Madge Bellamy postcard
A few years ago, I was up in Toronto, on location for Within These Walls, a film the Academy Award winning actress Ellen Burstyn, acting as producer and star, asked me to write. Ellen, one of the great actresses in Hollywood, past and present, discovered the true story and immediately realized its potential as a powerful and entertaining film. The challenge of playing a hardened murderess who is redeemed by learning to train and love dogs, greatly appealed to Ms. Burstyn.
During the first week of production, one of the featured actresses—not Ellen—knocked on my hotel door and asked if she could discuss her role with me.
Of course I sat down with the actress—a recognized and respected talent—and we discussed her role, the character’s history, motivation, and dramatic arc. The actress relentlessly probed every single line of dialog. She challenged me to defend all the hard decisions I’d made in writing the character.
I kept saying:
“I think you do this because…”
“I think you feel this because…”
“I think the big turning point is when…”
The Actress kept saying:
“I feel that I do this because…”
“I feel that my character experiences this because…”
”I feel that my character…
I short: I was thinking and she was feeling.
The great liberal, conservative divide as applied to a film.
It was a long night, but because film is a collaborative craft, and because I respected the actress and she—I think—respected me, we each made concessions, and ultimately the character that emerges in this fine and touching film is richer, more complex than I originally imagined. The actress turned in a stupendous performance. After a few days of watching rushes, I took the actress aside and said:
“You’re making me look good.”
“Honey, I’m just doing my job,” she purred.
Which brings me to Madge Bellamy.
Madge Bellamy, studio publicity photo
A huge Hollywood star in the early 20’s, most of Bellamy’s early, silent work has been lost. But you can still see her in starring roles in John Ford’s Iron Horse (1924) and Maurice Tourneur’s Lorna Doon (1922). In the sound era, Madge’s most famous role is as Madeleine Parker, in White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi (1932), a cult classic.
Tragically, Madge was one of the most self-destructive Hollywood stars of all time. In a town where players excel at self-annihilating behavior, that’s quite an accomplishment. In 1943 Madge shot her lover, Stanwood Murphy. The massive publicity and resulting scandal destroyed her already sputtering career. Regarding the shooting Madge said: “I only winged him, which is what I meant to do. Believe me, I’m a crack shot.”
Madge Bellamy, cover of Photoplay Magazine,
But for now, let’s leave scandal behind and focus on how Madge learned to act in motion pictures as revealed in a fascinating interview from Photoplay Magazine, Oct. 1927.
Madge had the unfortunate reputation of being a dumb actress—probably because she made a series of disastrous career choices and insulted so many powerful Hollywood moguls. She walked out of L.B. Mayer’s office as he announced that he wanted to cast her in the starring role of his next film. Madge explained that Mayer didn’t stand up to greet her like a proper gentleman.
However, as you can see from this excerpt, Madge Bellamy was unusually bright and articulate. Unfortunately, then and now, beautiful women are often ruthlessly stripped of their brains by bright people who should know better.
“Acting,” for instance. “I always thought that acting was a question of emotions—that you felt a scene and played it as you felt it.”
“Well, I was wrong about that. Acting is a matter of intelligence and observation. You don’t have to feel an emotion to portray it. You must observe how other people express their emotions.”
“Mr. Dwan [Alan Dwan, the great, pioneering director] and I had an interesting conversation on the set this morning. I had been playing a sad scene and when I finished, Mr. Dwan asked me what I had been thinking about. And I told him I had been thinking about something sad. ‘Well,’ said Mr. Dwan, ‘you should have been thinking of the muscles of your face.’”
“Now I see what has been wrong with me. I have been trying to feel emotions and express them. I have never thought much about the technique; I simply wanted to be sincere. That was a mistake.”
“So I have been sitting here practicing with the muscles of my face. Look!” And Miss Bellamy drew here eyebrows. Instantly, the tears slowly rose to her eyes.
“See, I am crying and yet, I am not thinking of anything sad. It’s just a muscular reaction.”
Adoring crowds line up to see Madge Bellamy in Ankles Preferred (1927)
Madge Bellamy authored a fascinating autobiography, A Darling of the Twenties, published in 1989, a few months after her death. Silent film scholar Kevin Brownlow’s introduction is free of star-worship and highly informative. Unfortunately, new copies of the book are impossible to find, but used copies, usually cast-a-ways from public libraries, are readily available on the internet. Madge’s autobiography is filled with fascinating details of her years in early Hollywood, and illustrated with dozens of rare photos from Madge’s personal collection.