“No more does one see Gloria Swansons in Hollywood; there are no more Joan Crawfords. The stars of today consort in supermarkets with Beverly Hills housewives whom they ape. And today’s most glamorous set boasts of itself as a ‘rat pack.'”
As a fan of the Golden Age of Hollywood, I am no stranger to the name of novelist, playwright, and screenwriter, Anita Loos. Two of her best-remembered books are: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes. Her name crops up in a long list of screenplays impossible to list here, but I’ll include : How to Marry a Millionaire, A Red-Headed Woman, The Girl from Missouri. It’s no wonder I associate the name Anita Loos with sparkling dialogue, so when I saw that No Mother To Guide Her was one of the Prion Humour Classics, I decided to read it.
The novel was originally published in 1961, and the story is told by the now elderly Elmer Bliss. He begins his reminiscences of the film star Viola Lake after hearing that she is a resident of the Motion Picture Country Club in Van Nuys–a name that’s “been trumped up by the ever merciful Acting Profession to glamorize a refuge for indigent film folk.” Elmer knew Viola in her “heyday” when she owned a “million-dollar English mansion, the thatched roof of which had been especially constructed in the Cotswold Country and imported piecemeal, to the Film Capital.” Elmer hasn’t seen Viola in years, but after he hears her address, he knows she’s living in poverty.
Thoughts of Viola bring back the past. Elmer recounts his early life in New York and how he eventually found himself in Hollywood writing a column called Hollywood Tidings. The column serves as both a puff piece and also as an image-makeover spot for stars whose sullied reputations need a bit of propping up. The funny thing is that Elmer believes in his job, and believes he’s doing good by providing false public images of Hollywood’s troubled stars. He takes his job so seriously that he will not brook any negative publicity whatsoever about Hollywood or its residents:
Cynics love to say that the public cares only to read of sordid things. but I, for one, do not believe it. My column was successful right from the start, though I told only of the good, the true the beautiful.
This outlook on life places him on the opposing side of rival columnist Lansing Marshall, and the two men spar occasionally over sundry matters, but then the capture of serial killer Calvin Barco brings matters to a head. Film star Viola Lake is involved in the case and the trial promises to reveal juicy tidbits of this actress’s life. Marshall threatens to expose every sordid detail, and Bliss goes on a campaign to protect Viola Lake and her good name.
This is all very quaint. Elmer Bliss is incredibly naive and old-fashioned. While the book’s title, No Mother to Guide her refers to Viola Lake, it’s impossible to overlook that poor Elmer lives with a mother who guides him far too much. She sees Viola Lake as a threat, and although that may be true, Elmer’s mother is very likely to see any woman as a threat to her authority.
No Mother to Guide Her isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. It’s amusing in its quaintness with the ongoing joke that Elmer is clueless in every respect. This is a Hollywood that is seeped in scandal–none of it mentioned in the book of course, but there was the hideous murder of Thelma Todd, the suicide (if indeed it was) of Jean Harlow’s husband Paul Bern, and the Fatty Arbuckle case. Hollywood was never an innocent place. It was just kept clean for public consumption, and in the case of this novel, Elmer is seen as a convenient vessel to market innocence since he believes in it himself 100%. The humour, therefore, comes from the fact that Elmer is a naive idiot–just think of the sort of comedy roles Bob Hope played in the Road films, and you will understand what I mean.
Structurally the novel has some problems–Viola Lake’s reputation is threatened by her involvement in the Barco trial, and yet her connection is flimsy at best. The murders were somewhat unsavoury and treated with a flippancy that jars with the story’s innocent humour. Coincidentally I recently watched Red Skelton in Merton of the Movies, the story of an innocent country bumpkin who longs to be a Hollywood star. Meeting his screen idol (played by Gloria Grahame) turns out to be a horrible disappointment. Merton and Elmer Bliss could be the same character.
I’ve read several of the Prion Humour Classics titles (Augustus Carp Esq., by Himself, and A Melon for Ecstasy) and No Mother To Guide Her didn’t really compare. It was amusing, a light read, nostalgic and quaint–which may or may not be much of a recommendation.