Felix In Hollywood

A Blog for the Smart Set

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Constance Comment.

Constance Collier, member of the 
Scintillating Saphic Sewing Circle of Screenland

Here I thought she was just a fabulous character actress.  Who Knew: 

Constance made her stage debut at the age of three, when she played Fairy Peasblossom in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. In 1893, at the age of fifteen, she joined the Gaiety Girls, the famous dance troupe based at the Gaiety Theatre in London.  

In 1901, Sir Henry Beerbohm Tree invited her to join his company at His Majesty’s Theatre, London, where she spent the next several years playing the classics.  While there she married fellow thespian Julian L'Estrange (hmm).

 On December 27, 1906, Beerbohm Tree’s extravagant revival of Antony and Cleopatra opened at His Majesty’s Theatre with Tree as Marc Antony and Constance as Cleopatra, a performance for which she received much critical praise.


During her second U.S. tour, in 1916, she made four silent films, including an uncredited appearance in D W Griffith’s Intolerance and as Lady Macbeth in Tree’s disastrous film interpretation of Macbeth. ‘His face at the window,’ she later recalled, ‘had a look of supreme relief as the train began to pull out of Los Angeles station.’

The following year she had (one of many) a triumph on Broadway with John Barrymore in Peter Ibbetson.  All of her success unfortunately tempered by the death of L'Estrange during the flu epidemic of 1918.

Collier and Barrymore 1917

She co-wrote the play "The Rat" with her friend, actor Ivor Novello in 1924 and starred with him the following year in "The Firebrand".

Novello and Collier 1925  

Collier originated the role of Carlotta Vance on Broadway in "Dinner At Eight", 1932.

She is often most known for her part of the old actress-turned-acting coach in the movie "Stage Door" and what is rather humorous is that it was truly a case of Art Imitating Life.

At the dawning of the talkies Hollywood beckoned her, but not for stardom.  With her extensive theater background and cultured diction, she was to become a diction and acting coach for the next 25 years.

A partial, and surprising list of her students:  Colleen More, Eva Le Gallienne, Katherine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe.

She also worked in the 1930s at the American Academy of Dramatic Art, with an impressive group of instructors that included Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagan and Michale Chekov.

Colleen More remembered that it took Collier a whole day to teach her how to say ‘mother’ another to teach her ‘father’. ‘Cheer up, dollink,’ one of the studio bosses said. ‘Tomorrow maybe you’ll learn a sentence.’

This was Le Gallienne's memory, "…Constance Collier tried to make me see the values in the beautiful speeches, to bring out the music without losing sight of the meaning. She explained to me the two chief dangers in reading Shakespeare’s verse: the one, to intone in a stilted fashion losing all feeling or reality; the other, precisely the opposite, in the effort to be natural, the complete disregard of poetic metre. She was a ruthlessly honest teacher…"

Collier, Noel Coward and Neysa McMein

Constance from Hitchcock's "Rope" 1948

About her last student, Collier told Truman Capote:

"I don’t think she is an actress at all, not in any traditional sense. What she has – this presence, this luminosity, this flickering intelligence – could never surface on the stage. It’s so fragile and subtle, it can only be caught by the camera. It’s like a hummingbird in flight; only a camera can freeze the poetry of it. But anyone who thinks this girl is simply another Harlow or harlot or whatever is mad. ...Somehow, I don't think she'll make old bones. ... I hope, I really pray, that she survives long enough to free the strange, lovely talent that’s wandering through her like a jailed spirit."

Upon Collier's death in 1955, Kate Hepburn "inherited" Collier's secretary Phyllis Wilbourn, who remained with Hepburn as her secretary/companion for 40 years.

Just one of the girls!  Collier, Garland, K. Hepburn and
Ethel Barrymore celebrate Miss Barrymore's 70th
birthday at the home of George Cukor.



jason said...

So odd....the only thing I know of Colleen Moore is her dollhouse.

I hadn't even heard of Mrs. Collier before. Sad.

I'm woefully ignorant of old hollywood...but getting better sitting here at the feet of the masters.

Mimi Stratton said...

Just saw "Kind Lady" with Ethel Barrymore on TCM. It was perhaps the first of the "Let's terrorize people in their homes" type movies.

normadesmond said...

maybe i'll just put the kettle on and make a cup of tea! cc, of course.

Mimi Stratton said...

I'll bring the scones if someone else will bring the buttered buns!

FelixInHollywood said...

**Chips Nail Lacquer while dialing phone**


Oh hello MJ, can you tell me if Kabuki is finished buttering his buns yet. The tea and scones are here!

MJ said...

I'll pop 'round to invite him but I'm sure his guests are on their second helping.

Hilly Blue said...

If you get the chance to see "Perils of Pauline", the Betty Hutton musical comedy on the life of silent screen heroine Pearl White, you must! Constance has a wonderful role and is spotlighted plenty.