JETTA GOUDAL: The Exotic
By Charles C. Benham
When the Richard Barthelmess film, The Bright Shawl,
opened in 1922, a vital young French actress new to movies created quite a stir
with her striking, exotic appearance in a secondary role as a Chinese/Peruvian
spy. Critics found her "different" and "distinctive." "She has the most emotional
and expressive eyes on the screen." "Impressive in her remarkable costumes."
They noticed her "slender fingers and expressive hands, her luxuriant dark hair."
"Unquestionably, she will take her place on the peacock dais with sirens Naldi,
Swanson, and LaMarr."
During the next 10 years she was to reveal a rare ability to walk a fine line between the natural and the theatrical in bringing to life her screen characters in 18 films. She understood the reliance of silent films on the pictorial and mastered the art of being decorative. She could persuade audiences she was warm and poignant ... or cold, sometimes vicious ... introspective ... frivolous. Convincing as a Russian princess or a German farm girl ... a young child or elegant lady, gypsy, frigid wife, or Parisienne mistress. Indeed, she reached some of her finest movements as a sheep herder's wife fighting to save a marriage.
In her screen career she was to take an almost fierce pride in her work and regard for her professional ability. These were to bring her into conflict with Cecil B. DeMille and his studio. Although she was to win an historic lawsuit against the man who brought her to stardom, it was to be a Pyrrhic victory.
What you saw of Goudal on the screen was pretty much all you were to know of her. Being a very private person, she somehow managed to be a professional actress without crossing the line into celebrity.
Who Jetta Goudal was - where she came from - what she did before films - tantalized publicity people and diverted the public. She has resisted successfully both contemporary inquiry and later research regarding her personal history.
To fill the void, puff writers and columnists raised intriguing possibilities that she might be everything from a renowned European stage star to the daughter of Mata Hari. Most biographical references settled for July 18, 1898 as her birthdate (or was it July 12, 1901?) at Versailles, France. (Or was it The Hague?). As suppositions grew, Goudal did nothing to refute them, and she became an enigma.
"When I was five years old," she told writer Mayme Ober Peake in a 1929 Boston newspaper interview, "I would recite and make people cry. My parents were always afraid I might go in the direction of the stage." Her press biography noted that she was enchanted by Sarah Bernhardt. Deciding to become an actress, she answered an ad for players for a provincial tour. She told Motion Picture Magazine: "If one wishes to learn life, go on tour with a provincial theatrical company. I was young and, for the first time in my life, happy. It appealed to me as an adventure."
Mrs. Peake considered Goudal, "not only the most intriguing personality I met in my journalistic travels, but one of the best bred. She is a lady born. And somewhere in her life she has been badly hurt. It has not embittered her, but it has built up a wall of reserve over which the public may not climb." Peake found she would not go into any phase of her experiences except her screen life.
"Miss Goudal, will you pardon me for asking you frankly why it is you never give out anything on your private life?" Goudal's reply: "May I be equally frank with you? Since you came into this room we have found many things in common. I have enjoyed our talk. But it hasn't occurred to me to want to know where you came from."
The actress was to maintain her position throughout her career. "They call me mysterious because I don't smoke or drink, and love to go to bed on time. God knows I've had enough criticism. But on one thing I am very proud. I remain myself. I have my old-fashioned European life which I enjoy."
And that's what she told this writer in a lengthy phone conversation some 32 years later - "I will always be a European."
While screening prints from my collection of silent films, I had become intrigued by her performances in The Coming of Amos and The Forbidden Woman. Henry Hart, editor of Films In Review, encouraged me to do an article on her career. Consequently, when I had occasion to be in Los Angeles in early 1961, I took a chance and called her from a phone booth not far from her apartment. I was rewarded with a response from "Zhetta Gou-doll," her voice still retaining a whisper of an accent. She was in bed with a cold - not feeling well - but for the next half-hour, I was able to record feverishly (using my pidgin Gregg shorthand) some of the highlights of a very enjoyable phone visit. Alas, she was not interested in any career article; and as no response came to my follow-up letters, I did not go forward with the article.
Jetta appeared briefly on the New York stage after coming to America in 1918 following the armistice. In The Hero, a first play by actor Gilbert Emery, she played Marthe Roche, a Belgian refugee, a role she described as "more a child than a woman." Given a place to live with an American family, Marthe is caught up in a conflict between a decorated war hero who is without moral principles (Robert Ames) and his brother (Grant Mitchell), who faces up to problems with quiet courage.
Staged experimentally in spring, 1921 for four special matinees in repertory, critic Alexander Woollcott wrote: "It made a deep impression on its audiences ... (with) its excellent performances." And Burns Mantle, editor of Best Plays, found "Jetta Goudal does nicely as the Belgian girl." Jetta told me with some amusement, "The director, Sam Forrest, didn't think my English was good enough. In the morning he would say, "May I ask what language are you speaking today?"
A success, "The Hero" returned to Broadway for a respectable run in the fall, but with several cast changes. For one, Jetta had her own fall opening playing what she called "a flamboyant character named Mme. Cecile Florent" in The Elton Case, which starred Chrystal Herne. The play was suggested by the gaudy details of a real life unsolved murder resulting from a game of bridge! Woollcott's review observed: "It takes on a little glamor by the lovely presence of Chrystal Herne ... and, especially, Jetta Goudal -- these were excellent."
