Glenda Farrell: In Her Own Words

Glenda Farrell Portrait

Who better is there to tell about Glenda Farrell’s life, experiences, and opinions than Glenda Farrell herself? While I was conducting research for my article “Glenda Farrell: Her Life and Legacy”, I discovered a wealth of Glenda Farrell interviews. They not only contained much information about Glenda herself, but also some rare and interesting information about early 20th century theater and the Golden Age of Hollywood. So, I decided to create a companion piece to “Glenda Farrell: Her Life and Legacy”: a page about Glenda Farrell’s life, experiences, opinions, and knowledge, as told by herself. The result turned out to be almost overwhelming in terms of length, so if you feel daunted by the length, feel free to read it in increments (the pictures on this page make good chapter marks) or read just the topics you find most interesting (each quote or interview snippet is preceded by a brief introduction in bold-faced letters).

On her early life and the beginning of her career:

My name is Glenda Farrell. I was born in Enid, Oklahoma. My family wasn’t a theatrical family, but I think my mother must have been a frustrated actress, because she put me on the stage when I was about seven years old—that is, I started in an amateur way. That’s when the little “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” bit came along that unfortunately people think I played permanently. I didn’t play it as a show. The Elk’s had a play, home-town show, and I flew across as Little Eva. That was one of the first shows. I did kid parts and things.

Then we moved to Oregon. I had to go to school, naturally. From Oregon, we moved to San Diego, where I got a job in the Virginia Brissac Stock Company, doing the kid parts. I was then about eleven and twelve when I started there.

Q: It was your mother’s aspiration for you?

Miss Farrell: Oh, yes. Then I got this job doing the kid parts in “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm”—I didn’t play Rebecca till I was 16 or 17, but I played Minnie Snelly and some of the other kid parts in it. There were a lot of those old plays they used to do in stock. It was a regular stationary company, a famous stock company in San Diego. [1]

On early 20th Century stock companies:

Q: What was it like then?

Farrell: It was very professional. Strangely enough, it was a great training. I don’t think you get it any more, because the stock companies today are summer stock, and it isn’t quite as rigid as it was when I belonged, when things were done as professionally as with a Broadway play. When we put on a show a week, we worked as hard as they work for a Broadway show. They were all perfectionists, in those days. Directors browbeat you, and you worked so hard. I think the only place comparable today is the Actor’s Studio, where they get the training that we got in the old days when the directors had time to work with the actors—and gave so much of themselves in working with the actors and teaching them.

Q: Do you remember anything you learned in those early days?

Farrell: You learn your lines, and hope you can remember them and say them. I remember John Griffith Gray, now passed away—he was quite a demon as a director, and I’m sure I’m very grateful to him today, because he was so strict and so rigid, and every show was put on as if it was a Broadway show—never anything lax, anything just to be made-do.

Q: What was the attitude then about a young girl going on the stage?

Farrell: Well, I never ran up against a prejudiced attitude because I was in it so young, and in it so long and so closely associated with it that I never knew quite what the outside world thought. In show business, you are in kind of a world apart. It isn’t different today: it’s another world. If you’re a working actress, you work all the time, you’re working at it—you don’t just stop when you get a job, and you don’t stop between jobs. You work all the time, because acting, like every other industry, changes and progresses. The styles in acting change, just as styles in anything else change.

Q: Do you recall the style of those days?

Farrell: No, I don’t—because I was fortunate enough to have directors who were demons, who made you change your style of acting, criticized your acting, as they only do in now in schools. Now, stock companies don’t have time for that. They hire full-fledged, experienced actors. They have no time to teach.

Yes, I spent several years touring. They always had touring companies in those days. You see, though we had moving pictures (beginning) we had no television. I think talkies stopped so much of that, the touring companies.

Every step in show business has revolutionized show business, to a certain degree. First there were no movies, then there were movies, then talkies came in—now we have television, and television has hurt talkies. Something new will come up again, I presume, I don’t know what.

My mother always toured with me. We did one-night stands many times, for years. And I think these are all the things that you learn, and learn the hard way.

Q: Were the small town theatres primitive?

Farrell: Very Primitive, and yet wonderful audiences, because they were starved for entertainment. I guess they put up with our bad acting and lack of experience, because they really wanted live shows, and they were wonderful audiences. You learn from audiences so much. [2]

Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Glenda Farrell, and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar

Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Glenda Farrell, and Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar.

On Little Caesar and the beginning of her film career:

In the meantime, I’d done “Little Caesar,” but that was just accidental. Lila Lee was supposed to play “Little Caesar,” and she got ill. I was doing some show, and someone approached me about it, and I went out and did the play, then came back to N. Y.

You see, I tried – every agent tried to get me into pictures, but I never was a very pretty girl. I always had deep circles under my eyes, and lines down beside my mouth. I’d test, and they’d say, “You don’t photograph.” So I’d come back to N.Y., to the stage. So at the time they called me for “Little Caesar,” I thought: “Oh—what’ll I use for a face?”

They didn’t want me, in the beginning. So I did it. In “Little Caesar,” the photography wasn’t so hot, because it was one of the first of the talkies. I’d never done a silent picture – this was my first—and there were about three cameras, and all of the overhead lights, and oh, that’s hard on a baby! That will put lines there that you haven’t arranged for yourself yet.

I was terribly disappointed, and I came on back to New York and did a show called, “On the Spot.” That ran a year. We went on the road in that. Then I did “Life Begins.” It only ran five performances. We had quite a bit of rehearsal. Several talent scouts came to see me, because it was a very wonderful part, a flashy part and a great part. Warner Bros. suddenly bought it. Now, we only ran five days! But they bought it, and bought me with it, and that was the start of my picture career. Not “Little Caesar” because that was a one-shot. It got me no contract.

But when “Life Begins” started, they had an option in it. Well, I didn’t know what an option was, and I was ready to come right on back to N.Y. when the picture finished, and they said, “No, we’re taking up the option.” So I stayed a Warner Brothers for seven years!

Q: Do you remember anything about “Little Caesar?”

Farrell: Oh, yes. It was not much different from theatre. I think if you’re in one end of it, they all sort of fall into place. It’s a little different, because they stop and start all the time, but they do this at rehearsals. I don’t remember whether I was camera-shy or frightened.

Edward G. Robinson was wonderful. I didn’t have too much to do with him. I worked opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Many times, in a picture, you don’t come in contact with a lot of characters, only one or two, the ones that you have the scenes with. People take for granted that you must know everybody in the picture, whereas you don’t even meet them, many times.

I think I accepted this at the time. It was part of show business. I’d been dying to do a picture, and nobody wanted me, and suddenly I got a break. But I had no hopes, I didn’t think I’d ever set the world on fire, so I came right back to N.Y. and the stage again. [3]

On Mervyn Leroy and directors in general:

Yes, I remember Mervyn Leroy. I love him dearly. Mervyn is responsible – he’s the one who wanted me for the part, you know. I had met him before. He was a wonderful, patient director, and I felt very confident with him. I have always felt that since—I’ve done quite a few pictures with Mervyn, and I’ve always had that great confidence. To me, he’s the master, and always will be. I think he instills that in every actor – every actor who works for him has great respect and admiration, and reverence for him, really, because he is a master.

Q: Do you remember how he worked?

Farrell: No—I don’t think an actor’s quite aware of all that a director does; he puts in so much work ahead of time, and he knows what he’s doing. Actors only know—in pictures, you don’t do a scene for over four or five minutes, at top—that’s a very long scene. Three minutes. If a scene runs three minutes, it’s endless, and then they’re cut up. So you must give great credit to a director who knows what the overall picture is about, when an actor doesn’t. He just knows the scenes that he’s in, and the relationship of his scenes to the script, as he sees it. But the director is aware of everything in it. You’re always aware of yourself, your contact with the other performers—but you are a cog in the machine, and that’s how it should be. He’s aware of everything and everyone, and puts it all together. I think he’s one of the finest directors in the business. He certainly had this ability to grasp the whole.

Mervyn knows the picture business from all ends of it, because he’s been in it for so long, and he knows and understands, for many years back. It isn’t just a new thing with him. He has grown so steadily with the whole industry, and in everything he does, he tops himself-which is proof that he does grow constantly. He’s so aware of every end of the picture business. [4]

On Douglas Fairbanks, Jr:

Q: Was that the start of Doug Fairbanks, Jr?

