Can you get my child in the movies? (1921)

“Can you tell me how I can get my daughter in the movies?” The universal ambition affects the nursery

by Harriette Underhill

At least half of all the people we know are ln the movies in one capacity or another. One half of this other half would like to be or would like some one or more of their friends to be. These are the people who appeal to us:

“Can you get my little daughter in the movies?”

Of course, many of the people whom we know right well, as they say in Virginia, never have said nor thought of saying such a thing. These are the people who have no little daughters of their own. What they say is:

“Can you get my friend’s little daughter in the movies?”

The qualifications

Then follows a list of her qualifications. “You should see the child; she really is a remarkable kiddie!”

Now, any child who allows her self to be referred to as a kiddie, however innocent she may be in the matter, has earned our undying animosity. She hasn’t a chance in the world to have us use our far-famed influence, which, by the way, we do not possess. Because you may not. believe this we intend to prove it. But more of this later.

Just now we must go on with friend’s little daughter’s qualifications.

“She reaily is a remarkable kiddie — only six years old, and she goes out and plays three holes of golf with her father before breakfast and she knitted twelve pairs of socks for the soldiers and she can play Liszt’s Thirteenth Rhapsody and she recites ‘Annie and Willie’s Prayer’ and lots of other clever things. She isn’t a pretty child, but she’s better than that, if you know what I mean. She is so intelligent!”

Between six and sixteen this is the description. After sixteen, it usually sounds like this:

“She ought to be in the movies. You know Mr Broun, who has an apartment near me, knows Mr Griffith well, and Mr Broun says she looks just like Mary Pickford. She’s a little taller perhaps and a little heavier, but she has curls just like Mary’s, so I don’t see why she shouldn’t be just as good on the screen, do you?”

After a dissertation of this sort we feel inclined to say, “Oh, Mary Pickford, what have you done?”

Sometimes it isn’t a friend’s little daughter at all. Sometimes it is just a friend. Listen to this. A day seldom passes without this taking place at least once. Of course, some of the suggestions come through the mails, but mostly they come over the telephone wire.

“Hello, may I speak to Miss Underhill? Oh, is this Miss Underhill? Well, I’m sure you won’t remember me.”

Turn off the lights and see these vintage overhead projectors from the '60s

And then we always know what is coming.

“You won’t remember me, I’m sure, but I’m Mrs Claude Cumberland-Cautious. I met you at a luncheon at Delmonico’s last year, and I want to ask your advice about something. Of course, I know you know all about this and can tell me just how to go about it.

“I have a friend. She is not real young; at least, I mean she is over thirty, but she is perfectly stunning. Her husband left her with only $1,500 a year, and, of course, she can’t live on that, so it really isn’t of any use to her, is it? She’s an awfully sweet woman, but she’s never been strong since Ella came. You know, Ella is her little daughter, and I think she might get in, too, later.

“You know, my friend isn’t fitted to do anything, so she thought she would just go in the movies. I told her to write scenarios, and that would be easier, but she prefers to act, because she said she was better at that than at writing. When I told her I knew you, we decided that the best way would be for you to give her letters of introduction to Mr Griftith and Mr Lasky and a few of the best people.

Of course not

“Of course, she wouldn’t care to be with any but the big companies, but she’s willing to play small parts at first. If she could just make $10 or $15 a day it would help out. Now, if you’ll use your influence…”

At this point, we interrupt with:

“But we haven’t any influence. Not the least in the world. If your friend wants to get into the movies we should suggest that she go to an agent who places people in film companies and ask his assistance. That is what we should do if we were going to try to get into the movies.”

But that isn’t what we used to say. No, indeed! We always used to promise to help and would waste our precious time, when we might have been writing Sunday stories for angelic Sunday editors, in going to tea to meet there people who were friends of a friend of Griffith’s.