Jetta's stage experiences included an unsuccessful Chicago production of Simon Called Peter, a dramatization of Robert Keable's bestseller; and she also walked on as an extra in a benefit performance of Max Reinhardt's spectacle, The Miracle.
About this time Jetta was living in New York at the Martha Washington Hotel For Women. "During my early days in America," she was quoted, "I met Sidney Olcott in a box at Carnegie Hall." He was directing a film, Timothy's Quest, in which Timothy was being played by the young child actor Joseph Depew (later to become a director himself), with whom Jetta had trod the boards in The Hero.
She described in our phone conversation her introduction to the movies: "Sid Olcott asked had I ever done pictures? No, I never considered it. Would I take an acting test? (Oh, they are stupid. Turn left, turn right.) You will really have to act, he said ... a tubercular mother with children, in a pathetic scene with a drunken husband. When we got there I had two babies and I was in rags. After the test he told me - well, if you can do that you can do anything."
Olcott called her later to ask permission to use the test in the completed film of Timothy's Quest. Although one had to look sharp not to miss her in this first bit, nobody failed to be impressed when she next appeared on film.
The Bright Shawl told a story of Spanish oppression in Cuba in the 1850s. In addition to star Richard Barthelmess, the cast included William Powell, Mary Astor, Edward G. Robinson (in his film debut), and in the leading female role, Dorothy Gish as La Clavel, an Andalusian dancer.
Screenwriter and film historian DeWitt Bodeen, in his analysis of the film for Magill's "Survey of Cinema," detailed Jetta Goudal's involvement. "At the instigation of Barthelmess and director John S. Robertson, Goudal, an exciting new personality, had been engaged for the picture, and she naturally assumed that she would be playing La Clavel. It was not until she arrived in Havana (where exteriors were to be shot) that she learned that Joseph Hergesheimer (author of the novel on which the film was based) had seen her test in New York and was insisting that she play the role of La Pilar, a spy for the Spanish. She almost got back on the boat to return to New York, but somebody showed her the stunning designs for Pilar's costumes, and she changed her mind. The movie received critical praise for its beauty and the drama it created out of a seldom explored facet of American history - the beginnings of the Spanish-American War."
Much taken by Goudal's performance, the New York Times' reviewer described her as "very feminine" but also "a woman who is beguiling, treacherous, one who can smile while she stabs her victim. She is impressive in her remarkable costumes." Outstanding among these was a striking headdress adorned with pearls. Here, and in many of the unusual clothes she was to wear in coming films (many of which she herself designed) no matter how outré they might be, she displayed a talent for looking comfortable in them - as if she belonged to them.
Photoplay reported "Jetta Goudal is a screen newcomer whose work as the half-caste vampire attracted unusual attention." The magazine's measured reaction to the enigmatic actress was: "She may or may not be a film find. Seemingly, she has a distinct personality."
Several picture directors were not so hesitant, however, and quickly waved contracts at the newcomer. But Jetta was disheartened when she saw herself in the film. "So many scenes were missing." When the critics acclaimed her, she was astonished. "I went to see the picture again, thinking they had put back my scenes. Mais non. I still do not understand. There was so little of me!"
She signed with Distinctive Pictures Corporation and shortly was to be seen as The Ayah in support of George Arliss in the first screen version of his great stage hit, The Green Goddess. Clad in delicate saris as a servant in Arliss' Hindu palace, she is assigned to minister to the wants of Alice Joyce, one of a group of British who are forced to land in the domain of Arliss, an English-hating, suave and villainous Rajah.
Again, she registered enthusiasm with the critics, who found her "fascinating." Although both of these two early roles were secondary parts, Jetta's performances might well today be considered to be virtual "cameos" for they commanded attention well beyond the importance of their characters.
The public too was recognizing this new actress. A fan letter in Picture Play extolled Goudal's "air of deep mystery. I first noticed her in The Bright Shawl," wrote the fan. "How I love to watch every movement of her beautiful, fragile hands, the eloquent, tapering hands of an aristocrat. She can express more with them than some stars can express with their whole body."
Scenarist Paul Bern had been much taken by her performance on stage in The Elton Case. He told her if he ever got a chance to direct he wouldn't do it unless she would star for him. Jetta told Camilla Snyder of the Herald Examiner: "I took his kind compliment with a grain of salt. After all, I had done only two pictures. But one day Paramount called and said Paul Bern wants you to play in his first directed picture, Open All Night. And that is how I came to Hollywood."
Bern welcomed her upon her arrival. Some of her future problems were foreshadowed with the first news story the Paramount publicists issued. "The very temperamental French star, Jetta Goudal, has arrived." Jetta recalled pleading: "I am not a bit temperamental. Temperament is stupid. But I was told 'this is what the public wants to read.'"
She had her first leading role in the new film, a sex farce very much in the Lubitsch manner, which takes place from sunset to dawn against the background of the French annual six-day bicycle races. As the Parisienne mistress of cyclist Lefty O'Flynn, she gets fed up with his brutal treatment. She and Adolphe Menjou play off each other beautifully while his wife, Vera Reynolds, who finds her husband too mild, experiments with the caveman cyclist.
It had been said that Jetta "was found to have practically everything except a sense of humor." Her mischievous performance as a gamine in Open All Night proved she had that too. Amusing and urbane, she was particularly engaging when she elegantly used a European gesture by pointing with her thumb. The Times called this one "frothy" and said Goudal was "an accomplished actress."
