Posted by Susan Doll on June 25, 2012
In a recent lecture, I mentioned the marriage of Gloria Swanson to Wallace Beery. The couple had met while working at the Essanay Manufacturing Company in Chicago during the mid-1910s when Swanson was 15 and Beery almost 30. Apparently Beery couldn’t stay away from Swanson, or the other underage girls on the set, which was one of the reasons he ended up working at Essanay’s West Coast studio. When she was barely 17, Swanson moved to Los Angeles to try her fortune in more substantial roles. Beery began courting the young actress, and the two were married in 1916. According to Swanson in her autobiography, Beery forced himself on her on their wedding night. The marriage was over before it had begun, though the couple did not divorce till 1919. Swanson would marry five more times, and her cynicism regarding marriage is evident in her quip: “I’ve given my memoirs far more thought than any of my marriages. You can’t divorce a book.”
Swanson’s cynical comment echoes those of other Hollywood stars, who are notorious for marrying often and unwisely. Her experiences reflect many of the pitfalls of celebrity marriage–intense on-set relationships that are mistaken for mature love; underage, emotionally immature starlets who are treated like adults; celebrities who relish their lives of privilege; etc. Her story prompted me to look for other comments about romance and marriage from notable Hollywood stars. Most of the remarks, quips, and jokes are funny on the surface, but many reveal a dark view of romance and a bitter opinion of the institution of marriage.
Marriage and relationships are primary fodder for comics; thus, many of their remarks are likely jokes from routines, films, or television appearances. Groucho Marx once noted, “Behind every successful man is a woman; behind her is his wife,” which perhaps explains why he was married three times. More telling is Richard Pryor’s joke,”Marriage is really tough because you have to deal with feelings. . . and lawyers,” and he should know because he was married seven times. He married two of his wives twice.
Comments by actors (as opposed to comics) are less like jokes and more like confessions, even if their remarks are funny. Some stars were so famous for marrying multiple times that it became part of their star image, including Mickey Rooney and Lana Turner. Rooney has advised, “Always get married in the morning. That way, if it doesn’t work out, you haven’t wasted a whole day,” and confessed, “I’m the only man in the world whose marriage license reads ‘To Whom It May Concern.’” Turner lamented, “I planned on having one husband and seven children, but it turned out the other way around,” and then married one more time.
Sources conflict on how many times Stan Laurel was married, and for good reason. Laurel may or may not have been married to an early vaudeville partner, Mae Charlotte Dahlberg, who agreed to claim that they had never been married as part of a legal settlement. In 1926, he married Lois Neilson; in 1934, he wed Virginia Rogers. Very shortly after his divorce from Rogers, he eloped to Yuma, Arizona, with Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, whom he had met five weeks earlier. Rogers did not believe they were divorced and tried to stop the wedding. She continued to make trouble for them until Laurel sued her for stalking him. After all parties were assured that the divorce was final, he and Shuvalova went through another marriage ceremony in Yuma. Vera was planning a third ceremony–a traditional Russian Orthodox wedding–when she was arrested for driving without a license after hitting several parked cars. Not long after, Laurel was arrested for drunk driving, which he blamed on Vera, claiming that she had threatened him with a skillet full of potatoes, tried to hit him with a telephone, and threw sand in his eyes. Domestic troubles continually plagued their marriage, which came out in lurid detail during divorce proceedings in 1939. Following one heated argument, at least according to Shuvalova’s testimony, Laurel dug a grave in their back yard and then called for her to step outside. The divorce was finalized, and two years later, Laurel remarried Virginia Rogers, which turned out to be “another fine mess.” Laurel and Rogers were re-divorced in 1946. Laurel was brave enough to marry one more time–to Ida Kitaeva Raphael, the widow of a concertina virtuoso reportedly named Raphael Raphael Raphael. When a reporter asked Laurel if he had any bad habits, he allegedly said, “Yes, and I married them.”
Bitter or cynical comments seem to be evenly divided among male and female stars. Mae West purred, “Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution,” while Eva Gabor had the opposite opinion, “Marriage is too interesting an experiment to be tried only once.” Burt Reynolds wisely noted,” When an actor marries an actress, they both fight for the mirror.” Considering he married actresses Judy Carne and Loni Anderson and had a long-term relationship with Sally Field, he probably knew what he was talking about. George Clooney revealed his commitment-phobia with “I think prenups are very important. I have one and I ‘m not married! I have one with anyone I go to dinner with.” Generally tight-lipped Clint Eastwood once let slip, “They say marriages are made in heaven. But so are thunder and lightning.”
The most surprising comment that I found on marriage was not very funny. Richard Harris, who was married only twice–which pales in comparison to Mickey Rooney or Stan Laurel–offered this caustic opinion: “Marriage is a custom brought about by women who then proceed to live off men and destroy them, completely enveloping the man in a destructive cocoon or eating him away like a poisonous fungus on a tree.” Though offered years before Harris’s tirade, Katharine Hepburn’s well-known warning regarding marriage seems an appropriate response to the actor’s remark: “If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married.”
Not wanting to end on a sour note, I’ll conclude with Will Rogers’s witty but sweet confession: “I’m not a real movie star. I’ve got the same wife I started out with 28 years ago.”
Armchair Reader Goes Hollywood. West Side Publications (Publications International), LIncolnwood, Illinois, 2010.
Louvish, Simon. Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2005.
Swanson, Gloria. Swanson on Swanson, Random House, 1980.
Robertson, Patrick. The Guinness Book of Movies: Facts and Feats. Abbeville Press, 1993.
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