June 1946 Silver Screen
Yes, she had changed. Alexis Smith nodded her pretty blonde head in agreement. There had been a deep change in her real self. She thought there must inevitably be an equally deep change in her acting. And she knew just why.
“Of course, it’s my marriage that’s done that,” she said happily. “I know how different it has made me feel. I don’t see how it can help being reflected in my acting. And for the better, too.”
It wasn’t just contentment, that inner glow of happiness, which had changed Alexis Smith. That may have heightened her fair young beauty. There was more to this change than contentment.
“For the first time I haven’t got all my eggs in one basket,” Alexis explained. “That’s so important, this knowing there is something besides a career.
“I look at other actresses in Hollywood, ones who aren’t happily married, and I know what was the matter with me — and what was wrong with my acting.
“I was trying too hard. I kept working and working, and trying and trying. I overdid it. I was tense all the time. It was so important to me. A career seemed to be all there was in the world. And when you try too hard you aren’t very good.”
She had learned now to relax. A career has become fun, something to balance a cheerful marriage. Acting, success, fame are no longer matters of life and death. And just because they aren’t, they are coming much more easily to Alexis Smith.
“Eddie Goulding warned me about that when I did my first picture, ‘The Constant Nymph,’” Alexis remembered. “He kept saying I was ‘too perfect.’ Of course, I didn’t know what that meant. I said one couldn’t be too perfect. I kept on trying to be somewhere near good anyway.
“Then Mr. Goulding said perfection was fine. Naturally. But I was trying so hard, so terribly hard that I was tense all the time. There was a strain in my whole performance. It was ‘too perfect.’
“How I wish I could go back and do ‘Constant Nymph’ all over again. I hope I could be better, much better. After all, I should have learned something in three years.”
She has, at any rate, learned to let things slide a little. Craig did that for her. Craig Stevens is an actor, too. He was just getting started when war came along to interrupt his budding career. Craig went into the Army. He’s a good-looking young fellow who’d played with Alexis in two pictures, a little B production called “Steel Against The Sky” and a wild farce which neither of them likes to remember now, “The Doughgirls.”
Alexis is a tall girl, standing five feet eight in her stocking feet. Her hair is blonde and her eyes gray-blue; and she hopes she doesn’t look as tall as she really is.
“You see, I have small bones — and my face is small, too,” she said anxiously, but not too anxiously. “People don’t realize how tall I am, usually.”
She is growing up to that height now. It was a former Warner producer, David Lewis, who made five Bette Davis pictures and is now working on “Arch of Triumph” independently, who had called attention to the change in Alexis Smith. She used to be, he said, just a “tall little girl.” Now, seeing her at a Broadway opening on her first visit to New York he was struck by the new depth in her face. He would not hesitate to give her the Davis role in “Dark Victory” if he were re-making that now She wouldn’t play it like Bette, the producer said, but he knew, he was absolutely sure, that she could play such a vital and complicated part.
Alexis chuckled over the “tall little girl” description. She guessed that’s just what she had been, just a tall little girl trying hard to look grown-up.
The roles were all too old for her, much too old. But Alexis was tall. She had a natural dignity and a natural beauty. She had studied dancing so she walked with poise. That is more than most studios ask of twenty-year-olds. Alexis just didn’t have a chance at ingenue parts.
Not that she minded that. She’d tried two of these sweet young girl roles in two little films, “The Smiling Ghost” and that most important picture of her life, “Steel Against The Sky,” the picture which introduced her to Craig. Then Edmund Goulding saw her and thought of the wife in “The Constant Nymph.” He made one screen test, liked it, and suggested Alexis learn to talk with an English accent.
“Well, I did,” Alexis remembered, chuckling. “I got a tutor and I talked British all the time. For three months I studied and studied. And I got to talking with such an English accent that all my friends hated me. They just couldn’t stand it.
“Then they took another test and said I sounded natural. That was what they wanted, not just the kind of English accent you pick up easily. They wanted me to talk like that all the time, even in my sleep, so that no one could think I wasn’t English. In the part, you know.”
Well, those were the pictures that changed her life, “Steel Against The Sky” and “The Constant Nymph.” The first, which wasn’t much of a picture, led her to marriage. The second jumped her from smiling ingenues to mature character roles.
“It was like having your life advanced five years,” Alexis said. “You know how people usually have to struggle through a whole series of ingenue parts that don’t mean anything, until they have a chance at acting parts.
“Well, just suddenly I had the kind of part every young actress is dying to get. Once they’d seen me as a mature actress they never put me back in the ingenue class again. Of course, I’m glad about that. But it did make me strain harder than ever. I was always tense every time I walked on a set. It seemed such a big chance. I wanted so much to make good in it.”
