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Call Your Own Bluff—Jane Wyman

As a youngster I was terribly shy. I may not have been the original hide-under-the-bed-when-company-comes Nelly, but I couldn’t claim to be far from it. I have a picture of my school days that I don’t particularly want to remember but will never forget. I see a girl standing before her class making a simple book report. She sweats, she stammers, she trembles. That’s me.

I also see myself telling lies to hide some simple truths that I wrongly thought were a disgrace—I was poor, lonesome perhaps, hadn’t any clothes—and the lies fastened about me so that they constantly tripped me up.

You know, I never used to think of myself as a dancer when I was a youngster, even though I did have feet which seemed to know what they were doing. When Mother took me for lessons I had to be tied into my dancing shoes. I really used to believe that I didn’t care about dancing. But today I am sure there was another reason. What really bothered me was the unconscious dread that if I became a dancer I would have to dance before an audience. For the same reason I never gave the slightest consideration to becoming an actress.

That I did, that I have achieved some success in my profession, cannot therefore be a personal triumph. The credit must go elsewhere and I know to whom. It belongs to the team—the team of human beings we are all a part of.

Let’s go back to the day when I uttered my first line before the camera. The studio was Warner Brothers, back when they were making their famous Golddiggers series of musicals. I was just a chorus girl who had danced in a half dozen pictures and never had spoken so much as a word of dialogue. The very idea of it would have petrified me—and did right then and there, because the director’s eye casually roved over me as he announced that he wanted one of the girls to exchange a few lines with the star of the picture, Dick Powell. He pointed me out, waved aside my protests, and the next thing I knew, the assistant director was coaching me.

“But I can’t!” I told him.

“Ah!” He scoffed at my fears. “Sure you can, kid!”

I was telling my fellow man that I could not live up to one of the important moments life had for me. And my fellow man was telling me I could.

The scene began. I was standing in a line with the other dancers and Dick Powell came by slowly, inspecting us as candidates for a show he was supposed to be staging. The starch ran out of my knees; I knew that before this was over, my heart was going to beat itself into a rag.

“What is your name?” he asked.

Somehow I gave him the answer. “Bessie Phumphnik.” It was supposed to make him smile. He did smile a little, which in a sense meant I had done my part so far, and the scene hadn’t fallen apart yet.

“What do you do?” he asked.

That was the time for my long line. I was sure I couldn’t get it all out but someone else was sure that I could. And maybe that is why I did.

“I swim, ride, dive, imitate wild birds and play the trombone,” I told him, without a fluff.

Instead of just briefly laughing, Dick broke up completely and howled at this. The fun became infectious, everyone had to laugh, and the moment went over as one of the gayest in the picture.

“You’ll do!” Dick was supposed to answer. And he did. But the way he said it made me think there was a real life significance. (Later he told me he meant, too, that I personally, “would do.”)

“Why!” I thought to myself. “I can act! I am an actress!”

I was such a typical actress at that moment that I forgot all about the assistant director who had given me the courage and confidence I myself didn’t have. But later I did remember and understood where the faith I had found that day came from.

So that explains how I got my first speaking role, a terribly important step in our business. But how did I, who would never dream of appearing in public, much less speaking, ever get this much of a chance, ever get into a studio at all?

For the answer to this, we have to go back again—to the day I got a job as a dancer in the movies.

A girl I knew, who had gone to dancing school with me, heard that Warners needed dancers for King Of Burlesque, starring Warner Baxter and Alice Faye. She hurried over to my house and suggested that we both go over and apply. I was appalled.

“I don’t dance well enough,” I said. “They’d get mad at me.”

“Of course you do!” she argued. “You’re a good dancer!”

Eventually I went, trembling all the way. And this time I knew I was right when the dance director, the well-known Sammy Lee, asked all of us if we could do a time step, and I didn’t dare raise my hand with the rest of the girls.

He cast a puzzled eye at me. He wanted to know why I couldn’t do a time step.

“I tried to learn once and it didn’t seem to work out,” I told him. “I specialized in ballet.”

“What step-do you know?” he asked.

“I can do a rhythm rhumba,” I offered.

“Show me,” he said, gesturing for me to go ahead. Even as I hesitated, the rehearsal pianist practically gave me a shove by breaking into a beautiful tempo. My legs did the rest. It seemed I heard Sammy Lee’s voice the very next moment.

“You’re hired,” he announced.

“But what about the time-step?”

He laughed. “Any girl who can dance like that can learn a time step in twenty minutes if she concentrates.”

He was right. My feet had flown into a tangle each time I had ever tried. But now, with his confidence and my ability, I picked up the time step with no trouble at all. And I knew exactly what his confidence in me had done. I was not a better dancer than I had been before, but his encouragement had made me surefooted where I had been hesitant.

Do you know how it is when you try something new and don’t seem to be getting far? Then someone calls out, “That’s it!” How suddenly the courage flows through you and you know just what you are doing? This is what we need from the other person and what we can give him in turn, of course. My real life began when I came to know this.

Let’s go back again. I went to the studio to ask for a dancing job because a friend had practically made me go. I was lucky to have such a friend, because for a long time I suffered from a false pride which ruined my friendships. Since I didn’t trust people to like me for what I was, naturally they couldn’t like me for what I was pretending to be. Ergo, as the scholars say, I was just not giving myself a chance.

One of my troubles was that I tried to pretend myself out of poverty. I have said I was poor. I was lucky if I had two dresses to my name; generally, I used to have to show up in school day after day wearing the same dress. I refused to accept the situation; I kept talking and acting as if it didn’t exist.

