Song of the Day: Hollywood in Music (Day Six). “It’s Your Favourite Foreign Movie”.

Hikers and Park Rangers in Griffith Park, the home of the famous Hollywood sign, have noticed some strange happenings over the years.  There have been many reported sightings of an attractive blonde, blue-eyed woman dressed in 1930’s garb.  The woman looks forlorn and lost.  Many have tried to approach her but when they do, she vanishes.  In the park, a pungent smell of gardenia perfume litters the air.  Could this be the ghost of Peg Entwistle?  ‘Who?’ I hear you ask.  Peg Entwistle isn’t known for her movies.  In fact, she only made one movie in her lifetime, Thirteen Women, which was released after her death.  Peg Entwistle is most known for finding the most novel way to use the Hollywood sign:  Her suicide.

Peg Entwistle was born Millicent Lilian Entwistle on the 5th February 1908 in Port Talbot, Glamorgan, Wales.  The exact details of the doomed actress’s early life are shady.  When she was young, her  family moved to West Kensington, London.  Her mother is said to have died when she was very young.  There are reports that she and her father were in Cincinnati, Ohio and New York City as early as 1913.  Her father Robert S. Entwistle was a theatre actor and is listed in the cast of several plays by The New York Times in 1913.  Entwistle’s father died in 1922, the victim of a hit and run accident on Park Avenue and 72nd Street in New York City.  Thereafter, Peg and her two younger half-brothers were taken in by their uncle who had moved with them to New York and was the manager of Broadway actor Walter Hampden.

By 1925, Entwistle had moved to Boston as a student of Henry Jewett’s Repertory (these days known as Huntington Theatre).  She was a member of the Henry Jewett Players, a group of theatre actors who were gaining national attention.  Walter Hampden gave Entwistle an uncredited walk on part in his Broadway production of Hamlet, with Ethel Barrymore as its main star.  In the play, she carried the King’s train and brought in the poison cup.  Other plays followed, with parts including that of Hedvig in Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck in the same year.  In the audience was a young Bette Davis who excitedly told her mother, “… I want to be exactly like Peg Entwistle”.

Peg Entwistle’s star seemed to be in the ascendant as she continued to receive praise for her theatre work.  This led to her being recruited by the New York Theatre Guild in 1926 and receiving her first credited role in The Man from Toronto, playing the role of Martha.  Entwistle appeared in 9 more Broadway productions between 1926 and 1932.

In 1927, Entwistle married actor Robert Keith but was granted a divorce in 1929.  It was an unhappy marriage with Entwistle accusing Keith of cruelty.  She also claimed that Keith neglected to tell her that he had been married previously and was father to a six year old boy, Brian Keith, who would later become an actor.  During this time, Entwistle continued to give acclaimed performances in a number of plays.  In 1927, a production of The Uninvited Guest closed after just seven performances, with New York Times critic J. Brooks Atkinson writing, “ … Peg Entwistle gave a performance considerably better than the play warranted”.

By May 1932, America was in the grips of the Great Depression.  Entwistle was in Los Angeles, having got a small part in the Romney Brent play The Mad Hopes alongside Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart.  The play ran from the 23rd May to the 4th June at the Belasco Theatre in downtown Los Angeles.  Once again, Entwistle garnered much praise for her performance.  Her part in The Mad Hopes led to Entwistle’s first and only movie role, playing the small but credited part of Hazel Cousins in Thirteen Women for Radio Pictures (later RKO).  The film would be released a month after Entwistle’s death to neither critical or commercial success.

On the morning of 18th September 1932, an anonymous woman made a shocking discovery.  The anonymous woman called the Los Angeles police to report that whilst she was hiking, she had found a woman’s shoe, purse and jacket below the famous Hollywood sign.  The woman told the police that she had looked in the purse and found a suicide note.  She had then looked down the mountain and saw a body.  According to the police transcript of the call, the woman said she “wrapped a jacket, shoes and purse in a bundle and laid them on the steps of the Hollywood police station”.  The anonymous woman never identified herself.

Later that day, a detective and two radio car officers found the body of a well dressed, blonde haired, blue eyed woman in a ravine below the sign.  Entwistle’s body was not identified until her uncle, with whom she had been living in Beachwood Canyon, connected her two day absence with the description and the initials “P.E.” on the suicide note which was found in the purse and published by the newspapers.  Her uncle said that on Friday, September 16th, Entwistle had told him that she was going for a walk to the drugstore and to see some friends.  Instead, it appears that she made her way to the southern slope of Mount Lee to the foot of the Hollywood sign, climbed a workman’s ladder to the top of the “H” and jumped.  She was just 24 years old.  Her suicide note read:

“I am afraid, I am a coward.  I am sorry for everything.  If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain.  P.E.”

When people talk of Hollywood history, Peg Entwistle is for the most part forgotten about.  You won’t see her name in many cinema history books because she only ever made one film during her short lifetime.  Instead, if anything, Peg Entwistle has come to symbolise the dark side of Hollywood:  The aspiring movie actress who’s hopes and dreams were smashed by the Hollywood system.  So next time you visit Hollywood, look out for the ghost of poor Peg and breathe in the pungent smell of the gardenia perfume, reportedly the actress’s favourite perfume.

Somebody who the ghost of Peg Entwistle has obviously had an effect on is Donald Fagen, who along with co-songwriter Walter Becker, wrote the song Peg for his band Steely Dan’s 1977 album Aja.  Released as a successful single from the album, Peg tells the tale of Peg Entwistle’s attempted big break through the eyes of the film’s director, George Archainbaud.

“I’ve seen your picture, Your name in lights above it, This is your big debut, It’s like a dream come true, And when you smile for the camera, I know they’ll love it” sings Fagen in the guise of Archainbaud telling Entwistle that this is her big break.  Despite the uplifting and vibrant nature of the song, there is underlying darkness when one thinks of the subject matter.

There is even a slight sleaziness about the way in which the director tells Entwistle, “I got your pin shot [meaning pin-up photograph], I kept it with your letter [the one the actress perhaps sent in the hope of breaking into the movies], Done up in blueprint blue, It sure looks good on you, So won’t you smile for the camera, I know I’ll love you better”.  Add to this, the fact that the name Steely Dan derives from the name of a strap-on dildo in William Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch (1959) and reading into the lyrical content of the song becomes quite a disconcerting affair.

The line “Your favourite foreign movie” could be alluding to pornography, suggesting a sexual advance from the director.  This could in fact be a song about the casting couch as opposed to the filming of the movie.  The line “You’ve seen it all before” is suggestive of a struggling actress who is weary of attempting to break into the movies and knows all the tricks of the industry.  The song could therefore could be representing the dark side of Hollywood, the one that exists but it is rarely presented to those living outside it’s glittery bubble.  In Peg, Steely Dan could be suggesting that it was the reason for Peg Entwistle’s suicide.

The final verse could refer to disturbing memories of an act on the casting prompting Entwistle’s suicide:  “Peg, It will come back to you … Then the shutter falls, You see it all in 3-D, It’s your favourite foreign movie”.  These lines are poignant as Peg Entwistle would never actually get to see her only film appearance, instead the shutter fell on her short life as Peg fell from Hollywood’s “H” on that fateful day in 1932.

As a footnote, Peg Entwistle’s ghost lives on in music as Peg by Steely Dan was sampled for De La Soul’s song Eye Know from their classic 1989 debut album 3 Feet High and Rising.