Just a Shop Girl from Brixton Page 3.

Thefollowing day she met her director, Frank Lloyd, and went for her first tests at the studios in New York. Presumably it was here that they realised they had a problem on their hands. Margaret Leahy, however attractive, and despite the screen test in Britain, could not act.She could not even be coached in the mechanics of walking, standing and sitting down”, says Rudi Blesh, Keaton's biographer. They may have hoped that further coaching would cure matters, but already a rumour was allowed to circulate that Miss Leahy would be the star of Buster Keaton's new comedy. This may have been the starring role to follow her second lead, promised as part of her prize, or else Joe Schenck was already preparing for a possible alternative strategy.

Margaret Leahy publicity still, courtesy Luke McKernan.  Used by permission.
Autographed photo of Mragaret Leahy, c. 1923.

After seeing the sights of New York, Margaret Leahy and her mother travelled with the Talmadges and company by train to Los Angeles. Norma Talmadge appears to have been remarkably attentive to her throughout, partly no doubt because her reputation might depend on it, but also it seems out of genuine concern for her British protégé. Crowds bearing banners greeted her on her arrival in Los Angeles, and Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin came to meet her. Soon she was in the studio, with Frank Lloyd trying to turn her into an actress. Her diary ingenuously describes her doing a scene fifteen times. “They have taken thousands and thousands of feet of film of me”, she wrote, “Mr Lloyd says he is very proud of me”. Work was then halted until after Christmas.

As Blesh recounts, Frank Lloyd told Schenck that nothing could be done with her; either she went or he did, and clearly she could not be allowed to ruin the film or jeopardise the Talmadge name. Yet equally clearly there would be the likelihood of legal action if they sent her back without having appeared in anything at all, quite apart from the embarrassment that would occur following all the interest aroused on both sides of the Atlantic.

The solution was at hand. Buster Keaton was married to Natalie Talmadge, overshadowed by her famous sisters and simply a secretary at First National. Keaton, having made a number of comedy shorts and appeared in one feature film, The Saphead, was about to direct his own, The Three Ages. Dominated personally and professionally by the Talmadge clan, Keaton was in no position to object when Joe Schenck told him that Margaret Leahy would star opposite him in his new film, because “comic leading ladies don't have to act”. It was also pointed out to him that British interest in Leahy would guarantee him success in that country. The part of Aggie Lynch in Within The Law went to American actress Eileen Percy.

In her first diary entry for 1923, Leahy told Britain the good news:

Thursday. Tonight, as I write, I am really crying. It seems unbelievable. My telephone bell rang this morning, and the maid said it was New York calling me. It was Mr Schenck - the first time he has telephoned to me. He talked a moment about little things, and then he said, “Now, then, Miss Leahy, I am going to tell you something that will surprise you”. And then I learned that I am to be made a star right away. That they think they can trust me with the biggest prize of the year. To play the lead in the big Buster Keaton super-production that all the film fans in America are eagerly waiting for. It really doesn’t seem true - but it is. On the signs and in the printing it is to say, “Mr Joseph Schenck presents - Margaret Leahy!” Think of it! It is all due to Norma. The secret thing - she didn’t tell me a word. But she and Mr Lloyd, it sems, have been so pleased with me and my film tests that they have decided it would not be necessary for me to play the second part in “Within the Law” at all. That I can take a star’s part right away - with some training of course. Buster Keaton is the most popular comedian in America after Charlie Chaplin. He is to do a great super picture, which is to be one of the biggest productions of the year in America. Every actress in America has been begging for this opportunity - to star with Buster Keaton in this big new film. And Mr Schenck, the producer, at last decided that I should be The one. “I am going to show England what we think of its Daily Sketch girl”, Mr Schenck said. Of course, I cannot write any more now.

Reading between the lines of some of her dispatches, she was clearly afraid of rejection, and relieved not to have been sent home a failure. However, she was still being given the full star treatment by Hollywood, chatting to people she could previously only have dreamt about, and being interviewed by fan magazines. She was given the Freedom of San Francisco. People wrote to her requesting beauty tips, and she was reported to have received two hundred proposals of marriage. This was also the time of the great scandal over the death of the drug-addicted Wallace Reid. Leahy mentions meeting Will Hays and the climate of worry that existed, and the several references to how well she was being chaperoned were clearly insisted upon to let Britain know that all was well.