Farrell: Well, I think he’d been doing pictures. I think this was his first very important one. He was charming to work with. You’re quite aware of yourself, in your first picture, and so anxious to please and do it right that you don’t look at the other actors as anything but-I don’t mean a foil, but they’re part of the picture, and you only look at them objectively in that respect.

Q: You’re not impressed by the name of Fairbanks?

Farrell: No, you’re so involved with your own role, your character, that you don’t think of him-or of them-that way, as a person. [5]

Glenda Farrell Glamor Photo

On actors meddling:

Q: Some N.Y. actresses have a terrible time adjusting..

Farrell: Well, I think actors tend to meddle, and I don’t think they should. That’s probably my training—I had a severe training, for which I’m very grateful. I think actors should act and leave the technical end of it to the men who know that end of it, and not interfere or worry about the sequence. That’s not their job. No matter how they worry about it, there’s the film cutter. My brother’s a film cutter and I know, the greatest scenes in the world he can take and whirl around and say, “We have to cut that, because it destroys part of the story.” So why should the actor worry? That’s not his job. Let him do his role to the best of his ability, and leave the technical end of it to the technicians, because they know what they’re doing. [6]

On rehearsal and the technical aspects of filmmaking:

Q: You shot out of sequence a lot?

Farrell: To save money, yes, they did—they did that more in the old days than now. Now, they seem to go more in sequence. At least, they rehearse. This is a trend that is so great. I just did the mother in “The Middle of the Night,” Kim Novak’s mother. We rehearsed as you would rehearse a play, and you rehearse in sequence. So actors are aware of the whole play, and the reasons for what they do. This is very important for actors, because now when they go into a scene, they know the play. They’re not being thrown cold into something when they don’t know what it’s all about.

When I first came, you had to figure a lot of that out for yorself, but you always had the script. For instance, they have a set they want to get rid of—you may start on it, with the end of the picture—so now you go back and read through the whole play, so that you can see what your attitude is by the time you get to the end of it. But there is where a director steers you: he knows it; and that is where you must lean on a director, and take direction. I think wise actors and actresses should take direction, because he knows what he’s doing, he’s putting the play together.

Before, we rehearsed only two or three minutes in the morning. You get up at 5, 5:30, every morning of your life, in pictures—sometimes 4:30 if it’s on location. Then you go to make-up, your hair’s done every morning, you’re dressed—this all takes time. Then you get on the set, and then you rehearse. Then rehearse the lines of the scene you’re going to shoot. After you’ve gone over the lines several times, you go in and shoot it.

Q: Was it that way for “Little Caesar?”

Farrell: I don’t remember too vividly. I know we rehearsed, I know Mr. LeRoy made it very easy and very clear. I think that’s of great importance—an actor and a director being able to reach each other, to make contact, so you understand what he’s saying and can digest what he’s trying to tell you.

No, they didn’t harp on rehearsal too much then, not as they do now. But when I was at Warner Bros fortunately I worked with a group of the finest professionals in the business—Alan Jenkins, Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Ruth Donnelly—a great gang of comics, comedians. Comedy is much more difficult to play. It’s an experienced technique. And they were all technicians on their own; they were all individual comics. We all worked together in great harmony, and we would rehearse our own work. We were all from the theatre, every one of us, from the N.Y. stage, and so we knew this. We got together and rehearsed our scenes and discussed what we wanted to do. Because many times, on these comedies we did, we would break in new cutters—cutters that became directors. We broke in quite a few: Ray Enright, who’s one of the finest directors today; he was a film editor. That’s one. They were technically conscious of the technique of the picture and putting it together, and we had to worry about our technique and whether our laughs were going to come through or not. They were great performers, and all worked happily together. You hear of great jealousy among performers, but that never existed in this group. They were the happiest group I’ve ever known, worked together happily and for each other. I think that’s why so many of those comedies turned out so very well, for many years.

Q: Was Dick Powell in this group?

Farrell: Yes, but Dick did the musicals for a long time. We went from musical to musical, drama to drama—we’d be on as many as four pictures at a time—one in the morning, right after lunch you’d change your hair and your costume and do a shot on another one, then go back for another scene on another picture. This they don’t do any more.

Back in ’33, ’34, you’d be on several at once—I was. And Frank McHugh, one of the finest of performers I know—a great, great actor—was in that group and doing several at once. We were all in practically every picture Warner Bros. made for some time, you know. [7]

On Warner Brothers’ topical films:

Q: Warner Bros. prided themselves on introducing a new type of film, didn’t they—the topical film? Did you think “Little Caesar” was a progressive film?

Farrell: Oh, I don’t think I ever analyzed it. Most actors then thought it was a fine part, an interesting picture. That’s the only way they looked at it. [8]

Glenda Farrell and Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Glenda Farrell and Paul Muni in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

On I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang:

I loved play opposite Paul Muni—again, for Mervyn Leroy. That was one of my great thrills. Muni was so wonderful, such a great actor, so wonderful to work with. We rehearsed a long time on that, because Paul was a great actor from the legitimate theatre, he worked and rehearsed, worked his part out for himself—you know, he’s a great character actor. We did quite a bit of rehearsing before we did a scene. I played his wife, who was a demon—I was a real heavy in it—the one who turned him in to the chain gang again. I saw it not long ago— it was the first time I’d ever seen it—on TV just this last year. Pretty frightening. I hadn’t realized I was such a demon. [9]

On playing newspaper reporters:

Q: After this, were you typecast at all?

Farrell: After I did “Hi, Nelly”—I played the newspaper woman—I did a thing called “Wax Museum.” “Fugitive from a Chain Gang” was my second picture, then “Wax Museum,” playing a newspaperwoman in that, and then I did “Hi, Nelly”, and that was sort of the start of my newspaper career. Because then Bryan Foy, a producer, bought a series from a pulp magazine, The Black Mask Magazine,—I’ve never seen it, so I only know what I heard—and Torchy Blane ran serially in this thing, but Torchy Blane was a man. He bought it, and made the character into a woman, because we’d had quite a bit of fan mail about the newspaperwoman, and they thought they’d build me into this character. So I made a whole series built around “Torchy Blane.” We just took them as they came along, and fortunately we had good writers, which is half the battle. Not half—that’s the battle, really.

I had a five-year contract with Warner Bros. Then, when that expired, I went on for a little longer. Then I free-lanced. [10]

On working hard:

Q: Did they rent you out to Paramount?

Farrell: Yes, they did. I never had a vacation, all the whole I was there. You know, you have the six weeks lay-off, twice a year, and each time that there was a lay-off or a vacation, they loaned me to Paramount or RKO or Columbia. Once it was for “Lady for a Day,” then another one they did with Jean Arthur and Cary Grant and Ronald Colman, another with Barbara Stanwyck and Herbert Marshall. I was always loaned out.

Q: But apparently you liked working hard?

Farrell: I didn’t have much choice. But I do—I still like working hard, I still like working. I think once you’ve done this, it’s hard to stop, and you enjoy it, you see. It’s nice to have a job you enjoy. Of course the hours were very difficult. It was 5:30 every morning of my life for about ten years, and at 7 or 8 at night you crawl into bed. [11]

Glenda Farrell and Ronald Colman in The Talk of the Town

Glenda Farrell and Ronald Colman in The Talk of the Town.

On her marriage to Dr. Henry Ross:

Then I came back. I still was stage struck. I was offered a play called “Separate Rooms.” I came back and we did it on the road first, played Chicago, opened in New York—and it ran two years.

After a two year run, you get pretty tired, and I got a sore throat. The doctor came to see me, but I didn’t get any better. I guess I was just terribly tired. Then somebody said, “I know a wonderful man, the catch of New York, a great doctor—why don’t you just see him?”

The last thing I wanted was a catch in New York. I was tired. I just wanted to get well. This doctor came over to see me—and, p.s., I married him.

I still had a house in California, my family was all there, my brother and my cousins—Jerry Hopper is my cousin a director, one of the big ones—and my brothers are all in show business. You don’t want to lose contact with your family. So I’d go out and do pictures, and come back — but this was my home. I found out that I wanted to go out less and less. I’d had it for so many years—it was wonderful to have someone to take care of me, for a while, too, you know. I’ve been very lucky. I have a very happy life.  [12]

On life as a Warner Brothers contract player:

Q: You mentioned you really didn’t have any choice about the number of pictures you made.

Farrell: You see, now I think people make more of an issue over it. I was just glad to do them. I liked working, and I just did it because they told me to. I went into every picture they gave me.

