Tuesday, May 10

Paulette Goddard

She was thisclose to grabbing the most sought-after female part in the history of American movies, Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. Scores of unknowns were given tests and a number of name actresses were not. A few famous actresses who got tested were Joan Bennett, Tallulah Bankhead, Jean Arthur, Lana Turner and someone I thought who would have been excellent, Susan Hayward. Oddly, she was considered too young. Paulette Goddard would also have been exquisite in the role. She was fiery, wilful, a glorious-looking creature, and like Scarlett, she longed to be rich. She was the most tested of any actress... nine times.  The part was almost in the bag when Vivien Leigh showed up on the set of the burning of Atlanta.  

There was a singleness of purpose in how she conducted her life and it's been said she never once doubted she would ultimately, have all she ever wanted. Along with wealth there was status, travel, jewelry and collecting art... all of which would be a part of her whirlwind life.

She was hot and cold on acting.  In the beginning, of course, came the hot period. She wanted desperately to succeed at it but more out of a love for fame and fortune than any notion of being a highly-regarded thespian.  Even before her career petered out, she had lost much interest in it.

I thought she was a good actress but then she was my type... strong-willed, mouthy, formidable. These were traits that defined her behind the scenes of her films as well since she was generally known as trouble. After a blistering encounter with producer-director Cecil B. DeMille, he apparently put the word out on her and her career never really recovered.  It's unlikely she cared.

She made fewer than 40 films where she received credit.  I wonder how many, other than hardcore movie fans, could name any of them.  She has slipped through the cracks in many respects and I suspect most people would be able to name one.  Part of that, perhaps, is because she was essentially done with films by 1954 and most of the latter ones were bombs, although she came back and made one 10 years later. If her name, rather than her acting, is more well-known, it's because she saw to it and being married to three (of four) famous husbands didn't hurt. 

Pauline Levy always lied about her age but most sources today list the year as 1910. The place was Whitestone Landing, New York. Dad was a well-to-do cigar manufacturer.  Mom was a Goddard who didn't much care for her husband and divorced him so early in Pauline's life that she didn't remember him.  He would make himself known once she became famous and, in fact, sued her for inventing things about him, winning the case.

She was always a looker.  Her big flashing eyes, infectious laugh
and direct manner attracted the kind of attention she liked. As a young teen she modeled clothes for Saks Fifth Avenue and others. A prosperous uncle who lived in Manhattan got his friend, Florenz Ziegfeld, to take a look at her. The Broadway impresario was impressed enough to sign her on as a dancer in one of his shows, the first opportunity she had to use her new name. She then became a bona fide showgirl in his revues.

At 16 she married a wealthy lumber scion and playboy, Edgar James, and went to live with him in Asheville, North Carolina. That location was definitely not Goddard's style... no sipping mint juleps out on the veranda with the local ladies for her.  She did manage to get to Hollywood where she acquired work as an extra, was uncredited in a couple of films and worked in some shorts but nothing broke for her. She divorced her lumberman and managed a $100,000 settlement in 1929 dollars.  The young, fetching and rich Miss Goddard went to Europe with her mother and on returning home bought a Duesenberg and headed back for Hollywood. Always brimming with confidence, she knew it wouldn't take long this time... and it didn't.

She met industry heavyweight, Joseph Schenck, at the time head of United Artists, who is likely responsible for getting her to the attention of Samuel Goldwyn who hired the comely divorcee to be part of his beauty herd as a Goldwyn Girl. Her hair was bleached while working for Goldwyn and she mused life was very easy as a blonde. I didn't have to think.  I didn't have to talk.  All I had to do was waltz around.  Back as a brunette, she signed a contract with another early film pioneer, Hal Roach, for a spell. Schenck took Goddard, 21, to a party on Catalina Island where he introduced her to Charlie Chaplin, 43.

Dazzled by her beauty, her spirit and her ability to keep up with him, he understood her lust for money and travel and he saw to it that she had both.  Buying a yacht for her, they began traveling all over the world. In Hollywood they lived together which caused a great deal of notoriety. She would become his leading lady in the last of his silent films and the first of his talking ones.

Laughing it up with Charlie Chaplin

The first film was Modern Times (1936) which concerned a little tramp and a homeless woman bonding together to face a world they hardly knew.  She was already famous because of her relationship with him but her role in Modern Times brought her the fame she craved as an actress.  The same year on a yachting holiday in China, they married.

