In the summer of 1936, the biggest news on the world stage was the Olympics. Four years after the mostly uneventful games in Los Angeles, Germany’s chancellor, Adolf Hitler, was trying to make a political statement with the games in Berlin, which ran through the first two weeks in August. African-American Jesse Owens did much to thwart those ambitions.
In New York, The New York Times wrote that hot August that New Yorkers were taking advantage of their parks as never before, with “as many as 6,000 persons in an evening attend[ing] the twice-a-week dances in Central Park.”
Back in Los Angeles, Time magazine, in a cleverly written non-bylined piece, says that the week of Aug. 10th, 1936, brought “another of those scandals which periodically afford the U.S. film followers an intimate glimpse of high & low life in Hollywood. While the cinema colony shamefully hung its tail between its legs, while circulation managers of the tabloid Press howled with delight, [actress] Mary Astor and Dr. Franklin Thorpe battled for custody of their 4-year-old daughter in a mud-slinging contest in which the purpose of each was to make the other appear grossly immoral.”
At the time of this custody case, Dr. Thorpe, Astor’s former gynecologist and ex-husband, was 44, and Astor was 30.
According to the Time article, the case swiftly “passed from the nursery to the boudoir as each of the disputants began telling not the Judge but the Press how oversexed the other was.”
The story continues, “A tattling nurse produced by Miss Astor named four women who at various times after the divorce had apparently spent the night with Dr. Thorpe. One of these, a blonde onetime showgirl named Norma Taylor, was also recalled by a Los Angeles policeman. Dr. Thorpe had summoned him in after Miss Taylor, intoxicated, had invaded his dining room when he was eating with his daughter, brandished a candlestick, chased him upstairs, cornered him in a bathroom [and] plunged a fork into his thigh.”
Not to be outdone, Dr. Thorpe’s team of mouthpieces said they had a copy of Astor’s diary, which they had obtained under questionable circumstances. Said Time, “Its revelations, doled out day by day from [Thorpe's] attorney’s office, were as purple as the ink they were written in.”
The Time account continues, “[N]o screen lover but a sad-eyed dramatist was cast as Miss Astor’s No. 1 partner-in-sin. Browsing through Miss Astor’s diary, the doctor’s lawyers said they found that she had recorded experiencing a ‘thrilling ecstasy’ in the company of [playwright] George S. Kaufman [“Dinner at Eight,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner” “Animal Crackers”]. ‘He fits me perfectly,’ stated Miss Astor, recalling, ‘many exquisite moments . . . twenty—count them, diary, twenty. . . . I don’t see how he does it… he is perfect.’
"In October 1935, Actress Astor admitted on the stand, she had telephoned Mr. Kaufman, whom she had not met, from a Manhattan saloon, asked him if he would care to make her acquaintance. He would and did, the upshot being that playwright and actress spent ten days together in a ‘snug and delightfully cozy’ Manhattan apartment. Miss Astor wrote in her diary that she asked Mr. Kaufman: ‘How is it that you don’t tell me you love me?’ The worldly, 47-year-old dramatist, according to the Astor diary, replied, ‘Well, I’ll tell you; I am not going to say I love you because I don’t. I was through with love long ago.’ "
Kaufman had been subpoenaed to testify in the custody battle, but never showed up. Time magazine, however, was able to track down Beatrice Kaufman, George’s wife: “[She is the] fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar. Interviewed in London last week she declared, ‘I knew all about this case before it caught the limelight. … I know Mary Astor well. My husband met her just about this time a year ago. I was in Honolulu and he was working in Hollywood. They had a flirtation. … I cannot see any terrible harm in that. Is it unusual for a husband to flirt with an actress? We have been married 20 years. We are adults, leading our own lives in adult fashion. George is a good husband. I love him very much and he is in love with me. . . . Please do not ask me to discuss Miss Astor. She is a film actress and kept a diary. Very stupid, that. . . .’ ”
A week later, in its issue of Aug. 24, 1936, Time magazine reported on the outcome of the case: "To Actress Mary Astor, suing her onetime husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, for full custody of their 4-year-old daughter, the Los Angeles Superior Court awarded the child for nine months a year. Before rendering his decision, Judge Goodwin J. Knight called for Miss Astor’s diary in which she recorded her irregular love life and which Dr. Thorpe’s lawyers tried to use obliquely to disqualify her as a fit mother. After four hours of reading the manuscript from cover to cover Judge Knight ordered the diary impounded with the court.”
Knight later became the governor of California, from 1953 to 1959.
And what ever happened to Astor’s diary? Kenneth Anger’s infamous “Hollywood Babylon,” which was published in Europe in 1959, but didn’t get to the U.S. until 1965, published this 1935 entry from Astor’s diary which Anger claimed was authentic:
His first initial is G, and I fell like a ton of bricks. I met him Friday. Saturday he called for me at the Ambassador and we went to the Casino for lunch and had a very gay time! Monday—we ducked out of the boring party. It was very hot so we got a cab and drove around the park a few times and the park was, well, the park, and he held my hand and said he’d like to kiss me but didn’t.