She was then engaged for a principal role in Rudolph Valentino's A Sainted Devil for which she returned to Paramount's East Coast studios. However, friction quickly developed between Jetta and Valentino's wife, Natasha Rambova, who had assumed a guiding hand in her husband's career. Jetta made known her intense disapproval of the costumes assigned her, then was charged with causing major production delays in selecting her wardrobe. Dismissal followed, and she was replaced by Dagmar Godowsky. The press carried stories that Jetta believed she was let go due to jealousy on the part of Rambova.
Fortunately, Sidney Olcott was to return as Jetta's director for what was to be one of her most successful movies, Salome of the Tenements, based on Anzia Yezierska's novel of New York's East Side Jewish life. Sonya Mendel, a reporter for an ethnic newspaper, meets, falls in love with, and marries gentile philanthropist John Manning, and complications follow.
Epes W. Sargent, reviewing for Motion Picture World, thought "Jetta Goudal, a the girl of the tenements who pushes herself to the fore with her personality ... does much to support her director. She ranges from the gutter-girl to the wife of the millionaire reformer, sounding always a true note. The interest centers on her character, and she holds the interest." Although the Hester Street scenes were filmed in the studio, the movie was hailed for its atmosphere, realism, the "poignant beauty and restrained acting of Jetta Goudal," and the excellent performance of Godfrey Tearle, English actor and half-brother of Conway Tearle, in the part of John Manning.
Sonya appears in a prologue scene as a young girl, and Jetta described to me the studio's concern about the casting. "Who will we get to play Goudal as a child? Olcott said she'll do it herself. Well, they didn't believe you could expect the mistress from Open All Night to do it ... No one at the studio recognized me. Who's the child playing on the set? Goudal."
The film made the front page of the New York Times on opening day with a human interest story about Mrs. Fanny Weintraub, who is listed in the film's cast credits. An 85-year-old resident of the Home of Old Israel, she and two fellow residents, one aged 105, were taken to the Astoria studios during production to appear in bit roles as "atmosphere." Came the day the film was to open at the Rialto Theater, the Home was buzzing with excitement, when Mrs. Weintraub suddenly slumped down at the breakfast table. The thrill of anticipation had been too much for her.
The Spaniard, which followed, was not a success. Filmed in Hollywood by Raoul Walsh, Jetta played an English girl who initially resists the attentions of a visiting Spanish bullfighter. Ricardo Cortez, in his first starring role, was advertised as "the Sheik of 1925," and his Don Pedro was heavily reminiscent of Valentino in Blood and Sand. Meeting again at the bullfights in Spain, Jetta takes refuge in Cortez' mountain castle from a storm and is won over after being rescued from a menacing Noah Beery.
Motion Picture Classic reported: "Jetta Goudal is claimed to have cost Paramount a tidy sum during filming at the Lasky ranch where important 'rain stuff' was being shot. When drenched to the skin ... and no one brought her a wrap ... she left for home. Retakes were necessary, and three nights later some 50 technical workers had to be taken back to do what should have been accomplished the first night." It didn't help, according to reporter Dorothy Donnell, "when Jetta posed for still pictures and demanded that a large mirror be held up behind the camera so that she could see herself."
Not surprisingly, Jetta has said she did not have fond memories of The Spaniard or of her co-star Ricardo Cortez. However, the picture was reviewed as one of the Exceptional Photoplays of the month by the National Board of Review.
In June of 1925 it was announced that Jetta Goudal had signed a contract with Cecil B. DeMille and her first picture would be The Coming of Amos. Also, that she was planning a suit against Famous Players Lasky and Paramount claiming the company had suddenly ended her contract.
Cecile B. DeMille, having embarked on independent production, had assembled his own "stock company" of players, including Leatrice Joy, Rod LaRocque, Lillian Rich, Vera Reynolds, among others. To these he added Jetta Goudal, "taking a chance with dynamite," according to one news report. Studio policy called for DeMille to personally direct selected major productions; other directors would be engaged to helm, under his supervision, the necessary additional films needed to meet the studio's requirements.
The Coming of Amos, directed by Paul Sloane, is an almost perfect example of the highly romantic melodrama of the Twenties, guaranteed to provide adults and children alike with a magic carpet escape from the seeming humdrum of daily life. To capture even the most sophisticated and the cynical, it was done with a delightfully sly tongue-in-cheek approach.
Amos (Rod LaRocque), a modest but fearless Australian sheep herder, visits the French Riviera where a romance blooms between him and a fragile, harassed Russian princess (Jetta) who is fleeing from her brutal husband, the Baron Garcia (Noah Beery). As the movie builds toward its climax with a hectic DeMillean mardi-gras festival featuring huge papier-mache heads and giant false faces, Princess Nadia is kidnapped, taken to the Baron's gothic castle and, resisting compliance, is abandoned to her fate in a cellar dungeon. As heavy cascading waters rise to drown her, the Baron spies upon Nadia through the eyes of a bas-relief gargoyle mask cut in the cellar wall.
Described by her studio admen s "the orchid-like Jetta Goudal, the most exotic personality on the screen," Jetta is captivating as the princess. While her full-length portrait is being painted she appears dominant and of great dignity in a magnificent and ornate Russian headdress ... and then, in continuation of the same scene, she becomes a petite and tender bit of femininity enchanted by Amos' indoor demonstration of the powers of the boomerang before a group of Riviera socialites.
