Silent Eerie Star
by Austin Mutti-Mewse
1332 North Fairfax Avenue sits the shadow of the Hollywood sign; the house was built before the Hollywoodland landmark was erected. 1332 North Fairfax hasn’t changed when everything about it has, the movie people, the industry the landscape. I park up the rented white Chevy outside the pale green and white clapperboard house and turn off the engine – my twin brother Howard folds the map away neatly. I remove my sunglasses and look about me as we get out of the car. All the houses look the same – mostly neat two-story hacienda-style with wooden porches and brick chimneys interspersed with low-rise apartment blocks. The houses are each nondescript and not at all starry like those we’d visited in Beverly Hills in previous days. The road is busy with vehicles mostly old jalopy’s parked bumper to fender on both sides. I look at this house – it’s different and somehow imposing by its very ordinariness. It looks quiet, undisturbed, seemingly empty, untouched and silent; spindly yellow roses planted haphazardly in the small front lawn wildly attack us as Howard and I walk up the path. I struggle to untangle myself against their tight grip, as I release one another thorn takes hold as if a barrier to keep visitors out, the occupier in. I look towards the house, I spy at the window to the left of the front door a shadowy figure peaking from behind a curtain. The figure is small, cowering, at the very least shy.
A thorn’s rips open my thumb. My attention is drawn away from the house as I suck the blood from it as it throbs. I grab a tissue from the pocket of my Levi’s 501’s and wrap it in a make-do bandage. I unhook the brambles from my clothes. I’m free, for now. Underfoot weeds have taken a grip of the pathway, it’s wet and slippery in the morning dew. I look to where I’d seen the shadow in the window, it’s vanished. On the veranda, an air conditioning unit rattles loudly. It vibrates a rusty mesh screen that hangs on a couple of hooks above the window. It is covered in the corpses of dead flies and fat spiders. The front porch is lost to honeysuckle coiled about the posts, hanging in hoops ready to snarl anyone who dares to enter, dares to leave. Howard beside me brushes back the climber with his arm.
As I open the creaking screen-door and knock on the oak inner door, I detect a movement from the other side.
“Wait-up… I know you are coming. I’ve been told who you are now I have your names written here… over there… someplace”.
The voice from the behind the door creeks. There’s the sound of a bolt sliding loudly from its casing. The door opens ever-so-slightly and there before me, but partly hidden, is the former silent screen star, Mary Philbin.
Her voice matches her diminutive frame but is at odds with her actual age, it has a child-like quality. We three stand there for a heartbeat looking at one another. She wears her hair in long golden curls that brush her shoulders, her dress a baby pink with small lace collar, her eyes almost transparent, her skin a ghostly alabaster. On her feet, she wears little ankle socks with bows over which she has on sensible lace-ups; white and patient leather.
“Miss Philbin, I’m Austin and he is Howard,” she stares. “I’m so happy to meet you.”
“You are? Well, I suppose you should come in… I have to be honest Dustin I had second thoughts,” she giggles – her laugh meek yet high pitched. “I was going to cancel on you twice and then couldn’t find your number and so here we have it,” she seems suddenly formidable. “Are you happy? I’m not.”
Mary lets me pass over the threshold. I shake her hand it’s cold and soft and then kiss her cheek. She smells of talcum-powder.
“I’m delighted you didn’t cancel. It is so lovely to meet you Miss Philbin and thank you, and it’s Austin.” She releases her hand, then quiet and still for a moment just stares at me. She says nothing, instead, she steps past me onto the porch to where Howard is still standing. We tower over her.
Howard’s loud and vocal enthusiasm at meeting Mary isn’t reciprocated. Instead, she tells him off for shouting and as she does so, looks him up and down and likens his appearance; tweed jacket, polka-dot cravat and polished brogues to that of an insurance salesman. Crest-fallen she allows him to kiss her cheek. Despite looking out of place in the LA sunshine, I’ve come to appreciate his choice of wardrobe.