Warner Bros. had a great system. They built actors up faster than any other studio. You became known, because they had you in so many so that you became known very rapidly. So much so that now people think I was in it even in silent picture days, and I’ve never been in silent pictures.

Q: What’s the difference between Warners and the others? MGM?

Farrell: Yes, I did a picture at MGM. But Warner Bros. was like my home. You had that feeling. It was a wonderful feeling among all the performers there, and I suppose the Warner brothers themselves were responsible for it, and Mr. Zanuck, who was the producer at the time, and then Mr. Hal Wallis.

You got the feeling—they made you feel like a big family. All the actors liked each other. We’re still very close, you see. You worked so closely with the same actors over and over again that you are a little group, you know, that works in harmony.

In the other studios, I was strange on the lot. I was not at home there. I was completely at home on my own lot. You could work at Warners for ten years and possibly not even meet the actors at MGM, not even know them.

Q: Did they have more actors signed up than Warners?

Farrell: I don’t believe so. I think Warners had a greater roster than anyone, of regular contract players.

Q: Did you know Jack Warner?

Farrell: Oh yes. He was a wonderful man, a wonderful boss.

Q: Can you tell us about his philosophy of movies?

Farrell: Well, you see, he was the boss. We didn’t come in contact with him, really, except when something went wrong. I think he ran everything very well and everybody was very happy. He was a very happy man—an easy man to talk to, a very pleasant man to be associated with—as was the entire group.  [13]

Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell as two gold-diggers

Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell as two gold-diggers.

On Comedy:

Q: Did you do lots of comedy?

Farrell: Yes. More comedy than drama. That’s why today I enjoy doing these mother parts, that are the weeping dramatic poor old mothers, and I’m doing them ahead of my time, I’m sure, but I love them so. When I say ahead of my time, I mean that I could do them later, but I love doing them now, because I’ve played the comedy parts so long that this is a great relief. You know, comedy and tragedy are very close. You always want to go just a little bit farther with your comedy role and get a tear.

Drama’s very easy to play—the easiest thing in the world to play. Comedy is the most difficult, because a comedian is a specialized, unique personality, each and every one of them. There are no two alike. It is that definite quality that the public buys. I don’t think an actor starts out saying, “I’m a comedian, I’m going to play comedy.” It’s accidental. That person has a unique quality the audience grabs. That’s right, they’re personalities—but personalities that they develop, and they develop their own comedy technique.

Miss Blondell and I did a series, and we got along very well. She’s still my oldest friend, you know. We got along fabulously, we never ever had a moment of saying, “Huh, she’s got a better line that I have!” She was the first one to come to me and say, “I think you can get a laugh if you do such and such here.” This is playing comedy—you work in unison: it takes two people to get a laugh, unless the writer writes them for you.

Q: But how can you tell, without an audience?

Farrell: Just as a doctor can tell something about symptoms listening to you over the phone, though he doesn’t know the whole thing till he examines you. By reading a script, you can tell where the comedy should lie.

Q: You didn’t feel that the timing of your jokes depended on your having an audience there that you could sense?

Farrell: Oh, no. No, if the comedy’s there, and it’s written—and it wasn’t always written. This group of comedians that we worked with were great, and a lot of them could write their own material and rewrite it to fit themselves. Finally Warners hired writers just to write for this group of comedians that they had. So you had writers writing your particular type of comedy. For instance, my type of script—and I didn’t know this, this is the thing you find out as a performer, I find I get a laugh in a certain way because I talk rapidly, and I found that flipping out lines became laughs—so that became my metier, you see? So they began writing flip lines for me. Joan Blondell reads flip lines in a way completely different from the way I read them—and gets bigger laughs. But she is a great comedienne. It’s a diferent technique, a different way of reading the same line, and still getting laughs.

Now, you get the writers, after they know you and know what you can do, and then they begin writing for you, and for your particular type of comedy and flair for comedy. [14]

On shooting schedules:

Q: Do you remember which of these pictures were written specifically for you, or for Miss Blondell?

Farrell: They were all written for us. We did a series called “Havana Widows,” “Miss Pacific Fleet”—I forgot the others—that co-stared the two of us. They were written for us, with our particular type of comedy.

Q: How long did it take to film one of those?

Farrell: Oh, it depended – it depended on the budget. Three weeks. Four weeks. The comedies went very rapidly. They were pretty well set. They were B pictures, budgeted pictures, so they had to bring them in within the budget, and we just learned our lines fast and said them and that was it.

Q: Was this when you were doing one in the morning, one in the afternoon?

Farrell: No, that was before they started teaming us. When they started teaming us, we just did one at a time.

Q: Was that completely accidental, that you two teamed up?

Farrell: Well, we did one together—and I don’t know whose idea it was. We were both working so hard, and you don’t know what goes on in the front office. You get a script and they say, “Tomorrow morning you start this.” We never argued or said, “Why? What’s it about?” We started and we did it. But it was most fortunate. They turned out to be money-makers. They made a lot of money, all these pictures.  [15]

On agents:

Q: Were you handled then by one agent?

Nat Goldstone, a very fine agent, brought me to California in “Life Begins.” Then I went with another agency. The comedians were paid very well at Warner Bros. They were a specialized lot, and none of us were ever asked to take a cut in salary, and we were paid very well out there for a long period of time. We never had any qualms—our only reasons for getting other agents and shopping for agents—all we wanted was a day off. We worked so hard, we went from picture to picture, turning them out. I switched agents constantly, because each one would promise me that he could get me a week off, or get me two weeks, or to do less pictures. But it never worked. I still continued to do one after the other. I guess there was nothing that any agent could do about it.  [16]

On security in show-business:

Q: Did you look on it as a job, or an art?

Farrell: It was a job and an art at the same time. I think it’s unfortunate there aren’t more jobs like this today for actors. There are many fine actors that will never be given opportunities, because this kind of job no longer exists, and it’s just too bad for the performer—and for the audiences. They’re missing a lot of fine talent. The one thing the actor doesn’t have today is security. You see, they no longer have the big stock companies they used to have. They don’t have the security that actors had. They could raise their families, they could go along with it, and you didn’t have to fight for things because you knew you were taken care of. This is very important for actors. This was back in the thirties. The pay check came in regularly all the time, and you had that sense of security. [17]

Glenda Farrell reading fan mail.

Glenda Farrell reading fan mail.

On actors chafing and wanting to better themselves:

Q: Did you chafe under this onslaught of comedies?

I think actors chafe under everything. I think this is something they shouldn’t but they do, all of them, and I think it’s part of the breed and nothing can be done about it. It’s a dissatisfaction with themselves, always wanting to better themselves, always wanting to better everything they do. That is an actor’s curse, yet possibly the thing that keeps them going and helps them to make progress.

Q: For instance, did you want to do drama at the time?

Farrell: I wanted to do everything they wouldn’t let me do. I wanted to do drama, and they were making money at what I was doing, so that was what I had to do. Well, I was very happy in my work—but every actor is frustrated, every actor wants to do something else. This is a natural thing. You want to do something more important and something better. So I don’t think this is chafing or saying we were mistreated. We weren’t. It’s something every actor does, and God help him if he doesn’t—he stops growing.  [18]

On her post-1940 film career:

Q: Did you notice changes after 1940, after the War came? You were on Broadway for two years, then married—did you go back?

Farrell: Yes, I went back and did pictures, but I would do two or three a year, and then come back here to N.Y.

Q: Did you enjoy making pictures as much as before?

Farrell: Oh, yes. I’ve always enjoyed making pictures. I think they’re great fun to do, and it’s a creative business. [19]

On whether she considered movies entertainment or an art form:

Q: Did you look on it as entertainment, or an art form, or what?

Farrell: Well, you see, I’ve been in the business too long to analyze my feelings about it. It is the only business I know. There’s no other way I know to make a living. So I have never analyzed it as an art. I grew up in it. It’s been my means of livelihood. I have never thought of anything else. I don’t know how to do anything else. I wouldn’t know.

