"My screen career helped me to appreciate the joy of being on the stage," said actress Sylvia Sidney.
This great actress died in 1999, exactly on this date, having been born in 1910.
So, I am thinking about her today. When I was growing up in Depression-ridden Fort Worth, Texas, it was not the big city it has now become. And although we had plenty of poor people, we didn't have tenements.
But I knew all about these because we had Sylvia Sidney down at the Tivoli Theater and our delight was going "to the picture show" for a thin dime at least every Saturday.
Sylvia seemed to live in slum conditions onscreen -- she was always struggling up in her films -- valiant, weepy, moving. Or as she used to say once I met her in New York, "I was always ironing! The glamour treatment was for Dietrich and Colbert and Lombard. Me? They just stuck me in front of an ironing board. I was the highest-paid laundress in the world at one point. So don't ask me to iron even a handkerchief. I'll make a mess of it."
What's wonderful, given the odds of Hollywood careers, is how this actress seldom made a mess of her life otherwise.
Yes, she had the obligatory three failed marriages but then she never stopped working long enough to study Myrna Loy as "the perfect wife." She won an Emmy to show for her long career in film, onstage and in television so that even when tiny Tatum O'Neal did beat her out of the Oscar in 1974, Sylvia just shrugged. (She deserved to win for "Summer Wishes, Winter Dreams.")
Sylvia was one of "my own," one of America's best New Deal teachers of the then-a'borning social ethics of the FDR years. It was from watching Sylvia struggle on those Saturday mornings that I learned the black-and-white truths -- crime did not pay, adultery was a no-no, the rich sometimes oppress the poor, women frequently get dragged down to doom for the love of their men, there's rare justice in this old world and patriotism is important.
Some of these truths remain evident. Some are now considered quaint, but Sylvia taught them all with her throbbing unique voice and her big teary eyes. She was, onscreen, usually the epitome of loyalty, love, social justice and a state of oppression. She was also, as an actress, unique. There was no one quite like her.
We kids didn't think of her as a harbinger of the nation's need for equality and social justice. We just loved her and always rooted for her. We waited for Sylvia to rise above tenement squalor and out of the slums into the light. Talk about "into the light" -- Sylvia was the star of the first Technicolor movie I ever saw, the primary, garishly colored "Trail of the Lonesome Pine." It shocked our sensibilities. We were addicted to black-and-white. But I knew she was OK because I read all about Sylvia in reverent movie magazine reports; how she was now "legit" and distinguished. (After 17 years she did return to the movies. And in New York I luckily became friends with her because of a mutual pal, stage manager Ben Strobach.)
We used to scream with laughter when Sylvia told us how she had starred unwittingly on prophylactic boxes sold all over Asia. A still shot of her in a black lace dress from the old movie "Merrily We Go to Hell" was being used to sell condoms. Men went into stores and simply asked for "the Sylvia Sidney package."
There came the night that Sylvia and I were inducted, along with a group of other women of a certain age, as the first females allowed into the Player's Club.
None of us were bursting with youth, save for Dina Merrill and Lauren Bacall. Helen Hayes was Numero Uno, of course. But many of the honorees could hardly climb the three steps to the theater stage.
When one of them stumbled, Sylvia, sitting alphabetically with me, whispered:
"Liz, when they call our names, let's RUN down the aisle like we're crazy and jump up onstage. Let's show them we've still got something." Sylvia was then wearing a neck brace covered with chiffon, recovering from an accident. But when they called her name, she did indeed run down the aisle like a breeze. She leapt onto the stage and accepted her bouquet of crappy gladiolas from the famous "Odd Couple" actor Jack Klugman.
Sylvia promptly seized her flowers and slapped Jack across the face with them, in what was -- to her mind -- a playful gesture. It was vintage Sylvia; nothing like Paramount's girl of the tenements, more like the girl on the condom box.
Klugman was taken aback and she had to smother him in a warm embrace before he got it that she was kidding.
I was standing at the steps ready to go onstage when all this happened. Needless to say, after that, nobody could "follow" such a star. But I was always grateful to know Sylvia. I used to thank her for her movie lessons in social justice and she would scream with laughter -- because she had a jaundiced idea of her own about her movie "career" and she'd used it to good advantage. "It taught me that I love the stage the best!" she'd say.
Here's to her sense of fun. We should all practice more of that!
(E-mail Liz Smith at MES3838@aol.com.)
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