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"The Sky Pilot," "The Lotus Eater," and "Slippy McGee"

By this time, Hollywood was becoming famous as a dream factory. People dreamed of moving to the Golden State, most dreamed of being discovered and finding their way into motion pictures. Though there were scandals, film was becoming thoroughly entrenched in the popular American imagination. In less than one year oil would be discovered in Los Angeles; the Alamitos # 1 well on Signal Hill would begin to spout crude like there was no tomorrow: 1,000 barrels of the stuff a day. The money was flowing into the town, along with the good times.

Colleen's next film, The Sky Pilot, was produced by Catherine Curtis, president of the Catherine Curtis Corporation, cited by the Washington Post in February of 1921 as one of the few women film producers. Much of the work was done on location, in Truckee (this according to Colleen in Silent Star) and in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, on the same terrain as depicted in the book the film was based upon. In California the crew stayed in a hotel overlooking the Truckee Southern Pacific railroad station, and for a while the troupe was snowed in. There was not much to do when they were not shooting: their hotel was isolated, the nearest town a sleigh ride away. The crew came up with activities; everyone came up with an act to perform in the evenings, a sort of amateur vaudeville show for their co-workers. Colleen and King worked out a mind-reader’s act. In fact, the two ended up spending a lot of time together.

Vidor was an energetic, youthful-looking man in his mid-twenties; when Colleen had first seen him she thought he was an assistant, expecting the director to be a much older man. The two hit it off right away. Though she looked like a much younger girl, Colleen was smart and well-read, better educated then the average young starlet who might have found herself on the set the result of winning a contest or catching the eye of some producer.

Exactly what happened between he and Colleen while on location is a mystery. There is no doubt there was an attraction between the two: Colleen writes of long dry stretches between productions where she had virtually no social life, punctuated with occasional flurries of attention. Being isolated from the prying eyes of the Hollywood machine could easily have bred in the twenty-one year old actress (who had been passing herself off as a naive seventeen year old) a sense of intimacy and camaraderie with the young director. Under those circumstances it is not difficult to imagine them falling into a flirting romance. Some speculate that the romance was consummated, though nobody knows for sure. Vidor was married, but he had a reputation for involvement with his leading ladies. Colleen was a staunch Catholic who would not have committed adultery easily regardless of the degree of her attraction to Vidor. Plus, they both had careers to consider.

Hollywood had begun to gain a reputation as a colony of libertines. On the one hand, a popular line in the film magazines was the sudden wealth and notoriety one could gain through films: stars were encouraged to show conspicuous displays of wealth. On the other hand, while the population in general might fantasize about such easy, quick wealth and fame, they still saw it as a character flaw; in a nation that had nearly enshrined the ethic of hard work and its eventual rewards, those who flaunted their easy wealth were viewed with distrust. The industry, while popular, was still in embryonic form the prospect of the media being outlawed, or at least severely restricted, was not unimaginable. If an affair between the two had been discovered, especially with Colleen's squeaky-clean reputation, it could well have ruined both their careers. Even worse for Colleen, it would have devastated her family and her grandmother.

Whatever happened between them, it was enough to create a lasting bond. They did not communicate even though Hollywood was a small and tight-knit community. They were cordial when they met socially. Colleen was acquainted with Vidors wives, though it is unknown if any of them knew or suspected there might have been a romance. Years later Colleen and King would meet again and eventually end up with neighboring ranches in California. No doubt someone knows what happened, but they’re not talking… Colleen was the sort who engendered that sort of loyalty in people.

The Lotus Eater

The next stop for Colleen after her return to Hollywood was Catalina Island to do location work on her upcoming film with John Barrymore, The Lotus Eaters, and then from there to New York for more location work. The film was being produced under the title of The Lost Paradise, and Colleen played a young woman raised on an island populated by long-ago shipwrecked sailors. As usual, her part was the part of the pure unspoiled girl, in this case entirely unspoiled by civilization. She wrote of Barrymore being very generous with his advice, helping he determine her best angles for the camera. In May, 1921, the Atlanta Constitution published a letter written by Colleen (or perhaps a press-agent in her name) wherein she described New York: “Great buildings edge each other resentfully—with never the space for so much as a friendly alley between them…. Broadway is a sea of white light by night—that light seems to shoot into the face of the sky and demand an explanation of the stars…. The subway is like the whale that swallowed Jonah; it swallows Jonahs by the million and coughs them all up at their proper destination.” This was Colleen playing up her reputation; she had been to Chicago many times and was inclined to be an explorer. Certainly she had any sights in Chicago, a city of industry and important men, that rivaled the more glamorous city of New York.

While in New York, she wrote that she actually had an opportunity to enjoy herself as a celebrity for a time, enjoyed a social life, went out on dates. She had always written that her movie career had been all-encompassing, to the exclusion of all else, though in fact she had enjoyed a social life suited to the time and place. She could go on weekend excursions, if not with family, then with friends. Marshall was part of a social circle and would no doubt have invited her along for drives out to the beach, sailing and so forth. She had won a prize for dancing with Richard Dix at the Sunset Inn. Even so, nobody can resist a story about an unspoiled young woman tempted by the glamour and razzle-dazzle of New York and Broadway. Newspapers reported that New York producers were trying to tempt her to the stage, but before she could seriously consider any offers she was back in California. Marshall was going to put her to work in Slippy McGee. However, upon her arrival Marshall wired her again, told her to ship out for Mississippi. On August 14, 1921, Grace Kingsley wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The people don’t see a bunch of actors once in a blue moon, for the op’ry house is mostly given over to pictures and magic lantern shows with an occasional regular troupe performing some play not more than five years old.”

It was into this setting that Colleen and the company set to work. She celebrated her 22nd birthday that month, though it was reported at her 20th, and the Boston Evening Globe wrote: Colleen had to escape Rush Hughes (son of Rupert) and Tom Gallery (screen actor) who both threatened to kiss her 20 times without a break as her gift. Before long, Colleen would be in several Rupert Hughes productions.

The Los Angeles Times had said Colleen “is a southern girl, and took naturally to her surroundings. She was one of the people, as it were, and understood and respected all their traditions and customs.”

Her southern background notwithstanding, she said something to raise the ire of the locals. This time the Times ran “Natchez Resents Opinion of Motion-Picture Star.” Some of her jokes did not go over very well. Of her, it was written: “Natchez, with it’s beautiful and cultured woman, it’s gallant men, and surroundings of picturesque beauty is famed in song and story for its unstinted hospitality, but for that hospitality to be accepted and used to the fullest by an inappreciative recipient, and then, at a safe distance to be traduced and gibed at, is indeed a glaring illustration of ill-breeding.”

Presumably things were smoothed over before the production left town; in early October the Atlanta Constitution wrote that Colleen was the inspiration for new hairdo in Natchez. Her hairdo, imported from the salons of New York, and the local girls reproduced it, calling it the “Colleen Curl.”

His Nibs, with Chick Sales was released in late October, her only other film to be released in 1921 aside from The Sky Pilot.