long auburn hair to pose for him. The Albin photographs were seen by Harry Durant of Famous Players-Lasky and Astor was signed to a six-month contract with Paramount Pictures. Her name was changed to Mary Astor during a conference among Paramount Pictures chief Jesse Lasky, film producer Walter Wanger, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons.
Mary Astor’s first screen test was directed by Lillian Gish, who was so impressed with her recitation of Shakespeare that she shot a thousand feet of her. She made her debut at age 14 either in the Buster Keaton comedy The Scarecrow (Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton, 1920) – according to IMDb, or in Sentimental Tommy (John S. Robertson, 1921) according to Wikipedia. She then appeared in some short films with sequences based on famous paintings. She received critical recognition for the two-reeler The Beggar Maid (Herbert Blaché, 1921) with Reginald Denny. Her first feature-length film was John Smith (Victor Heerman, 1922), followed that same year by The Man Who Played God (F. Harmon Weight, 1922) starring George Arliss. In 1923, she and her parents moved to Hollywood. After appearing in several larger roles at various studios, she was again signed by Paramount, this time to a one-year contract at $500 a week. After she appeared in several more films, John Barrymore saw her photograph in a magazine and wanted her cast in his upcoming film. On loan-out to Warner Bros., she starred with him in Beau Brummel (Harry Beaumont, 1924). The older actor wooed the young actress, but their relationship was severely constrained by Astor’s parents’ unwillingness to let the couple spend time alone together. Mary was only seventeen and legally underage. It was only after Barrymore convinced the Langhankes that his acting lessons required privacy that the couple managed to be alone at all. Their secret engagement ended largely because of the Langhankes’ interference and Astor’s inability to escape their heavy-handed authority, and because Barrymore became involved with Astor’s fellow WAMPAS Baby Star Dolores Costello, whom he later married. In 1925, Astor’s parents bought a Moorish style mansion with 1 acre (4,000 m2) of land known as Moorcrest in the hills above Hollywood. The Langhankes not only lived lavishly off of Astor’s earnings but kept her a virtual prisoner inside Moorcrest. The following year when she was 19, Astor, fed up with her father’s constant physical and psychological abuse as well as his control of her money, climbed from her second-floor bedroom window and escaped to a hotel in Hollywood, as recounted in her memoirs. She returned when Otto Langhanke gave her a savings account with $500 and the freedom to come and go as she pleased. Nevertheless, she did not gain control of her salary until she was 26 years old, at which point her parents sued her for financial support. Astor settled the case by agreeing to pay her parents $100 a month. Otto Langhanke put Moorcrest up for auction in the early 1930s, hoping to realise more than the $80,000 he had been offered for it; it sold for $25,000.
Mary Astor continued to appear in films at various studios. When her Paramount contract ended in 1925, she was signed at Warner Bros. Among her assignments was another role with John Barrymore, this time in Don Juan (Alan Crosland, 1926). She was named one of the WAMPAS (Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby Stars in 1926, along with Mary Brian, Dolores Costello, Joan Crawford, Dolores del Río, Janet Gaynor, and Fay Wray. On loan to Fox, Astor starred in Dressed to Kill (Irving Cummings, 1928), which received good reviews, and the sophisticated comedy Dry Martini (Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, 1928). When her Warner Bros. contract ended, she signed a contract with Fox for $3,750 a week. In 1928, she married director Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard Hawks) at her family home, Moorcrest. He gave her a Packard automobile as a wedding present and the couple moved into a home high up on Lookout Mountain in Los Angeles above Beverly Hills. As the film industry made the transition to talkies, Fox gave her a sound test, which she failed because the studio found her voice to be too deep. Though this result was probably due to early sound equipment and inexperienced technicians, the studio released her from her contract and she found herself out of work for eight months in 1929. Astor took voice training and singing lessons in her time off with Francis Stuart, an exponent of Francesco Lamperti, but no roles were offered. Her acting career was then given a boost by her friend, Florence Eldridge (wife of Fredric March), in whom she confided. Eldridge, who was to star in the stage play ‘Among the Married’ at the Majestic Theatre in Los Angeles, recommended Astor for the second female lead. The play was a success and her voice was deemed suitable, being described as low and vibrant. In early 1930, while filming sequences for the Fox film Such Men Are Dangerous, Kenneth Hawks was killed in a mid-air plane crash over the Pacific. Astor had just finished a matinee performance at the Majestic when Florence Eldridge gave her the news. Astor remained with Eldridge at her apartment for some time, then soon returned to work. Shortly after her husband’s death, she debuted in her first talkie, Ladies Love Brutes (Rowland V. Lee, 1930) at Paramount, in which she co-starred with George Bancroft and her friend Fredric March. While her career picked up, her private life remained difficult. After working on several more films, she suffered delayed shock over her husband’s death and had a nervous breakdown.