I see young people coming up that take the artistic side of it very seriously, and I think, “Oh well, they’ll learn. They’ll learn that it is a job, it is a business, just like any other business.” It’s an artistic business, but it is a business. It’s an industry. I think the theatre too is a great industry, always has been. It’s an art—but all art is industry, isn’t it? Or industry is art? I don’t have much truck with people who take themselves so seriously, but that’s mostly young actors who haven’t been in it long enough. If you’re in it, and do as much as we did, you work that hard, you don’t have time to worry about whether it’s artistic or not. They’re all artistic, in their own way. They must be practical. You must make money, being an artist. If you don’t make money at it—well, maybe it satisfies your soul. But my soul got along very nicely, my salary was good, and I was very happy. [20]

On whether she was concerned about how her movies were received:

Q: Did you worry about whether this or that picture would go over?

Farrell: No, because I knew another one was coming up, and I just wanted to learn these lines and get this over with so I could get to the next one. However, that doesn’t mean that you slough off a part. Every actor is an egomaniac, and he wants every line to be a gem, so he never throws it away. He plays every part as though it was the last one he was ever going to do, I’m sure.  [21]

On the group of comedic performers she was a part of at Warner Brothers:

Q: Your comedy was the high comedy type?

Farrell: Yes. I wouldn’t say it was low comedy. That group was like a high comedy stock company. Yet we worked in every picture. We would do the comedies, and then we’d play the comedy relief in the big pictures. So we worked at everything. You never felt that you were standing still, just stymied in a groove. [22]

On musicals:

Q: Did you play in the musicals?

Farrell: Yes, I did a couple of musicals, but I’m not musically inclined—I’m no great dancer and I don’t sing. I had to sing along with the group, but I’m not a singer, and I would be very self-conscious at singing, because I’ve never had any lessons. I can carry a tune, but I don’t think I could ever belt out a song, as they say.

Q: You worked in “The Gold Diggers” with Dick Powell?

Farrell: Yes. I know Dick very well. It’s sort of like a big family, when you work on a lot like that. He’s a wonderful guy. I worked with him, and for him, not long ago—it was partly his picture too—in “Susan Slept Here.” He’s a wonderful man.  [23]

Glenda Farrell in Susan Slept Here.

Glenda Farrell in Susan Slept Here.

On changing film techniques: 

Q: Have the techniques of movies changed radically from the old days when you did “Gold Diggers?”

Farrell: Have you seen any of them on TV, the old pictures? Strangely, some of them hold up very well. I’ve seen some old pictures (not ones that I was in) that I missed, and I was amazed how wonderfully they hold up. As a matter of fact, they’re more artistic than many that they’re putting out today. Beautiful pictures. I’m glad they’re showing some old ones on TV. But outside of the fact that the hair is different, and the wide shoulders were in, and the short skirts or the long skirts, —we look different, visually it’s different, but otherwise…

In the writing, in every end of it, today it’s a little smoother. Everyone now is a comic. Every dramatic actress now is given the flip lines—everything is a comedy drama, unless it’s a real out-and-out drama. They no longer rely on just comedy relief. Now, the leading lady is also the comedienne. I think we pioneered the way for the “bright sayings” school. The writing and directing does it, today. They can take a girl who’s quite new, give her the dialogue and the situations, and she’ll get the laughs. But it will take her time to develop as a comedienne on her own, and to apply this technique to herself. [24]

A caricature of Glenda Farrell by Abner Dean.

A caricature of Glenda Farrell by famed cartoonist Abner Dean.

On the uniqueness of comedians, a sense of comedy, and the difference between comedians and comics:

All comedians are unique performers. It’s possibly something they’re not aware of themselves, until they get the part that brings it out and displays it to them, so they become aware of the fact that they play comedy and that they got laughs. Then they begin to develop this certain quality, develop it till they get bigger and bigger laughs. This is something the comedian himself can do. A writer can write divine lines, beautiful lines, and they can cut around, and the director can direct the actor, all so that she may be a great comedienne in this particular part, but they may never reach that again. Because if they don’t have the lines, they can’t do it. However, this may be the start of the development of a technique and flair for comedy—because I think most actors start out not knowing they’re comics, and suddenly find that a unique way of reading a line gets a laugh. A simple line can be read by five different people, and only one person get a laugh, and that one person can get a big laugh on it. It’s his own individual way of interpreting the line. This is the thing a comedian does, and he cannot do it unless he’s experienced, unless he learns the way to get the laugh and knows what’s in back of it.

It’s pretty hard to explain this. Comedians analyze their ability. You look at yourself very objectively, and at your comedy objectively. You never quite associate it with yourself. It’s your job to look at it that way, the way you would look at your machine there. You develop it, you see it grow, you see something more you can do with it and you develop it along those lines. It’s something that you don’t really share with a lot of people. You work on this yourself, and you bring it about yourself.

Q: You don’t personalize your comic part to the same extent as a dramatic part?

Farrell: No. Never. As a matter of fact, your greatest comics are offstage your quietest people. The outside world might even call them dull people. Because they don’t have to prove themselves, they don’t have to say, “I’m funny.” They know they are. They get paid for it.

Q: What was the particular comic gift of Joan Blondell?

Farrell: Well, Joan has great humor. Comediennes must have an understanding of comedy. It’s a comedy sense, that’s what it is. A sense of comedy is completely different from a sense of humor. It isn’t the same thing at all. You have to be able to keep the two in abeyance—your sense of humor and your sense of comedy.

A sense of comedy must project. A sense of comedy, you do not connect with yourself. A sense of humor is you. A sense of comedy is being able to project. I have some friends who are the funniest people I know, but they’d never know how to be funny on the stage. They wouldn’t know how to project. This comedy would fall flat. Yet the greatest comedians I know are the dullest men in the world, or the dullest women, in a drawing-room, according to the layman.

I’ve had people come in to me and say: “Say something funny!” You want to run away. This is your job, your business—but you don’t go about being funny all the time. As a matter of fact, I know a few comedians who make it a point to be funny offstage, and they bore me so I just can’t stand it. This, I think, is insecurity, where a comic’s concerned.

Again, there’s the difference between a comic and a comedian. A comic and a comedian are two seperate types of performer. George Brent, Donald Cooke—they’re comedians. It’s light, wonderful humor. This is comedy. They can take a simple line and get a laugh out of it and it’s very funny, it’s the humor, the comedy, the light touch with which they handle the lines.

A comic bounces his lines off of somebody. A comic is almost always cruel. His comedy is almost within himself. I don’t know quite how to explain it…

Q: Would you identify someone you consider a comic?

Farrell: Well, after what I’m saying about it, I don’t think I should. It’s a cruel type of humor. It’s always at someone else’s expense. Watch them on TV. The comics come out and say, “My mother-in-law did such and such.” Their comedy is at the expense of someone else—it’s like tripping the old lady to get a laugh. A comedian’s comedy is never like that at all. His comedy is never cruel, never bounced off of anyone. It may be sharp or acid at times, but it isn’t associated with himself personally. The comic is usually a comic in the drawing-room too. He’s always trying out his routines. Where the comedian—it’s a technical, studied art. It’s the implication of a line that gets the laugh, or it’s more humor at themselves. Light comedy is almost barbed at oneself, if it ever gets personal, as against the comedy that bounces off of someone else. I think comics can become great comedians—we’ve got plenty of them that graduated from burlesque and have become great, delicate comedians.

Q: Did anybody in particular help you, when you were learning your own particular style of comedy?

Farrell: A director always helps you. But by that time, we had all developed our own styles. I had played comedy on Broadway, so had Joan Blondell, Alan Jenkins, Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert—who was also a writer. Everybody had developed his own, so we could help each other. We all knew the technique of it. If the dialogue was written hurredly, we found ways to get a laugh that we felt wasn’t there, by reaction. Many times it takes two to get a laugh. A funny line isn’t always funny. It can be the reaction of the other person that makes it funny. Most comedy takes two—outside of the comic, who works alone, with his cruel type of comedy. This of course is my own definition. They’d probably say something different. This is the only way I know how to explain it or understand it. I may be quite wrong. [25]

On her training:

Q: You never did go to an acting school?

Farrell: No, but I was fortunate in having directors who taught us. If we overplayed, if we underplayed, they’d take time to tell us why. And then, I had done weeks and weeks of stock, and played ingenues. I was with so many different ones, when I was in my teens, and there you learn, because you have a chance to try it out, and the chance to learn.

Oh, I look back at some of the things I did, and I cringe. I realize how dreadful I was. But you learn as you go along, through experience, as you do on any job. It’s just unfortunate that audiences had to sit through that, but they did. There was no place else to go, then. [26]

Glenda Farrell at home with Tea Roses - 1936

On publicity and actors’ relationship to homes:

Q: How was your publicity handled, in the thirties?

