Films of Emil Sitka: BILLIE GETS HER MAN (1949)
by Saxon E. Sitka
Three Stooges fans frequently asked Emil if he was ever hurt while making all those roughhouse Stooge films, with all their apparent violence and mayhem. Emil always replied that he was seldom hurt in any way during the making of any movie. He would go on to explain, however, that there was one glaring exception, but it was not while working with the Three Stooges. It occurred during the filming of BILLIE GETS HER MAN.
This film was the second of two Columbia shorts that starred Billie Burke, best known for her role as "Glinda, the Good Witch of the North" in THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), and Emil was in both. While his role in the first one, titled SILLY BILLY
, was fairly small, this part was as big as any he'd done so far and would prove to be a turning-point for him in some unexpected ways.
BILLIE GETS HER MAN has a complicated and contrived plot in which Emil is "Wilbur Nixon," Billie Burke's millionaire former boyfriend who comes to visit and to renew his relationship with her. At the same time, Billie mistakenly thinks her daughter has been taken to the hospital to have a baby. In order to get in to see her daughter after visiting hours, Billie has her housekeeper (Patsy Moran) and a friend (Dick Wessel) bandage up Wilbur/Emil, against his will, to disguise him as an "emergency" patient. This does indeed get them all past the nurse and into the hospital, but a case of mistaken identity suddenly has Emil struggling to get off an operating table and fighting with doctors who want to perform brain surgery on him. Pandemonium breaks out, and Emil does a great deal of physical comedy while trying to elude the orderlies and nurses. When the chaos subsides, Emil makes up with Billie and all ends well.
Emil routinely volunteered to do his own stunts in the Columbia shorts comedies, and Ed Bernds, who wrote and directed BILLIE GETS HER MAN, appreciated this about Emil. In fact, he created the role of "Wilbur Nixon" especially for Emil, intending to make the most of his willingness to perform physical comedy and slapstick. In one scene, Emil is struck in the face by a large vase full of flowers, In another, he falls backwards off a bench onto his neck. Yet another has him crashing into a group of doctors with a patient in a wheelchair. However, despite his eagerness to enact any role that Columbia could give him, the physical action of BILLIE GETS HER MAN proved dangerous and exceeded Emil's ability to absorb the punishment, as we'll see from his diary entries.
Physical injury, however, was not the only circumstance that made working in BILLIE GETS HER MAN an unusual experience for Emil. On the first day of work, he discovered among the other members of the cast a fellow named Hans Schumm. Emil had worked with Hans about a year before in "The Derelicts," a play adapted from Maxim Gorky's "The Lower Depths." Although they both received very positive reviews for their work in this play, to say their relationship was strained was an understatement. They had not gotten along at all!
Another peculiar aspect of Emil's experiences on the set of BILLIE GETS HER MAN was his relationship with Patsy Moran, another cast member with whom Emil shared many scenes.
Emil's own words taken right out of his diary describe these situations best, but it should be remembered as we read these diary entries that they are very personal memoirs of the most private nature. As he recorded his thoughts and feelings way back in 1948, Emil never meant to share this material or to have it published. With this in mind, here then are the diary entries that involve what would prove to be a watershed film-making event for Emil, his role as "Wilbur Nixon" in BILLIE GETS HER MAN.
Emil's diary entry for Friday, January 2, 1948:
This morning I went to Columbia Studio's Casting office to be given my script & wardrobe fitting for next week's new picture with Billie Burke.
Ed Bernds payed me a compliment. He said he "certainly was glad to have me for this part, of Wilbur Nixon, as nobody else was even considered." Producer Hugh McCollum wants me "fairly legitimate" opposite Miss Burke, he said, as we speculated over this role's farce.
Later, I went to see William Powell in "The Senator was Indiscreet." Good, and very nice satire on American politics. But I wish I'd get a role like his to do!
