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Teresa Wright

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Surprising, what?

The more you learn about Teresa Wright the more you realize what a truly unusual person she is

by James Reid

Silver Screen Magazine  June 1942 pages 42-43, 72-77

Teresa Wright is the only Pretty Young Thing who ever came to Hollywood and refused to reveal that she had sex appeal.

Also, except for Helen Hayes and Martha Scott, she is the only actress ever nominated for an Academy Award in her first screen performance.

Helen and Martha weren't nominated at her age. Neither did they make their movie bows by acting in competition with Bette Davis -- as she did in "The Little Foxes." She played Bette's daughter, no less.

In that picture, she was convincing as a naive young Southern girl of forty years ago, even unto the accent. In her second picture, "Mrs. Miniver," playing Greer Garson's daughter [sic], she is equally convincing as a crisp young English girl of today -- with an English accent.

After two such hits as those, every one expected her to be typed as a dramatic ingenue until further notice. But she's fooling every one.

In her third picture, "Pride of the Yankees," she is completely grown-up. She plays Mrs. Lou Gehrig -- to Gary Cooper's Lou Gehrig.

Hordes of Gehrig fans are protesting that she's much too young for the role. But Producer Samuel Goldwyn is blithely ignoring the protests. He says confidently, "She'll surprise you."

Hollywood is willing to believe that Sam may have something there. Already she has proved herself one of the most surprising young finds in movie history.

There ought to be a dramatic story in such a girl.

"But there isn't," says Teresa -- surprisingly, frankly and apologetically. "I've lived the kind of life that no one would ever write a novel about. It has been that uneventful. I haven't fought with my family, or had a desperate struggle, or starved in garrets, or surmounted great heartbreak, or otherwise suffered for my art.

"Most actresses can tell things to make your hair curl, about what it takes to have a career. But I can't. I haven't a thing to tell that would scare the potential competition -- or give any one the idea that success is a matter of grim determination and dazzling personality."

She smiles a wide frank smile, "Reading my story, any girl would wonder if she, too, couldn't become an actress."

A story like that is contrary to all the Hollywood rules, but it sounds like the story that millions of girls have been secretly hoping to read some day.

The girl who has that story to tell is as refreshing as her candor.

For one thing, she doesn't have "the Hollywood glitter." If you didn't know that she was on the screen, you wouldn't suspect it -- meeting her in person. She's that natural, without trying to be. Nothing about her personality or her appearance stamps her as an actress.

You don't feel that here is a flashy female, intensely ambitious, eager to impress people. You feel, rather, that here is a quiet, intelligent, even-tempered person, inclined to be a bit dreamy. Her hazel eyes are definitely dreamy. And there's a wistfulness about her mouth.

She's a little thing. In a pair of green slacks and low-heeled shoes, she's much smaller that she looked in those billowy dresses she wore in "The Little Foxes." She can't be more than five-feet-two, and she can't weight more than a hundred well-distributed pounds. And she looks young enough to be dreaming of going to the Junior Prom.

"Unconsciously, I seem to have fooled people about my age," she says. "They got the impression from seeing me as Alexandra that I was about sixteen, And, that being the case, I don't blame them for screaming when I was cast as Mrs. Gehrig. Actually, I'm twenty-three -- her age when the picture begins. I was a war baby of the last war."

She was born October 27, 1918, in New York City, and christened Muriel Teresa Wright. Not liking the name "Teresa," she never used it until she went on the stage, and she wouldn't have found any use for it then if there hadn't been another "Muriel Wright" already registered with Actors' Equity.

Many girls who would like to be actresses feel hopelessly handicapped because they don't have colorful backgrounds and haven't lived dramatic lives. But there are ways to get around that handicap. Take Teresa's word for it.

"One way," she testifies, smiling, "is to be an only child. There are two reasons for that. One, your parents will have more time to devote to understanding you and your unexpected ambitions. Two, having no brothers or sisters, you will start using your imagination very young, inventing make-believe people. In other words, you will start acting very young. And you will be very apt to keep at it, all the time you're growing up.

