Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Born Today April 3: Mary Astor


1906-1987

Darling of the silver screen Mary Astor was born on this day as Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke in Quincy, Illinois.  Her mother was Portuguese/Irish-American and her father was an immigrant from Germany.  Her father was a teacher at the local high school.  She was home schooled and taught to play the piano by her father.  Her own mother had wanted to be an actress, and, indeed, she was also a teacher who taught elocution and drama.  In 1919, she entered a photograph of herself in a beauty contest being run by Motion Picture Magazine, she ended up a semi-finalist.  At the age of 15, she moved with her family to Chicago, where she took drama lessons and acted in amateur plays.  She again entered that same in-print beauty contest and this time became a finalist and runner up.  She then moved to New York with her father so that she could appear in motion pictures, with her dad becoming her manager.  A Manhattan photographer, taken with her looks, asked if her could photograph her; that photo made it's way to Harry Durant of Famous Players-Lasky, which in turn landed her with a 6 month contract with Paramount.  Her birth name was seen as wholly unwieldy, so a meeting was held by industry insiders, including Jesse Lasky, and they came up with the name "Mary Astor."  Her first screen test was directed by Lillian Gish herself.  Though Sentimental Tommy (1921) might have been the first film that she actually acted in--and her scenes were cut out--it appears that she actually made her screen debut in Brother Of The Bear also dating from the year 1921.  The first full length film that she appeared in was John Smith in 1922.  Her contract with Paramount was renewed, this time for one year for $500 a week.  From this time forward, her relationship with parents began to deteriorate.  She was under age and they controlled her money, at first giving her none of what she earned.  She was eventually contracted for $2500 a week, but she was only given $5 a week in allowance.  Her parents instead used her fortune to buy a mansion on a 1 acre lot known as "Mooncrest."  Her parents led a life of luxury off of her earnings and kept basically a prisoner in the home.  When she was 19, sick of her father's abuse, both physical and psychological, she managed to escape the house from a second floor window and made her way to a hotel.  A family friend managed to get her to return home after securing a savings account for her containing $500 and the freedom to come and go at will.  Nonetheless, she would not be able to wrest her earnings from her parents until she was 26 years old!  In 1926, she joined a myriad of other Hollywood up and comers, including Joan Crawford  and Fay Wray on the list of WAMPAS Baby Stars Of 1926.  Her first film with sound was a partial silent:  Dry Martini had a musical score by MovieTone (it is yet another example of a lost film) and was released in 1928.  Her first full sound film came in 1929 with New Year's Eve and was produced by Fox.  By 1928 she was making $3,750 dollars of week, and though married and living in a home with her husband, it would not be until 1932 that she was able to gain absolute control over her monies.  Having their lifestyle taken from them, her parents sued her for support--she settled the case by awarding them $100 a month for the both of them.  Also by this time, she had spent 8 months without work, due to a failed sound test that Fox had ordered to take as the world of silents was fading.  They thought her voice was too deep and didn't suit her appearance--it is thought, however, that it was both the inadequacy of the early sound recorders and the inexperience of the technicians that caused this failure.  She then started voice training and singing lessons, but it took some time to get her career reignited in the 1930's.  But once her career was back up and going, the roles flowed in.  Also contributing to her woes during this time, her writer/director  husband Kenneth Hawks (brother of Howard) was killed in an in-air plane collision.  Today she is best know for her role The Maltese Falcon (1941).  She made her television debut in 1954 on the Kraft Theater.  Her last film appearance came in the cult horror film Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte in 1964, the film stars Bette Davis a friend of hers (by this time she was already in semi-retirement).  She then retired from acting altogether and took up writing.  In 1971, she was experiencing trouble from a chronic heart condition, so she moved to a cottage on grounds of the industry's retirement facility Motion Picture & Television Country House.  In 1980 she appeared in the documentary television mini-series Hollywood; her last filmed appearance.  Astor died at the age of 81 on 25 September 1987.  In addition to her heart condition, she had been suffering from emphysema--her cause of death was respiratory failure with a heart event involved.  She is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery, in Culver City, CA.  



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