"No, it's Lillian Russell. She was called The American Beauty, and I'd rather be like her than any other woman in the world."
Into a warm, bright Hollywood room on a sunny morning breezed a joyous creature trim and smart in sky-blue pajamas. A soft hat rakishly perched upon her gold-shot hair set off her refreshing charm. She held out a friendly hand in greeting. Then she drew forth a platinum-framed photograph which she placed admiringly upon the table. "I simply can't quite make myself believe I've somehow lived to be her in the film 'Diamond Jim,' " marveled the one-time London factory girl, Binnie Barnes.
"Has it been so great a change?"
"Look at me !" she challenged — and that wasn't hard. "Nothing could possibly be greater than changing from what I was to Lillian Russell."
Binnie Barnes certainly had a colorful background and I couldn't help wondering why an English actress had been chosen to play an American beauty.
"You can't be more surprised than I was," she said. "It knocked me right off my pins. You see, they cabled me to come over and play Miss Russell's chum, Edna McCauley, the fashionable dressmaker. But when I got here, they were in a jam and they grabbed me to get them out of it. They'd tested about a thousand girls for the Lillian Russell part, but although they got beauty galore, they couldn't get just what they were after. They wanted someone sympathetic."
|Binnie and Cesar Romero in "Diamond Jim" ( 1935 )|
"Miss Russell was." I recalled.
"Then you knew her!" exclaimed Binnie, wide-eyed. Explaining that I'd known Miss Russell in her Casino and Weber and Fields days, I assumed that the slender Binnie embodied the "Beauteous One" of an earlier date.
"Yes," she replied, "when Miss Russell was at Tony Pastor's and just entering her Broadway career. She was twenty-eight."
"And you're?" (Courage, man!)
Singing with the angels, Lillian Russell, who had a way of keeping her youth out of Father Time's hands, must have raised a note of thanks. "One thing that encouraged me was a yellowed program of the bill at Tony Pastor's announcing, 'Lillian Russell in English Ballads.' As I'd sung them I felt we had something in common. And when it came to playing her I wasn't afraid of my English accent. It isn't very noticeable, is it? You know, I've been taken for an American girl ever since I went on the stage. In fact, I was billed as 'Texas Binnie Barnes' in the first thing I did, a rope-twirling act with Tex McLeod in South Africa. Nobody knew I was English, and the funny part of it was, that I myself didn't know I had a Southern accent. I'd picked it up from Tex, and thought that all Americans talked as he did. When I went back to London I couldn't get a job as an English girl. I played gangster molls in 'Innocents of Chicago' and other sweet, tender little things in which you couldn't call your life your own. And was I tough!"
"You don't look it."
"Thank you kindly, sir," she laughed. "But those were my bad days. I once tried an Irish accent in 'The Silver Tassie' with Charles Laughton on the London stage. It seemed odd to be with him again in 'Henry the Eighth' on the screen. But I started my movie work with Ida Lupino's father, Stanley, in short comedies. He threw pies, and had to have a girl who could take 'em. The first one that came along knocked me flat on my fanny. Far from a beauty," she pensively added, "I was called 'Pie-Face'."
|Charles Laughton and Binnie in "The Private Life of Henry VIII" ( 1933 )|
"You seem to have had a varied career," I sympathetically remarked.
"A bit of this, that and the other," she lightly replied. "I was in slapstick for years. I didn't mind, just taking my luck as it came. I'd probably never got on the stage at all if Tex McLeod hadn't happened to come into a London dance hall where I was working. It's all been surprising. But it amazed me to be given the part of Lillian Russell, for London producers had always associated me with tough parts. And I certainly never was known as a beauty. In England we have no great beauties. Of course, there was Lily Langtry in her time, but even she couldn't hold a candle to Lillian Russell. Today we have personalities, to my mind, far more important than beauty, especially on the screen."
"Whom do you consider the most beautiful screen actress?"
"A fine lot of trouble I'd be piling up for myself answering that!"
"Nonsense, go ahead."
"W-well," she hesitated, "I will say that Claudette Colbert is charming. But beauty's no good if you've no personality. English girls are much quieter than American girls, who have more push and are more sexy, but do not have more charm. But an English girl can be very dull. She is kept down by chaperons and God knows what! Life is more of a routine in England. Just as in all old countries, it goes on and on without change ; customs and habits remaining the same. Here, there is more freedom. This makes it easier for an American girl to marry. She learns an awful lot. Then there's the climate, with more opportunity for sports, which develop the body and must do the mind some good. Everything here is action. Before an Englishman does anything he thinks twice — particularly about marrying. So what can the poor girl do?"
"But you managed it?"
"Once — and never again. Now that I've got a husband I'm going to hang on to him. That's my main job, and I'm going back to it after making one more picture here. But I'll return to America. I never want to stay in any one place a long while. After a bit I like to pop off somewhere else. I've had a lot of experiences in different parts of the world, and they've all been swell, even when I've been out of dough. I grumble once in a while, but I'm never discontented. My one idea, ever since I was a kid, has been to keep working."
"You mentioned driving a milk cart."
"We had no money, so I had to do some- thing. Dad was a London policeman, and when he died he left mother and me on a tiny farm. So we went into the milk business. The hardest part of it was getting up at four in the morning. That's not gay, even for a fourteen-year-old girl. But I loved driving the horse. Snowy we called him. He got so he knew every house on the route and would stop without my saying a word or pulling a line. And that, mind you, meant sixty houses. Then there was a little coffee shop where I'd get a cup for myself and lumps of sugar for Snowy. That turned out to be our hard luck place. I was coming out of it one morning when Snowy, scared by a passing tram, started to run away. I just managed to swing myself up on the wagon, but I couldn't stop him. He tore along till he got jammed in between two trams and was so badly hurt he had to be shot."
"Were you hurt, too?"
For answer she pulled off her hat. Her forehead showed a white scar.
|Leslie Howard and Barnes in "The Lady is Willing' ( 1934 )|
"That runaway put us out of the milk business. But as soon as I was able 'to be about again I got a job in a factory, where I tested electric light bulbs and became a first-class solderer — sealed the tin casings, you know". Next I worked in a paper bag factory. Then I pressed veins on artificial leaves — sounds silly, doesn't it? From there I went to a tobacconist's. I never did office work; for one thing, I wasn't intelligent enough."
No? With all due respect, you can't believe her.
"When I left a place I always got a better one," was her most intelligent reply. "I liked 'em all while I stayed. "Work was good for me," she insisted. "If I'd been brought up in cottonwool, I'd never have done anything. And it was fun having a go at one thing and another. I got to know all kinds of people. Lord, the different ones that poked their heads out of doors when I was delivering milk! That was the time, early in the morning, to see them as they really were without any frills. The things they wore and the things they said! I'll never forget one old crone who wore diamond earrings — probably slept in 'em — and a second-hand lady with the airs of a duchess. Oh, well, I dare say I thought myself pretty grand when I got that job in a dance hall! I'd wait for a customer to do a twirl with me, then slither out on the floor like Lady Vere de Vere herself."
"After all your other jobs, what do you think of movie work?"
"This," said the practical Binnie, "is a sissy job."
- Written by Charles Darnton
This article ( edited in certain places ) originally appeared in the December 1935 issue of Modern Screen magazine.
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