"At least, that's the way it happened with me. My parents seldom went to the theatre, weren't particularly interested in things theatrical, and had never given a thought to acting themselves. But it amused them that their only daughter was addicted to make-believe. They were very tolerant about letting the twig bend as it was so inclined. Meanwhile, growing up, I made a habit of constantly escaping from prosaic, everyday things into an imaginary world where I has some one else altogether -- an exciting person, who did exciting things. Sometimes the escape took the form of acting in school plays. From the first grade on, I was in every one that came along. But they didn't come half often enough. So, in between, I put in my time day-dreaming -- imagining myself an endless variety of dramatic situations.

"Perhaps, to become an actress, you do have to live an eventful life. But you apparently don't have to live it in actuality. You can live it in your imagination -- if I'm any example."

Not that Teresa believes that any girl can become an actress just by day-dreaming hard enough. Far from it.

"There's the important little matter of getting some encouragement from some one besides yourself -- some one whose opinion means something to you. And there's that other important little matter of learning a few acting lessons.

"So many actresses dwell on how much discouragement they have had to overcome. Why don't they ever confess how little encouragement they needed, to keep on trying?"

She's willing to confess that, in her own case, the encouragement of exactly three people made all the difference.

"A teacher in junior high was the first person who took any serious notice of my interest in acting. She knew that I had never been to the theatre, and she invited me to go with her to see Cornelia Otis Skinner do some skits. For months afterward, I was exhilarated by that experience. Then something even more exciting happened to me. My father tacitly told me he thought I might become an actress some day, and that he hoped I might be a good one. He took me to see the best -- Helen Hayes, in ‘Victoria Regina.'

"I had never seen a professional play before. But that quaint fact has been twisted, ever since, into a fable that I decided then and there that I, too, would become an actress. I object violently to that fable. It makes me sound as if I think I'm another Helen Hayes -- something no one can ever be. Also, it completely ignores the ambition-to-act that I had nourished for years. Seeing that play simply fed that ambition some additional vitamins.

"But I still probably wouldn't have become an actress if it hadn't been for the encouragement of a teacher in public speaking I had in high school. He worked summers at the Wharf Theatre in Provincetown, and he recommended me as a student apprentice at the Wharf, the summer after my junior year. For a slight fee, which daddy was willing to pay, I had the chance to study acting for eight solid weeks, along with about twenty other young hopefuls. The study consisted mostly of watching the professionals and playing a few bits, ourselves -- which no one would call exceptional training for an acting career.

"I was the youngest, smallest and shyest of the group, and I would have been completely lost in the shuffle, if it hadn't been for one lucky circumstance. Several child parts came up, and no one else was small enough to play them, so they gave them to me. That led to my being invited back the next summer, to play bigger roles. And I got some more experience."

That second summer, fresh out of Columbia High School in Maplewood, N.J., she received her first offers from Hollywood -- and had enough sales resistance to turn them down.

"There's nothing very glamorous about sales resistance -- it's a negative quality, not a positive one -- so no one ever bothers to mention it in Advice to the Would-Be Actress. But every one knows it's something that a girl has to acquire sooner or later. Only there's an erroneous impression that she has to have a certain number of dramatic disappointments first.

"But that wasn't the way it happened with me -- so apparently it doesn't have to happen that way. Living the most uneventful life in the world, you can still develop a habit of thinking for yourself. I got in the habit through the simple fact that my father was in the insurance business and traveled a great deal. Meanwhile, I had to go to school, so I was boarded out with a succession of friends and relatives. They all treated me very well, but my little problems were never their problems, somehow. I had to decide all kinds of things for myself.

"When those first Hollywood offers came, it didn't occur to me to run to any one for advice. I made the decision myself. I reasoned that if I went to Hollywood as an unknown, without a promise of a definite worthwhile role, no studio would be in a hurry to give such a role. First I would have to pose for leg art, not only to get known, but to let the studio find out if the public might be interested in me. If the leg art didn't turn out very well, the studio would drop me, and people would get the idea that I had no talent, and that would be my finish as an actress. And I wanted to be an actress the rest of my life. It didn't make sense to gamble my whole future on some leg art. It made more sense to go off to New York and try to crash Broadway -- difficult though that might be."

