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Paulette Goddard began her career as a child fashion model and then as a Ziegfeld girl when she was still in her teens. Her birth name was Marion Levy, but she didn’t see her father during most of her youth as she traveled with her mother, and her birth date remains somewhat unclear. At 17 or so Goddard married a rich older lumberman named Edgar James, and after a brief marriage she got a divorce settlement for $375,000 in 1932, and that was only the beginning. Goddard was what used to be known as an adventuress, and she sometimes behaved like a particularly colorful character in a novel by Balzac or her pal Anita Loos.
Charlie Chaplin found Goddard “gay and amusing” when he met her on Joseph Schenk’s yacht in 1932, and she had money that she wanted to invest in producing movies; she snagged Chaplin next, and he was likely the most famous man on earth at that point in time. Goddard was playing bit parts in pictures and was a blonde and full-faced young Goldwyn girl, and Chaplin finally decided to use her as his leading lady in his silent-ish Modern Times (1936) after being impressed with the way she handled pretending to be a Southern belle over a loudspeaker at a racetrack.
Goddard’s gamin in Modern Times is not an innocent like some of Chaplin’s other leading women; she is saucy and lively and barefoot and wild, first seen in a wowza close-up with a knife in her teeth and artful smudges on her cheeks. Most characteristic here is a scene in a deserted department store where Goddard’s gamin lets herself pleasurably sink into a white mink coat and luxurious trappings. The message of Chaplin’s film might be anti-capitalist, but the look on Goddard’s face in this scene sends us the opposite of that message.
While she waited for Chaplin to make another film, Goddard played smaller roles and got cast as Miriam “Vanities” Aarons in The Women (1939), a showgirl and playgirl much like herself. In that movie it sometimes seems as if director George Cukor has given her line readings, and there is a similar rehearsed quality to her work in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), which ends on a close-up of her open and soulful face that seems to have been arrived at by wearing her down through many perfectionist takes. Her acting training in pantomime with Chaplin is likely what caused Goddard some problems when she worked with others in the 1940s.
Goddard almost nabbed the most coveted female role of this time, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), and she is convincingly tempestuous in her black and white tests but less Scarlett-like in a color test where Cukor tries to get her to soften the hardness of her pretty face a bit and she attempts to comply. After losing Scarlett and separating from Chaplin, it was in 1940 that Goddard went to Ciro’s nightclub with director Anatole Litvak and caused a scandal that still has not been resolved. Director Jean Negulesco, who was there that night, wrote in his memoirs that they drunkenly had sex under a table, but Litvak swore that the strap on Goddard’s dress snapped and a breast popped out and he kissed it, and this led to embellished stories. Whatever happened, it fed the idea of Goddard as a shameless woman of pleasure.
She signed with Paramount and was a leading lady in Bob Hope pictures before making her first film with Mitchell Leisen, Hold Back the Dawn (1941). Her co-star Olivia de Havilland observed that Goddard was so nervous before their big scene of confrontation that her upper lip was quivering, yet she looks assured enough on screen. Goddard got a patriotic Oscar nomination for supporting actress for playing a wartime nurse in So Proudly We Hail! (1943), but she reached the height of her career with a string of period costume movies that nearly brought her the stardom she craved and worked so hard for.
For Leisen’s Kitty (1945), which is set in England in the 1780s, Goddard lived with Ida Lupino’s mother Connie for a time in order to acquire the Cockney accent needed for her early scenes, and she studied with the formidable Constance Collier, who is also in the film, for the scenes where her guttersnipe character has been transformed into a titled lady. This is her most challenging role, and Goddard plays it for all it is worth, going from a cunning but not very bright girl of the streets to a woman nearly weighed down by money and dead husbands who has a hard and worldly look on her face but a sensitive heart underneath.
Goddard went back to blonde hair and worked with her third husband Burgess Meredith in Jean Renoir’s The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), where she is the center of the movie as a serving girl who has been weak and kicked around and decides to fight back against men and her station in life. This is a very left-wing sort of movie, for Goddard seemed drawn to left-leaning men like Chaplin and Meredith, who is credited for the screenplay of Diary, in spite of her own well-known lust for jewels.
In a weak moment on a train sometime in the 1940s, Marlene Dietrich found herself talking about a love problem with Goddard, and Goddard got up and came back with an alligator trunk filled with her jewels. “Nothing but diamonds!” Dietrich marveled. “Like rocks! And she says to me, very serious, like a professor: ‘Marlene, you have to get diamonds. Colored stones are worth nothing. Only pure white stones have lasting value. A man wants you? It’s easy! You say no, right away. The next day, he sends you long-stemmed roses, you send them back. The next day, when his orchids arrive, you send them back. His little gifts, expensive perfume, handbags from Hermès, mink coats—things like that, you send everything back. Rubies and diamond clips—back, even emerald and diamond pins. When the first diamond bracelet arrives, it’s usually small, so you send it back, but you call him and say thank you—sweetly. The next day, when the larger diamond bracelet arrives, you send that back, but now, you let him take you out to lunch—nothing else! The first diamond ring never is big—give it back, but say yes to dinner…go dancing. The only thing you have to always remember: Never, ever sleep with a man until he gives you a pure white stone of at least ten carats!’” According to her daughter Maria Riva, Dietrich told this story with relish for the rest of her life and was displeased when “that terrible woman” married one of her men, Erich Maria Remarque.
Goddard worked two more times for Mitchell Leisen, and her coach Phyllis Seaton lamented that Goddard was intelligent and very spontaneous in life but it was almost impossible to get her to be spontaneous on screen, for she had to work out every moment beforehand, and there were other problems. “Doing a comedy with her could be excruciating because she had no sense of timing at all,” said Leisen’s assistant Eleanor Broder. “Alma Macrorie’s cutting got her through a lot of scenes.” As Goddard approached the age of 40, her screen career began to ebb away, and she made a big mistake by producing and starring in The Torch (1950), a remake of a Maria Félix movie in which she seems to think that playing a Latino character calls for overacting.
Once Goddard married Remarque, she went into semi-retirement, and she only emerged after his death as a social date for Andy Warhol in the 1970s. (“I like to talk and he likes to listen,” she said of Warhol.) At her death, she left a good part of her fortune to New York University, where I went to college. There is a Goddard dormitory there right on Washington Square Park with high ceilings and an elegant feel to it, and even a Paulette Goddard staircase in the main arts building. Goddard had never gone to college herself, but the money from those diamonds she collected went to education, and it also commemorated the memory of her avid, animated face, with its high forehead and flashing eyes, her rather chirpy speaking voice, and the way she would proudly strut to show off her figure.
Her finest hour on screen was as a corruptible costume heroine in Kitty and The Diary of a Chambermaid who navigates a treacherous world run mainly by men, and there is some anger in these portrayals that she did not seem to have felt—or felt too much—off screen. Her image was vivacious, fun-loving. There is a photo of Goddard signing autographs at the Hollywood Canteen where she looks like a warrior, her pretty foxlike face set in an expression of amusement at her own power over the boys, like a sex symbol from a dream that she could make real if you played the game her way.