During the months of her illness, Mary Astor was attended to by Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, whom she married in 1931. That year, she starred as Nancy Gibson in Smart Woman (Gregory La Cava, 1931), playing a woman determined to retrieve her husband from a gold-digging flirtation. In 1932, the Thorpes purchased a yacht and sailed to Hawaii. Astor was expecting a baby in August but gave birth in June in Honolulu. The child, a daughter, was named Marylyn Hauoli Thorpe: her first name combined her parents’ names and her middle name is Hawaiian. When they returned to California, Astor freelanced and gained the pivotal role of Barbara Willis in Red Dust (Victor Fleming, 1932) with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. In late 1932, Astor signed a featured player contract with Warner Bros. Meanwhile, besides spending lavishly, her parents invested in the stock market, which often turned out unprofitable. While they remained in Moorcrest, Astor dubbed it a "white elephant", and she refused to maintain the house. She had to turn to the Motion Picture Relief Fund in 1933 to pay her bills. She appeared as the female lead, Hilda Lake, niece of the murder victims, in The Kennel Murder Case (Michael Curtiz, 1933), co-starring with William Powell as detective Philo Vance. Soon unhappy with her marriage, due to Thorpe having a short temper and a habit of listing her faults, Astor wanted a divorce by 1933. At a friend’s suggestion, she took a break from film-making in 1933 and visited New York alone. While there, enjoying a whirlwind social life, she met the playwright George S. Kaufman, who was in a strong but open marriage. She documented their affair in her diary. Thorpe, by now making use of his wife’s income, had discovered Astor’s diary. He indicated her liaisons with other men, including Kaufman, would be used to claim she was an unfit mother in any divorce proceedings. Thorpe divorced Astor in April 1935. A legal battle drew press attention to Astor in 1936 when a custody battle resulted over their four-year-old daughter, Marylyn. Astor’s diary was never formally offered as evidence during the trial, but Thorpe and his lawyers constantly referred to it, and its notoriety grew. Astor admitted that the diary existed and that she had documented her affair with Kaufman, but maintained that many of the parts that had been referred to were forgeries, following the theft of the diary from her desk. The diary was deemed inadmissible as a mutilated document because Thorpe had removed pages referring to himself and had fabricated content. The trial judge, Goodwin J. Knight, ordered it sealed and impounded. News of the diary became public when Astor’s role in Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936), as Edith Cortwright, was beginning to be filmed. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was urged to fire her, as her contract included a morality clause, but Goldwyn refused. With Walter Huston in the title role, Dodsworth received rave reviews on release, and the public’s acceptance assured the studios that casting Astor remained a viable proposition. Ultimately, the scandals caused no harm to Astor’s career, which was actually revitalised because of the custody fight and the publicity it generated. In 1952, by court order, Astor’s diary was removed from the bank vault where it had been sequestered for 16 years and destroyed.
In 1937, Mary Astor returned to the stage in well-received productions of Noël Coward’s ‘Tonight at 8.30’, ‘The Astonished Heart’, and ‘Still Life’. She also began performing regularly on the radio. Over the next few years, she had roles in The Prisoner of Zenda (John Cromwell, 1937), John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937), Midnight (Mitchell Leisen, 1939) and Brigham Young (Henry Hathaway, 1940), starring Tyrone Power. In John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941), Astor played scheming temptress and murderer Brigid O’Shaughnessy. The film also starred Humphrey Bogart and featured Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. For her performance in The Great Lie (Edmund Goulding, 1941) she won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress. As Sandra Kovak, the self-absorbed concert pianist who relinquishes her unborn child, her intermittent love interest was played by George Brent, but the film’s star was Bette Davis. Davis wanted Astor cast in the role after watching her screen test and seeing her play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1. She then recruited Astor to collaborate on rewriting the script, which Davis felt was mediocre and needed work to make it more interesting. Astor further followed Davis’s advice and sported a bobbed hairdo for the role. The soundtrack of the film in the scenes where she plays the concerto, with violent hand movements on the piano keyboard, was dubbed by pianist Max Rabinovitch. Davis deliberately stepped back to allow Astor to shine in her key scenes. In her Oscar acceptance speech, Astor thanked Bette Davis and Tchaikovsky. Astor and Davis became good friends. Astor was not propelled into the upper echelon of movie stars by these successes, however. She always declined offers of starring in her own right. Not wanting the responsibility of top billing and having to carry the picture, she preferred the security of being a featured player. She reunited with Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet in John Huston’s Across the Pacific (1942). Though usually cast in dramatic or melodramatic roles, Astor showed a flair for comedy as The Princess Centimillia in the screwball comedy, The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942) with Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea. In February 1943, Astor’s father, Otto Langhanke, died in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital as a result of a heart attack complicated by influenza. His wife and daughter were at his bedside. That same year, Astor signed a seven-year contract with MGM, a regrettable mistake. She was kept busy playing what she considered mediocre roles she called "Mothers for Metro". After Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944), the studio allowed her to debut on Broadway in ‘Many Happy Returns’ (1945). The play was a failure, but Astor received good reviews. On loan-out to 20th Century Fox, she played a wealthy widow in Claudia and David (Walter Lang, 1946). She was also loaned to Paramount to play Fritzi Haller in Desert Fury (Lewis Allen, 1947) playing the tough owner of a saloon and casino in a small mining town. In 1947 Helen Langhanke died of a heart ailment. Back at MGM, Astor continued being cast in undistinguished, colorless mother roles. One exception was when she played a prostitute in the Film Noir Act of Violence (Fred Zinnemann, 1948) with Van Heflin and Robert Ryan. The last straw came when she was cast as Marmee March in Little Women (Mervyn LeRoy, 1949). Astor found no redemption in playing what she considered another humdrum mother and grew despondent. She later described her disappointment with her cast members and the shoot in her memoir ‘A Life on Film’. The studio wanted to renew her contract, promising better roles, but she declined the offer.