When a girl whom I knew to be rich invited me to her birthday party and I arrived at her house, I lost my head completely, and went “grand” on her! She had two or three floors of luxurious home and an aristocratic looking mother. I simply became over-impressed. I began to brag about my family, “our” mansion, “our” chauffeur and “our” gold service. Toward evening, when it was time for them to drive me back to “our” home I was panic-stricken, of course, that I would be found out. While trying to lie out of it, I broke down altogether.

I remember that for a period I felt terribly bitter about this girl and her mother; I thought of them as enemies. As I know now, this wasn’t true at all. They were fine people, would have made wonderful friends, but I had ruined all that.

That rich girl, as I remember now, was probably very much like the heroine of a novel I had run across about that same time. One I shall always remember.

The chapter which stuck in my mind concerns her invitation to a poor friend to come and see her. To greet her visitor, she had donned a new and pretty dress. But she happened to look out of the window as her little friend approached the house and saw that she was dressed in the same old middy blouse and skirt she wore to school every day. Instantly, the rich girl changed her dress—also to a plain middy and skirt, so as not to embarrass her schoolmate.

It was the most wonderful story I had ever read, I thought, and I remember that I kept wondering ruefully why people couldn’t be like that in real life. It took a long time for me to realize that a lot of them are, but only to those who don’t close themselves up as I did. By fearing the worst from others, by not opening up, I was not getting many hurts or many joys, and I was also not living very much.

I began to realize that I could go on like this, having little happen to me that meant anything, or I could open up and meet people on a you’re-as-good-as-I-am level. Gradually I did, and gradually I began to be part of a much more interesting world than I ever had lived in before.

Girls always figure that it’s their looks that win them happiness. I know differently. Looks make you a candidate only. The ability to think and feel in harmony with the thoughts and feelings of others is the thing that gets you elected.

“I love you,” says a boy to a girl. This is not really true most of the time. You can’t love a picture and quite often all he is talking about is her appearance. He still has to learn to love the person behind that appearance. If she is a person, a real person, that love he had for what she looked like may extend also to what she is.

I have come to believe that one of the first faiths a person must develop is faith in the other person. What I am today—the woman as well as the actress—I have been helped to be by people, as you can see. No special people, just people.

As infants we all begin to develop this faith; in our first weeks we discover that there is security and comfort in the arms of another. But for some of us our confidence in man doesn’t go beyond this immediate relationship to mother or father, and this is a great pity.

It seems to me that without some confidence in the other fellow, until one really begins to like one’s fellow man, such valuable personal assets as poise, humility and human dignity are impossibilities. After all, to have poise and humility means to be blessed with inner ease, not only when among friends, but among strangers as well. You cannot have this ease if you are distrustful of people or uneasy with them. You can only bluff your way. I know because I was distrustful, I bluffed and I was a darn unhappy girl because of it. I had to call my own bluff to come out of it.

An interesting thing happened to me during the war. Like many of us, I made trips to camps and hospitals to entertain and talk to the boys. About this time I had finished The Yearling, in which I played a young wife and mother, a most sympathetic part. Many of the boys had seen the picture, apparently, and I discovered, to my amazement, that to a lot of them I was still in that role. They talked to me not as if I were a movie star but as if I had all the wisdom and the tenderness and understanding of that young mother. Little by little, as I came to realize this, I began to play that role all over again. That is to say, at first I just played at being that mother, but as time passed I did begin to be like her, perhaps. At least, I began to develop, to take on the qualities they had endowed me with.

Today I know for certain that nothing in my life has ever helped me so much socially as my relationships with those young G.I’s. If up to that time I had maintained a barrier between myself and the world, an artificial “me” between it and my real self, so to speak, my hospital visits wiped it all out. The boys taught me to speak straight and I think that teaching has stayed with me.

I think back to my early movie days and I remember a lot of us youngsters, all floundering around the studios, not knowing exactly where we belonged and always feeling so inadequate. But around us were fine actors like Jimmy Cagney, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Glenda Farrell, who, we were to come to learn, were also fine people. You didn’t have to look up to them; if you looked just straight ahead you would find them right on your own level of life and glad to be there. At first, I didn’t believe that they were really this way; in time I came to know that not only was it true about most of them, but that they needed to be friendly to us as much as we needed their friendship. I hope it will always be true of me. The day I stop being human and start being a star with a perpetual capital “S” I know I will be back to telling lies about myself, and my chances for happiness will be gone.

The other afternoon a writer whom I was seeing for the first time paid me a compliment that had nothing to do with my looks, what I was wearing or my ability as an actress. “You are a comfortable person to meet,” he said. What a lovely compliment. And how warm it makes one feel.

We both knew what he meant, without any further elaboration. Even ordinary conversations, let alone interviews, are terribly difficult if one or both of the people involved hide the best part of themselves behind some immaturity which often is masked as shyness, or resentment or even overpleasantness.

What is personality? To me it is an attitude in life founded on a trust that your good points will be recognized by your fellow man. They need not all be good points. We are people, not gods. And that is what is interesting about us. Why be shy or hesitant or otherwise evasive about it?

Here we are as we are. Isn’t that a warm and comfortable spirit to spread about when you meet someone? And isn’t it a sort of faith?

Out in one of our coast towns there is a man who stands on a busy highway junction and waves to people in the passing cars. Most of the motorists have never seen him before and they are puzzled by this greeting. But an astonishing thing happens. Almost everyone of them waves back!

That’s the point about people. They always respond to kindness.



(Jane Wyman will soon be appearing in Paramount’s Lucy Gallant and U-I’s All That Heaven Allows.)



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