Eighty years ago today, a huge party was held at MGM Studios in Culver City, California. It was April 19, 1935 and every legendary star who was under contract at the studio was there to celebrate the joint birthdays of one of the studio’s oldest stars, May Robson, and one of its youngest, Cora Sue Collins.
Beginning at the age of four, Cora Sue Collins appeared opposite some of the most amazing stars of yesteryear: Norma Shearer, Fredric March, Sylvia Sidney, Leslie Howard, Mary Astor, Claudette Colbert, Bette Davis, Robert Taylor, Irene Dunne, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and so many others. In 1935, Greta Garbo hand-picked Cora Sue to play her as a child in the film Queen Christina. She appeared with Garbo again later that year in Anna Karenina and the two remained friends until Garbo’s death. Cora Sue Collins appeared in 47 movies between 1932 and 1945 including Black Moon, Treasure Island, The Scarlet Letter, Little Men, Naughty Marietta, and the original Magnificent Obsession.
A few weeks ago, just before the start of the TCM Classic Film Festival, Cora Sue came to talk to a group of us at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. I was so entranced by her stories of the Golden Age of Movies that I asked if I could talk to her again. The other day I had the pleasure of spending several hours at Cora Sue’s lovely Beverly Hills home.
Cora Sue decided to leave the business when she was still in her teens and she rarely looked back. In fact, she was reluctant to even talk about her career for decades until her close friend, the late casting director Marvin Paige, encouraged her attend some tributes to Miss Garbo and to talk about her illustrious career. When Cora Sue left Hollywood, she had a very happy life, raising three children and traveling the world. Today she lives part of the year in Paris and part in California. While she is not someone who lives in the past, her home is dotted with personal photographs of some of the most revered people from the movie industry.
When I arrived at her door, my arms full of photos and clippings that I had found about her early career, Cora Sue and her friend, Woolsey Ackerman, who had arranged the meeting with our group at the TCM Festival, were excited because they had just found Cora Sue’s first set chair from her days at MGM and were in the process of setting it up so I could see it. When Cora Sue grew out of it she asked if she could keep the tiny chair that she had sat in during the making of so many classic films. It is still in remarkable shape — only the leather script bag is missing.
I sat down with Cora Sue and asked if I could look at the amazing hand-carved wooden autograph book that May Robson had given to her at that MGM party 80 years ago today. I slowly turned every page, marveling at the autographs and personal notes from so many great stars.
Cora Sue Collins: Everything, including the fact that I wasn’t turning seven! I was thrilled to share a birthday with “Muzzie” (May Robson), but I was born on April 19, 1927, so I was really turning eight that day. Mr. Mayer thought it sounded a lot better if it was my seventh and May Robson’s seventieth so he said, “Okay, you’re turning seven today.”
Yikes — I’m sure, if anything, little girls at that age want to be older, not younger!
Of course! I remember that someone had told me that women are not interesting until they turned 30 so I wanted to be 30 so badly! (Laughs.)
These photos of May Robson’s cake are spectacular.
Oh, I remember the parakeet in the candy cage on top of her cake. It was beautiful. There was a cake for me, too, but it was much smaller.
It looks like everyone who was under contract to MGM in the 1930s was there.
Do you know I’ve never seen any of these photos until now? They are so wonderful. Look at how gorgeous Jean Harlow is. She was the nicest lady. She came to the party that day right from shooting a scene from China Seas with Clark Gable. She’s wearing her costume from that film.
You must have received a ton of presents.
I did, hundreds of them. But you know what? My mother only let me keep seven!
Oh, no! Did you at least get to see what they were before you had to choose?
No, that was the worst part. I remember that I kept Garbo’s and Pat O’Brien’s, who I loved so much and called Uncle Pat, and, of course, this amazing hand-carved autograph book that May Robson gave me that I cherish to this day. The rest of my gifts were loaded up into a huge truck and donated to needy children.
This autograph books is one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. Were you very close to May Robson?
Very close, I loved Muzzie. We felt a bond having the same birthday and we ended up working together a few years later on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. She played Aunt Polly. I was supposed to be Becky Thatcher but by the time they cast Tommy Kelly as Tom Sawyer I had shot up and was too tall so Ann Gillis got the part. I played Amy Lawrence, Becky’s rival. Did you read that lovely note from Muzzie that’s in the blue envelope on that first page? [I carefully remove the beautiful handwritten letter by May Robson that said autographs have no meaning or value unless they are accompanied by the love and admiration that she and all of these people feel for little Cora Sue.]