She was making good, in spite of that anxiety, when on June 18, 1944, she married Craig Stevens. He had a medical discharge from the Army.
“June is quite a month for us,” Alexis declared. “First there’s my birthday, then our anniversary, and then Craig’s birthday. It just keeps us celebrating all month long.”
They had been courting, as Alexis describes it, during Craig’s Army days. That was when her future father-in-law came out from Kansas City to look her over. Alexis didn’t put it like that. She just said Craig’s father had visited him in Hollywood about that time; and she laughed as she remembered his report to the folks back home.
“You know, they’d heard Craig’s fiancee had something to do with movies, and they wanted to know what she was like.”
This was Alexis’ modest description of herself, ‘something to do with movies,’ after she’d appeared in “The Constant Nymph,” “Gentleman Jim,” and “The Adventures of Mark Twain.” She is, by the way, truly and astonishingly modest about her achievements. She doesn’t think she had begun to know her job yet. But she went on about the Kansas City report:
“Craig’s father had to answer so many questions he finally got a blanket answer to all of them. I love what he said. He just said Craig was marrying a regular he-man sort of girl.”
Alexis, a dainty, feminine young blonde, found this an entrancing description. She has always been tall. She has always been ambitious for a career. Her mother wanted her to be a concert pianist. Alexis practiced and practiced. Alexis herself wanted to be a ballet dancer. Alexis practiced and practiced at the ballet bar.
And if you want to make her really mad, you will ask if she isn’t too tall for ballet. She’ll answer you quickly, and vehemently:
“That’s the worst thing you could say. The very worst.
“Of course, it’s what every one says. Maybe it’s true. That’s the very worst part. I never believed it until I visited backstage at the ballet in Los Angeles. When I saw all those male dancers, so little — well, I realized I’d better give up ballet.
“But I’m still hoping Warners will give me a chance to dance in some picture. I did dance once, in ‘Hollywood Canteen.’ They got two husky adagio dancers to dance with me. I’d love to dance solo some time.”
Although she still keeps up her dancing, Alexis Smith is far from athletic. That surprises every one. People take one look at her slim height, her graceful walk, her clear skin. They think at once of the great outdoors.
“And I’ve never had time for the outdoors,” Alexis said, a little sadly. “I’ve always been studying something. Piano, ballet, acting. There just wasn’t time.
“I must look athletic. No one can believe I’m no good at anything outdoors, not even at swimming or riding. I’ve never been on a horse in my life.
“Craig’s always after me to learn tennis or golf so I can play with him. I suppose I should. Maybe I will try to learn. But I’m really very far from being athletic.”
That presents a problem now that her studio has gone ahead with plans for co-starring her with Ronald Reagan in “Stallion Road” instead of giving the coveted roles to Humphrey and Lauren Bacall Bogart. Alexis has been torn between delight at playing a girl somewhere near her own age and wonder at just how she is going to seem sufficiently adept at swimming and riding.
“When I read the script I couldn’t imagine what they’d do about me,” Alexis said in wonderment. “It will be really wonderful to wear dungarees and play a young girl — I’m twenty-four now — instead of trying to be a woman of thirty-eight in dignified evening clothes.
“But it seemed to me that every other scene has me leaping into the surf and swimming out to sea — or jumping on a wild horse and galloping off somewhere. I hope the studio knows of a tall blonde girl who can do all those things for me. I can’t do one of them.”
It will be an interesting contrast to the dignified roles she’s had these past three years.
“There have been so many pictures in which I just have to look dignified and a lot older than I am. I’ve played so many parts in which all I have to do is lift my eyebrows, stand up straight, and walk around in a stately manner that I do all that automatically whenever the director starts a scene.”
She is usually inspiring some one on to bigger and better things. Alexis can hardly believe she has made only three autobiographies. “Night And Day,” musical tale of Cole Porter, is the latest.
“I’m so afraid,” she laughed, “that some time I’ll go home and try it on Craig. Can’t you imagine my saying to him, ‘Oh, my dear, the whole world lies before you ——’”
Alexis smiled, then sighed a little. She could hardly wait to get home to Craig. This was their first separation. Warner Brothers wanted Alexis to visit New York and talk about all those pictures, four of them, which are finished and awaiting release. They are “One More Tomorrow,” “Of Human Bondage,” “The Two Mrs. Carrolls,” and “Night And Day.” Alexis was delighted with the idea of a trip to New York. She had never been here. Now that she’s seen New York, she’s not so sure she’d like to live here. She had a good time visiting. But her idea of living is a house and a garden — and Craig. She hasn’t the house and garden yet. But they’ll come, they’ll come along all in good time. Alexis isn’t worrying about them.