Farrell: Warners had a great publicity staff. They kept you busy. You never had a day off—usually you’d be posing for Christmas pictures at Easter for the next year, around Easter you’d be posing for the Christmas pictures. They all had little stunts. Everything was publicity, to build the names. But they did it with everybody, we were all in on these publicity campaigns.

Q: Do you remember how you were presented to the public?

Farrell: I was the comedienne. My son was in practically all my publicity, and my father, who lived with me. As a matter of fact, we all had a big home life. Joan Blondell and I lived not far from each other, and she had children, and I had a son, and there were our problems. This is what we talked about after hours—never our careers, you know. I think most actors are so hungry for a home—from the beginning of time, actors have been roving players—all their lives, they’re roaming. There’s great insecurity, being an actor, and you never know where your next job is going to be. Well, look, now—look at the stars to have to go to Africa, to Spain—they go to all these different places to make pictures. Your home means so much to you, because you’ve had such a battle getting one, and if you’ve been in show business all your life you’ve never really had much of a home. Joan Blondell and I both were in it from the time we were kids. We were always redecorating our homes—that’s the thing we’d always talk about, away from work. We were both terribly house-conscious, and I think most of the actors I know are—men and women. A home means so much more to you, because you’ve had so little of it.

See, kids who are raised in a family where there’s a mother and a father and the father goes to work and the mother works and the kid goes to school—they take a home for granted. Actors’ homes are so insecure that they treat them reverently. [27]

Glenda Farrell and Donald Woods, laughing gaily at the table. But do they really want to be there?

Glenda Farrell and Donald Woods, laughing gaily at the table. But do they really want to be there?

On parties and the truth about her many publicized romances:

I’ve never been to those “glittering fabulous parties.” I’ve been to a few, and as a matter of fact, do you know what those parties were? This was in the thirties. We’d have to get dressed up—they’d give us an order—we’d have to go to the Trocadero or the Colony or whatever the big cafe was at the moment—usually they cooked up a romance with somebody on the lot, for publicity, someone you didn’t care about at all, but it made news, made the papers, it was publicizing both of you. You’d come home so tired, because you’d been up working at 5 or 5:30 in the morning. You’d have to come home and change and get into the evening clothes and go down there, and you couldn’t wait to get home. As soon as they took all the pictures, you’d be laughing gaily at the table—but you couldn’t wait to get home.

That’s really what it amounts to. People think the actors are having such a time. They never think of you as working. So many young girls think movies are so glamorous, and when they find out you have to get up at 5:30 every morning, and that when you go out it’s for publicity, more or less, they have a little different attitude about it.

Q: Do you remember who your studio romances were?

Farrell: I don’t remember them all. I never got around to scrapbooks—I’ve got thousands of pages stuck in envelopes that I never had the time to get into a scrapbook. My son once started one. Lots of them were people I didn’t remember existed. Somebody would come along, start a career—they would sign people up—if they didn’t make it, that just went the way of all jobs. I don’t remember their names. This was all part of the job. Several in one year? Oh, yes. It meant nothing on either side. We worked too hard. We didn’t have much time for romance. You can’t get up so early, go study your lines, and still…you know, you just fall into bed at night.

Q: What about the people who were giving the huge parties?

Farrell: The people who were giving the huge parties were Dorothy di Frasco, and millionaires who had nothing to do but come to Hollywood and enjoy what they felt were the glamor people. They’d give parties, and you’d go on a Saturday night to a party. No, that wasn’t a studio order, this was all a social thing. It was good to get away from the grind, go to a party, but that’s all. [28]

On Hollywood marriages:

I know people think actors are quite loose and they marry around a lot. Well, possibly they do marry around a bit in Hollywood, because they never get a chance to meet anybody else. You never get a chance to meet anybody except the people on the lot that you’re working with. Joan Blondell married Dick Powell because she was working with him all the time, and they were madly in love—I’m not saying this wasn’t a love affair, because it was. But also, it can seperate you, because you work so hard. You work all day with somebody, and then you come home, and you’re tired—it just doesn’t lend itself to a happy married life. You’re married to the theatre. It’s very difficult to have a happy personal life in show business if you are devoted to your business—if you’re married to someone in the industry. Actors have a greater chance when an actor marries a non-professional. Those people have a great chance for happiness, because the woman makes her husband’s career her career. His life is her life, she sees that he’s happy when he comes home. But men are not willing to take that position. When an actress marries a man, he doesn’t want to see that she is catered to every minute. As a male (and as it should be), he wants the attention. But an actress can’t give it to him. An actor’s (non-professional) wife understands that. He’s the god in the house. But men will not make the woman the god. He’s got to be the lord and master. That, I think, is why marriages do not last in Hollywood. I don’t think it’s because they’re thrown in contact with each other—no more than with a doctor or a nurse, or anybody else in business contact—I think it’s the fact that their lives are just built that way, and they don’t have a chance.

People who marry outside the industry have a great chance of happiness. Now, I have. I’m the lucky one. I’ve been married twenty years to the most wonderful man in the world. He’s the head of the house, but he still treats me like an actress, and I can be temperamental and he doesn’t pay any attention to it. It doesn’t matter to him. But I’m sure if he were an actor, and if my career suddenly took a spurt and his didn’t at the moment—and this happens, up and down, all through your career—he would resent it. The man resents that. It’s his male ego, and you can’t blame him for that. So I think an actress has a very slim chance of being happily married unless she’s married to someone outside the business. Or, she could marry a producer, someone else in the business, but not an actor, because it’s rivalry—and a man cannot stand rivalry. It’s the competition that isn’t good.

All the men I know—like Hughie Herbert, Guy Kibbee, Alan Jenkins, Frank McHugh—their wives were our best friends. Their wives were outside of show business. They made the actor’s lives beautifully happy at home, and the homes were well-run, and so they were happy men. The women didn’t have as great a chance, because where are you going to meet a man who is going to give you the attention a wife gives? [29]

On studio influence on private lives:

Q: Did you feel that fear of the bosses at Warners that other actors have described at other studios?

Farrell: No, I never was up against anything like that. At Warner Bros. they never interfered with our private lives, not for a minute, ever—not the directors, not the producers, not the bosses. Our private lives were never jeopardized in any way or influenced. I’ve never run up against that in show business—no one has ever tried to influence me, politically or in any way. I hear about this, but I don’t believe it.

I hear about this, but I don’t know where it exists. I haven’t run up against it. It’s rumors, as far as I’m concerned—I have never had anyone try to sell me on any idea, and heaven knows I was out there a long time.  [30]

On actors publicly talking about politics:

Why don’t they mind their own business? Vote the way you want to vote, but — If they would take that much time to devote to their next lines, the next scene they’re going to play, it would be more advantageous, believe me, as far as their careers are concerned. [31]

Glenda Farrell Glamor Portrait

On technique, actors taking themselves seriously, and method acting:

Q: Today, there seems to be an attitude of condescension towards Hollywood, on the part of young N.Y. actors. Do you sense it?

Farrell: That attitude has existed from the beginning of time, with youth. “There’s nothing so dangerous as a little knowledge.” They haven’t reached enough knowledge about it. You’ll find these same people, ten years from now, looking back on what they did and the way they approached things with great humor about themselves. Actors who have been in the business a long time don’t bother with this any more. You can analyze a part rapidly, you don’t have to sit down and take it apart and say, “Now, she does this for a reason—”. It’s like going to medical school all your life. You go to medical school and learn the fundamentals, then the fundamentals must adjust to you, you to them, they begin to fit you. That’s what happens.

These people haven’t been out of school long enough. They’re still going by the school books. But after they’re out a while, they’ll no longer take themselves that seriously. They’ll take the job seriously, but not themselves. This is amusing to people who’ve been in show business a long time. Adolescent kids are like that. It’s a self-conscious consciousness you know. I don’t find it hard to work with, because I don’t let it touch me, and I don’t think most actors do. If they become difficult—yes. But I like to see actors prepare themselves for a part, take their part seriously. I don’t like to see a young actor come in and think he knows it all and doesn’t have to prepare, because he does. Older actors prepare, but other people are not aware of it. They’ve learned to cover their technique.

Like Spencer Tracy, who’s one of the finest actors I know. I’ve heard people say, “But he isn’t acting.” He is acting with a technique so great that nobody sees the technique, and that is acting.

