Waiting to Be a Star

Greta Granstedt’s name first came up a few years back when I was writing about Miss Virginia Howard, one of the stars of a touring company that happened to be playing in Virginia City in 1864, around the time Thomas Lovewell received his discharge papers and was rooming nearby with some time on his hands and money jingling in his pocket.  I was looking for some clue that Lovewell might have taken in a performance of Othello in the mining camps of Nevada or California, and Virginia Howard was a popular and versatile Shakespearan actress of the day.

She was considered a great beauty, as well as a woman whose personal life was as complicated and dramatic as that of any character she played.  I searched diligently for a picture of Miss Howard but couldn’t find one, nor, of course, can there be any record of her acting style.  Well, there could be one, but there surely isn’t.  A phonograph recording does exist for one of her contemporaries, Edwin Booth, reciting Othello’s speech to the senators.  Since Booth was considered the greatest Shakespearan tragedian of his era and wasn’t getting any younger, there may have been a sense of urgency about dragging him in front the sound-gathering horn of Mr. Edison’s marvelous machine in 1890.  

Sound recording was rather more commonplace by the time soprano Marguerite Lovewell thrilled concert-goers and parishoners with her soaring operatic arias and choir solos, although I’m not at all hopeful that a scratchy disc of one of her performances will ever turn up.  There’s no such impediment facing anyone who wants to sample the talents of actress Greta Granstedt. 

Street Scene 1931

Even though I’m not directly related to Greta, I do feel an affinity for her, perhaps because she was a screen actress from the little Kansas town of Scandia, which is where I saw my first movie when I was almost three years old.  Without that connection, I probably wouldn’t have sat through her early “prestige” title, MGM’s 1931 Street Scene, based on a Pulitzer-winning play by Elmer Rice.  For Depression-Era audiences accustomed to escapist entertainment, this was something entirely new.  Street Scene presents a slice of humdrum life in a New York tenement on a hot June day in the 1920’s.  

After thirty minutes of seemingly idle banter, when it becomes apparent that neighborhood gossip is alerting us to impending tragedy, Greta marches onscreen wearing her boyfriend’s straw boater, to inject some welcome pizazz into the proceedings.  Greta plays Mae Jones, a minor role which was perhaps intended as a comic foil to the female lead, Sylvia Sidney’s Rose Maurant.  Greta’s Mae is a likable, spunky, amusing girl who just wants to get on with life while having a bit of fun and an occasional swig of gin.  Mae is a perfect fit for Greta, and she would play similar parts, the spirited, fearless girlfriend or good-hearted and supportive sister in several films over the next few years.

Studio Shot Greta

Although known in her hometown as a movie star, Greta Granstedt might more accurately be described as a hardworking bit player of the early sound era.  Seldom given a noteworthy role in a memorable title, she nonetheless managed to make a career in feature films and shorts before turning to television.  Her IMDb listing reveals that she appeared in ten films in 1928 alone, receiving an on-screen credit in only one of them.  When she did receive billing in Street Scene the studio misspelled her name as “Grandstedt.”  

One of her final onscreen romances was in the sensationally-titled Hitler - Beast of Berlin, an anti-Nazi propaganda film churned out swiftly late in 1939, just as Hitler’s war machine was rolling across Poland.  Unfortunately, it was shot with the apparent budget and production values of a high school hygiene film.  Greta was given third billing as Anna Wahl, a member of an underground news organization which prints and distributes leaflets denouncing the German Führer.  At the age of 32, in their few scenes together, Greta looks slightly too mature for the skinny 26-year-old actor playing her boyfriend.  When the film was re-edited in 1943 as Hitler’s Devils, the young man, a struggling newcomer named Alan Ladd, would rise to the top of the cast list.  

Leaving youthful roles behind, Greta began playing inmates, secretaries, nurses, telephone operators, maids and mothers, whatever part was offered.  She had never been picky, even appearing as a boxer’s girlfriend in the 1935 Three Stooges short Pugs and Kisses.  As time went on, mothers became her new specialty.  On television she appeared four times in The Lone Ranger, twice in Perry Mason and in one or more episodes of some 15 other series.  

Back when her career was just getting underway, alongside a front-page story on the continuing search for the Lindbergh baby, the Belleville Telescope ran an inset about the young actress:

Greta Granstedt Once Was Waitress

Greta Granstedt, Scandia’s movie star, was an artist’s model when she left San Francisco to walk most of the way to Hollywood.  When she reached the film capital, engagements did not materialize fast enough to suit her financial condition, so she took a job as a watress in a cafe - and was glad to get it!

“I don’t see any reason for hiding the fact that I was a waitress!  I learned a lot about human nature during that time.  It was valuable experience and, as such, I certainly don’t regret it,” she told friends frankly.  The lovely blond actress plays an important role in “The Deceiver,” feature picture being shown in Belleville.

Greta played Celia Adams, the lover of married Broadway matinee idol Reginald Thorpe (a specialist in playing - wouldn’t you know it - Othello), who is found dead in his dressing room with a knife in his back.  Greta is listed seventh in the cast, rating far better than the uncredited stand-in who portrayed the murdered corpse of Reginald Thorpe.  But, like Alan Ladd, her opposite number in Hitler - The Beast of Berlin, young John Wayne would go on to better things.  Everyone has to start somewhere.

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com