Awkward, Howard asks if Mary remembers fellow actress Priscilla Bonner, who like Mary, vanished from the screen with the arrival of sound. If Mary does recall Priscilla she makes no sign of either happiness or displeasure, instead, her attention is elsewhere. She stands on tip-toe as she struggles to break away a section of honeysuckle that lollops overhead. It’s thick and tangled and tells me she hasn’t disturbed it for some time. Stubborn, it stays. Arms aloft she tries to tame the honeysuckle as she does so whispers incoherently of her long ago friend. I sense she finds the term ‘fan’ too intrusive and so I suggest quite honestly that I’m more of a storyteller than an autograph hunter. She makes no comment instead, leaving the honeysuckle for a moment she turns and she stares.“I had my first glimpse of the Hollywood sign today from right there by your gate,” I say smiling. Her concentration is directed away from the climber towards the direction of the famous monument. She tilts her head. “It’s my friend,” she says her eyes wide and mouth an awkward smile. Suddenly there’s a change in her. “Hmm, a storyteller? Well, I don’t like stories much so don’t be telling me any.”
“You’re in films though Miss Philbin, they’re all stories aren’t they?” She doesn’t answer me “… and of course, we’ve written to you,” chimes in Howard, noticing Mary’s nose still scrunched up her gaze fixed.
Her attention is fixed on surveying her land. In my mind’s eye, I imagine what the garden would have looked like when Mary moved in with her parents in 1920-something. Before then Mary had lived in a cottage on the Universal Studio back-lot. Her neighbours a spitting camel and a toothless tiger amongst the menagerie locked up in the studio’s zoo. Fast-forward sixty years, the garden like the house, like Mary herself, has seen better days. Her twilight world deafened by the children of her Hispanic neighbours playing football and riding skateboards along the street, by traffic, by life. We stand and take in the scene before us. She looks at Howard and then turns to look at me and says nothing, eyes back on the garden. She compliments us both on our cultured voices and laments that her own voice was deemed unsuitable for sound. She, of course, blamed the equipment, her directors and the fans for not being satisfied with silent film the demise of which left her out in the cold.
Mary recalls having taken a sojourn across Europe, to Vienna and Rome and having fallen in love with London. She and her father had walked hand-in-hand in Hyde Park. She giggles as she recalls feeding greedy swans and chasing squirrels and having seen the King and the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. As she reminisces, she seems so much a part of another time I wonder which King Mary is referring to.
I feel her looking at me. My attention is directed towards the tough climber, my arms aloft, I feel my t-shirt ride up my torso exposing my belly-button as I grapple with the tangled branches. A large section breaks off. It falls and trails from my hands onto the porch floor. Mary takes the debris from me. Her childlike hands juxtaposed against her manicured nails long and perfectly painted with scarlet nail polish. “I could help you out here in the garden. I work on my Grandmother’s garden,” says Howard talking at her, but with a disparaging look at me, tutting as he covers up my bare skin by yanking my top down. Satisfied he takes a step onto the lawn from the veranda.
Mary either doesn’t hear or chooses not to answer. She looks at him below her on the grass and instead poodles off to the far end of the porch and tosses the climber onto a pile of garden waste. We both stand at our different positions awaiting her return.
“Well, you are gracious to agree to see us Miss Philbin.” I say as I brush dried leaves stuck to my clothes and in my hair, trying my best to make her feel at ease. To be honest, I’m ready to get in the car and go. But there’s something about Mary that makes me want to stay. Our attention is diverted when a car backfires. We all watch as a Cadillac pulls up long-side the Chevy. A man gets out and crosses the road in the opposite direction. Mary starts to shuffle towards the main door. “Hmm, noisy neighbours and debateable men,” she mumbles as the man wanders back towards his car and stares at us. As she retreats through the screen door she kicks a miserable planter housing fake tulips and a sad looking bald-headed doll.
Without looking back at us, she holds it open for Howard and me. “Well, you had better come in for a moment… there are strangers out here. I nearly called this off and listen, you can’t stay and I don’t give interviews and by your letters, you want to talk about my pictures. I don’t recall anything… it was nice, but long ago and everyone has gone now.” She faces us as she hurries us in, bending around me to see if the man has gone. “Come, come, I’m expecting a telephone call.”
The hall is musty and dark a grim contrast to the brilliant blue sky outside. With a sudden whoosh, she slams the door shut and banishes the day into darkness. She walks ahead and switches on a lamp that sits on a small wooden table. An orange glow from a fringed shade casts Mary’s shadow along the walls papered in a fifties-style autumn leaf print. Although not invited we follow her as she lurches into the living room. A small settee and an armchair sit before the fireplace. There are photographs, mostly of a young Mary with whom I presume are her parents.