The usually conservative New York Times' reviewer, Mordaunt Hall, proclaimed, "This is an unusually jolly picture with capable acting by all of the cast ... Jetta Goudal is fascinating as the princess ... Cecil B. DeMille's influence is conspicuous ... It is beautifully photographed and affords a merry entertainment, helped a great deal by the witty subtitles." The Philadelphia Bulletin noted "Amos" arrives hitting on all six ... with Jetta Goudal, she of the dreamy eyes and Pola Negri looks." And Motion Picture Daily, a trade journal, suggested, "Offers first class entertainment. Will please any audience. Jetta was never more exotic (that word again?). She looks and acts the part to perfection."
When her suit against Famous Players Lasky came to court, Jetta asked $23,250, claiming her contract had 18 months to run and was terminated without reason. The company, however, effectively countered, charging that her temper unfitted her for the part she was to play and that she suffered no financial loss as she had signed with DeMille immediately at a salary as large or larger.
Meanwhile, Mordaunt Hall visited the set of The Road To Yesterday where Jetta was now being directed by DeMille in his first major independent film. The director told Hall, with Goudal present, how intelligent he found the actress. As Hall reported, "Miss Goudal was obviously much elated at such praise, but when next I saw her in the studio she looked sad and nervous. Mr. DeMille had called her, and she was not ready. She was even mumbling to herself as Mr. DeMille continued directing the scene, apparently having forgotten he had issued a call for her. But Miss Goudal did not look as if she would forget it in a month."
Based on a 1906 play, The Road To Yesterday centers on the theme of reincarnation. Jetta played Malena, a woman obsessed with the feeling that her husband (Joseph Schildkraut) had harmed her in a past life, and she rejects him sexually. All are passengers on a speeding express train headed for a great head-on crash with another train. Trapped and unconscious, they are transported back in time to 17th century England where they reenact their past lives, Schildkraut as a knight and Malena as a gypsy girl destined to be burnt at the stake.
"This film combines sex, spectacle, action, sadism and religion, with florid love scenes, great mobs, duels to the death, and a great train wreck," advertised one vender of films to collectors, "but one doesn't have to believe it all in order to enjoy them to the utmost." In Epes W. Sargent's view, "Mr. DeMille never has done better in production and direction. The romance period is not merely a gorgeous interpolation but a logical and necessary part of the story; a play within the play that forms the most vital portion of the picture ... Casson Ferguson is excellent as the society idler ... He and Jetta Goudal are at their best in the romance period. Miss Goudal is almost too exotic in the modern portion." And The Weekly Variety said: "It qualifies as first rate stuff, lavishly made, with beautiful backgrounds, and cast competently in every spot. It provides the greatest train wreck ever shot."
In his analysis of the film, eminent film historian William K. Everson wrote, "DeMille's pressbook advised exhibitors that the film 'marked an epochal achievement in motion pictures -- a triumph of screen art.' Strangely enough, the trade press almost duplicated these raves. Although we should not be naive, as it was probably even easier to buy the trade press then than it is now." Evenson went on to say, "The Road To Yesterday is especially valuable in assessing DeMille's true worth as a director (and) it is quite inferior to that of Griffith and even Ince more than a decade earlier. The film finishes on a glorious conglomeration of sex and brutality - Jetta Goudal being burned at the stake, writhing sensuously in the flames but somehow managing to avoid being singed in her close-ups, and William Boyd being whipped to death in Vera Reynolds' bedroom prior to her forced marriage to Schildkraut! Religion, which has been completely forgotten for seven reels, suddenly puts in a reappearance in reel ten! All of which is good fun, but none of which is good cinema."
In his autobiography, DeMille has almost no comment directly on the picture.
Although Jetta Goudal remained under the aegis of DeMille for almost two years, she was not to be personally directed by him again.
Her screen career bounced back with a World War One opus, Three Faces East, presented by DeMille but directed by Rupert Julian. Picture Play's reviewer Sally Benson wrote, "For once, the greatly abused Mr. DeMille comes in for no criticism. This is the best mystery melodrama that I have seen on stage or screen. It is as closely knit and intriguingly detailed as Conan Doyle at his best. At last the screen has proven that it is a better medium for portraying mystery than the stage could ever be."
In her role as a double agent, Goudal assumes two identities, as German nurse Fraulein Marks and as the English Miss Hawtree. Miss Benson caught the film's atmosphere with great accuracy: "There is something about the scene in which Miss Goudal, dressed in a three-cornered, veiled hat, stands on a dark stairway holding a cocked revolver, that combines all the thrills in the world for me."
The Indianapolis News agreed: "Goudal is strangely fitted for such a part. She captures the mystery of the role with such subtle integrity that the spectator remains uncertain of her real identity until the final revelation. In the climax scene she rises to the occasion with the dramatic restraint of a true artist."
Robert Ames, her fellow player on stage in The Hero, rejoined Jetta in the cast, together with Clive Brook and Henry B. Walthall. Scenes in the Kaiser's court and a startling zeppelin raid added to the interest and excitement. Director Julian moved to the other side of the camera to play the Kaiser, a role with which he had become identified since the 1918 movie The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin.
In a transcript of the Goudal-DeMille trial during which she fought charges of temperament resulting from her efforts to achieve quality in her performances and films, she related how the original script called for her character, Miss Hawtree, to kill the man she loved as her duty to her country. The scenarist, Jetta said, became weak-kneed and decided she should permit her love to triumph over her errand of death. But the actress held "the man must be shot!" and following her outburst, Miss Hawtree became responsible for his death.