Composer George Gershwin became smitten with her a few months before his death in 1937 and they engaged in a brief affair.  She reasoned that if Chaplin could stray, so could she. She appeared in a sappy story called Dramatic School (1938), about Parisian theater students, with Luise Rainer and a young Lana Turner.  This was also the time of the hunt for Scarlett OHara although she wasn't so preoccupied that she couldn't appear in 1939s The Women.  Diehard movie fans know she was featured in it but she was far overshadowed by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell.

By 1938 Paramount had lost some of its top female stars, namely Mae West, Carole Lombard and Marlene Dietrich, and hiring Goddard to help fill in the breach was determined to be a wise move.  Her first picture for the studio was opposite resident funnyman, Bob Hope.  The Cat and the Canary (1939) with its familiar theme of a group of people in a spooky mansion dying one by one. The duo made such an impression on the public that they were reteamed the following year in Ghost Breakers, which is remarkably similar to the former.

Chaplin's first talkie came in 1940, The Great Dictator, but its serious theme rather than comedy was a great disappointment to his
fans. Chaplin was worked over the coals and Goddard as his wife and costar received the same treatment. The brouhaha also brought about the end of the marriage which had lost some of its lustre before the film even began.

While she was in Mexico promoting Ghost Breakers, she befriended artists Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo. She commissioned him to do her portrait. Goddard would, in fact, wind up helping Rivera escape to California when he became enmeshed in the murder of exiled communist leader, Leon Trotsky. There were those who took note and Goddard would hear from them at the end of the decade.

She first jumped aboard the DeMille bandwagon for 1940s North West Mounted Police costarring Gary Cooper, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Preston.  The beautiful blonde Carroll is the lady of the piece while Goddard is the half-breed daughter of a criminal.  The Canadian story centered on the fight between Indians and the British. Like most of DeMille's epics, it was a rollicking success.

In 1940 she made Second Chorus, one of Fred Astaire's lesser efforts and not only was Goddard not one of his better dance partners, they had no chemistry.  It was the film on which she would meet her next husband, Burgess Meredith, who thought her chemistry was just right.

She had a small but important role in 1941s popular, Hold Back the Dawn.  Charles Boyer was a European gigolo attempting to get into the States from Mexico.  Goddard was his gold-digging former dance partner who suggests that he marry an American to accomplish his goal.  That would be Olivia De Havilland.

DeMille came calling again for Reap the Wild Wind (1942), a seafaring romance drama that got my attention many years later when I saw it on the tube. Starring Ray Milland, John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Robert Preston and a giant squid, it was major fun. Goddard and Hayward as feisty southern belle cousins were a casting coup in my mind... two such similar actresses. During filming Goddard and Wayne had a lusty affair and after it was over she enjoyed a summer idyll with Clark Gable.

In 1942, Goddard's divorce became final and she netted a cool million from Chaplin.

She joined with Hayward again for 1942s The Forest Rangers. They were rivals for the attention of Fred MacMurray, which I can scarcely contemplate since I have always regarded him as one of Hollywood's dullest, most sexless stars. It was a B-effort for sure but did have some exciting fire sequences and of course the two lovely lasses.

Goddard (c) with Lake (l) and Colbert (r)

One of Goddard's best films and the only one I own is So Proudly We Hail, a 1943 war film about nurses on Bataan and Corregidor. The public clamored for a film about women at war and this was one of which all could indeed be proud. The performances were uniformly excellent but Goddard (who received her only Oscar nomination for it) and her two top costars, both Paramount contractees as well, Claudette Colbert and Veronica Lake, did battle with one another. None was easy to get along with. Studio costumer Edith Head said Goddard and Colbert were among the few she couldn't stand working with.

The following year she married Burgess Meredith.  They both concurred that they loved to laugh and predicted it would be a happy union.  They respected one another's acting talents and planned to work together as often as possible.  They would work together on radio, the stage and more films.

In 1946 she made one of her best films, Kitty. It was a lavish costume drama about an 19th century guttersnipe's rise to the top of the heap, much like Forever Amber with which it was in a race to beat into theaters. Not so much enthusiasm was reserved for the same year's The Diary of a Chambermaid, costarring her husband. This time it was the 19th century and Goddard was blonde again. The title rather says what you need to know. It was an ill-conceived vanity project produced by the Merediths and set their careers back some.

