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New documentary reveals details of Mary Astor’s Hollywood scandal

Many movie lovers know actress Mary Astor for her role in the 1941 Warner Bros. film, “The Maltese Falcon,” but even those who have followed her work may not know the details of the scandal that threatened to end her career just five years earlier.

In a new documentary, Atlanta-native Alexa Foreman highlights those details and gives fans insight into the actress whose complexities put her ahead of her time.

“Scandal: The Trial of Mary Astor,” recently premiered at the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Film festival in Los Angeles. Foreman hopes the documentary will find a permanent home at TCM.

As a former researcher for TCM, Foreman first encountered the details of Astor’s story when the actress was the subject of the “Star of the Month” feature.

“A lot of the research was on her days in silent films.  I didn’t even know how to pronounce her real name,” Foreman said. She did know that Astor had been the subject of a scandal in which pages from Astor’s personal diary detailing her sexual exploits with men had been released to the press. Foreman hadn’t realized it all stemmed from a child custody trial between Astor and her ex-husband.

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She was drawn to the story for its relevance almost 80 years later. “The story was so timely in that she has the meeting with the (Hollywood) moguls and says no I won’t stop this trial,” said Foreman noting the #MeToo movement.  “She was a single mother battling to get her child back. Think how terrifying it was to get on the stand.”

Narrated by actor Lee Grant, the film delves into Astor’s early life as Lucile Vasconcellos Langhanke. Born in Quincy, Ill. to domineering parents who would later capitalize on her good fortune, Astor had a lonely childhood. She began keeping diaries which seemed to serve as her emotional outlet. 

After getting a start in silent films as a teen, Astor transitioned to talking films. Her career was on the rise when her first husband died in a plane crash. Just over a year later Astor married Dr. Franklyn Thorpe who had privately treated her for grief and tuberculosis. The couple had a daughter, Marylyn, before divorcing in 1935 -- in part due to Astor’s affair with playwright George Kaufman. 

By 1936, when Astor was filming Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s “Dodsworth,” one of the best roles of her career, she was embroiled in a custody battle for her 4-year-old daughter. Thorpe accused Astor of adultery and threatened to release her diaries as evidence. 

A media frenzy ensued to tell a saga that would include a fake diary and a meeting in which studio heads including Samuel Goldwyn of MGM pressed Astor to settle her case. She refused. 

When Foreman decided to make a documentary about the events, she went to the person at the center of it all, Astor’s daughter. 

“I was able to get in touch with her daughter and things started falling into place,” said Foreman who spent two years saving money and shooting across the country in Los Angeles, Utah, Atlanta and New York to tell the story. 

Marylyn Thorpe Roh shared the huge scrapbook Astor had made for her as well as other items from her mother’s past. In some scenes in the documentary, Roh seems surprised to learn certain details about her mother. 

In the end, Astor wins custody of her daughter and while a few pages of her diary were released, they were later destroyed in the 1950s as directed by the settlement. Astor had managed to retain her career but the larger story doesn’t have such a happy ending, something Foreman struggled with.

“I felt like I should make it happy, but at the end, Marylyn is talking about how she still struggles with it. I had to tell the real story,” Foreman said.

Astor had her shortcomings but in retrospect she is widely viewed as a woman who was liberated before her time, both in her affairs with men and her ability to stand up for herself and her daughter.

Foreman, who was most interested in why Astor did what she did, believes the actresses’ actions were all driven by love. 

About the Author

Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.

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