Camera Rolls: 314:13-16
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Interview with Karen Morley , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on January 30, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.*
OK, we're going to start with the Depression, in 1934 in the Depression, and I want you to tell me what it was like.
even for somebody protected, you know, working,
didn't have to worry about money, it was still awful, because you could not shut yourself off from what was happening.
** Just to interview people for a nursing job for the baby, or a cook, you know, I had to have a cook and a guy to do whatever they do, and they were, it was just awful, the need for a job was so terrible. I don't know what the figures were, but there was one point when one worker in four was out of a job, and there was no backup, you know, no government help to speak of. By '34, there might have been just a little bit of work's progress, you know, whatever they're called, those initials, but they hadn't really amounted to very much, and a person would be lucky to have two days work a week on one of the government projects, and that was it.
You had said then that people were-
OK. Tell me what it was like during the Depression.
Well, the Depression was awful, even if you were not scared, you know, not scared for yourself, as I wasn't, I had a job and enough money, but you couldn't escape it, it was everywhere. You know, a quarter of the people in the country were out of work, and for instance, it was just murder to interview people for domestic help because their need was so intense. Without a job, it was terrible to be poor in this country at that time, because their was no dole and no welfare, but to be without a job when you were used to working was especially painful, and what somebody like me tended to do was to hire the people that needed it the worst instead of the people that were best for it, so I was always in terrible trouble. Anyway, my point is that you didn't escape it, even though in the studio and among your friends you tried to, you know, have a good time, that was what life was about after all. It crept in everywhere.
So, but when you were in the studio you were kind of oblivious to it, it was like, pretended like no problems existed?
Inside the studio it was all work and fun. At that time work was fun, most directors wanted a happy set, and there was still music, some people kept music on the set, a hangover from silent times. Of course, the difference was, music didn't play during the acting, only between, but that was a lot of fun. People mostly, you know, they told dirty jokes and tried to have a good time, so that was, that was the atmosphere you found inside, pretty much not conscious of the real world, not conscious of what was happening in Europe, or what was happening, you know, with the farmworkers or much of anything.
Can you tell me, now that we're talking a little bit about being inside the set, what was it like working at MGM?
Well, the work itself was fun and interesting and scary, sometimes, but mostly very exciting. The publicity and the endless costume, you know, standing up and having pins put in you and you didn't get your lunch hour, and the hours were awful. That part of the business was hard, I think, and being so tired was hard because there was no protection. You could work fourteen, sixteen hours, then go home and come back without any particular rest period. But mostly it was fun, and Metro was very proud of being Metro, and you got to see all those exciting people and you even got to work with them, you know, so it was exciting for a young contract player.
I mean, we get this image that it's all glamorous, you know, the life of a Hollywood star. I mean, was it like that?
There wasn't very much glamour to being a contract player. You worked like crazy, all the time. You were either working or doing publicity or doing costume changes, and it was hard, and it wasn't particularly glamorous, and people didn't feel glamorous. They certainly didn't behave as if they were glamorous. The people, an awful lot of them came from the theater, anyway, into movies, and the stars, and the important players, were darling, almost all of them. They really were. It was not fashionable to be temperamental, very, very few people behaved badly. One reason, because you didn't work very long if you didn't get along with people.
OK, tell me about—did it ever, I think you might have mentioned that sometimes it felt like a factory, or did it feel like that?
No, the thing, it was not like a factory, it was like a—well, I answered you, we'll cut that. Being in the studio, there was a lot of, there were politics and a lot of stuff I didn't understand and I didn't want to know about, up there in the big offices, you know. I didn't like any of that, because of the feeling you were so terribly controlled, and I was twenty when I went to Metro. So they felt, and Mayer in particular, that they knew what was best for me, including whether I should get married or how I should behave, Not that I was doing anything very interesting, but they felt total control, including my relationship with my family, what guys I should date, and this kind of thing I found infuriating, and I hated it. I didn't think it was business-like and I still don't think so, but that was, that was rough.
What about, was there political control, was there a political atmosphere to it or was it mostly social control?
There were inter-politics of the studio, that is, what producers were getting ahead and what cliques were doing well and so on, but I didn't know about that. So far as politics, it was pretty Republican on the whole, I think, there may have been Democrats, but I didn't know about them if there were. Certainly no radicals, at that time.