And we would give them letters of introduction, which we learned later were seldom presented. Either the prospective movie queen lost her nerve or had a relapse or, perhaps, it was because a kind Providence watches over the picture magnate and prevents him from receiving all the letters of introduction which are penned to him.

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We used to think that the reason we never refused was because we had a kindly nature and wished to spread a little sunshine and all that sort of thing. But we suddenly realized that the real reason was because we were flattered to think we had been asked to help. It made us feel important to have other people think we were important. Because they believed that we had influence we refused to disabuse their minds. We weren’t generous; we were merely weak-minded.

It was only recently that we realized this, but immediately we resolved to reform. We had just seen “The Meanest Man in the World,” and we used some of the dialogue to convince ourself that we were wrong.

Reform wave is on

“Can’t you say no?” we said, quoting Carlton Childs, the smart lawyer, as he berated Richard Clark for being a soft-hearted fool lawyer.

“Well, I don’t believe you can. Spell it, then. That’s right, N-o! Now, say it all the time till you get used to it. No, no, no!”

We tried it, and it isn’t as difficult as it sounds. We don’t even have to invent anything. We just repeat, “But we really haven’t any influence. It’s a mistake.”

It’s wonderful how simple it seems after you start in, and we have felt so free of late. No more teas with strange women who haven’t been strong for years, but who want to be screen actresses because people earn so much money that way, you know. No more having to listen to enraptured eulogies of little Gladys, who isn’t pretty, but is so intelligent, and no more penning letters of introduction.

What we have written is not exaggerated. In fact, if we have erred it is on the side of conservatism. And it isn’t only foolish females who bold us up, either. Ever and anon some newspaper man will remember that Percy Percival was in his class in college, and that at the present time he is drawing down $1,500 a week as a screen star against his own $1,500 a year as a reporter. Then he will come to us and will say, “You know every one in the film I world, don’t you? Well, Percy Percival is making $75,000 a year, and he wasn’t as bright as I was in college, so I guess I’ll try it. Will you use your infiuence?”

Universal egotism

The funny part of it is that most people take it for granted that the reason they are not stars is only because they never tried to be. It is, of course, a thing that anyone can do.

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Not long ago, a newspaper man, who is large and ungainly and who has such big, flat feet that it is the first thing you notice about him (oh, no, this man is not on The Tribune. All of our reporters are young and handsome), said to us:

“You know, I think I’ll take a fling in the movies. I wouldn’t care to stay in them, for I am a born journalist, but I’d just like to go in for the satisfaction of showing folks. Doug Fairbanks was in college with me, and he couldn’t row or swim, or dance the way I could. I think I’ll just dive in and make a couple of pictures for fun.”

Yes, he did. This person whom we have described actually said this to us. The only part of it which appealed to us was the fact that he didn’t ask us to dash off a couple of letters of introduction. He felt that he didn’t need any introduction. He could do without our influence. So we didn’t have to tell him that we had none.

The disillusionment

Time was when we, too, believed that we had. We found that we hadn’t. This is how it happened: A young actress whom we know came to New York. She was clever, beautiful and well dressed. She had education, birth and breeding. She wanted to get in the movies, and we wanted her to, first, because we thought she would be a success and then, later, because we had volunteered to “help her out” until she got started, and our money was all gone. We began to want it even more than she did, and we wrote letters to every manager and director and star we ever knew. All received her graciously.

“Splendid,” they would say.

“You are a fine type. I’ll send you to my casting director.”

And that was the end of it. She never got in the movies.

So in all humility we say it: “We can’t get your little daughter in the movies. We can’t get your friend’s little daughter in the movies. We couldn’t get our own little daughter in the movies, if we had one.”

Why? Well, we don’t know; only it is so. Either the casting director had so many similar young ladies who were just as beautiful on his list that he never got around to ours — or else, perhaps, movie actresses are made in heaven.


Top poster: 1921 Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan in “The Kid” movie poster. Photo: Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in the 1920s

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