“And I won’t pay fifty thousand dollars for an eighteen thousand dollar house,” she said firmly. “That’s what they want out in Hollywood now. In 1940 father and I built a house for nine thousand dollars. We sold it four years later for fourteen thousand. We thought that a wonderful profit. Now we hear it’s offered again at twenty-seven thousand. Well, Craig and I just won’t pay prices like that.
“Anyway, our apartment is unusually attractive, with gardens and a swimming pool. So we don’t mind waiting.”
But Craig was minding the waiting for her return from the East. He was working, his best parts since getting out of the Army. Warners had given him dramatic roles in two big pictures, “Humoresque” and “A Very Rich Man,” re-make of the George Arliss film, “The Millionaire.” He was busy: but that hadn’t kept him from being lonely, too. On the telephone he told Alexis she’d better come home soon. When she asked why he answered:
“When I can look at a toothbrush and feel sentimental, then it’s time for you to come home.”
Alexis was homesick. She hadn’t had a chance to be lonely. It was much worse for Craig, she knew, in that empty apartment. She hoped the studio would keep him busy, too.
It would have been fun for Alexis if one of those four completed productions had opened while she was in New York. She is a heavy in some of them. “The Two Mrs. Carrolls” makes her the woman for whom a husband tries to poison his wife. “One More Tomorrow,” which was once “The Animal Kingdom,” presents her as the hero’s mistress.
“Well, not really the mistress — but his wife, a wife who is really a mistress while the mistress is really a wife,” Alexis said and smiled at her efforts to explain “You remember the twist at the end? Where the hero says he’s going back to his wife, when he’s really going back to his mistress? Well, I’m the wife, a horrid person. Ann Sheridan is the sympathetic one.”
These catty females and the stately inspiring wives are Alexis’ usual lot in life. Errol Flynn pictures give her a relief from these. Although no one ever remembers she was in it, Alexis did have the romantic lead in “Dive Bomber” in-between the B melodramas and “The Constant Nymph.” Another Flynn picture, she thinks, did her career more good than any other. That was “Gentleman Jim” which was seen by tremendous numbers of people. “San Antonio” let her be a cafe singer in the Old West.
“It’s always fun to work in an Errol Flynn picture, because he’s so considerate,” Alexis continued. “Every one always seemed surprised at that. But it’s true. Errol is the most considerate star I’ve ever known. He’s always good-natured and amiable about everything.
“Maybe it’s because he doesn’t take his acting too seriously. Of course, that’s good for his acting, too. That’s what I’m learning now.”
There was a time when she wouldn’t have believed any one could take a career too seriously. That was when she was going through a two-year course at Los Angeles City College and studying ballet and piano seriously on the side. She could have gone into pictures then, if her father, Alexander Smith, had not warned the studio not to sign her before graduation. A talent scout had liked her performance in “The Night Of January 21,” put on by students.
“I hesitate to tell any one I studied drama at college,” Alexis confided. “It sounds so amateurish, and so silly somehow. Every one always says something like that. Usually it doesn’t mean a thing.
“But we did have such a fine professor of drama that I feel college taught me a great deal about acting. I specialized in drama; and it wasn’t just a snap course. I’m very grateful for what I learned.”
Although born in British Columbia, Alexis is still pretty much a Hollywood product. She went to school in Los Angeles, at thirteen danced in the Hollywood Bowl, at sixteen won a state declamation contest. At ten years old her piano playing was being seriously regarded by professionals. It is little wonder that the tall little girl grew up tense and eager about a career. For one thing, she had to choose between all these talents. For another, she had to live up to the promise of her childhood.
“Now I feel differently about it all,” Alexis explained. “I like a career, of course. I enjoy acting.
“But it’s not everything in life. If it were gone, there would still be something left. The most important things would still be left. Craig and I would have our marriage. And there would be other things we could do for a career.
“That is what Craig is always telling me. And it’s true. It’s terribly true. When a career is all that one has, then it becomes so difficult. When anything goes wrong then everything seems lost and ended. I know. That’s the way I used to feel.
“Now I can look at other people and feel so sorry when I know how tense they are about a career. All that worry keeps one from relaxing. An actress should be able to play without tenseness. You can’t do that when you feel your whole life depends on that scene.”
Alexis is sure this new sureness will be reflected some time in her acting, that somehow she will achieve an ease and naturalness she has never known.
“Craig says it wouldn’t matter if we both left pictures. After all, he could always get a job in Bullock’s basement. I could run the house, or get a job at Bullock’s too.
“And we wouldn’t have to get up at five-thirty in the morning. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
There was a time, only two years ago, when Alexis could not have imagined giving up a career so cheerfully. She could never have joked about it. She has changed, a happy, healthy change reflected in her work as well as her personality.