Emil's diary entry for Tuesday, January 6, 1948:
This morning when I went to collect my first Unemployment Check of $20 I saw my friend, actor Gus Schilling also standing in line. I felt better & more at ease, knowing that even greater ones than me must be in need of these meager checks.
My rehearsing of lines and business for my forthcoming role at Columbia with Billie Burke is now behind me - and I feel "secure," even though I know it will be done differently.
But the exercising & muscle-conditioning I've been doing will definitely help keep my breath. I've never had such a demanding role to be performed by me in a part, as in "Wilbur Nixon."
Emil's diary entry for Wednesday, January 7, 1948:
Leo Brown had me cussing at him this morning when he showed up "promptly" at 7:17 A. M. instead of 6:30 for to deliver me to Darmour Studio before 7:30. Anyway I forgave everything very suddenly when he finally got here.
The very last fade out scene with Billie Burke was to be shot first as far as I was concerned, but it was after lunch before they even got to me. My one big surprise today was seeing Hans Schumm, my old enemy-friend of "Derelicts" days. Little did I expect this German-accented actor to be with me in these comedies, and I do believe he pursued a course of "association" (with me) in getting work in this section of movie-making.
Anyway, we chummed together all day like two genuine friends and admirers of each others art. But I still know Hans to be very capable of "dirty work," and he definitely "pumps" me for his own selfish ends.
My two hours of actual acting before the cameras allowed me to go home at about 4 P. M.
Emil's diary entry for the next day, Thursday, January 8, 1948:
Again, Leo Brown came at the last minute to drive me out to Darmour Studio for my 7:30 A. M. call.
The very first scene included me with Hans Schumm and Patsy Moran and two interns. Now here is the beginning of a serious drama behind a movie comedy.
This Patsy Moran befriended my quickly and at length yesterday - mostly because I was the humble listener to her characteristic speaking (ala braggadicio) about herself, her past famous acquaintances, etc.
But this "friendly cohesion" suddenly snapped when I "topped" her complaint that "she can't have any children (& love them) while so many other dopes have so many" by telling her I'm the lucky possessor of four sweet children!
I've never seen a more sudden transition from white to black in a woman! This was crystallized (on her part only) into a fierce inner jealousy when my acting became obvious to her as worthy of many witnessing it acclaiming it superior.
She began a systematic course of hate and destruction of a "burgeoning comedian" by picking up & enlarging any complaints she could invent against me. But I did fine today anyhow.
Emil's diary entry for Friday, January 9, 1948:
A dramatic day - in a comedy!
Patsy Moran continued being jealous, especially did she spit venom when my scenes drew encomiums. She strove hard to queer my business wherever she was able. This makes about the sixth person in my entire life who, without any malice on my part, has become destructively jealous of my art.
And again Ed Bernds was shooting this Billie Burke comedy backwards - that is, the last scenes came first. And all this time Miss Burke was becoming more friendly towards me. Whan all the "punishment" was meted out to me she even expressed sympathy.
Just as Patsy Moran was at her peak of insanity a very tense moment paralyzed the entire crew.
I was all set for the "take" - a huge vase was held all ready in Glen's hand for the extra long throw. Dick Wessel ducked - and wham! - I got it in the face! All laughed - a perfect hit! But, when Ed Bernds asked if I were hurt, a hushed silence gripped the air. Blood squirted out of my nose. The caused a bluish flash in my mind, & I r thought my upper lip was paralyzed. I felt a deep gash across the bridge of my now & Ed asked if it felt broken. Ice & first aid stopped the bleeding & make-up was used to cover up the damage - and to Ed Bernds delight & Hugh McCollum's I finished the remaining scenes, on schedule! Bernds shook my hand briskly.
And so, filming of BILLIE GETS HER MAN ended, but a very long and discouraging episode in Emil's life was just beginning. Emil's diary entry for the following day, Saturday, January 10, 1048:
Boy, oboy - I look like I went through a war with my face taking all the brunt! My nose is really swollen and bruised, maybe broken. My whole body aches, of course, but my nose and cuts under the eyes & about the nose make me an ugly human to look at.