Most people have the impression that the only way an unknown can crash Broadway is to have extraordinary pull -- or extraordinary push. And Teresa had neither.

"I day-dreamed about walking boldly into agents' offices and convincing them at first sight, that I could be dramatic. But I didn't have it in me to make that day-dream come true. I didn't know how to be bold, having always been shy. And I just wasn't the dazzling type. My only hope was that sheer persistence might pay off some day.

"When the break did come, it wasn't through any forcefulness on my part. I went backstage one day at 'Our Town' to visit Doro Merendi, who had been one of the professional players at the Wharf. She was sharing a dressing room with Martha Scott, and I met Martha. After I left, Martha asked Doro, 'Why don't you have your friend try out as the understudy for the road company?' I hadn't even known they were looking for an understudy, and Doro had forgotten it. Very likely, I wouldn't be here today if I hadn't met Martha Scott that particular afternoon."

Scared to death, and sick with a cold, Teresa tried out for that understudy job -- and still doesn't understand how she got it. She understudied for months, and she must have worked hard, because then she was given the lead herself in a brief tour of a second road company of "Our Town." Out of that came an offer from a summer theatre in New Hampshire, where she heard, just as the season ended, that back on Broadway Oscar Serlin was looking for a girl to play the ingenue lead in "Life With Father." He had pictured a blond in the part, and Teresa's hair was dark. But being an ex-Hollywood talent scout, Serlin was loath to overlook any possibilities. He asked her to read for him; she might be right for some future part. A few weeks later, he called her back and had her read the role again. The third time he called her back, he said, "I've changed my mind. The role's yours."

The play was a hit, and she was a hit, and Hollywood came pounding on her door. She still said "No" because, in all the offers of gold and glory, she couldn't find an offer of a single definite role.

She was still in the play nearly two years later ("luckily for me," she points out) when Goldwyn started casting "The Little Foxes." For the role of Alexandra, he wanted a girl who could look sixteen, demure and un-actressy, yet be enough of an actress to play dramatic scenes with Bette Davis. He couldn't find such a girl in Hollywood. (He tried.) So he went East to scout the Broadway possibilities. The first play he saw was "Life With Father" -- and his search ended right there. So did Teresa Wright's hold-out against Hollywood. Here, at last, was an offer of a definite role. And such a role as she had never dreamed of getting.

She expected to make the one picture, the return to the cast of "Life With Father." But shrewd Mr. Goldwyn put a clause in her one-picture contract, giving him an option on her acting for the next five years -- just in case she turned out to be a screen success. And even before the critics went into their raves, he exercised the option. She'll be around for a long time. Even if she doesn't have a dramatic life-story.

Commenting on the year she has been here already, she says, "I think I must have set some sort of record, with the rapidity with which I've matured. A year ago, I was only sixteen. A few weeks ago, when I finished 'Mrs. Miniver,' I was eighteen or nineteen. Now I'm twenty-three. And before 'Pride of the Yankees' is finished, I'll be thirty -- according to the script.

"Some one asked me the other day if movie-acting is getting easier for me now, and I suppose it should be, but sometimes it seems as if it's getting harder and harder. For 'The Little Foxes,' I had to acquire a Southern accent -- which was a problem for a born New Yorker. And for 'Mrs. Miniver,' I had to acquire an English accent. In this one, I come from Chicago, so I don't have any accent problem. But on both of my first two pictures, the directors went in for weeks of rehearsal, in the manner of stage plays, and then shot every scene in sequence. But there weren't any rehearsals before this one, and we keep jumping back and forth, so that I'm thirty one day and twenty-three the next, and vice versa. It's a little like riding The Whip at Coney Island.

"Also, in this one, I'm face to face with a terrific mental hazard. It's my first biographical role, and the person I'm playing is still alive and will see me on the screen, portraying her. It's a queer feeling, to think of that. You always wonder if you're doing a character justice, but in this case the wonder is the haunting kind. She's so refreshing and clean-cut and natural. The kind of girl that people like to think of as a typical American girl. Just as they think of Lou Gehrig as a typical specimen of young American manhood.