Work began on The Three Ages. Her diary faithfully describes her efforts and failures, how she had to be taught to walk in a studied manner and not to move too quickly, how she ruined some scenes, and of Keaton's patience with her. Her observations, though very much from the point-of-view of a star-struck cinema fan who had never considered how films were made before, offer some interesting details of Keaton’s working methods:

Margaret in costume for Three Ages, 1923.  Top and bottom photos courtesy Luke McKernan.  Middle screen shot from Three Ages.  Used by permission.

Margaret Leahy in her Three Ages costumes: from top: The Modern Age, inset: The Stone Age (from the film), bottom: The Roman Age. Modern and Roman photos courtesy the British Film Institute. Used by permission of the author.

It is only preliminary work that we have done so far. Mr Keaton is not quite sure yet about several points in the picture. It is to be a super comedy, and several of the scenes and incidents are tried out before they are actually taken - that is, we do certain scenes two or three ways before the camera, then we see them run off in the little projection room, and Mr Keaton finds things wrong with them or gets better ideas, and then we do them over again. When these difficult points are cleared up we will start again, and work the picture right through. There is a scene in which there is a fire - a whole house seems to be burned down, and we have burned it down three times now, and still Mr Keaton is not satisfied. Of course they do not really burn down an entire house. They build just the front of it. They build it at night, working all night, and then we burn it down in the day time. Mr Keaton says if he can’t get the house to burn down properly he will cut it out of the picture after all.

Margaret Leahy appears from her photographs to have been a little less than ethereal figure, and certainly Norma Talmadge thought so, as Leahy reveals in this entertaining passage:

I have one very important thing to do. It is on my mind day and night. Norma told me in England I would have to take off ten pounds. She watched me all the time and broke me away from eating any sort of candy or sweets, and as soon as we came out here she made me start in earnest to “reduce”. Think of me “reducing” - but I find there is hardly a star here who isn’t always “reducing”. We are all so afraid of becoming too heavy. “Ten pounds off, Margaret” is what Norma even sings out to me when we pass each other in our cars. And “ten pounds off” it must be if I starve to death.

In this section from her diaries, where she notes again Keaton’s habit of improvisation on set, she refers to a director, who is clearly Eddie Cline, Keaton’s credited co-director on the picture which was to be called The Three Ages. We hear of two directors at work, one calling from beside the camera, the other the star on the set, changing gags and other business as he sees fit, while the cameras continue to roll:

Working with Buster Keaton one has to keep one’s wits. We rehearse a scene and then the director calls, “All ready. On the set (that is to say on the stage before the camera). Shoot!”. Then we start the scene just as we have rehearsed it. But Mr Keaton may have a sudden idea right in the midst of the scene and will start doing something entirely different from what we had rehearsed. If I can “follow” him, or understand instantly what he is doing and what I should do - then everything is all right. But if I am surprised the least bit and “caught napping”, then the scene is spoiled. The director shouts “Off” and the camera stops and we start over again.

I went through one whole day splendidly. Mr Keaton changed every scene right in the middle of it. For example, in one scene we had rehearsed for him to go slowly out of the door, hat in hand, and turn at the door to wave good-bye to me. I was to stand very straight and solemn - angry with him and indignant. Not noticing him at all as he left. Then, just as he pushed up his hat and started to go out of the door he changed his mind. He threw his hat down and came over to me and grabbed me in his arms and kissed me. I hadn’t the least idea he was going to do any such thing. I heard him coming up behind me, but didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what to do - what he had in mind. So I “took a chance”, as they say here, and just picked up a vase that was on the table and smashed it on the floor - to show how angry I was. The director shouted: “Good girl - hold it - hold it. Get out, Buster, quick - hold it, Margaret, till he’s gone - just that way - there you are - Off”.

I almost fainted with suppressed excitement when the director finished with that “Off”, which meant the camera stopped and I could sit down. “Whatever did you do that for?” I asked Mr Keaton. “Oh, just had a notion to change the ‘business’, he said, “and you got away with it splendidly”. But another day I hashed every scene we did because he changed so much and I could not catch on quick enough. But he expects this.