But like, during the election, you know, an election, particularly the 1934 election, I mean, did they make it clear what, what was best for you to, who to vote for, or what political stand you should take?
OK, tell me about being a working mother.
Well, being a working mother in 1934 was easy in one way, it was very easy to get help, and very good help. It was expected that a nurse lived with the family. It's true that she got a day off a week and half a day on Sunday, and you had to have a relief nurse, but help was cheap and good. That was on the good side, if you can call it that. At that same time, it was awful because of the hours, and the studio had no respect as long as you were on your feet, you know. They didn't care what shape you were in, and they didn't look out for your health or any of that, and we worked extraordinarily long hours. There was no guild, you know, at that time. The camera-men didn't have a union, and it was just a company, a 'company' company, and they did as they damn well pleased. There were two people on our lot, Garbo and Wallace Beery, who had it in their contract that they went home at five o'clock. Nobody else had any say about when they worked or how long. Anyway, that's one of the reasons we got a guild eventually.
You were telling me, then, in I think 1934 you made eleven pictures in one year?
No, the first-
If you could tell me like, for example, how many pictures you made in a year?
Well, my first year at Metro I made the most, that was eleven pictures within a year. Of course those parts were small, but nevertheless it kept me mighty busy, and I was awful skinny by the end of the year.
Could you tell me about the fifty-percent pay cuts?
Oh, well [coughs], when the studios got very frightened that they might be taken over by the banks—this was their great fear always—they declared, you know, agreed among themselves that all of the studios would demand that everybody take a fifty-percent pay cut.
Even the producers, in a gracious way, cut their salaries too. A secretary made eighteen dollars a week, so for those weeks, I forget how long it lasted, a couple of months, I think, they got nine dollars. I think I was making a hundred and a quarter, so I got half of that.
And where were you-
Well, that's why, I think, that's why they made .
Well, you know, in '32 or 3, the studios got panicky, because they were sure they were going to get taken over by the banks, they were going to go bankrupt and it was all going to be terrible. They got together and decided that everybody would take a fifty percent pay cut for an unlimited amount of time. We didn't know how long it would happen, but we agreed because we didn't have much choice. There were two people that didn't agree, Greta Garbo and Wallace Beery. So Metro quick got everybody together and made . We got everybody for half-price.
I understand, and I've talked to a couple of people, and I don't know whether you felt this at all, but that the fifty-percent pay cut, you know, was when, in the Sinclair campaign, and the studio's reaction to that, it was just kind of compounded, you know, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] . Do you remember anything on that? I know you said you weren't that aware of the Sinclair campaign at the time, but was it like, 'enough is enough'? Did you get that feeling?
Well, Mayer, I think Metro was head of the anti-Upton Sinclair campaign, and I know a young director they had shoot those supposed interviews with men on the street, except the men on the street were well-paid, and they all were dressed to look very dirty and messy and drunken, and awful, you know. They were the people that were for Upton Sinclair, and the director became quite disillusioned with what was supposed to be the truth, as Metro saw it, and quit, he wouldn't do it after a while. It was, I think any fool looking at it would know it was a fake, but maybe not, and that was run in news reels all the time.
OK, what did you think about Mayer and Thalberg, what were your impressions of them?
[coughs] Well, Mayer was, you know, a benevolent dictator, he thought. A lot of people found that very irritating, I didn't much like it. Thalberg, of course, was the bright young, up-and-coming everything producer. He was a person that had been ill as a kid, and read all his life, he was in bed for years and read, and read, and read, and read, and he had a wonderful story mind. He was not a particularly attractive person and he was particularly, not at all nice to actors, but I think he was very valuable. In the first place he understood one thing, which everybody at Metro agreed, that movies were made for women, that was the audience. If they went to the movies, then they took the men and the kids, and went to the movies, and the movies were about women, mainly, and their, their, what was considered women's problems at the time. Like whether to admit you were not a virgin when you got married, or whether to work when you got married, and stuff like that.
But together they exerted the control, in the [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] , mostly Mayer—
Mayer. Mayer was a total dictator.
OK. Can you tell me a little about working on ? What was your experience like, what was King Vidor's, you know, vision?
