Ramon Novarro Looks Back

Ramon Novarro
Ramon Novarro

Novarro opens the book of his past. Here are strange revelations.

It happened in an Automat restaurant in New York about thirteen years ago. The weather was cold and snow had recently fallen. ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house plenty of creatures were stirring—especially after the theaters had closed.

Among the bus boys, whose duties included clearing the tables when patrons finished eating, was a young Mexican who spoke broken English.

From time to time his bright black eyes turned anxiously toward the clock, not because he was a shirker and wished to go home, but because he had never before missed a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and the hour was drawing near.

Earlier in the evening the boss had told him that il by twelve o’clock the crowd had thinned be might go then, instead of working until three a. m., as he ordinarily did.

Eleven thirty, eleven forty-five, and still people lingered over their coffe, talking. The boy watched them anxiously. As soon as a customer put down his empty cup he seized it and whisked it away to the kitchen. And as he hurried about clearing the tables he kept thinking about midnight mass.

At eleven fifty-five he asked permission to leave. The answer was no. There were too many customers, the manager told him, not unkindly.

So Ramon Novarro missed bis first Christmas Eve mass. To you or me the incident might seem unimportant. To Ramon it was a minor tragedy.

“But I thought,” said he, “Well, I did the best I could, so that’s all there is to it.’ ”

Folded up on a divan in the Metro-Goldwyn reception room he told me something of those lean early years. He looked rather tired, but his low-pitched voice was full of verve and interest — and music ! He speaks rapidly, seldom having to hesitate, over his choice of words.

“My salary,” he continued, “was so small that I could hardly live on it. I ate one meal a day, in the afternoon before going on duty. But every night, just before I left, I stole an apple and are it for breakfast next morning.

“I was with the Marion Morgan dancers then, but we were between engagements. For several hours during the middle of each day we rehearsed and then I went to the Automat. Finally our show was to open for a three-day try-out in Mt. Vernon, before we were to bring it to New York. I had to give up my job at the Automat, although I had been promised two dollars a week increase.

“When we got to Mt. Vernon I had just one dollar left in the world. Alter the first-night performance, I wondered whether I should spend the money for a room or buy supper. I could do one or the other, but not both. As l’had had almost nothing to eat that day, I decided to spend it for food. Alter that I went back to the theater and persuaded the doorman to let me go inside.

“Charwomen were scrubbing the stage. I found a couch off to one side and lay down, spreading my mackintosh over my body. My overcoat was in the pawnshop.

“While I lay there trying to sleep, I could hear those women sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. When I was about half asleep, one of them came over to me and very gently drew the mackintosh over me again, as it was sliding off. I shall always remember her kindness.

“Soon after that we received our salary. When I got back to New York I went to the Automat and paid the manager for the apples I had stolen. It amounted to one dollar and seventy-five cents, I believe.”

When the dancing troupe returned to Los Angeles, Ramon got a number of local engagements, one of which was in a prologue at the California Theater. To-day it houses all the Spanish pictures from the studios. There Ramon’s “In Gay Madrid” and “Call of the Flesh” were shown.

When Ramon and his partner appeared there about eleven years ago they looked like a couple of school kids. Dressed in the minimum of clothing, they performed a beautiful but sensuous dance which Ramon described as “dirty.” Later they were engaged to appear in Ben Turpin’s “A Small-town Idol.” This number, I believe, was also dirty.

“Then,” said Ramon, “we were engaged to do a dance in another picture, our sketch being called ‘Loose Lovers.’ When it was finished it was found to be so loose that it was taken out !”

Ramon lifted his black brows and laughed until his molars showed. His naughty dancing appears very amusing to him now. Probably it did at the time it was in progress. Trust him to see any humor there is to be seen.

“In one of the early pictures that I worked in,” said he, placing a pillow on the arm of the divan and leaning against it, “I had to assume the character of a wild man and do a dance, very fast and difficult, and then pick up my partner, run off the stage on my toes and throw her down to a floor below. There were cushions for her to fall on, of course. We went through it, alter a few rehearsals, and I was so intense and thorough that I was about to collapse when it was over.

“The director wanted us to go through with it again but I said, ‘The wild man is fainting!’ and slumped down for a rest. Imagine a wild man fainting!” Ramon doubled with laughter at the memory of this incident.

On another occasion he and his partner were engaged to dance on a mirror-topped table. The reflection of their lithe painted bodies doubtless would have been very picturesque, but when Ramon sprang upon the mirror it split clear across.

Ramon, being plenty smart, has a lively respect for money. Experience has taught him that it is a very comforting commodity to have about. After several lean years he got a job dancing at a salary of twenty-five dollars a day.

“I had to make up my entire body twice a day,” he told me, “but for that much money I would have made up every five minutes.”

Ramon is fascinated with directing the French and Spanish versions of his pictures, though serving as both director and star is hard work, particularly in the French productions.

“I don’t speak French as well as I speak English and Spanish, and for days I spend from six to eight hours perfecting the dialogue for the French versions.

“When I am acting and directing a picture, the responsibility gives me insomnia. I often lie awake all night, tossing and turning.”

We got onto the subject of religion and idly I asked how he managed his work during the three hours of Good Friday when people of the Catholic faith are expected to keep silent.

“Why, I work,” he answered. “Before I left Mexico a priest gave me a memento inscribed with the words, ‘What is prayer but doing one’s best?’ And that is what I try always to do — my very best.”

Ramon is the soul of kindness and good will. People at the studio will tell you how he uses almost every holiday as an excuse to bring presents or remembrances to all those with whom his work brings him in contact. At Easter time he called at each of the offices and left a colored egg for the person working there. Kind words and deeds are instinctive with him, and no courtesy or kindness from others is ever lost on Ramon.

“When my brother died,” said he, his gayety all vanished, “and the funeral procession drove along the streets, some of the men took off their hats as we passed. I was so grateful to them. I wanted to tell them so. Those little things mean so much.

“Months before my brother died, the doctors told me he could not live, but I didn’t believe them. I kept thinking that something would save him. He died on Friday and on Sunday I went to church. When a member of the church dies, the priest always asks for prayers for the soul of the departed. I had never thought much about it before, just knelt and prayed with the rest of the congregation. But when prayers for my brother were asked from the pulpit that day, I just fell on my knees and prayed my heart out. We never realize what death is until it strikes in our own family.”

Ramon himself brought up the subject of fan loyalty, though not premeditatedly, I know, for our talk happened on the spur of the moment.

“It seems that a particularly unflattering letter was written about me by a Miss Perula in ‘What the Fans Think,’ ” said he, smiling. “I must have been in Europe at the time, for I didn’t see it. But for months afterward I read letters in Picture Play from other fans defending me. It was charming of them to be so concerned, and I certainly appreciate their good thoughts.

“At times I get discouraged, as we all do, and then I remember some one, perhaps some old lady over in London, who has written some nice thing about me, or to me, and it gives me new courage.” It is not surprising that Ramon’s fans are loyal and devoted. He is a grand person and a real artist.

by Madeline Glass
(Picture Play, September 1931)