There are house rules. Mary doesn’t give interviews nor does she receive house callers. Howard and I are the exceptions to the latter she tells us simply because of the distance we’d travelled. We stand awkwardly in the middle of the room. I’m annoyed that our mutual friend Carla Laemmle had obviously read the situation incorrectly. Did this reclusive actress really want to see us, or, as I suspect looking at Howard, whether he’d twisted Carla’s arm that she’d introduce us to Mary.
Carla’s Uncle had founded Universal Studios in 1910. She and Mary had been friends even before their Hollywood days. It appears Mary might be thawing.Her smile is dream-like as she stares at me; I’m intrigued that perhaps she feels she’d known someone like me in her youth. She stares and stares all the while Howard talks endlessly about her career and co-stars. When she fails to respond he decides to change track apologising for having mentioned it at all. She breaks her stare to look at Howard for a moment, her temperament ever-changing, “Well what the hell is there to talk about, the weather?” she flops into the armchair.
Now absolutely convinced I’m a long-lost love. Mary compliments me on my teeth, my strong hands and smile, and asks what pictures I made and for what studio, she’s certain it must have been Universal. Secretly chuffed that she’d deem my gangly frame worthy of leading man material, I ream off some TV work I’d done in England including an audition for Blue Peter. She’d of course never heard of the show, deciding with a stamp of her patient shoe that with such a name, Blue Peter must be sad and horrid.
“Never mind television,” she says. “For a moment I was sure we’d worked together,” Mary’s almost beaming at me now.“Oh no,” I laugh, I’m still a kid…” and then I stop. Its Mary, she’s the kid. She thinks she’s still that little girl! I spy her clothes, the hair and those ankle socks with pretty pink bows. I shiver and swallow hard. I feel hot, my t-shirt sticky across my shoulders even though the room is cold. I wish we could have stayed outside.
She diverts her eyes from me and starts to pick up on some of the names Howard had mentioned. “Oh my, they all want to know about Lon Chaney and Phantom of the Opera and D.W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim and Paul Kohner and ask me questions. I know things. I have secrets and they’re all mine to keep,” she says, pouting like a little girl. The heat that was uncomfortable before is almost suffocating now. Mary straightens her dress over both her knees. We both perch on the sofa. She fiddles with her hands in her lap. There’s a photo of a young Mary on a side-table next to me and next to it some mail, our letters. I’m amazed she has kept our correspondence – a dozen or more cream envelopes neatly slit open and stacked on one other. Howard comments on these to which Mary barks the only reason she’d kept them at all was that her Daddy had collected stamps. I can feel her mind ticking over. I can see she’s acting; villain witch versus childlike protagonist. Suddenly I feel like the cowardly lion.
Silence again. I point at the photo next to me and ask if the couple were her parents. She nods as she looks at the photo and others to her left on the wall. The witch is back. “That Kevin Brownlow man who rang me and wanted to visit and talk about my pictures and ask me about Erich von Stroheim and D.W. Griffith and Phantom of the Opera. But I said no to him and I say no to you.” She stops, then asks, “Did you know I’m the lead, the girl who unmasked the Phantom?” “Yes, it’s an amazing film,” says Howard enthusiastically. He hasn’t picked up that she’s not using past tense. He carries on, “…and the picture frames themselves are very beautiful.”
Mary looks at me, “Nobody can touch Lon Chaney,” she says patting the arm of her chair to emphasise her point. “I refused Mr Brownlow every time.” Mary gestures with her hands. “He told me he’d spoken with Louise Brooks and Mary Astor and they’d talked. I don’t like gossips. Mary Astor is a gossip.” She says firmly. “I could tell him my directors were all nice men, if perfectionists, and that I liked being in pictures, but nothing more. I don’t know any more than that.” Mary cradles her hands in her lap and fiddles with the hem of her dress. ”So tell me, why the facial embellishment?”
“He thinks it makes him look sophisticated,” laughs Howard, who’s got his notepad ready sensing some film chat. “It does,” snaps Mary. “You didn’t want to grow one then, or can’t you?” she adds.