Watch these young people, watch their technique. On television partiularly you can see it. It’s so obvious, the technique is so much on display, you can see their character grow, see them scratch their ear and do these things. When they’ve gone beyond that, then they’re beyond the acting-acting, and that’s where the professional comes in. He has passed over the stage of letting his technique show. “The Method” is the thing that we’ve all used all our lives, but it never was pinpointed. We’ve all been through it, we’ve all been taught a method, an approach to acting. All the old actors have been through it too, but they weren’t aware of it.

Now it’s a school and it’s the Method, and many of them…Well, Jimmie Dean was a great character unto himself. He had many imitators. Suddenly all the new kids out of school are imitating. They haven’t learned yet to develop themselves, to be individuals. You must be an individual, because that’s what the public buys. They don’t buy a stamp. Nobody knows what makes an actor saleable. It’s a certain thing that appeals. He may not even be a good actor. Somebody else may be a much finer technician, finer actor. But every actor has a certain individuality that’s saleable, that the audience likes to see, and nobody knows why. You can’t teach this thing. Actors go to school, and a little handful come out who are successful. [32]

On choosing roles:

But now that I think of it, it’s not much different—I never had any trouble at Warner Bros. I think actors that make a great big to-do about every part, want to be in on the scripts, etc., are wrong. Actors don’t really know that much about scripts, because they don’t see the overall picture. They think they do, but I don’t think very many of them do.

I can choose scripts, you see. I’m a character actress now. I always have been. They send me a script—if I don’t like it I won’t do it, if I like it I do it. I’m lucky enough to have a husband to take care of me, so I can pick and choose. If it’s something I want to do, I can do it, because it’s a particular thing I’d like to do. Yes, that goes for Broadway too. I did a play here, “Masquerade,” which was a real flop. Everybody can be fooled. It tried it out in summer stock about four seasons ago. Then it was rewritten, and it didn’t hold up the way it did in the original version, on Broadway, at the John Golden. On the road, we already knew we were in trouble.

This can happen with any show. It’s the chance you take. That’s why it’s such a speculative business. You can be a hit out of town, and come in town, and flop overnight. Or you can lay an egg on the road, and come in and be a smash hit. These are the chances that make it so interesting too—the risk.

I’m still stage-struck. I’m still looking for a part, still want to do a play on Broadway. But if it’s years, you wait for the part you want to do. I’ve made up my mind, when the part comes along, I’ll do it. Many times you take a part, thinking “this is it.” I’ve left three or four shows out of town, realizing this was not the part, not what I wanted to come in in.

This was a mother part that I just played, but it had comedy, and I liked it for that. I’ve been doing the downtrodden mothers from the Bronx lately, and I just wanted to put on a dress. I had fabulous gowns. So just to play a glamor part was wonderful, even though I didn’t like the part. [33]

David Janssen, Glenda Farrell, and Jack Weston in an episode of The Fugitive.

David Janssen, Glenda Farrell, and Jack Weston in an episode of The Fugitive.

On television.

We were discussing the different phases of show business. Today we have television, which has become number one in show business. It will never replace movies, but it’s giving them a terrific nudge. It’s really one of the most interesting and fascinating parts of show business. Again it’s completely different, and the technique is different. That’s the interesting part of the business, is that every phase of it is so completely unlike the other one.

Q: How is the technique different?

Farrell: I don’t know how exactly to explain that. It’s all in close-up… I got myself involved, didn’t I? It is different, completely, and that’s the thing that you adjust to. I’m speaking of live TV now. Projection, direction, script-wise—from every angle, scripts on, it’s a different phase of show business. It’s an advertising show business, you know. I mean, the scripts are not necessarily scripts that appeal artistically.

There are few artistic shows, as we know. They’re money-makers. The shows that go on are the ones that the sponsors like, and that will appeal to the sponsors, and you play to a certain type. You may do a script and say “This is a horrible script,” but the people that buy kleenex or any of these commodities are the people that enjoy this kind of script. Many times—as on Armstrong’s show when I did one—I said, “I don’t like this script,” and they said, “You may not like it, but the people that buy linoleum like it.”

I realized that I was wrong. This script plays to an audience that buys Armstrong linoleum. These people like this type of show, and these are the people you play to, so you don’t look on it as an artistic endeavor that you must get out of your system. It’s a form of showbusiness that’s an advertising form of showbusiness. If it were an art form, you would not do this.

There are a few, like “Playhouse 90,” a few big shows that are artistic shows. But those shows are also within the limits of the enjoyment of the people who are buying the products of the people who sponsor the shows. I merely say Armstrong as an example. Many times your own friends, sophisticates used to the N.Y. theatre, will say, “Why do you have to do a script like that?” But you’d be amazed at the fan mail you get from the people out in the Middlewest that loved the show! They associate this show with themselves, and they love it and understand it.

I’ve never done a series. I’ve been approached for several, and they all emanate from California, and that means being away from my husband for 39 weeks a year, and this I would never do. A series here I wouldn’t mind doing, but never out there.

When I say Midwest, I mean all over the U.S. That’s excluding the cities, because the city people—in N.Y., Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco—are a different kind of sophistication and like a different kind of show.

Q: Which one do you do?

Farrell: I do them all—but when you are approached by people who say, “Why did you do that show? It was corny”—it was not corny to the people who watch that show. They can’t do a show for a few people, your friends, who look at it from an artistic standpoint. These are not the people that buy the linoleum. The people who buy the linoleum like the show, otherwise Armstrong would not be doing that type of show, believe me.

That’s why I say it’s a different type of show business and a thing you’ve got to adjust to. You can’t say, “I’m not going to do it because it isn’t art.” It is art. It’s just another kind of art, and you adjust to it. I don’t think of it as “high” or “low”. You can’t, if you’re going to make any money or please people. After all, there’s no sense in being an actress if you’re not going to act. If you want to be an arty actress and act once in ten years, this is no good. If you’re going to be an actress, you want to act, and you want to please all kinds of people, not just a few, a little group.

Q: Has TV changed in the time you’ve been on it?

Farrell: Yes, I think so. I think television is becoming perfected more, constantly. In the beginning, the sets were crude, the scripts were crude, the camera work was strange. I don’t know why the camera work has changed. I often objected to it—it was unflattering. Because there wasn’t enough perfection. You see, all the technicians in live television were young men, just starting with it. That means they hadn’t necessarily been educated in movies or any other part of show business, where glamor or presenting people pleasantly was important. After you’ve been in many pictures many years, you know that that’s what your cameraman is for. He keeps perfecting everything he does. They want people to look pleasant.

For a while, on television, they’d come into a big close-up of somebody screaming, and the audience is looking right down the throat at the tonsils. This is not art and this is not pleasant. These were technicians who hadn’t learned to get something dramatic through experience or artistry, so the only way they could get at it was through a flamboyant shock system. Therefore, I think television is moving away from this business of moving in so all the pores show on your face, or you’re looking down somebody’s throat. That’s horrible. However, it’s an interesting form. I’ve been doing a lot of live television for several years now and I love it. I hope it continues to stay. [34]

Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane in Smart Blonde

Glenda Farrell and Barton MacLane as Torchy Blane and Steve McBride.

On Torchy Blane:

They were caricatures of newspaperwomen as I knew them. So before I undertook to do the first Torchy, I determined to create a real human being – and not an exaggerated comedy type. I met those who visited Hollywood, and watched them work on visits to New York City. They were generally young, intelligent, refined and attractive. By making Torchy true to life, I tried to create a character practically unique in movies. [35]

More on Torchy Blane:

She gave me a chance to break a Hollywood stereotype. Until Torchy arrived on the scene, most women reporters were portrayed as either sour old maids, masculine-looking feminists or twittery young girls who couldn’t wait to be rescued from tabloid drudgery by some bright young man. But Torchy Blane was a real girl. I made her bright, attractive, intelligent, daring and single-minded, able to hold her own. Sure, she loved McBride, but she had her own career and wasn’t about to settle for keeping house and raising kids while he brought home the bacon. [36]

On whether she was similar to the roles she played:

Really, I’m not the least bit like the roles I play. In movies I’m usually cast as a wisecracking, golddigging dame, you know. But actually I never wisecrack … And as for golddigging, I’ve never been able to wangle a thing. Everything I’ve ever had, I’ve worked for and paid myself. [37]

On the Warner Brothers “family”:

We really were a big happy family at Warners. When I went out there to do “Little Caesar” in 1930, the talkies were still new. Not many actors could talk, so they shoved the ones who came from Broadway into everything. It all went so fast. I used to ask myself, “What set am I on today? What script am I supposed to be doing – this one or this one?” Up at five every morning, start work at a quarter of six, work till seven or eight at night. By the time you got home it was nine. Then you had to study your lines, have your dinner and bath and go to bed. You worked till midnight on Saturday. All I ever really wanted was a day off. Our contracts gave us six weeks’ vacation each year, but they got around that by loaning us out to other studios. I could have gone on suspension, but I had responsibilities – my father to support, my son in military school, all that. [38]

On whether she resented seldom being top-billed:

No. Warners never made you feel you were just a member of the cast. They might star you in one movie – I starred with Paul Muni in “Hi, Nellie” – and give you a bit part in the next. I can remember thinking, “Oh, God, I hope it’s a small part this time so I can get some rest.” So you weren’t Kay Francis. You were still well paid, and you didn’t get a star complex. We were a very close group – James Cagney, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Aline MacMahon, Dick Powell and Joan Blondell. Bette [Davis] was always an outsider. [39]

On acting on stage vs. acting in film.