Well, the studio loaned me to King Vidor to make , and
it was not the kind of part I was very interested in, because it was a goodie-goodie lead, and I was much more interested in playing women who died, or killed people,
** or had fierce problems and so on. But nevertheless, [coughs], it was a lovely script and very interesting, and so we were going to shoot it in Tarzana, so I went out to Tarzana and there were four houses there. One belonged to Edgar Rice Burroughs, it was his big house, and then there were three little houses, so I rented one of the little houses, which little house was three bedrooms and a maid room, so I guess it was about a nine room house. But anyway, that cost a hundred and thirty-five dollars a month, and we had moved out there for the duration of the shooting. It was a very pleasant picture because King Vidor
** was a very easy-going, friendly fellow and never bossed anybody around, and had a very wonderful attitude toward films. He was a very musical person. His films always, you can see, are similar to music, and the climax of Our Daily Bread was
** his idea, of course, and set to music by metronome. When we shot those scenes, there was a metronome going for us all the time,
** and there was one that didn't get in the movie, I was kind of sorry, where we [coughs], we fed the workers by night. It was a beautiful stuff, you know, with moonlight and fires and the metronome going boom, boom, but that didn't get, everything, not everything could get in the picture. But it was a very interesting experience, and I was not, I had no idea what a co-op was or whether it was a good idea or not, but I think that King, who was a conservative person, had an idea that people should just get together and help each other,
** [NOTE Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression; Episode 314-15] and not depend on the government, and in this case not to depend on big business either, which was doing rather poorly at the time. People have said that how could it be, that a person so conservative would take his own money- and he was notoriously conservative where money was concerned- take his own money and blow it on this picture. He didn't have a good release for it, he was in trouble, he had to borrow more money and he mortgaged his property, and he was passionate about it.
Was this a vision that he felt, or do you know, was this a vision that he felt was shared by a lot of people and that's why he felt compelled to—
I'm ashamed to say, I don't know. I was not given to theorizing at the time.
Were you aware at all at the time that the film was not released in California during the Sinclair campaign? No? OK.
I didn't know it.
Did people talk, I mean, doing a film like , which deals with kind of a social problem, did you ever talk about any of the content, or what, you know, how to act the scene in a certain way because of the kinds of emotions or problems that it involved?
Well, when you have a picture about the unemployed, everybody has a story to tell, you know, and there was a lot of talk about unemployment, and unemployment is [laughs] nothing new to actors, gotta say, so there was a lot of talk about unemployment and what it does to people. Not very much talk about any way to solve it, I don't think.
OK. Can you tell me about, do you remember working on ?
was the god, the brainchild of William Randolph Hearst, and he financed it, wanted it put on. He was in favor of Roosevelt at the time, felt that he was the savior of the country, and so he made this picture about a no-good who gets a knock in the head and becomes an angel, and is going to bring peace to the world by blowing up our Navy, which he does. It's extraordinary to think now that that picture could ever have been made, it's just so naive, and to think of Hearst as a naive person seems ludicrous, but there it was.
Do you remember what you felt about working on that film? About your role?
Oh, I don't know, it was fine, I liked it. All the people were nice, it was wonderful to be with Huston, and Franchot was darling, and it was fun.
So it wasn't like, a goodie-goodie role, or something, it was more the kind of role you liked?
No, yeah, it was a little better.
OK, can you tell me, can you give me your favorite film to work on, what film did you like the best?
Well, I think I liked the best, it had the two Barrymores in it, John playing Aresene Lupin, and Lionel playing the cop that's out to get him. I'm a police spy, and I get all dolled up and we have a big romance, and in the end, you know what happens. Lionel forgives him, and we go off into the sunset. But it was fun, and they were so darling and funny. Jack was on the wagon, and it was just a lovely experience. I don't think I was any good in it, but I had a lot of fun. [laughs]
I want to get back to the idea of the working mother, I remember before you told me that, having a child, even though you did have help, meant that the moment you were done you just felt like you had to rush home, and that you weren't thinking about the other things that were going on, is that true?
It's just awful, to be a mother—
OK, tell me about, why you decided to become an actress.