Photoplay chose the film as one of its six best of the month and advised audiences to "Drop everything and see this corking mystery play. Jetta Goudal is wonderful in it."
At the time, a news item reported a "temperamental outburst" by Jetta on the set of DeMille's production of The Volga Boatman, to which she had been assigned an important role. After which, he removed her from the cast. Interviewed, Jetta acknowledged she had disagreed with "Papa DeMille" and had been replaced by Julia Faye in the part of Mariuska, a Tartar camp follower. She said she left the cast rather than play what she felt was low comedy.
In my conversation with her, Jetta commented: "I am a perfectionist. Whether play or picture, while I'm in it I must give 100%. If (my performance) is not right, I would suffer more than anyone."
However, during spring 1926 an official statement from DeMille announced his intention to elevate Jetta Goudal to star status. "The public, not I, promoted Miss Goudal," said DeMille. "Her sweeping success in Three Faces East has brought a veritable deluge of letters and telegrams from the public and exhibitors." He added his belief that her performance in the not yet released Paris At Midnight would again score a triumph with the public.
In Paris At Midnight Jetta played the selfish Delphine Goriot in Balzac's classic story of a stranger in a boarding house (Lionel Barrymore) who resolves the problems and conflicts of those around him. Among them, Jetta is reunited with her dying father and Mary Brian with the man she loves, and Barrymore, revealed as an escaped convict, eludes the police. Directed by journeyman E. Mason Hopper, the film left something to be desired in its confusing narrative development but, according to Photoplay, "just as you are about to give up in despair, a wild Parisian orgy is staged or else Jetta Goudal appears on the screen, and your interest is revived. Parts of the picture are a treat for the eye." Including, no doubt, Jetta in an Empress Eugenie hat (perhaps a forecast of a vogue to come?).
Jetta found herself back in World War I in Her Man O' War, as Cherie Schultz, a German peasant who is half French. To help her maintain her farm she is assigned an American POW (William Boyd), who is posing as a deserter in order to secure information on enemy movements. When the big military push comes, Cherie is torn between her developing attraction to the POW and her allegiance to her country.
Without benefit of the costuming which befitted many of her other roles, Goudal gives a convincing and very winning performance as the farm girl. She receives first-class direction from Frank Urson, a stalwart in DeMille's company and fine support from Boyd, Junior Coghlan as her handicapped son and, especially, blonde Grace Darmond as an alluring German countess.
Although her name was moved to above the title, the film was not given proper exploitation, and its premiere was unaccountably shunted to a neighborhood theater. (Apparently, this film can be seen now only in a Kodascope 5-reel abridgement which is missing reel 4!)
In White Gold which followed, Jetta reached the peak of her career. Contemporary critics acclaimed its psychological intensity and compared its visual expression of mood and thought with the finest of then current highly regarded German films. The National Board of Review declared: "Because of its sincerity of treatment, the power of its plot, and the truth of its characters, White Gold takes rank with those few pictures that are natively American in sense and spirit."
Long considered a "lost" film, when fortunately it was "rediscovered," critical appraisal found it to still be an extremely powerful drama. (Unfortunately, apparently the opening reel is still missing.)
Jetta plays a Mexican cantina girl who marries an Arizona sheep rancher (Kenneth Thomson) only to encounter the intense resentment and hate of her husband's father (George Nichols), who had claimed all of his son's attention. The effective camera work of Lucien Andriot conveys superbly the silent struggle between the bitter old man and the aspiring young wife. We see the wearing effect on her of the noisy, creaking springs of the old man's chair, as he constantly rocks back and forth on the porch during the hot and humid weather. When the father causes his son to believe his wife has been unfaithful with an itinerant farm hand, Dolores' husband displays a lack of faith in her. Her features turn to stone, and the film moves to a surprising and unforgettable ending.
DeWitt Bodeen writes: "It is the strongest role DeMille gave Goudal to perform, and she plays it with consummate artistry, overshadowing all her male support ... There is something heroic in her mien when she triumphantly walks off alone, only pausing to dispose of the weapon that could have proved she was a virtuous woman forced to kill in order to maintain her virtue. (Goudal) was definitely one of the shining lights of the silent screen."
George Nichols, veteran film actor since Biograph days, is magnificent as the father, festering in his prejudice. Sadly, it was to be his farewell performance.
Summed up the National Board of Review: White Gold is a picture of real people, of atmospheric richness, of truly perceived meaning and photographic intelligence - a film far, far above the average and another sign of hope for the true motion picture."
For the picture, an elaborate sheep ranch was constructed on Stage 2 of the DeMille studios. "It seemed funny," commented Motion Picture Classic, "to step onto a darkened stage and be greeted by the bleating of sheep (the 'white gold')." The set included a farmhouse, a barn, and a sheep corral, and was so unusual the publicity department treated press people to a chicken dinner "on the farm."
Director William K. Howard was credited with a superb sense of visual drama, and White Gold was extolled as his masterpiece. Ironically, the film was not commercially successful. Howard's success was to come in his early talkies, with another artistic achievement in The Power and The Glory, a flashback story of the rise and fall of a tycoon, considered by many a forerunner of Citizen Kane.
Howard found Jetta difficult to work with, and at one point ordered her off the set when she felt not in the mood for acting. Reported Motion Picture Classic: "Jetta Goudal's temperament has proved too much for even the patient Cecil DeMille. He has upheld his director and his verdict is that, hot or cold, Jetta will have to leave his studio forever as soon as her contract is up. Jetta has three more pictures to make before the parting."