At the same time, Mary Astor’s drinking was growing troublesome. She admitted to alcoholism as far back as the 1930s, but it had never interfered with her work schedule or performance. She hit bottom in 1949 and went into a sanitarium for alcoholics. In 1951, she made a frantic call to her doctor and said that she had taken too many sleeping pills. She was taken to a hospital and the police reported that she had attempted suicide, this being her third overdose in two years, and the story made headline news. She maintained it had been an accident. That same year, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and converted to Roman Catholicism. She credited her recovery to a priest, Peter Ciklic, also a practicing psychologist, who encouraged her to write about her experiences as part of therapy. She also separated from her fourth husband, Thomas Wheelock (a stockbroker she married on Christmas Day 1945), but did not actually divorce him until 1955. In 1952, she was cast in the leading role of the stage play ‘The Time of the Cuckoo’, which was later made into the film Summertime (David Lean, 1955) with Katharine Hepburn, and subsequently toured with it. After the tour, Astor lived in New York for four years and worked in the theatre and on television. During the 1952 presidential election, Astor, a lifelong Democrat, supported the campaign of Adlai Stevenson. Her TV debut was in The Missing Years (1954) for Kraft Television Theatre. In 1954, she also appeared in the episode Fearful Hour of the Gary Merrill NBC series Justice in the role of a desperately poor and aging film star who attempts suicide to avoid exposure as a thief. She also played an ex-film star on the Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller, in an episode titled Rose’s Last Summer (1960). During these years, she appeared on many big shows of the time, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1958-`1959), Rawhide (1961), and Dr. Kildare (1963-1963). She starred on Broadway again in ‘The Starcross Story’ (1954), another failure, and returned to Southern California in 1956. She then went on a successful theatre tour of ‘Don Juan in Hell’ directed by Agnes Moorehead and co-starring Ricardo Montalbán. Astor’s memoir, ‘My Story: An Autobiography’, was published in 1959, becoming a sensation in its day and a bestseller. It was the result of Father Ciklic urging her to write. Though she spoke of her troubled personal life, her parents, her marriages, the scandals, her battle with alcoholism, and other areas of her life, she did not mention the film industry or her career in detail. In 1971, a second book was published, ‘A Life on Film’, where she discussed her career. It, too, became a bestseller. Astor also tried her hand at fiction. She appeared in several films during this time, including A Kiss Before Dying (Gerd Oswald, 1956) with Robert Wagner, and A Stranger in My Arms (Helmut Käutner, 1959).
Mary Astor made a comeback in Return to Peyton Place (José Ferrer, 1961) playing Roberta Carter, the domineering mother who insists the ‘shocking’ novel written by Allison Mackenzie should be banned from the school library and received good reviews for her performance. After a trip around the world in 1964, Astor was lured away from her Malibu, California home, where she was gardening and working on her third novel. She was offered the small role as a key figure, Jewel Mayhew, in the murder mystery Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (Robert Aldrich, 1964), starring her friend Bette Davis. In ‘A Life on Film’, she described her character as "a little old lady, waiting to die". Astor decided it would serve as her swan song in the film business. She only appeared in the drama Youngblood Hawke (Delmer Daves, 1964), which premiered before Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte. After 109 films in a career spanning 45 years, she turned in her Screen Actors Guild card and retired. Astor later moved to Fountain Valley, California, where she lived near her son, Anthony del Campo (from her third marriage to Mexican film editor Manuel del Campo), and his family, until 1971. That same year, suffering from a chronic heart condition, she moved to a small cottage on the grounds of the Motion Picture & Television Country House, the industry’s retirement facility in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, where she had a private table when she chose to eat in the resident dining room. She appeared in the television documentary series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film (1980), co-produced by Kevin Brownlow, in which she discussed her roles during the silent film period. Astor died in 1987, at age 81, of respiratory failure due to pulmonary emphysema while in the hospital at the Motion Picture House complex. She is interred in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. Astor has a motion pictures star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6701 Hollywood Boulevard.
Sources: Wikipedia and IMDb.
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