Happy birthday! An interview with Cora Sue Collins

April 19, 1935, was a big day on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot. At least it was for Cora Sue Collins. A child actress under contract to the world’s most glamorous movie company, she received special attention on that day from studio chief Louis B. Mayer.

Cora Sue Collins circa 1933

Collins, who has just turned 94, delights in recalling her one-of-a-kind “seventh” birthday party, which attracted names big and small from all over the MGM space. Among the many guests were Jean Harlow (fresh from shooting a scene opposite Clark Gable in China Seas), Mickey Rooney, Jackie Cooper and Jean Hersholt.

“L.B. Mayer gave May Robson, who was a very famous actress whose birthday was April 19 … a birthday party” to share with Collins, Cora Sue said in a recent Zoom interview. “She was turning 77 and I was turning 8. And Mr. Mayer said, ‘It would be better for publicity if we’d say that I was just going to be 7.’

“… The party was unbelievable. It was not an invitation, it was a command performance from Mr. Mayer, so everybody came. … The biggest stars in the business, the biggest producers and directors. … They gave me this … great, big, hand-carved autograph book with a wooden cover and a wooden back [she gets out book to show to the Zoom camera] … It has a little plaque saying, ‘From May Robson, April 19, 1935.’ Anyway, the autographs in here are absolutely amazing because they are the biggest names in Hollywood. And nowhere has there been a collection of such big names as this, because they were rarely in one place at one time. …”

Collins performed with – and often portrayed pre-adolescent versions of – stars such as Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Fredric March, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Myrna Loy, Frances Dee, Merle Oberon and Fay Wray. Garbo’s hand-picked choice to play her title character as a child in Queen Christina (1933), Collins appeared with the enigmatic superstar, and March, in Anna Karenina (1935). Collins and Garbo remained friends until the latter’s death.

Although life as a child star was difficult for her, Collins cherishes memories from a film career that began in 1932. Here are highlights from our interview:

Cora Sue Collins with Greta Garbo

On acting at such a young age: “I did not enjoy my childhood. I worked six days a week, we worked from Monday through Saturday in those days, and I started to work when I was 3. And [speaking sarcastically] they were so generous, kind. They gave me an hour off at the age of 3. … So I wasn’t worried about my career at all [when older]. I couldn’t wait to stop acting.

“I would say the majority of [other child actors from her generation] wanted to continue with their careers [as they became older]; I wasn’t at all interested in continuing. But it was very difficult for them. They were at the awkward age when they were neither fish nor fowl. There were very few parts written for that in-between age. For some, it truly was an awkward age. Now, Shirley [Temple] never changed; she was a beautiful person. But the majority of those people had great difficulty trying to get parts.”

As a teenager, Collins moved back into the acting spotlight in 1942-43 in the stage comedy “Junior Miss.” “My first [stage] experience was a month in New York on Broadway before going on the road. It was wonderful, every night was something different. They had offered me a run-of-the-play contract … for a year. I loved it, loved every minute of it. But then I was ready to move on.”

On being known as a good “crier”: “I did a film called The Strange Case of Clara Deane. My mother [in the film] was supposed to leave me, as a child, at an orphanage. We were getting ready to do the first scene, and my [real] mother would read the script to me the night before, cover to cover, set directions, everything. So on the set, they said, ‘Camera, action,’ and two huge men dressed as policemen grabbed my mother, who was just standing there, and dragged her off the set. And the director [then] said, ‘Cry.’ … So I cried.”

Why was she so often cast as a younger version of characters played by leading ladies?  “I must have a very common face, because they made me up to look like anybody.  And I played so many of them as a child and I played so many of them as their children, and I had accents and whatnot. I was good at accents because I had a great acting instructor [Josephine Dillon, Clark Gable’s then-wife] who became a very close friend of my mother. And Miss Dillon was a wonderful coach.”

On Garbo: “I’ll tell you how I met her. I was 5 years old. For an audition, we were on one of those huge soundstages [at MGM], and [I was] standing in front of this huge velvet drape, with little girls, [lined up] tall to small. And finally, I was standing alone on this very big stage. Finally, this woman came up, and she spoke with an accent and we chatted for a while. [Later,] my mother came to get me and said, ‘That was Garbo; you got the job.’ We became friends, and she [Garbo] would invite me to tea in her dressing room. I can remember it so well. …  She was a lovely woman but a very private person, but that was her prerogative. If she didn’t want to know someone, she wouldn’t know someone. She shouldn’t be forced to get to know people. And look how strong a star she was with L.B. Mayer, and [she] had him twirled around her finger.”

On Judy Garland: “The very first picture I played [at Universal in 1932] in called The Unexpected Father. And I met this girl whose name was Judy Gumm at that time, and I didn’t know until many years later, when a friend of mine was interviewing her about an autobiography, or something she had written about herself. And she said I stole a part from her. … Judy had been signed … to play my part, but they wanted a younger child. …

Cora Sue with William Powell and Myrna Loy in Evelyn Prentice (1934)

“ It was amazing I got the job, and the first day I got a starring part with Zasu Pitts and Slim Summervile, who were the Lucy and Desi of their era … . And the first day of shooting, I was supposed to say something, and then Miss Pitts was supposed to say something, and I would answer, but she flubbed her line, I said – I didn’t know any better – ‘Oh no, Miss Pitts, you were supposed to say this and then I say such-and-such and the camera dollies to a two-shot ….’ She said, ‘That’s it’ … and walked off the set. I didn’t know why. Then she came back – she was really wonderful, by the way – with an enormous pillow strapped to her derriere, and stretched out over the director’s chair and told the director to spank her because if a 3-year-old could know her lines better than me, I will never set foot on a soundstage again without knowing my lines. … Years and years later, 25 years later, we were friends … she was introducing me to some friends of hers, and she said [about me], ‘She is the reason I can star on Broadway today; she’s the reason I know my lines.’ ”

On working for major studio versus minor studios: “As a child, I don’t think I realized much of a difference because MGM loaned me out so much. … [We] have records where I did three films on the same day, a scene from one and a scene from the other. I didn’t pay any attention to it. I did what I had to do. … MGM was a monopoly. All the major film stars to the directors to … you name it, [Mayer] owned them. It was different.”

One of Collins’ roles in “B” fare was as the daughter of Stephen Foster, played by Douglass Montgomery, in the 1935 Mascot Pictures musical “Harmony Lane.” “I have such a funny story to tell you. I have three children – boy, girl, girl – and the oldest girl was named Melinda. And somehow or other, I heard that Harmony Lane was going to be on television. I asked, “Would you like to see Mommy working as a child?” And they said, ‘Oh, yes,’ because my children had never seen any of my films. So here Melinda and me were, sitting in front of the TV. … As you know, Stephen Foster was an alcoholic. When it ended, Melinda turned to me and said, with tears in her eyes, “I didn’t know Granddaddy was an alcoholic!” I said, ‘No, Mommy was just working!’”

Collins, who retired from show business and raised a family, on being one of the last acting survivors from her era: “I had hated my childhood, I would never talk about it, never enjoy it. [And I would think,] ‘Why do I remember those incidents? Why can’t I suppress them?’ But now I love talking about my childhood and reliving memories.

 “I think I’ve been very lucky. I had the most wonderful friendships. Together on the lot, the MGM actors and actresses became my friends. Not long ago, a journalist asked me, ‘Weren’t you intimidated by these big stars?’ I said, ‘No, they were my friends, my neighbors.’ Now if you had introduced me to a famous baseball player, I would have been catatonic … in awe!”

Cora Sue Collins, all grown up.