I went through the mill here. I think I did 20 pictures in my first year at Warners. Sometimes I would be in three pictures that were shooting at the same time. It was a good experience, but I preferred to go back to the stage.

There’s something more satisfying about working in a play. You get that immediate response from the audience, and you feel that your performance is your own. In pictures you get frustrated because you feel you have no power over what you’re doing.

If you’ve built up a name, you can always go out every year and play summer theaters. And during the season I generally took any play that showed promise. Even if it looks like a flop, some good might come of it. “Life Begins” played only seven performances, but it was the show that got me my first movie contract. [40]

On live television.

It’s tough work, all right. But I love it. It’s not easy for movie people, because they have to learn how to conserve their energy so they can sustain a performance for an hour. That’s something you don’t learn in pictures. [41]

On “tell-all” memoirs (an article snippet featuring some Glenda Farrell quotes):

Confession may be good for the soul but Glenda Farrell feels that actresses are going too far today in writing books about their indiscretions. . . .

As a child actress and as a young girl growing up in reperatory stock and on Broadway, Glenda says, the stage people she met were hard-working, circumspect and moral. “And if by by any chance they had a romance on the side, they had the sense to keep it hidden. They didn’t write books about it.”

The reason for Glenda’s objection to the many autobiographics today of stage and film stars who make money out of revealing their past amours is that she has an 8-year-old granddaughter.

“And I want her to be proud of her grandmother and her father, Tommy Farrell, and to think of the theater where they make their living as a decent place. I don’t want her to consider actors and actresses as loose-living people.” [42]

Glenda Farrell in Mystery of the Wax Museum

Glenda Farrell in Mystery of the Wax Museum.

On Mystery of the Wax Museum (A 1971 Photon Magazine interview):

PHOTON: MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was quite a film for it’s day. I believe it set records due to the fact that it employed technicolor and some truly fabulous sets.

MISS FARRELL: Yes, it was done on a tremendous sound stage. They took the whole stage, which usually handles five or six pictures at once! It was built so that, when they did the burning scene, no other sets would be damaged during the burning of all those wax figures. It was a very interesting scene to see, particularly the fire. They had to burn all of these wax figures which were made right there at the studio and which also had taken a lot of work at an art gallery. And they had to do it all in one take because it couldn’t be done again.

PHOTON: Is it true that the lighting of the sets was so intense that it constantly liquidated the wax dummies?

MISS FARRELL: Well, that’s right. The figures and the people! In the days when that was made, they were still using klieg lights, and it was done in color which is, of course, much more intense and hot than black-and-white. So we were all almost melted! The wax figures did melt, but they put them back together again. Actually, it was such a hot set that it bothered the actors’ eyes. The reason that actors wear dark glasses is not because they don’t want to be recognized, but because the light is so intense when you work in color films. And in those days it was so intense that your tolerance for light was gone. That’s why you see them running around in dark glasses. Not because they think it’s chic; they can’t tolerate light. That happened particularly to the actors who worked every day under those bright lights.

PHOTON: What was Lionel Atwill’s scarred face truly like under his waxen mask?

MISS FARRELL: It was a frightening make-up! It took about 4 or 5 hours to get on every morning. I know he [Atwill] had to be up around 3 o’clock in the morning, and at the studio. Most actors are usually alright getting there at 6, but he had to be there ‘way ahead of time. The make-up took so long. It was a sort of rubber mask that they had to make and put over him. But it had to have breathing holes and things in it. It was a frightening thing. I know I used to sit while we were waiting our turn to go in front of the camera…I couldn’t bear to look at him it was so frightening. We all had nightmares about him. It was a dreadful make-up – dreadful from the standpoint of horror. But he was a darling man and it didn’t seem to bother him.

PHOTON: Was the actual unmasking scene really as terrifying as it’s reputed to be?

MISS FARRELL: Well, that’s acting. Looking at him, at this horror make-up, was pretty gruesome.

PHOTON: In a “Today” TV show interview, Fay Wray stated that she had no idea what Atwill’s make-up looked like, except that it would be “a little scary”, and when she broke the mask she was shocked.

MISS FARRELL: I think she was pleasantly shocked when she cracked it to see a handsome man!

PHOTON: What kind of an actor was Lionel Atwill to work with?

MISS FARRELL: He was a darling man, just wonderful and very patient. You have to sit around and wait, you know, to work under those hot lights. You rehearse for hours and hours. It’s grueling and not all the glamour that it’s cracked up to be. It’s really hard work.

PHOTON: And Fay Wray?

MISS FARRELL: She’s a lovely girl, wonderful. I didn’t have too many scenes with her. I played the girl reporter and most of my scenes were with the dummies and with Frank McHugh.

PHOTON: But you had scenes with Mr. Atwill?

MISS FARRELL: Oh, I knew him. We all knew each other well. I had a couple of scenes with him. I just don’t recall them now. I had some scenes where I confronted him, because I’m the one who discovered what the museum was. He used live bodies. So it was quite a horror picture in those days. I think it was one of the first of the big shockers.

PHOTON: It is tragic that so many old and wonderful films like this have been lost, some of them forever.

MISS FARRELL: Yes, a lot of them. Many of the pictures I did. All the old “Torchy Blane” series. They just let go and destroyed them. It was never dreamed that they could be sold to television. So they’ve just lost the film on most of them. But I think that what happens is that the films are played so often that they become weak. For television, they have to be stronger because it’s photographing a photographed image. So I think, possibly, that the old timers wore out, and they didn’t bother to reprint them when they had already filmed a remake [MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM was remade as HOUSE OF WAX by Warner Brothers in 1953].

PHOTON: As a director, how was Michael Curtiz?

MISS FARRELL: He was very exacting. I liked him very much; we got along fine. But he worked people to death. We all collapsed one night on WAX MUSEUM. He worked us for 23 hours! We all had hysterics and collapsed! They had to let us have the next day off to stay in bed! We didn’t have union rules then, and they could work you on a Saturday as late as they wanted. And we worked every day: up at 5 o’clock in the morning, and we didn’t get home sometimes ’til 10 or 11 at night. Then up again and back at the studio by a quarter of six. So now the unions have changed all the rules. They don’t work Saturdays. They have to give you time off. They cannot bring you back under twelve hours.

PHOTON: Was an actual mask constructed over Mr. Atwill’s “scarred” face?

MISS FARRELL: It wasn’t wax. Oh, yes, it must have been when they cracked it. He was possibly using his own face, except when they’d use the scarred face. And when they did the crack up, they’d use a mask of his own face and put that over the scarred face.

PHOTON: Have you any last comments you’d care to make?

MISS FARRELL: No, just that Mr. Curtiz made a most exciting film that made a lot of money for Warner Bros. [43]

Glenda and Tommy Farrell.

Glenda and Tommy Farrell.

On what’s most important in life:

In 1935, Howard Sharpe interviewed four stars (Gene Raymond, Dolores Del Rio, Pat O’Brian, and Glenda Farrell) for Photoplay’s November issue, asking each one what he or she considered most important in life. This is the portion of the article featuring Glenda Farrell’s interview.

GLENDA FARRELL, in white slacks, romped through the doorway, and with her came a sort of breathless excitement. I flung my question at her and she laughed her answer: “Love!” Lounging opposite each other, we started a rapid fire dialogue with only an occasional pause for breath.