So sweet. Were there a lot of kids your age at the party, too?
Jackie (Cooper) was there, and Freddie (Bartholomew), of course. And Mickey Rooney. I think that’s it. It was just before Judy came to the studio.
Do you remember if they had any entertainment at the party?
No, the guests were the entertainment!
Were you ever intimidated being around all of these hugely famous actors?
Not at all. You have to remember, Danny, that I didn’t really understand that they were famous, they were just my friends. If I was impressed with anybody back then, it was athletes. I thought Joe DiMaggio was the most graceful man in the world, like a ballet dancer! I did know the fighter, Max Baer, a little bit, which was exciting, because he made a few movies. The only athletes I ever got to meet were the ones who ended up working in films.
Let’s go back a few years to when you first came to Hollywood in the early 1930s. There were all these stories written about your arrival here from West Virginia and how your mother was struggling and selling things from door to door.
Nonsense! [I hand Cora Sue several of the articles I found about her from 1931 and 1932.] I’ve never seen any of these, Danny, I can’t believe what I’m reading! Do you want to know what really happened? When I was not quite four, my mother found out that my father had given his secretary a mink coat for Christmas. She decided that the girl was providing more than secretarial services! So she grabbed me and my sister, who was eight years older, and we came out to California.
Oh, so it wasn’t because she wanted to get you in the movies?
I didn’t say that. Did I say that? (Laughs.) She definitely wanted to get me in pictures. And Danny, what happened when we got here is even more amazing than what they said in these crazy stories.
The honest-to-God truth is that on the third day we were here, I went with my mother to enroll my older sister in school. We were walking up to the entrance of the school, my sister and I each holding one of my mother’s hands, when this huge car came screeching up. A woman jumped out of the car and said, “Excuse me, would you like to put your little girl in pictures?” Of course my mother said, “Yes!” The woman said, “Get in the car with me, there’s a big casting going on right now at Universal.”
Whoa, that’s insane!
But my mother said, “No, I’m going to enroll my other daughter in school right now. We’ll come to the studio later.” Which is what we did and I got the job!
Incredible. I’m sure hundreds of little girls were arriving in Los Angeles every day and that the majority of them never saw the inside of a movie studio. Was that the film you told us about that Judy Garland had also auditioned for?
Yes! In fact, my understanding is that she was cast in the part but as soon as they saw me, they all got excited about the idea of this tiny little girl in that role so they reworked it for a much younger child.
She used to always bring that story up to me when I’d see her and we’d laugh about it. I loved Judy, she was wonderful. Of course, she become an enormous star but she didn’t make her first movie until several years after that.
And you got cast in your first movie, The Unexpected Father, starring ZaSu Pitts and Slim Summerville. And it wasn’t a small part, either. Do you remember much about the filming?
Sure. I remember this one scene in which I was being pushed around in a baby carriage with all of these bottles of booze under me. They put actual bottles there, I think they were filled with bathtub gin or something, and it hurt like hell, but I was a very obedient child and I didn’t tell them how damned uncomfortable I was!
You got such great reviews for that film, they praise you more than the adults.
Oh my God, Danny, I’ve never seen any of these!
Do you think the actors ever resented this young whippersnapper coming in and stealing their thunder?
I don’t think so, they were always very nice to me. But I do remember this one funny incident on the set. My mother would read the entire script to me from cover to cover the night before. On one of our first days, I had a scene with ZaSu Pitts and she flubbed her lines so of course the director called “Cut.” And I said, “Oh no, Miss Pitts, you’re supposed to say so-and-so and then the camera dollies forward and then you walk over there.” I remembered everything that my mother had read to me so I just repeated it to her, not having any idea that some adults might not like being corrected by a small child. ZaSu said, “Excuse me,” and went to her dressing room. She came back out with a pillow strapped to her derriere. She went to the director and laid across his lap saying, “Spank me! I will never enter a soundstage again without knowing every one of my lines!” ZaSu and I remained friends until she died and she would tell everyone that story and say, “It’s because of Cora Sue that I never missed a line again!”