Her last diary entry was published in the Daily Sketch on 24 February 1923. Work proceeded on the film, with Keaton seeing any number of good scenes ruined and much re-shooting taking place, although he treated her with kindness and tolerance throughout. On June 11th she returned to Britain for the film's premiere, the first major American feature to be premiered in Britain (it was not shown in the USA until September). Enthusiasm for the new British film star had not waned, and again large crowds greeted her on her arrival at Liverpool, though strangely the Topical Budget newsreel did not cover her return at all. She then went on to Paris, apparently to film some scenes for her next picture, before arriving in London at Victoria station on June 22nd. But she was worried about how her work would be received. She told journalists: “Please tell everyone ‘The Three Ages’ is my first picture. It is my beginning. I hope I shall improve in my pictures”.

Excitement was as high as when she first won the contest. She made a speech on the 2LO radio service, and then the charity premiere took place on her home ground, at Marble Arch. Princess Alice attended. Leahy, as courageous and honest as ever, gave a rather sad little speech before the show:

Your Royal Highness, my lords, ladies and gentlemen. I cannot say anything except to thank you from the bottom of my heart for coming tonight to see poor little me, for I am after all, just a Brixton shop girl. You will see to-night my first picture. I am very unhappy now as I look around me. I am very afraid you will think I have not been worthy of you. But I shall work very hard to be better and better as my career goes on, and then, someday, I hope you will greet me here and say I have done well. Then I shall never be unhappy again.

Three Ages poster, courtesy The Great Stone Face, 1996.  Used by permission.The audience cheered when she first appeared on the screen and warmly applauded the film. It was well made and funny, and as Joe Schenck had guessed, the film was a success, with many people in Britain going to see it purely on the strength of “that nice English girl who won the contest”. But Leahy was being honest with herself. She is not very good in the film, though through Keaton's hard work she is in no way bad. She is wooden, certainly, but makes some attempt at a performance, and looks attractive enough for Keaton's character's efforts to seem justified. Knowing all that she had been through to get there, the first shots of her, seated alone on a rock in Stone Age dress, looking slightly apprehensive but prepared to do her best, have for us now a special poignancy.

The Three Ages was Margaret Leahy’s first and last film. There do appear to have been attempts to find her another vehicle (with all that publicity it would have been a waste not to), with rumours of a British-French co-production and the filming in Paris. She was made one the Wampas Baby Stars for 1923, the annual list of thirteen potential female film stars chosen by Hollywood publicity and advertising executives. Eleanor Boardman, Evelyn Brent and Laura La Plante were future stars chosen that year alongside her.

But such plans came to nothing, and it appears that Leahy herself decided against a film career. After a short tour promoting the film, she returned to America, declaring that it was nice to see England again but she missed the California skies. What acting qualities Norma Talmadge first saw in her it is hard to determine. But what is incredible is the enthusiasm aroused in Britain for this ready made film star. What a sad picture it all makes of the national inferiority complex and the dream of Hollywood. Did they really believe that she would be turned into a film star, with a series of films devised to suit her talents? Even the Americans seem to have been taken in by their own magic for a while. Cinderella did not return to her rags, she went back to California, married and settled down. We know little of her subsequent life, except (as Marion Meade recounts) that she became an interior decorator at Bullock’s department store, and that sadly she came to loathe the movie business and burnt all her scrapbooks, before apparently taking her own life in Los Angeles on 17 February 1967. But something does remain - the newsreels, the newspaper diary, The Three Ages itself, and the touching, revealing story of how a Brixton shop girl did manage, for a brief while, to achieve the dream that eluded millions like her, and win her way to stardom.

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Note
Based on the records of the Topical Film Company
(producers of Topical Budget), the film trade papers
Bioscope, Kinematograph Weekly and Film Renter,
the Daily Sketch newspaper, Rudi Blesh's Keaton
and Marion Meade's Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase.

Credits:

Author and Researcher: Luke McKernan
Design, artwork and layout:
Victoria Sainte-Claire for
The Damfinos: The International Buster Keaton Society
Editor: Patricia Eliot Tobias

Luke McKernan is Head of Information at the British Universities Film & Video Council, London. He is the author of "Topical Budget: The Great British News Film" (1992), and co-editor of "Walking Shadows: Shakespeare in the National Film and Television Archive" (1994) and
"Who's Who of Victorian Cinema" (1996).
Write to BUFVC, 77 Wells Street,
London W1P 3RE
Fax (44) (0)207 393 1555
E-mail:
lmckernan@breathe.com