Glenda: It’s the most important thing in the world. Take it away from me for just one day and I die a little, inside. Everything I do, all my philosophy, my living, is centered in it.

I: Who is he?

Glenda: Oh, I don’t mean just the popular song type of thing. (Humming) “A world without love is a world without”—that’s only a small percentage. I mean the deep affection I have for my family, for my friends, even for the menagerie I keep. And they must love me in return. You can define Glenda Farrell in four words—”Love and be loved”. . . .

I: You think there are two kinds of love, then? One connected with a single definite person, I suppose, and spelled in capitals: L-O-V-E. And then the every-day pleasant affection for the cat and the two kid cousins and your friends at the studio.

Glenda: I suppose that’s it. Maybe I just have a warm-hearted nature. But I can’t hate anyone—and I can’t bear it if somebody doesn’t like me. Of course I fight like the dickens with my family, but we always make up six minutes later. I can’t think of a person I dislike—there’s always something lovable in everyone, you know. I say if you radiate love, others are bound to love you; overlook things in other people, be willing to give—of yourself and of your time and of your thoughts. If you don’t enjoy doing that there’s no happiness for you.

I: It takes a pretty big person to live like that. Petty people wouldn’t stand a show.

Glenda: (Succinctly) Then be big.

I: Isn’t success, money, important too? Glenda: (Disposing of success with a movement of her hand) Not so important. Of course I want it, but mostly so I can give my family things. It all gets back to the basic foundation of love—I adore them, so I must have success and money to make them happy.

I: But Glenda, love! Love in capitals. Where does that come in?

Glenda: (Frowning, biting her lip) I’m almost afraid to talk about that. It’s a paradox, a bugaboo.

I: Why?

Glenda: Because I’m searching for something all-enclosing that I can’t quite find. (Sitting up straight) If I could love someone the way I loved that truck-driver in my neighborhood when I was fifteen—if I could recapture a worship, so complete and unselfish, as that—then the world would be mine. (Lying back with closed eyes) It was a Mack truck he drove….I never met him.

I: First love is always incomparable.

Glenda: That’s why a woman shouldn’t marry until she’s older. The man she loves at seventeen is not the man she loves at twenty-five. She changes mentally and every other way—grows up, let’s say—between those ages. (Smiling suddenly) My son Tommy’s in love now with his first girl. And what he goes through! He lies on his stomach on the floor and dreams into the distance. He says: “Well, I guess I’ll make a phone call—” and then broods darkly for a while. Finally he says: “Mama, would it be good technique to call her today?—after all I said I would,” and I tell him: “Make them wait, Tommy, make them wait.” But he gets so miserable I tell him to go ahead. . . .And of course it’s agony. I know. I suffer right along with him. But he lives on it— and so do I. [44]

On revisiting her birthplace:

I had listened to so many tales of Enid, as told by my family, that I had a definite idea of my birthplace. I knew it was opposite the Methodist Church, and in my mind’s eye I saw the great mansion with white pillars and beautiful trees shading the lawns. I could even smell magnolia blossoms as I pictured the old Farrell home.

So I went back home to Enid, and drove to that old Methodist Church, now in a suburb of the town. The church was boarded up and apparently not in use.

But where was the mansion opposite it? There was only a rather dilapidated, tiny house which we, in Hollywood, would have called a shack. An elderly woman was sitting on the rickety porch.

I walked up to her and anxiously asked if this was the house which had always stood on the site. She said it was.

“Well, then, I was born here,” I exclaimed in surprise. She didn’t appear impressed.”So was Glenda Farrell,” she snapped back.

When she found out who I was she took me around the little home. It was as neat as a pin, but I was very sad that this was the birthplace I had so glamorized in my imagination. There was not even a tree there, let alone magnolia blossoms. [45]

On Forty Carats (her last play):

My husband was the one who talked me into doing ‘Forty Carats.’ He is an ideal audience, except for problem plays. I have to nudge him to wake him up if it isn’t a comedy. I find that quite a few doctors are like that. Hank says he sees problems enough all day long in the office. [46]

On being a grandmother:

I think it’s wonderful. I see no reason why you have to look like 90, just because you’re a grandmother. Being one has great advantages. You can enjoy the children, but you can leave them when they get on your nerves. You don’t have to worry about the upkeep. [47]

Some pages featuring Glenda Farrell interviews or quotes:

Nobody Could Wisecrack Better Than Glenda – Moviecrazed

Glenda Farrell Back In Movies After Absence – The Meriden Daily Journal

Glenda Farrell Opposes Kissing Babies In Race – The Miami News

Stardust – Spokane Daily Chronicle

Blond Glenda Farrell Likes Hollywood, But Is Glad to Get Away to Play Stock – The Milwaukee Sentinel

Mayor Glenda Farrell Talks About Many Woes

An interview in which Glenda Farrell explained why she didn’t rush into a marriage with Robert Riskin:

Why Risk Love for a Wedding Ring – Part 1

Why Risk Love for a Wedding Ring – Part 2


1. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 1-2, in the Columbia Center for Oral History Collection (hereafter CCOHC).

2. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 2-5, in the CCOHC.

3. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 7-9, in the CCOHC.

4. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 9-11, in the CCOHC.

5. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 11, in the CCOHC.

6. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 12, in the CCOHC.

7. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 12-16, in the CCOHC.

8. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 16, in the CCOHC.

9. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 16-17, in the CCOHC.

10. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 17-18, in the CCOHC.

11. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 18, in the CCOHC.

12. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 19, in the CCOHC.

13. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 20-22, in the CCOHC.

14. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 22-25, in the CCOHC.

15. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 25-26, in the CCOHC.

16. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 26-27, in the CCOHC.

17. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 27-28, in the CCOHC.

18. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 28-29, in the CCOHC.

19. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 29, in the CCOHC.

20. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 29-30, in the CCOHC.

21. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 30-31, in the CCOHC.

22. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 31, in the CCOHC.

23. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 31-32, in the CCOHC.

24. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 32-33, in the CCOHC.

25. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 33-38, in the CCOHC.

26. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 38-39, in the CCOHC.

27. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 39-41, in the CCOHC.

28. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 41-43, in the CCOHC.

29. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 43-45, in the CCOHC.

30. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 45-46, in the CCOHC.

31. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 47, in the CCOHC.

32. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 48-50, in the CCOHC.

33. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), p. 54-56, in the CCOHC.

34. ^ The Reminiscences of Glenda Farrell (1959), pp. 56-61, in the CCOHC.

35. ^ Bubbeo, Daniel. The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies, p. 79

36. ^ Reid, John Howard. Your Colossal Main Feature Plus Full Support Program, p. 61

37. ^ Van Neste, Dan. “Glenda Farrell: Diamond in the Rough”, Classic Images May 1998, Iss. 275

38. ^ Flately, Guy. “Glenda: From Gold Digger to Grandma,” The New York Times – Feb 09, 1969, p. D17

39. ^ Flately, Guy. “Glenda: From Gold Digger to Grandma,” The New York Times – Feb 09, 1969, p. D17

40. ^ Thomas, Bob. “Glenda Farrell Back In Movies After Absence,” The Meriden Daily Journal – Jun 17, 1952, p. 16

41. ^ Thomas, Bob. “Glenda Farrell Back In Movies After Absence,” The Meriden Daily Journal – Jun 17, 1952, p. 16

42. ^ Adams, Marjory. “Glenda Farrell Objects to Hollywood ‘Confessions’,” Daily Boston Globe – Mar 6, 1959, p. 16

43. ^ MacQueen, Scott. “Glenda Farrell: Scott Macqueen interviews the “Wax Museum” co-star,” Photon #20 – 1971, pp. 5, 47

44. ^ Sharpe, Howard. “What Matters Most In Life,” Photoplay – Nov 1935, p. 105

45. ^ “All Newspaper Women Like Glenda Farrell,” Daily Boston Globe – May 16, 1943, p. C52

46. ^ Flately, Guy. “Glenda: From Gold Digger to Grandma,” The New York Times – Feb 09, 1969, p. D17

47. ^ Thomas, Bob. “Glenda Farrell Back In Movies After Absence,” The Meriden Daily Journal – Jun 17, 1952, p. 16


One comment on “                                Glenda Farrell: In Her Own Words

  1. […] is a well-researched biography, and “Glenda Farrell: In Her Own Words” (, culled from a variety of interviews, lets Glenda discuss her […]

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