Jetta had joined other DeMille players in taking cameo roles in his epic King of Kings. When the film premiered, shortened from 18 to 14 reels, her scene as an afflicted woman, together with many others, was missing. DeMille tendered her his apology. In spring 1927, she was reported suffering from a breakdown and briefly hospitalized. In other news, she returned home prematurely due to not feeling well, after being sent to represent the studio at a Chicago Exhibitors conference.
Jetta next appeared in Fighting Love, a romantic melodrama of the African desert. Donna Vittoria, to escape a forced marriage agrees to marry Count Filipo, an old friend and military man (Henry B. Walthall), to get away from her home in Italy. In North Africa, the count is dispatched to the desert, and Vittoria follows him. When her husband is reported dead, she marries a young soldier (Victor Varconi), with whom she has fallen in love, only to learn that the count is alive.
As Vittoria, Jetta had another opportunity to appear strikingly unusual and yet retain the sympathy of the audience. With its premiere held at New York's Roxy Theater, Motion Picture Magazine deemed it "interesting chiefly by virtue of its excellent performers. Played very impressively by Henry B. Walthall, very emotionally by Jetta Goudal, and very romantically by Victor Varconi, it gives these three people a chance to reveal the best that is in them." As evidence that film criticism depends pretty much on the eye of the beholder, Photoplay saw: "Desert nights, Arabs with guns, a villain, etc. Nobody does anything worth mentioning."
In May 1927 Motion Picture Magazine reported that DeMille "is only waiting permission for morals czar Will Hays to bring The Shanghai Gesture to the screen, as he is anxious to star Jetta Goudal in the sensational Chinese play." Also reported, that Jetta was wanted by Fox for the role of Diane in Seventh Heaven. But evidently, DeMille was not agreeable to a loan-out.
The Forbidden Woman was the last film Jetta was to make for the DeMille Studios. This is another lush desert romantic melodrama in which Jetta is Zita, half Arab, half French, who spies for the Arabs on the French. In doing so, she marries French Colonel Gautier (Varconi) and later has a shipboard romance with a violinist (Schildkraut) who, not known to her, is the Colonel's brother. When the three are brought together at the colonel's desert outpost, Zita betrays them to the Arabs. The film is reminiscent of many of MGM's Garbo/Shearer productions. Directed by Paul Stein, it is beautifully set and photographed.
Photoplay found the picture "fundamentally a story of brotherly love ... Goudal, in an unsympathetic role throughout, provides a surprise finish." And Variety mentioned that "the sentimental passages would be absurd in other hands than Schildkraut and Miss Goudal ... Every aid of artistic settings, voluptuous photographic effects and fine pictorial arrangement almost gives it dignity in spite of the story's overdone sentimentality."
Perhaps a more subjective "eye of the beholder" belonged to a movie fan from Providence, R.I., one of the large audience for whom the film was produced, who wrote: "I wish to comment upon the superb portrayal of the gamut of human emotions by its star, beautiful Jetta Goudal. She played cat's-paw, vamp, scorned woman, and repentant husband-betrayer with equal ability. As I watched her wonderful, expressive eye reflect the full spirit of each part she depicted, my own overflowed."
Both White Gold and The Forbidden Woman appeared on the National Board of Review's list of the best films of 1927, and the latter was rated by an exhibitor as "the best little program picture I have ever run."
It was to be a year before Jetta appeared again on the screen. This time, in an MGM production in which she played second fiddle to the star, Marion Davies. In The Cardboard Lover, Marion is a zestful schoolgirl visiting Monte Carlo, where she becomes attracted to tennis champ Andre (Nils Asther). Her diverting efforts to keep him safe and apart from Simone, a French coquette, (JG) reach a climax when Marion impersonates the sinuous Simone.
"Marion Davies' gorgeous flair for comedy again manifests itself with her impersonation of Jetta Goudal. It is superb - a wicked piece of satire," said The Morning Telegraph. "She gets the exotic, bouffant-gowned, face-veiled Jetta down to a 'T,'" said the Sunday News. But Richard Watts, Jr. of the Herald Tribune found it an "unflattering mockery. What is worthy of more applause is Miss G surpassing sportsmanship in allowing herself to be wildly burlesqued." And The Evening Journal agreed that "Jetta Goudal displays an unexpected sense of comedy."
Perhaps The Evening World summed it up best: "As every good fan is aware, Miss Goudal is the most exotic young woman on the screen. But she became so infinitely exotic a few months back that she became foreign to the picture game. To employ the language of the studios, she was given the air ... Here, however, she is excellent as she always is when she forgets that temperament, and she gives a very convincing performance. Indeed, it would not be surprising to see her forget it long enough to climb back to her former high state."
Greta Garbo must have shared that thought, for she visited the set, not to watch Marion Davies, the star, but to observe Jetta Goudal.
Jetta next appeared in D. W. Griffith's Lady of the Pavements, a romantic drama set in the time of Napoleon II in Paris. As the Countess Diane, billed third in the cast, Jetta seeks revenge when her fiance, Karl (William Boyd), angered by her unfaithfulness, tells her he would as soon marry a woman of the streets. She finds Nanon (Lupe Velez) singing in the disreputable "Smoking Dog Cafe," arranges for her schooling in all social graces and then presents her to society -- and to Karl. When love blossoms between Nanon and Karl, and they are about to be married, the Countess exposes Nanon's background.