What a great story.
The other thing I remember about doing that film is that they had these huge Klieg lights on the set. They told me to look in a certain direction and, as I said, I was a very obedient child, so I looked directly into a Klieg light and I was blind for three days. You can’t believe how powerful those things were. My mother was out of her mind, and I’m still a little photophobic to this day.
Did you go to the premiere for your first film?
Gosh, I don’t remember although I do remember going to some premieres.
I’ve seen photos of you at the gala premiere of Queen Christina in 1935.
That was because Garbo refused to make any personal appearances. So I went dressed in my role as the child version of Queen Christina. I arrived in a miniature coach, an exact replica of the coach that Christina rode to her coronation. There were dwarf coachmen and footman and it was being pulled by six Shetland ponies, can you imagine?
I love this photo of you addressing the crowd at Grauman’s Chinese.
Yes, I’m standing on an electrician’s back so that I could reach the microphone!
What else do you remember about the premiere?
Oh, this really crazy thing happened! As I was standing on that man’s shoulders, there were all these MGM grips with linked arms holding back the throngs of people. Suddenly, this woman broke through the barricade and ran straight up to me and shoved something in my hand before they pulled her away.
Oh my God, what was it?
A gold coin that was minted during Queen Christina’s reign!
What? That’s crazy!
It was extremely valuable. We never found out who that woman was. They tried really hard, I remember they even put ads in the Swedish newspapers that existed in the U.S. at that time.
Wow. Maybe she was some long-lost descendent of Queen Christina! I love the story you mentioned the other day of them sending locks of Garbo’s actual hair to Sweden to match for the wig that you wore. I assume you were wearing that wig at the premiere?
Yes, and I remember it itching so badly someone gave me a knitting needle to stick up there!
It still amazes me that Garbo got away with not doing what every other actor in Hollywood was required to do.
She just wouldn’t do it. She wasn’t aloof or arrogant or anything like that, she simply didn’t want to know anyone she didn’t want to know.
When you spent time with her, did you think of her in any way as an odd or unusual?
Oh, no, Danny, not at all. She was one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. She was never curt, at least not that I saw and I was with her a lot, but she was very positive and whatever she said it was with great conviction. I don’t remember anyone ever contradicting her either. (Laughs.)
Never. She had a huge dressing room. We were in the same building but, of course, I had a little dressing room and she had this gorgeous suite. She used to invite me in for tea in the afternoon. My mother would bring me to the door of Garbo’s dressing room and this lovely African American woman in a crisp uniform would open the door, take me by the hand, and pull me in. She’d close the door right in my mother’s face and say, “We’ll bring Cora Sue back when we’re finished.”
Oh, I’m sure your mother just loved that!
She didn’t have a choice. Garbo was not interested in talking to my mother, I don’t think they ever had a single conversation, as much as my mother would have loved to have known her. I made two pictures with Garbo, Queen Christina and Anna Karenina, and I simply didn’t realize until years later how lucky I was — she was just my friend. Such a lovely lady. I saw her from time to time until she died in 1990.
When you appeared in Queen Christina, did you think anything like, “Now I’m in a big A-list picture, now I’m really famous!”
(Laughs.) Oh heavens, no! Not at all!
I guess children in that situation were saved from narcissism since they tended to just accept what was happening in the moment as normal.
Exactly. I never knew that I was “famous,” if you want to call it that. I didn’t think my life was unusual, it was all I knew.
Many critics talked about how great you were at crying on command. One writer was worried that they were torturing you to make you so hysterical. I know Margaret O’Brien has refuted Vincente Minnelli’s story about how he told her that her dog had died to get her tears flowing, but did they ever resort to such shenanigans with you?
I’ll tell you what they did with me. I forgot what film it was, but I was supposed to cry in this one scene we were about to shoot. My mother was on set with me, of course, I was still very young, and all of a sudden, these two great big men came up behind her and literally dragged her off the set. She had no idea what was happening. I looked at the director and he said, “Well, aren’t you going to cry?” And I said, “If you want me to cry, why don’t you just tell me to and give me a minute to think of something sad.” That’s a true story. My mother was furious!
Did you have many friends your own age back then?