Well, I didn't decide to become an actress, really. I decided to become a doctor, but my family ran out of money and I had to leave college after only a year. I wasn't prepared for anything, I went to work in a department store and I knew that was [coughs] not my future, so I decided to take—my family would let me live at home for a year, you know, without contributing much—so I thought, I'll take a year and give it a crack, because I'd always been in all the school plays, you know, but that was just for fun. So I made the rounds, and I did a few plays, there was some theater in LA at the time, small parts in some plays, and I did some radio, and I went round and round at the studios, and at the end of the year, I hadn't got anywhere. So I sold my books, and said, well, I'll give it six more months, and in about three months I had a contract at Metro. But I had never planned, I wasn't good looking enough, and I didn't—I thought you had to be wonderful, but there was some very poor acting going on at the time [laughs], that gave me courage.
But I mean, was it this, I mean, the image you have of Hollywood, [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] you get discovered working at the, you know, the local cafe or something, at the diner, I guess it would have been at that time. You know, that Hollywood was some place where you could one minute be a poor unknown, and the next minute be living in a mansion or something, I mean, was it, was that kind of true? That things were possible there?
Once in a long time, once in a long time somebody is discovered, somebody thinks gee, what a great face, or what a lovely person, and said, do you want to be in the movies? But that's very, very rare. Most people slug it out, they work in theater, they work any place they can, they become assistant stage managers, and make the rounds, and do their best, and eventually they get a break.
Were you at all attracted by the glamour of it, or the money, or was it just really a job to you?
Well, it's hard to say. I knew that the money would be good if I got a break, I mean, better than working in a department store, and it was fun, acting was always fun for me. I thought I would just take this wild chance, what could happen, what have I got to lose? But I suppose, having done it always, from the time I was a little kid, I was always in some kind of play or other, I suppose I had a stronger attraction to it than I realized.
Can you tell me this last part again, instead of saying 'it', saying 'acting', or 'being an actress'. You were telling me, since you always, from the time you were young, were always in plays, you had a strong attraction to being an actress. I just want you to repeat it again, please.
Oh, well I hadn't ever, as I told you, planned to be an actress, but since I had always been in something or other, some church play, or school play, or the Girl Scout play, or something or other, by the time I finished high school I had done a lot of stuff, and also I had taken a lot of courses. I took some more courses when I was in college, and they all tended to be theatrical. But that was my idea of fun, I didn't dream of doing it seriously.
All right, why did you leave Hollywood? What was your reason for deciding to leave, well, not to leave Hollywood, per se, but to leave MGM?
Well, I'm probably the only—well, living now, certainly, but I mean, even forty years ago—the only living person that broke a Metro contract. I resented the terrible paternalism. I just could not bear it. I just wanted to be freelance, and so I told them and they didn't believe it for two years. After two years of just loaning me out and then not using me themselves, they thought I would change my mind, I got out. I know it sounds absurd, and I'm sure if I had had any sense I wouldn't have done it, but I was young and headstrong and I didn't like being bossed around.
I mean, this kind of bossiness, was it something that, was it, I mean, how did it...I guess it's kinda hard to understand that, can you—?
Well, it was 'cause Metro, I mean, Mayer thought he could tell me not to get married. I didn't think that was any of his business, and he told me I ought to listen to my parents. And I finally got mad and I didn't tell him I was mad, it probably would have been better if we had fought it out, but I just sulked instead and decided I wanted out.
Was it hard to be freelance in those, I mean with the studio system when that [ gap: ;reason: unintelligible ] ?
No, but you didn't get the good jobs, and I didn't want to sign a contract with anybody else, because it would have been the same thing all over again. So I just, you know, I could always work, but it wasn't the really good stuff.
OK, can you tell me, just, and I know that you didn't hear much about it, but could you tell me anything you remember at the time that you heard about Upton Sinclair or the governor's race, was there any little bit that you heard about it, or were you aware of it?
Well, the treatment of Upton Sinclair was disgraceful. I think any intelligent person knew that the campaign against him was a fake, and that all these things they said about him were not true, and the people that they interviewed were actors or something, I don't know, extras, maybe. But it was so unfair, it was just, it was just lousy, but so many people were so afraid of anything smacking of Socialism that they were frightened. And nobody knew what to do. The system had never fallen apart that badly before. There had been bad times, but never on this world-wide scale, people were petrified, they didn't know what was going to happen. It was just a very fearful time, east to frighten people.