I playfully nudge Howard, “I beat him to it.” Howard says nothing. “Did you always have a moustache?” asks Mary. “I can’t picture you without it.” “Oh he didn’t always have it and our mother isn’t a fan. But I like it really and …” “Oh really, well that’s his business.” Mary says cutting Howard off. She motions to a tray on a drop-leaf table by the window on which are three odd glasses and a jug of iced tea. She asks that we help ourselves. Mary had her fill before we arrived. I’ve had my fill now too. She looks at the clock on the mantelpiece and then at Howard as he pours a glass for me and one for himself. She squints at the face of her miniscule wristwatch.
“I made my first picture in 1921 and was so good that Universal gave me more parts and more parts. I was the studio and the studio was me,” she says with new vigour. “When I was making Phantom of the Opera, I had to be in make-up and on-set before dawn. Have you seen Phantom of the Opera?” she asks not waiting for an answer. “Lon Chaney insisted on doing all of his own makeup,” she shudders, “He’s so ghoulish!”
“I read that. I hear he was a nice man,” I say helping myself to a top-up of tea and taking a biscuit. There are two varieties, the chocolate ones have a white speckled coating telling me they’ve been hanging about for a while, so I opt instead for what resembles a pink wafer.
“Yes, a nice man… well, apart from what he said to me in that scene where he removes his mask. I’d never heard… Oh, I couldn’t repeat it to Father… Oh, that’s enough of that.”
“No, no really. Sounds fascinating,” I say urging her on. “Well, it isn’t. Mr. Chaney was a nice man and I admired him as a great actor. He was trying to get a rise out of me, a reaction for our scene, that’s all – he used cuss-words. He touched me…”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some tea?” I ask as I try and warm her up. I’d rather keep her focused on her films too rather than on me.
Mary shakes her head… “Everyone said I was so pretty. Carla’s father sent his relative at Universal my portrait and Universal signed me. Carla was my little playmate in Chicago and then I left her for Hollywood with my father and my mother. Oh, Mother was like the cat that got the cream.” Mary bites her bottom lip. “Mama died right here in this house, right in this chair,” she pats the arm.
“Oh I’m sorry to hear that,” says Howard sympathetically. She lowers her gaze, “It’s like she never left”. That might explain the energy in this house I think to myself.
Mary looks around the room and towards the window. “Ours was an un-made road out there and you’d smell the orange blossom, it’s busy now and the trees have pretty much gone. I think we must have been in this house for 30 years…”
“Longer Miss Philbin,” says Howard, “more like 70 years.” Mary looks alarmingly at Howard her jaw wide but says nothing, instead she slowly shuts it tight and shakes her head.
“Did you write to me asking for my autograph from England?” she asks, “you are from England that’s right, isn’t it? “Yes,” says Howard, “near Wimbledon – where they have the tennis championships”
“I have fans that are older than you boys of course, more like my father really, and they write lovely things – always about Phantom of the Opera… I did something big in that…” “You were the lead. You were Catherine,” says Howard looking at Mary and then at me uneasily.
“Yes… I tried to emulate Mary Pickford for that role, I insisted on her make-up people and wore my hair in golden curls. I was good. Carla’s father said I was good.”
“Amazing that both you and Carla kept in touch,” says Howard. Without Carla, Mary would rarely venture beyond the church a block away and the store and hadn’t done anything remotely to do with her career since 1930. Carla changed all that, taking her to the opening night of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Phantom of the Opera. According to Carla, Mary scampered before the final curtain.
Mary trails off once we start to talk about recent times instead she gesticulates about the room. “My parents are dead of course,” she says forlornly. “My mother died right in that chair,” she says pointing right at me. I wriggle uncomfortably.
Mary’s parents squabbled over their daughter’s career so much so that her mother left. “But she came back,” says Mary. “She died where you sit”. I squirm at the thought. “She was the age I am now” sighs Mary. I watch her kicking her heels her feet not reaching the floor and wonder how old she thinks she is. Her mother died aged 59. Mary is all of 90.
I drink the last of my tea. Howard decides upon a refill, this visibly annoys her. “I have a telephone call you see gentlemen, and so I can’t have you to stay any longer.”
“Well it’s been nice spending time with you,” says Howard with a gulp. “Whilst we are here, can I ask a favour Miss Philbin? Can I ask what your favourite film was?”
