The Girl in the Movies

Bill Gaythwaite

warner bros. water tower
Photo Credit: Fabian Gonzalez

My mother was released from her film contract the same day her tooth happened to abscess. That’s how she met my dad. He’d just opened a dental practice in Encino. It was 1956. After getting dropped from the studio, Ma had no interest in hustling for another one, so she eventually married the good-looking dentist, let her hair go back to its natural color and became a regular housewife. They had four sons in five years and settled in The Valley. Looking back, the combination of a rotten tooth and a scuttled movie career seems like the logical starting point for my parents’ divide and conquer relationship.

Ma had gotten a Hollywood screen test after winning the Santa Rosa beauty contest and that’s how she became a contract player at Warner Bros.—where she said they treated the fledgling actors like stupid, wayward children. Mostly she did bits and extra work, but once she had a couple of scenes as Doris Day’s peppy kid sister in a film set in snowy New England, though it was all shot on a Burbank soundstage.

At home Ma was like the other mothers we knew, in that she was occasionally exhausted and fed up, but she also did her best to see that my brothers and I didn’t end up concocting our own branch of the Manson Family. She wasn’t particularly diva-like, as you might have expected from someone who’d been in the business. My dad was the one given to angry scenes and stomping around in a theatrical fashion. He walked out on us when my brothers and I were teenagers, taking up in a predictable way with the dental hygienist from his office, though by that time it was the seventies in California and certain behaviors had stopped surprising anyone.

The Doris Day movie used to come on television sometimes. We all treated it like a family joke, an excuse for my brothers and me to gather around the set and howl at this early, unrecognizable version of Ma—her laboriously tweezed eyebrows, the shellacked and platinum hair, her “Gee Whiz!” line readings. It was fucking hilarious. She’d laugh with us, too, while we watched, but one time, before she caught my eye, I saw something mean and curious pass over her face. I didn’t have time to ask her about it, because almost immediately she’d adjusted her expression and recovered enough to crack, “Yeah, that’s me all right, the girl in in the movies.”


Bill Gaythwaite is the Program Coordinator for the University Committee on Asia and the Middle East at Columbia University. His fiction has appeared in The Ledge, Third Wednesday, Alligator Juniper, Word Riot and elsewhere. His work is also included in Mudville Diaries, an anthology of baseball-themed essays and reminiscences published by Avon Books. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Email: wgaythwaite[at]

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