Digital: ‘I Used To Be In Pictures’

By Jo Phillips

Even as Kindle revolutionises reading, printed books are always a delight to grab and pore over the pages. And when it’s one that’s as fascinating as ‘I Used to be in Pictures – An Untold Story Of Hollywood’ with a collection of postcards, letters and photographs that tell us untold stories, it surely makes for a good read.

The book was a project that began Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse were kids. From a small collection of letters and postcards, it grew into a huge collection. This book has a collection of unpublished correspondence between the brothers and some of the most celebrated stars from the silent and golden era of filmmaking. It offers a fascinating insight into Austin and Howard’s unique relationships with the screen legends that developed long after the cameras had stopped rolling.

Down below, we hear from Austin and Howard.

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Images Courtesy of ‘I Used to be in Pictures: An Untold Story of Hollywood’ by Austin and Howard Mutti-Mewse

This project started…

Austin: Well, it all began on a day very much like the dark, wet and windy days we are seeing now; way back in 1984 at our Grandmother Violet’s house – she opened the doors and switched on her creaking great bulk of a TV set and there was a old movie ‘Between Two World’s’ with John Garfield looking out at me… It was old, it was black and white, it was nothing like the films my friends were watching – I was hooked.

Howard: As children, we became hooked to the old black and white films, which made up the BBC Saturday afternoon matinee. Whilst our friends were hooked on Terminator, we were hooked on Harold Lloyd.

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From Left to Right: Molly O’Day, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Gloria Stuart

We first made friends with…

Austin: The Oscar-winning actress for ‘Suspicion’ (1941) Joan Fontaine was one of Howard and my earliest film star friends. She much preferred men friends over women friends and so being the two of us we really hit it off. Joan always felt she should have won an Oscar for ‘Rebecca’ and was, in her words, “irritated” that Ginger Rogers won for Kitty Foyle (1940). Stars of the Silent era Lillian Gish, Viola Dana, Patsy Ruth Miller and Aileen Pringle were all early friends too. They were ancient and in their 90s when we began to correspondence, and so the friendships quickly ended with their deaths – Joan Fontaine was a kid in comparison.

Howard: It was Lillian Gish who first put us in touch with a couple of her friends, Helen Hayes, Colleen Moore and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Douglas then put us in touch with a few of those who he thought we would like to write to – to know and understand their experiences in Hollywood. Douglas was a true gentleman through and through. He is my style icon. We are so happy that his grandson, Dominick Fairbanks, has become such a friend and agreed to write the foreword for the book. Dominick is continuing the legacy of his grandfather and great grandfather with Fairbanks Productions.

Our first and best letter…

Austin: The first letter sent to us was more of a note from Lillian Gish in 1984. She wrote: “To Austin and Howard Mewse – Every fond wish, Lillian Gish.” As for the best letter, several were sent to my wife Joanna and I on our wedding day and others on the birth of my son, Nathan. Another was from Luise Rainer, the first actress to win back-to-back Oscars for Best Actress for ‘The Great Ziegfeld’ (1936) and ‘The Good Earth’ (1937). She congratulated Jo and I on our marriage by repeating a line from ‘The Great Ziegfeld.’

Howard: We have hundreds and hundreds of letters, some joyful, others filled with bitterness at a career cut short because a voice may not have recorded for sound with the advent of talking pictures, or in the case of Molly O’Day – a film ingénue from the 1920s. Molly wrote to us about how MGM thought she was too fat and so forced her into a primitive form of liposuction. “MGM put the slices to me. When they were finished with me, I had scars running up and down my body. I could never work again.”

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Luise Rainer and her note to Austin and his wife, Joanna.

Herere a few of our favourite anecdotes from stars we’ve met

Austin: I remember being at a dinner in Hollywood in 1992. I found myself sitting next to Lita Grey Chaplin, Charlie Chaplin’s second wife. Lita almost immediately she turned to me and said: “Don’t be shy…you want to know – you want to know what my husband was like!” I nodded open-mouthed. “He smelt – that’s what I remembered first. He came into a tea-room my mother ran. He was dressed in the wardrobe he wore on his film, ‘The Kid.’ He was smothered in pigs’ grease… that’s what make-up people used back then in 1914,” she said, laughing. “He got me pregnant at 15 and then had to marry me or face the penitentiary…”
I remember as we left the dinner, and after so many long and fascinating conversations about her Hollywood and Chaplin, Lita held my hand and as she looked about her, she said: “He validated who I am – I have just ghosts about me now.”

Howard: For me it’s Gloria Stuart. She won fame in the 1930s for her performance in a series of early talkie horror movies at Universal, including ‘The Old Dark House’ (1932) and ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933). In 1996, she called us to say a guy called James Cameron had called her to see if she would like to play a part in his new film, ‘Titanic’ (she wasn’t best pleased to be third on the list after Fay Wray and the sculptress Beatrice Wood turned him down…). Gloria wanted to know our opinion. We told her to go for it, “But dahhlings,” she said, “James wants me to play a 101-year-old. I told him I can play 100, but I can’t play 101!” Gloria got the part and later won an Academy Award nomination for her part as Old Rose. It was her first film in almost 50 years. We would call and write to each other right up until her death shortly after her 100th birthday in 2010.

Someone who was our favourite, who wrote back and kind of blew our mind…

Austin: Personally, I think it’s Marlene Dietrich – you can’t get bigger than her when it comes to Hollywood greats. She signed a photo taken during her heyday and then after she’d asked for our phone number. Marlene called our home (we shared with Mum and Dad and our sister, Rowena). It was 3 in the morning and Marlene was calling us.

Howard: It was perhaps the personality of the people, which impressed us most. It didn’t matter if the person happened to be a Hollywood supernova or a forgotten silent starlet. As human beings, some people we warm too more than others. Have to say Marlene Dietrich was special just because she was Dietrich, an icon. As for favourites, there are so many… Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Beverly Roberts, Rose Hobart, Bob Hope, Eleanor Boardman, Rose Hobart, Esther Muir, Lucille Lund, Joan Marion, Mildred Shay, Dorothy Revier, William Bakewell, Joan Fontaine, Joy Hodges, Ginger Rogers, Billie Dove.

The book is published by ACC Editions (£35.00).