Edward Wagenknecht, in "The Films of D. W. Griffith," writes: "Jetta Goudal is not called upon to do much but wear beautiful clothes designed by herself, and appear as hateful as possible."
Much later, Jetta told me: "Mr. Griffith was most gracious. 'I hear you have wonderful taste. Get the most beautiful clothes fitting the period that you have ever seen on the screen. Cost? The sky's the limit!' ... He would ask me 'Do you mind making one more entrance? I so much enjoy watching you do it.'"
During production, Photoplay reported "Fireworks on D.W. Griffith's set have subsided. Jetta Goudal and Lupe Velez, who were quarreling every time they met, have kissed and made up. It was quite a battle while it lasted."
Jetta told me, "I wouldn't fight with a child. Only with one of my own standing."
"When the United Artists film opened at New York's Rialto Theater, Lupe appeared in person four times a day, and mimicked Jetta Goudal, her film rival, as well as Gloria Swanson and Dolores Del Rio, much to the delight of those who packed the theater," Mordaunt Hall reported.
Convinced that her discharge and cancellation of her contract in 1927 were unfair, Jetta brought suit against DeMille and Pathe Studios in January, asking $85,607.14 damages. New York News and the New York Journal ran daily accounts of the three-week trial, based on court transcripts. The Superior Court sessions were held at night in DeMille's studio office on the MGM lot, as a convenience to the director, who was busy shooting his film Dynamite. (!)
DeMille, director Paul Stein and other executives from the old DeMille Studio testified that Jetta's 5-year contract was cancelled with three years to run because the actress' temperamental outbursts had cost the studio eighty to over a hundred thousand dollars. When she was asked to take a salary cut because of these losses she refused and was very indignant. DeMille charged that she continually objected to scenes, costumes, method of direction, and bits of action, and had walked off the set many times. Evidence was introduced to show Jetta had refused to enter from the right side of the set because she thought her left profile photographed better. Taking the witness stand, Jetta denied she was temperamental and charged DeMille with break of contract. She argued that her contract stipulated within a certain period of time she would receive an increase. It was in the contract, and a contract is a contract.
On March 23rd, The Evening World announced that Jetta wouldn't say, "Yes, Mr. DeMille" and got away with it. The Detroit News reported that Los Angeles Superior Court's ruling upholding the rights of Jetta Goudal had been handed down by Judge Leon Yankowich. The decision held that as an artist Miss Goudal was not subject to the same rules of obedience as a menial and awarded her $31,000. The court further held that her value was not "in her ability to obey slavishly, for the humblest extra can do that; but in her ability to inject the force of her personality, experience and intelligence into her acting. Also, that artists are not servants and therefore not subject to the conditions generally existing between master and servant." In speaking of the actress' work, Judge Yankowich said: "If she could not have been compelled (by her contract) to perform parts of an inferior character destructive to her artistic reputation, was she not within her rights in objecting to particular scenes which did not give full scope to her artistic abilities, or that they be changed so as to show her to her best advantage? We believe she was." The judge refused to award her the full amount sued for because she waited until January and was "not diligent" in her delay to file.
In discussing the trial with me, Jetta explained, "I wanted to prove that I was right and was honorable and that I do not break contracts. When DeMille said I was difficult, that was one thing. When he said the picture had run thousands of dollars over budget because of me - I lost my temper. I told Mr. Gilbert, my lawyer, I wanted to see those figures. DeMille said, 'We don't have them anymore' - to my amazement. It so happens the production ran $25,000 under the estimates. The studio was in bad financial condition. If they had put their cards on the table and gave the real reason - But they said I was temperamental and juggled me out of my contract."
The trial did not destroy Jetta's relationship with DeMille. She told me that his daughter, Cecelia, was a client of her husband and a long time friend. "I liked her for her devotion to her father during the trial." And DeMille, in his autobiography, writes: "When Mrs. DeMille and I celebrated our golden wedding in 1952, we had to limit the guests to a number our house could hold, but Jetta Goudal was one we particularly wanted to have with us."
More than a year after the trial the following article appeared in Photoplay Magazine: "Jetta Goudal has been forgiven after a temporary fall from grace. It looked for a time after that lawsuit against Cecil B. DeMille that the fall might be permanent. Producers may not have a blacklist, but they do not look with favor on temperamental stars. Jetta has been give a job at MGM, right on the same lot as DeMille. She will play the leading role in the French version of The Unholy Night, which Dorothy Sebastian enacted in the English production. Jetta would undoubtedly prefer an English assignment since her accent is slight, but at least the ice is broken after a long, cold winter."
Le Spectre Vert (The Green Specter) had its premiere in Paris and was reviewed by French critic Morris Gilbert. "Spectre is the mellowest of melodramas, concerning the effort of a British officer, turned fiend by wounds of war, to efface the entire mess of his regiment. Played by a mixed cast and produced in Hollywood in the French tongue, it is the first film made in U.S. exclusively for export to France.
"The internationalism of this picture is particularly marked. While its director, Jacques Feyder, and many members of the cast are French, its scene is laid in England. The Paris press has been enjoying itself commenting on the diction of the players, finding that Messrs. Andre Luguet, Jules Raucourt, and others pronounce their own language with perfection, while that inscrutable lady, Jetta Goudal, they find, speaks French with an accent partly English, partly German. It is to be seen at this writing at the 'Madelaine,' a house frequented by many foreigners. It is probable that Hollywood can do better."