My eyesight seems, at times blurry, and an occasional pain flits into my forehead. I really took quite a wallop from that big vase yesterday at Darmour.
I shopped at the public market. Later I ate at a cafe and went with Stacy Alexander to see Mickey Rooney in "Killer McKoy" - a disappointing picture.
During the viewing of this movie I noticed my eyes were seeing a peculiar vision on the screen. I'm really anxious to know what Columbia Studio will do about my injury. Either they'll correct everything or they'll give me more work for saving the last picture by going on with the other scenes I was in.
My confidence remains high that they'll do the right thing by me whatever, especially since this injury to me was all their fault - & not one ounce mine!
Emil began to suffer headaches and a variety of other symptoms associated with his stuntwork, and he began to wonder if there might be lasting effects from the injuries. Emil's diary entry several days later on Monday, January 12, 1948:
Ed Bernds phoned from Columbia Studio to ask how my nose felt - and I told him Sunshine would still like to have a doctor examine it, even though the pain wasn't too severe. He said to come to the studio hospital, which I did. Dom DiOrio waited for me while a man phoned Dr. S. N. Iverman of Beverly Hills to X-ray my nose.
We drove out there after paying our A. G. V. A. union dues, and after a long wait a nurse X-rayed my head two ways. Then Dr. Iverman merely (& very nonchalantly) said, "Yep, it's broken," and started to walk out. I anxiously stopped him to ask if it will be fixed. And he replied, "There's nothing that can be done about it. It broke straight & will just have to be left alone." I said, "What about that bump on the bridge of my nose, will it go down?" And he replied, "Hard to say." And that's all!
I was shocked, and almost fainted away inside - how matter-of-fact he was!
A broken nose to me may mean a broken career, for which I studied and worked hard for over 15 years! God!
This was the first of many events that led Emil to doubt whether the studio was earnest in its intention to address his condition. Two days later, Emil wrote this in his diary on January 14, 1948:
Sunshine phoned Columbia Studio's Hospital to find out what to do about my injury - and, to her surprise - she was told they didn't even know my nose was broken! Imagine.
They asked her to phone back in a little while. After a half hour they still weren't ready & called her back. It was a Mr. Sweeney and he replied to Sunshine's consternation over my nose thusly: "--- it's impossible to put a nose in a cast or even put splints on it. The fragments are in perfect position to heal. The best thing is to leave it alone and be careful of it. Naturally there is some swelling now but it will all heal up without changing his appearance at all."
Now I'm wondering. He said, "fragments." Could it be that my nose is broken in several places - and that's the reason Dr. Iverman showed me only one of two X-rays? Is this Sweeney minimizing a very serious blow as something that doesn't even need a doctor's examination?
Emil's diary after two more days on Friday, January 16, 1948:
After a completely sleepless night, I dressed & ate breakfast early. Why I couldn't sleep is beyond me, but I swear I didn't even steal a wink! I do recall those funny headaches, over my right eye & at the temples - and these might have been the crux of it all. Doggone that accident at Columbia Studio! I keep hearing a funny crackling inside my throat or neck or ??? As if after ascending atop a mountain after the ears pop! I do so regret that damn heavy vase!
Emil's symptoms continued and on January 22, 1948, Emil wrote:
Ed Bernds & Hugh McCollum, at their office, asked me how I felt, etc. & I told all the symptoms, details, etc & Ed said, "We did it & we will take care of it."
This brought a lot of warm confidence into my soul! And he said, "You always had a nice straight nose & we should fix it." God, how thankful & better I felt.
Despite this assurance, five years would elapse before the full extent of Emil's injuries were adequately diagnosed. Finally, in 1953, Emil received the proper treatment that allowed a full recovery from his symptoms.
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BILLIE GETS HER MAN (1948)