Mary remains at the window, white window shutters adjusted so only a minimal amount of light creeps in.“Phantom of the Opera was wonderful Austin, and Mr. Chaney perfectly charming and nice, and Drums of Love was a darling picture and everyone was nice on that movie. They say I could have been better, I was told the part was too big for me, but I showed them all. I showed them how good an actress I was. Erich von Stroheim saw it and he knew I was good, and he told the world and that’s all I can tell you… now that telephone call should arrive very soon gentlemen.”
“And Rudolph Valentino, you knew him?” I asked, deciding to push her more knowing full well they’d never be another opportunity. “People were perfectly horrid about him. Such a nice boy and good looking too. Just like you,” says Mary, still in the window. “Oh thank you,” I say intent on pushing her more. “Carla tells us you visit his grave on the anniversary of his death” I say. “I was at his funeral,” she says mournfully.“What did people say about him then?” I ask.
“I adored him. He was too perfect, too handsome and too beautiful a specimen to grow old. I knew he would die young. I saw all his pictures,” she says straining to look at her wrist-watch.
“I read that his crypt is visited annually by a mysterious woman dressed in black,” says Howard placing his cup down, “How mysterious!” “I heard it mentioned that you were the woman in black,” I say. “Nonsense!” barks Mary, “that woman is a phoney. I’ve known many, I’m the real thing,” she says. “I made The Man Who Laughs and The Last Performance with Conrad Veidt, both box-office hits.”
Without moving from the window she announces that we should wait in our car. She hurries past us towards the front door. She asks that we continue to write but is emphatic that we not return in person. She blames her father for not welcoming house-callers and then her mother. Pointing out to the hall she laments that her poor mother had died in the kitchen. For a corpse, Mother certainly got about!
She opens the front door, the sun blazes through warming the damp hall; she shies away shielding her eyes from the sun with her hand. I follow Howard out the door. She takes hold of my hand and asks if I’d been to the ‘studio’ and who I’d been talking to there. Mary asks that I try Erich von Stroheim, whilst at the same time has her free hand at the base of my spine pushing me out of the door. As she slams it shut the mesh screen door vibrates and rattles behind us.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” she says talking through the door. “I haven’t spoken about my career and I’m happy you still remember me.” She’s then silent. The sun outside is warm the air is a sweet contrast to Mary’s musty living room. I stand on the porch shielding my eyes from the sun’s glare. I delve into my pocket for my sunglasses, better. A wasp buzzes loudly before it’s captured in a spider’s web that stretches in front of Howard and me across the porch. I watch its wings beating very, very fast whilst all else is perfectly still. By the gate, life continues unbroken. A couple of girls with high ponytails jog past me, there’s a car horn, a lawnmower. The sound of life that’s all but lost inside 1332 North Fairfax.
Howard and I are standing by our car when Carla arrives. Carla is tall, elegant with a broad lipstick-heavy smile. She wears flared white trousers and a Chinese print cape her hair is mousy-brown, permed and neat, a contrast to her ‘Baby Jane’ like friend. I tell her some of what occurred inside.
I watch Carla as she scurries off towards the house, she navigates the path with ease and turns to wave us off. I spy Mary at the window holding the curtains aloft and then as she sees me, the curtain falls, and she has gone.
Almost before we’d unpacked when we arrived back home to England, Howard set to writing thank you notes and in some cases buying gifts using some of the tip money me, and now he also a waiter earned at the Kingston Lodge Hotel, to send to the film stars we’d met. I pretend to be annoyed. I’m not. I want nothing more now I’m home to go back over the rainbow, witch and all. We spend the rest of that year saving and Hollywood dreaming.
We’d continue to correspond with Mary Philbin until early 1993, when our Christmas card is returned with a yellow sticker that read, ‘Return to Sender’. We discovered Mary been moved from the house she’d lived in all her adult life by a relative to a nursing home in Huntington Beach, California. She dies there, from Alzheimer’s disease in May 1993.
I sometimes muse who Mary had thought I was; a matinee idol, a director or cameraman. I think back to that LA morning and the little house on Fairfax and how young Howard and I were. The journey of rediscovery we’d taken lead us to many Mary’s who despite decades away from the cameras, their careers tarnished by changes in the industry were to a pair of twins from grey Surrey still gold.