In an article discussing the development of the talking picture and how it held defeat for many popular silent picture actors, The Philadelphia Bulletin considered those who could not speak English clearly. "Jetta Goudal, who for many months after talkies came into vogue could get no film engagements because of her French accent, has now, through Warner Bros. and the Vitaphone Corporation, been given a chance in the new medium. In the Vitaphone Variety titled China Lady, she has proved that a foreign accent is no bar to acting in English-speaking films. It proved an asset to her in this dramatic and exotic story of a half-cast Oriental. People have become so familiar with many accents that they readily understand those whose accents are not so pronounced as to be unintelligible."
During this freelancing period, Jetta developed her strong interest and talent for interior decoration. On October 11, 1930, she married Los Angeles decorator Harold Grieve in Yuma, Arizona. In his book "The Idols of Silents," Anthony Slide records, "Her first professional assignment was on Paul Bern's home, and it was there that she met Harold Grieve." A founding member of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Grieve began his career in the Hollywood studios during the Twenties. As art director, costume and set designer, his credits included Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad, Goldwyn's The Devil Dancer, Rex Ingram's Scaramouche, and Lubitsch's Lady Windermere's Fan. He left films to become an eminent interior designer, decorating the homes of many prominent screen personalities. Not surprisingly, his experience as a set designer was reflected in his credo - interiors should be designed as settings for the people who live in them.
Jetta was to return to the screen just once more, in Will Rogers' 1932 Fox film, Business and Pleasure. When director David Butler requested that she return to movies at Will Rogers' suggestion, Mr. Grieve, who took pleasure in his wife's movie career, encouraged her to accept. Jetta described to me her visit to the Fox Studio: "Everyone was so gracious, from the electrician to Mr. Rogers. 'Would you be willing to take a test?' 'That's fair; be happy to.' Dave Butler said, 'You will look as you have never looked before.' The test turned out better than expected. When the studio called to talk terms, I said, 'Thank you, no. You know what my salary is.' They said, 'We know what your salary was!' 'Thank you, but it's out of the question.' Five minutes later, the telephone again. Mr. Rogers had said, 'That woman is completely fair.' He stood his ground. Three times as much. After the film, Fox asked me to sign a contract at $1000. I said no. They told everyone she is impossible to deal with. The Rogers' film was a mistake on my part. I did it to please Dave Butler."
From the New York Times review: "In the film adaptation of Booth Tarkington's The Plutocrat, Will Rogers is a razor blade king from Oklahoma who travels to Algiers and Syria with his wife and daughter, mixing business and pleasure. Jetta Goudal is Mme. Momora, a designing creature who hopes to feather her nest by getting many dollars from a rival razor concern by reporting on Rogers' movements.
"One hilarious episode occurs when Rogers, after discovering Goudal's game, disguises himself as an Arabian mystic with white whiskers and turns the tables on her by reading her fortune in a crystal ball. As Mme. Momora, Jetta's strong French accent sometimes makes it impossible to understand what she is saying."
In June 1933, the Los Angeles Times carried the news that Jetta Goudal "is the newest candidate for the role of the temperamental actress in Twentieth Century. Miss Goudal spent most of the day at El Capitan Theater reading lines and trying various pieces of business in the part. She says she'd like it very much if the business details can be ironed out satisfactorily. Otherwise, she'll stick to interior decorating with husband Harold Grieve."
As film activity dwindled, Jetta became increasingly active and successful in her new career as interior decorator. Living in Los Angeles, apart from the film colony in Hollywood, she was not a "mixer" by the usual standards, and sometimes she was referred to as "La Goudal." Although she continued to protect her personal privacy, she kept an interest in film, attending infrequent occasions with fellow stars at the Pickford mansion and at retrospective showings and symposiums. Friends said she looked marvelous at an American Film Institute screening of Lady of the Pavements at the Los Angeles County Art Museum. Regrettably, she seemed reluctant to talk with old fans. She declined, several times, the opportunity to address the audience, when a few words from her would have added much to the occasion.
When I talked with her in 1961, her views on the world around her seemed both compassionate and realistic. She had expressed some curiosity about my professional activity with the National Conference of Christians and Jews, an organization working at the community level to further understanding and cooperation among people of different religious and racial and ethnic backgrounds. "We will never be able to love each other," she responded. "We can try to be gracious, polite, but affection is something else ... a chemical reaction. As long as I am honest and civil and pleasant ... I am supposed to know better."
Troubled by health problems over the years, she had been hospitalized briefly on several occasions to recuperate from breakdowns. In the 1970s, she had a very bad fall and became virtually an invalid. And at age 86 Jetta Grieve died in January 1985.
DeWitt Bodeen said, "All actors owe Jetta their gratitude for going to court to establish a star's rights." And Anthony Slide reminds us that, "while her lawsuit was in progress, Jetta was also very active in Equity's fight for unionization of film players. 'Joan of Arc of Equity' she was dubbed by her fellow actors."
A star during the pictorial age of silent movies, she understood they were first and foremost a visual experience. Her ability to express this, plus her beauty and acting skill, gained her a brief but electric career, which her uncompromising nature brought to a premature end.
The history of screen personalities loses several of its most interesting pages without Jetta Goudal, for in what is written she remains missing or out of focus, stereotyped under such labels as "temperamental star" or "movie vamp."
For herself, she has been quoted, "I am quite happy that the quality of my work would get as much appreciation as it has gotten from the critics."