Tuesday night we had a dinner at ‘21’ and on the way to see ‘Run Little Chillun’ he did kiss me—and I don’t think either of us remember much what the show was about. We played kneesies during the first two acts, my hand wasn’t in my own lap during the third. It’s been years since I’ve felt up a man in public, but I just got carried away.
Afterwards we had a drink someplace and then went to a little flat in 73rd Street where we could be alone, and it was all very thrilling and beautiful. Once George lays down his glasses, he is quite a different man. His powers of recuperation are amazing, and we made love all night long. It all worked perfectly, and we shared our fourth climax at dawn. I didn’t see much of anybody else the rest of the time—we saw every show in town, had grand fun together and went frequently to 73rd Street where he fucked the living daylights out of me.
Is this really what that diary said? We will never know. In 1952 the court ordered Astor’s diary burned.
A month after the end of the child custody case, Mary Astor’s latest motion picture opened in September, 1936. It was a drama that had the name of what seemed like a western: “Dodsworth.” Here’s the beginning of Time magazine’s review, also not bylined:
“Dodsworth (Samuel Goldwyn-United Artists). ‘Why don’t you try stout, Mr. Dodsworth?’ drawls a woman’s voice from the shadowy corner of a steamship deck. Sam Dodsworth (Walter Huston) who has just asked the steward for a drink that will soothe his nerves, whirls around, surprised. Mr. Dodsworth’s surprise was nothing to that of Producer Sam Goldwyn and his staff when, at this line, the audience at a Hollywood preview last week burst into applause. The applauders were not partisans of stout but of Mary Astor, whose first line they recognized even before the camera moved over to her. Throughout the picture they kept applauding frequently and as she was coming out of the theatre in the flesh with Screenwriter Marcus Goodrich and her mot
her, they mobbed her. Cheered her. Shouted ‘You’re all right, Mary!’, begged her for her autograph.
“Thus did the public affirm its recognition of a fine performance, its sympathy for Mary Astor’s position in her recent suit to get custody of her daughter (TIME, Aug. 17 & 24). Meanwhile Fate had brought Mary Astor the greatest picture, the most human and sympathy-winning role of her life just when she needed it most.”
Legend has it, according to “America’s Film Legacy” by Daniel Eagan, that producer Sam Goldwyn once famously said of “Dodsworth,” “I lost my goddamn shirt. I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”
In fact, due to the interest in Astor at the time, box-office numbers from Variety indicate the film did just fine filling theaters, thank you.
What is true is that, outside of film buffs, the movie is not well-known today. But “Dodsworth” is on my short list of best movies ever, and I urge you to see it today or record it on your DVR. It’s on TCM at 8 pm ET (5 pm PT) today, Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014. It’s also available on DVD, but it’s not available to stream by either Netflix nor Amazon. If you are reading this after "Dodsworth" has already been shown on TCM, and you don’t want to buy a copy on Amazon or elsewhere, keep an eye out for it. TCM repeats it periodically.
While Astor is fine in the film, the most memorable performance is by Walter Huston. He was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in the movie, and should have won. (He was beaten by Paul Muni in “The Story of Louis Pasteur.”) "Dodsworth" is based on a best-seller by Sinclair Lewis. Sidney Howard later adapted the novel to the stage, and Howard then wrote the deliciously scintillating screenplay.
The movie itself was nominated for Best Picture, but lost to “The Great Ziegfeld.” In fact, “Dodsworth” is a joy to watch for its acting, its story and for all the great craftsmanship it exhibits, from art direction to editing.
Robert Osborne, the wonderful host on TCM who clearly knows a lot about classic movies, has said this about “Dodsworth”:
“Directed by William Wyler, who is, if not the best director, one of the best. It’s got a dull title and a cast that no one particularly knows–Walter Huston stars in it, Anjelica Huston’s grandfather [and the father of director/actor/writer John Huston]. It’s an absolutely riveting story about a very successful man who retires and takes a trip to Europe with his wife, and the wife is someone who decides she doesn’t want to grow old. It’s about the conflict of what it does to their life together.
"It’s an amazing film to me, because not only is it fascinating, but for something made in 1936, it is so up to date, and so modern. It could be a movie made today and people would like it. I actually introduced it once with the son of the man who produced it, and the crowds were so large for this 1936 film that they had to show it three times, which shows the grip that it can have on an audience today. Anyone can relate to the problem of getting older, the problem of not wanting to be dismissed by people. It’s that line we all come to eventually when you’re no longer young, but you don’t want to be old, and you haven’t made the adjustment of the fact that you’re not 25 anymore.”