Unconquered (1947) completed the job that Chambermaid started. Reunited with De Mille and Cooper, the storyline concerned the French and Indian war with Goddard as a temptress about to be deported.  It was a highly physical role but when she refused to do a dangerous scene involving firebombs, DeMille berated her in front of the company. She left the film for New York and a stand-in completed her work. DeMille found volatile actresses to be among his favorites unless, of course, they turned the volatility toward him, which of course she did.  He muttered something about her career being over and by and large that's the way it was. Although Unconquered was called a flaccid epic, it would be the last good picture she would make.  

As the communist witch hunts began in the late 1940s, Meredith was accused of being red and due to her marriage to him and to Chaplin and her years-earlier friendship with Diego Rivera, Goddard was marked as well. When husband and wife had communist screamed at them at a premiere, she was reported to have said shall I roll down the window and hit them with my diamonds, Bugsy?

Another film with Meredith, On Our Merry Way (1948), flopped and within a short time so did their marriage.  The laughter had apparently ceased.  He said that he could no longer afford her, that her expensive tastes were beyond his limits.

Her final films had titles such as Bride of Vengeance, Anna Lucasta, The Torch, Babes in Bagdad, Vice Squad, Sins of Jezebel and Charge of the Lancers... most of them cheapo, exploitation crap that needed her name to sell them. One can't be sure what she needed them for.  She did want a hit film and it must have taken all her moxie to ask DeMille for the part of Angel, the elephant girl, in 1952s The Greatest Show on Earth.  He wouldn't have anything to do with her and gave the role to Gloria Grahame.

She began dating German novelist Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front) in 1952 and married him six years later.  Living between homes in Manhattan and Switzerland, she became the grand dame, famous for her jewels, her couture, her vast art collection, which had started in Chaplin days but grew extensively during her marriage to Remarque.  She became well-known for her philanthropies.

In the early 60s, Remarque's health began to fail and they moved for a time to Rome.  In 1964, ten years after making a film, she was offered a small role in director Francesco Maselli's A Time of Indifference (Gli indifferenti), billed fifth after Claudia Cardinale, Rod Steiger, Shelley Winters and Tomas Milian.  While the film was not successful in the states, critics raved about Goddard's performance as a washed-up femme fatale, saying she really can act.  She appeared pleased but it was her final theatrical film.

Remarque died in 1970, leaving Goddard a vast fortune to go with her vast fortune.  She attended the occasional ball or charity event but was not mentioned much in her last 20 years.  In 1978 she made the news when she was contacted for ransom for the return of Chaplin's body which was stolen after his funeral. 

Paulette Goddard died at age 79 in 1990 in Switzerland of heart failure while undergoing treatment for emphysema.  She may not have become as famous as she would have liked (certainly not a lingering fame) but it would be hard to deny that she lived a life other than the one she had planned. It would seem that her dreams came true.  Witty writer Robert Benchley said she was a woman who could charm a rock.  Frequent costar Ray Milland said she was the most honest actress I ever knew; she gave it all she had.  

Next posting:
Movie review


  1. I did not see many movies with P.G.except those by De Mille, Gli indifferenti, and Chaplin's. In the sixties I was sitting with a friend of mine outside a Cafè in via Veneto and we realized that she was sitting next to us with E.M.Remarque. She was an attractive aging woman. What we thought it was her suntan were actually her freckles.But she had a louminous look.
    I like to take this occasion to express my opinion about the role of Scarlett O'Hara. In my opinion S.Hayward would have been much better than Vivien Leigh who was delightful and a real beauty. That's the mistake : Margaret Mitchell wrote: "Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful,but... etc. etc." I think that S.H. felt the loss of the role she did not get when she played the role in Tap Roots and, in a smaller way (she was aging) in Untamed. With Your post You gave me the chance to express my feeling that I've been dragging since I don't know when. Thanks.

  2. While I thought Leigh was a superb Scarlett, I certainly agree with your take on Hayward and as much as said so. As an actress, she could do no wrong in my eyes. Agree on Tap Roots and Untamed... both had a touch of GWTW and Hayward certainly channeled her inner Scarlett in both. Love that you saw the Remarques as well. Wish I had been with you.