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.
|Autographed photo of Mragaret
Leahy, c. 1923.
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
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.
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.
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.
her first diary entry for 1923, Leahy told Britain the good news:
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 doesnt 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 didnt 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 stars 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
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 Keatons
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.
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
cant get the house to burn down properly he will cut it out of
the picture after all.
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:
have one very important thing to do.
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 isnt 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.
this section from her diaries, where she notes again Keatons habit
of improvisation on set, she refers to a director, who is clearly Eddie
Cline, Keatons 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:
with Buster Keaton one has to keep ones 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.
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 hadnt the least idea he was going to do any such thing. I heard
him coming up behind me, but didnt know what it meant. I didnt
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 hes gone - just that way - there you are - Off.
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.
last diary entry was published in the Daily Sketch on 24 February 1923.
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.
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:
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.
audience cheered when she first appeared on the screen and warmly applauded
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
Three Ages was Margaret Leahys 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.
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 Bullocks 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.
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.
and Researcher: Luke McKernan
Design, artwork and layout:
Victoria Sainte-Claire for
The Damfinos: The International Buster Keaton Society
Editor: Patricia Eliot Tobias
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