I know that you said also that you didn't experience, I mean, in terms of the studios, any kind of direct experience of their telling you not to vote for Sinclair or trying to influence you politically, but did the atmosphere exist that people may have been, actors or writers, may have been afraid to express their own opinion? Politically? Or was it not that way?
No, I don't think, actors were not very political—most of them—and what they had to say was of no importance to anybody. No, I don't think actors were given a bad time about their politics. Their politics at that time were, are you a Democrat or are you a Republican? It was later that the radical actors appeared, from New York, pretty much.
You told me that-
[production discussion][slate][camera roll 314:15] [sound roll ]
I had asked you about being a working mother in Hollywood, but was it like being a woman in Hollywood? An actress?
Well, it was nice being a woman in Hollywood [coughs]. Unlike wives, who were not working, had a very rough go, but actresses had a very good time. You were invited in with the fellas, really, you know, you could do almost anything. If you wanted to see the rushes you could, and at parties men talked to you when they didn't talk to their wives. As I said, it was the era when the big stars were women. There were a few very big male stars, but most of them were women, and the stories were about women, and a working actress had a very good time, I thought, on the whole.
Was there ever a picture that you wanted to play in that you weren't able to-
Oh sure, how many pictures I didn't get? [laughs], a hundred, a hundred, no, you very rarely got the ones you wanted to play the most. I wanted , and I didn't get it, oh, lots of things.
And that wasn't, did that have anything to do with your decision to leave at all?
No, well, not really, I don't expect to have choice when you've only been there a couple of years, it'd be absurd to think you were going to have a choice of scripts. I didn't expect that. I liked people to be—
OK, let's start with telling me what a contract player is?
Well, a contract player belongs to the studio, he's a piece of property, a valuable one, and if they're smart, well taken care of. But you have very little power, and for the first year, there's an option after the first six months that the studio may or may not pick up. After that, there's an option once a year which the studio may or may not pick up, you have nothing to say about that. If you don't like it, too bad. You have no choice of parts, of course, you have to go to the publicity office when they tell you—publicity department—you have to go to make-up when they tell you, you have to go to the hairdresser when they tell you, you have to go and be fitted and fitted and fitted and fitted, and if you happen to need to eat lunch, that's too bad, 'cause many a lunch, you ain't going to eat. You will have something standing up, and that's all. Some people can adjust to this, and some people can't. I didn't mind being bossed around where work was concerned, I just didn't like being bossed around where my personal life was concerned. One thing they did that was wonderful practice—training—is making tests for other people. When you're a young contract player, and they want to see somebody in a scene, then you play the scene with them and it's photographed, like, I did Clark Gable's first test when he had teeth that looked like that, and ears that were out to there. And lots and lots of people that later became Metro contract players, and an awful lot of people that never got anywhere. But you played all kinds of scenes, and all kinds of parts, and nobody would ever see them except the studio personnel, so it took the nervousness out of acting, and it's an excellent, really great experience, and I don't think young people get that anymore.
OK, tell me about, a little bit about your family's attitude about the Depression.
Well, when the bad times came, my father said, "You know, Socialism," he said, "is a wonderful, wonderful dream, but if you took all the money there is, and divided it equally among all the people, in about four years it would be back in the same hands that it's in today." And when my mother was upset because a friend that I had known in school had a husband who could get only two days' work on a government project—they had two kids, and they were living on that—she said, "If you really want to find work, you'll find it."
Do you think that was a common, those were common feelings at that time?
Well, I don't think all people were quite that well-meaning, and absurd, but an awful lot.
OK, could you just tell me, just repeat about being an actor, a doctor, you originally wanted to be a doctor and then you went into acting?
Well, I never planned to be an actress, I had planned to be a doctor. And I had been in all the school plays all my life, but my interest was to be a stalwart member of the community with a good income, and respect, and do good and so on, and medicine seemed to me the thing to do. But my family—
[coughs] Excuse me, just pick up with 'my family'.
My family ran out of money when I was in college, and I had to leave and go to work, and I wasn't prepared for anything. I got a job in a department store, and that was not a thing that I was at all interested in—