Mary Astor – A Life on Film

Day 141 of Colourisation Project – September 25

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Mary Astor, born Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in 1906 was a successful American actress, best remembered for her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon (1941).

Starting out as a teenager in the silent movies of the early 1920s Astor made a smooth transition to talkies. However her career was nearly derailed in the mid-1930s in what could be described as a case of life imitating art.

Mary Astor Bef & Aft

Publicity shot: Mary Astor 1931 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

But few of Astor’s films could match the turbulence of her private life.  In 1930, her first husband, Kenneth Hawks, was killed in a plane crash while directing a movie. Suffering delayed shock she had a nervous breakdown. During her recuperation she was attended to by a Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, whom she married in June 1931. At the same time her parents were consuming most of her salary, living a lavish lifestyle in stark contrast to the poverty from which they rose before Astor’s film career took off. After putting them on an allowance in 1934, they sued Astor for nonsupport. She claimed that ”from 1920 to 1930, I gave my father $461,000” while she kept only $24,000. She agreed to pay them $100 a month, and the suit was dismissed.

In 1936, she was the center of one of Hollywood’s most salacious scandals when she sued ex-husband Franklyn Thorpe for legal custody of their four year-old daughter, Marylyn. Branded an adulterous wife by Thorpe, the court case led to the disclosure of her diary, in which she allegedly wrote about liaisons with many celebrities. Thorpe sought to use the diary to prove she was an unfit mother. The press had a field day publishing purported excerpts from the diary under suggestive headlines. Astor had just begun work opposite Walter Huston in the movie Dodsworth as news of the diary became public. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was urged to fire her, as her contract included a morality clause, but Goldwyn refused and the movie was a hit.

During the 30-day trial, Astor was also pressured to drop the suit, because Hollywood producers feared the scandal would damage the film industry. Astor resolutely refused risking her reputation and career to keep her daughter. Soon after the trial, her fans and the public in general praised her courage and rewarded her by their attendances at her films.

Astor defended herself claiming that the excerpts were lurid forgeries. She later conceded an affair with the playwright George S. Kaufman. The trial judge ruled the diary inadmissible as evidence because Thorpe had removed pages involving himself. The diary was impounded, never made public and later with her permission and witnessed by a judge, it was burned in 1952.  Miss Astor was granted custody of her daughter for nine months a year, with Thorpe allowed custody the other three months.

Astor was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player through most of the 1940s and went on to achieve great screen success, her most famous roles being the female lead in The Maltese Falcon, (1941) opposite Humphrey Bogart.  In the same year she won an  Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in The Great Lie. She continued to work in film, on television and on stage until her retirement in 1964.

Astor made 109 movies in a career spanning 45 years and was always highly regarded for her acting ability. Director, Lindsay Anderson wrote of her in 1990,

“… that when two or three who love the cinema are gathered together, the name of Mary Astor always comes up, and everybody agrees that she was an actress of special attraction, whose qualities of depth and reality always seemed to illuminate the parts she played.”

Her life off screen however was still full of torment; always battling alcoholism she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1951 following a suicide attempt from overdose of seeping tablets. She suffered three overdoses in two years but maintained they were all accidental.

Astor passed away on this day September 25, 1987 at age 81, due to respiratory failure and  pulmonary emphysema.

Astor wrote five novels between 1959 and 1971 plus two memoirs. In 1959 she published her tell-all autobiography, My Story, a best seller in which she talks candidly about her battle with alcohol and her failed marriages and in 1971 another best-selling memoir, A Life on Film in which she explains,

“There are five stages in the life of an actor: Who’s Mary Astor? Get me Mary Astor. Get me a Mary Astor type. Get me a young Mary Astor. Who’s Mary Astor?”

Astor has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6701 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood.

____________________________________________________________

[on her early Hollywood roles] “I was as two-dimensional as the screen itself: cool, indifferent, looking lovely in close-ups. Period. Period. Period. When was I ever going to learn to act? You can’t learn if you can’t experiment and find out what works and doesn’t work. But the hours are long, the schedule rigid, so I did what I was told and saved time and money for the front office. And got a lot of jobs that way.’   –  Mary Astor

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