Colleen was smart about her career, carefully choosing her roles and propelling herself to stardom. However, like so many young, inexperienced Hollywood actresses, she was not wise in her choice of men. Her notions of love were gauzy images based on idealized Hollywood narratives. The importance of shared values, religious belief, and common goals, rarely entered the calculus of love and marriage.
In 1923, Moore, 22, married John Emmett McCormick, 29, a clever but highly unstable studio executive who was obsessed with Moore’s image and career.
During their engagement, McCormick would, without a word, disappear for days at a time. Then he would reappear, gaunt, hollow-eyed, reeking of liquor, begging forgiveness, and pledging his undying love.
Moore’s mother counseled Colleen to break the engagement. A wise mother, she warned her vulnerable daughter that marrying McCormick would ruin Colleen’s life. But Colleen, like so many young and innocent women, was convinced that she would change her husband.
Colleen and John were married while Flaming Youth (sadly, a lost film) was in production.
In her superb autobiography, Silent Star, Colleen describes the wedding supper.
In screenplays we call this foreshadowing:
John proposed a toast to my dad and mother for having given me to him—a funny, sentimental, beautiful toast. Then he downed his champagne in one gulp. Downed a second glass the same way. I remember watching him and thinking what bad table manners.
After the wedding party, Colleen and John drove to their new house where John carried his bride across the threshold.
Inside their home, John cracked open a bottle of champagne:
I took only a sip or two, afraid it would make me sick. John drained the entire bottle. His voice got louder. He became glassy-eyed. His mouth hung loose. He no longer looked like himself, but like some caricature of him.
Seeing the bewilderment on my face, he said to me, “It’s our wedding night, and I am drunk.”
Then he started to cry—a sloppy, maudlin, drunken berating of self. I stared at him, shocked beyond words at this unknown creature groveling there.
I burst into tears and ran upstairs to our room. Sitting there crying, I wondered if I should go home. I shook my head. How could I face running home to mother on my wedding night?
I went out to the hall to the top of the stairs and, looking down, saw that the living room was dark. A light shone from the guest room. I went down the hall to it and looked in. There was John in his pajamas sprawled on the rug with a nearly empty bottle of Scotch beside him, a large stain on the rug where some of the liquor had run out of the bottle.
I stood there for a moment staring at him. Then I ran back to our room and locked the door and crawled into the big double bed and buried my face in the pillow, sobbing my heart out.
The next morning, Moore unlocked her bedroom door and discovered that John was gone. Moore drove to the studio where everyone crowded round and offered congratulations on her marriage. The crew and actors asked where her husband was—for McCormick had been on location every day, making sure that the studio PR machine was functioning smoothly, obsessively promoting Colleen Moore as the next great Hollywood star.
Moore, a thorough professional, told cast and crew that her husband had gone to the train station to see his parents off.
Then she went to her director and asked to start the day’s shooting.
In Hollywood, then and now, it’s all about illusion.