I didn’t have a lot of peer companionship as a child. Just other child actors and the children of actors and actresses. But, again, I didn’t know this was unusual.
Who were some of your friends in the business?
I loved Jackie and Freddie. I thought Mickey was adorable. I was close to Ann Rutherford, Jane Withers, Peggy Ryan, and Donald O’Connor. Donald once gave me a horny toad — this really ugly thing with these horns. Jackie Cooper would get me flies to feed it but then some reporter wrote about it in a movie magazine and I started getting these huge shipments of dead flies from fans.
I’m sure they loved that in the MGM mailroom! I asked you about Virginia Weidler the other day when we saw you at the Roosevelt.
Oh, I loved Virginia. I knew her very well, she was the sweetest girl. She left movies around the same time I did and I don’t know why, but I used to see her from time to time after that. My guess is that she just wanted to raise her family, she seemed very happy. I remember her brothers playing at parties but I didn’t know them very well. Virginia was so young when she died, poor dear. We were in All This and Heaven, Too together with Bette Davis.
What did you think of Davis?
I loved Bette. I recently found this little book that Bette Davis sent me as a gift. [Cora Sue hands me a beautiful little book about angels and I open the cover to find a lovely inscription to her from Bette Davis.] She was so sweet.
Here’s an article that says you and Carol Ann Beery, Wallace Beery’s young daughter, were vying for Jackie Cooper’s romantic attentions.
Utter nonsense! Completely made up! I was very good friends with Jackie but that was it. Now Dickie Moore was a different story, I had such a crush on him. He’s married to Jane Powell now and I adore them both!
I love this photo of you and William Powell from the set of Evelyn Prentice. What was it like playing the daughter of Powell and Myrna Loy?
They were both great. William Powell remained a close friend of mine until his death. Myrna Loy lived on the grounds of some country club in the valley. We used to go up there all the time, she was also a good friend.
Even though this film had nothing to do with the The Thin Man, I read that MGM sent out fake baby announcements when Evelyn Prentice came out telling reporters that the Thin Man couple had a baby in the form of Cora Sue Collins.
Really? I never knew that, how adorable.
Did you have much to do with studio head Louis B. Mayer?
Well, I used to go to his house every Sunday to have brunch with his three granddaughters and go horseback riding with them. They were perfectly nice, but it was a command performance so it felt like a job. I did it because I was told to. Oh, and there’s one story about Mr. Mayer that I don’t know if I dare tell you.
Well now you have to!
Okay. I was about six or seven and my mother and I were sitting in Mr. Mayer’s huge outer office in the Thalberg Building with his secretary, Ida Koverman. We were waiting to go into to talk to Mr. Mayer about something. Suddenly this woman I knew quite well opened the door and starting backing out of Mr. Mayer’s office screaming, “Don’t tell me that, L.B., I fucked all those bastards on my way up!” And with that she slammed the door, and spun around. When she saw me she literally gasped and said, “Oh, hello, Cora Sue, how are you?” She was so embarrassed. We had worked together in the film Smilin’ Through with Leslie Howard where I played her as a child. And, of course, she had been married to Irving Thalberg.
Oh my God, Norma Shearer?
Yes! So after she ran off, I asked my mother, “What does ‘fuck’ mean?” My mother got all flustered and wouldn’t say anything. So I went over to Mrs. Koverman and asked her and she got just as flustered. I looked at both of them and said, “It’s okay. She said it to Mr. Mayer so I’ll just ask him what that word means!” As much as they begged me not to, they couldn’t shut me up and I did ask him!
Egads! What did he say?
He got very addled and said, “Cora Sue, some day someone will explain that word to you!”
I know you left films at a pretty young age and just did a few small roles in the 1940s with your last screen appearance in Weekend at the Waldorf. What do you think is your ultimate takeaway about your career as a child star?
You know, Danny, I had a great time and met so many wonderful people, but, to be honest, as far as I’m concerned, children should be cogs in a wheel, they should not be at the center. When an entire family revolves around a small child it puts that child in a very odd position and gives her responsibilities that she really should not have at that age. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed being an anonymous housewife later on in my life!
Cora Sue Collins is a national treasure. I look forward to talking to her again and hearing more about her amazing career and life. Happy 88th Birthday, Cora Sue!