"What the picture is, really, is a cross-section of American life, of the things that make America what it is, all revolving around the great American game: baseball. Which, until I started this picture, was never one of my favorite games. I was horrible at it in high school, and hated to have to play it in gym class -- especially with boys, who were good at it. But now I'm developing into a fan. The other day, I was about to skip over the sport page as usual, when a headline about the Yankees caught my eye, and I found myself reading the story straight through. And I'm fascinated by Babe Ruth and some of the other colorful characters who are in the picture. The boys, though, are disappointed in the picture business, I think. They expected to play more ball -- and not do so much waiting around for camera set-ups and things like that.

"I'm enjoying working with Gary Cooper, too -- as what girl wouldn't? -- except for one thing. They can't do anything to shorten Gary, so they're doing everything they can to make me taller. And being partial to low heels, I'm suffering for my art for the first time, wearing heels that are miniature stilts.

"Oh yes -- and over protest, it looks as if I'm finally going to have to be photographed in a bathing suit. There's a sequence that calls for both Gary and me to be in bathing suits. I see no need for it, because there's certainly no public demand for undraped views of either of us, and we're both going to feel silly. We only hope they don't photograph us side by side."

In private life, she dons a bathing suit fairly often; she swims the year around. That conjures up a picture of an athletic, outdoor sort of girl. Then she mischievously tells you how she nearly got herself killed last fall, going horseback-riding. She asked for the meekest horse in the stable, and still the animal ran away with her. Then there was the time she decided to walk around the Lakeside golf course with some friends and, halfway along, decided to try her hand at hitting a golf ball. Anxious not to interfere with the game of her friends, who were shooting in one direction, she aimed her practice shot in the opposite direction. When they discovered what she was doing, they took the club away from her -- for her own protection.

Her small size and wistful face fool a great many people into thinking of her as the type who needs protection. But she's capable of taking care of herself. The way she waited for the right Hollywood offer is one illustration of that. So is the fact that she calmly lives alone in a cluttered little apartment that originally appealed to her because it had a novel touch: a tile-covered Spanish stove in the center of the kitchen. (Her combination cook-and-maid falls over it sixteen times a day.) Also, it was about the only apartment she could find that had neutral-colored walls, which allowed her to hang up her favorite painting -- which has an orange frame.

In a year, Hollywood has changed her in only two noticeable ways. Her hair is reddish-brown now, instead of dark, for photographic reasons. And she's more clothes-conscious than she used to be.

"In New York, my friends used to say, 'Really, Muriel, you should dress better. People do look at your appearance.' I'm still not a fashion leader, by any means, but Hollywood has persuaded me to try to look my best in public. Also, I think the fact that I'm engaged has made me take more interest in clothes. After all, the way a girl looks is a reflection on the taste of the man who has asked her to marry him."

The gentlemen in question is Scenario Writer Niven Busch, who wrote the script for "The Little Foxes," and whose photograph keeps a sharp eye on us all through the interview. The romance flowered very quietly. Few people knew there was a romance -- until there was an engagement.

She admits that it's confusing that they're engaged. So few people are ever engaged in Hollywood, except in the gossip columns. Either they go out with two other people the next week, or they fly off to Yuma. "But the fact that we're engaged," she says, "means what the word used to mean: we're taking time to think it over very seriously, before we marry."

Surprising, what?



Teresa Wright and Richard Ney are romantically teamed in "Mrs. Miniver," which co-stars Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. Teresa had to acquire an English accent for her role.

Teresa with Richard Carlson in "The Little Foxes" which was her first film. Teresa has just finished "Pride of the Yankees," the story of Lou Gehrig, in which she appears with Gary Cooper.

Greer Garson and Teresa between scenes of "Mrs. Miniver." Teresa is cast as Greer's daughter-in-law in this dramatic story of the courage of an English family during the ghastly horrors of war.

© 1942 Silver Screen Magazine

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