The tragic story of Pierre Collings
By Allan R. Ellenberger
Time, fame and money trip lightly in Hollywood, and the men and women who have them one day find themselves alone and penniless the next. So it was with Pierre Collings, screenwriter, whose screenplay of The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) won him two Academy Awards in 1937. Sadly he would not survive to the end of that year.
The second eldest of five children, Lysander Pierre Collings was born on September 22, 1900, in Truro, Nova Scotia where his father Otto was a mining engineer. Otto and his wife Martha were both American citizens and once they returned to the states, had Pierre naturalized as an American citizen.
Collings entered motion pictures as a messenger boy at the Pickford-Fairbanks Studios when he was 17 years old. He became successively a cameraman [Alimony (1924) and Untamed Youth (1924)] at the Brunton Studios (now Paramount), an assistant director and then a writer. Among Collings early scripts were A Woman of the World (1925) and Good and Naughty (1926), both starring Pola Negri; The Grand Duchess and the Waiter (1926), with Adolph Menjou and Florence Vidor; the Louise Brooks classic, The Show Off (1926), and the continuity for the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers (1930).
Sadly, very little is known about Collings personal and professional life. In December 1926, Collings was married to Natalie Harris at New York’s Little Church Around the Corner. The couple was divorced in 1930. In 1928 Collings was scheduled to direct Alex the Great but for unknown reasons the film was taken over by Dudley Murphy.
Between 1924 and 1930, Collings kept relatively busy writing screenplays, however between 1930 and 1937 he only produced two screenplays, one of which was as an uncredited dialogue contributor on British Agent (1934) starring Leslie Howard and Kay Francis. It could be during this time that some of his personal problems began. In August 1935 he was arrested for drunk driving.
The following December he signed with Warner Bros. and was assigned, along with writer Sheridan Gibney, to write the screenplay for The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936), which was to star Paul Muni in the title role. During the production of the film, Collings mother, Martha died unexpectedly and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery.
The grave of Collings mother at Hollywood Forever Cemetery
The Story of Louis Pasteur would prove to be Collings biggest success professionally. Both he and Gibney were nominated for two Academy Awards for Original Story and for Screenplay. Reportedly, after finishing the screenplay Collings suffered a nervous breakdown and was not able to attend the ceremony on Oscar night. When Collings and Gibney won both awards, Gibney accepted the Oscars for his writing partner.
Soon after, Collings health improved enough for him to accept an assignment to write the screenplay for a projected Warner Bros. film, Houdini the Great which was scheduled to star George Raft. For whatever reason, the project never materialized. After this he had problems finding work again and started drinking and soon fell into more bad health and poverty. Stories circulated that he actually pawned one of his two Oscars in order to survive, but this cannot be confirmed. The following July, he was arrested on an intoxication charge that was filed by his landlady. He pleaded not guilty.
Pierre Collings died here at his father’s home at 12315 N. Huston Avenue in North Hollywood (PLEASE NOTE: This is a private residence. Please do not disburb the occupants)
Collings was working with songwriter Carrie Jacobs Bond on a proposed screenplay based on her popular song, “I Love You Truly” when he died from pneumonia at his father’s home in North Hollywood on December 21, 1937. His funeral was held at Pierce Brothers Chapel Hollywood and he was interred at Hollywood Cemetery near the body of his mother.
Pierre Collings grave at Hollywood Forever is located in Section 2W near the grave of Florence Lawrence.
Collings was already forgotten. The Los Angeles Times did not publish an obituary – only a listing of his name in the death notices. However, three weeks later, Lee Shipley, a columnist for the Times made this mention in his column:
“Little Pierre Collings, who wrote the script for Louis Pasteur, died the other day. His close friends tell me his decline in health resulted from heartache and despair because, after that truly great picture, he was given hardly any work. The producers thought one Louis Pasteur was great, through some accident, but the public wouldn’t stand for another picture like that – not when it could go to the next show house and see Ben Bernie.
“In fact, I think the sin of Hollywood is that it gathers genius from all the world and then says to it: ‘You mustn’t do your best or anything approaching it. Our public wouldn’t understand it.’”
Four months after Collings death, Charles Mackay, a wanna-be actor who was down on his luck was living at the Mark Twain Hotel in Hollywood. Mackay had graduated from Washington and Lee University the year before and decided to “try” Hollywood. His friends told him he should be an actor; his father, a prosperous St. Louis broker, told him he shouldn’t. He was told to go if he wanted, but don’t come home for help. Mackay decided to ignore his father and prove him wrong.
By April 1938, Mackay was down to his last quarter. His best prospect for finding lodging for the night was an afternoon working on a rock pile. He returned to his room sweaty, tired and discouraged. In hopes of finding a clean shirt, he looked through a closet reserved for the belongings of guests who left the hotel without paying their rent in advance. There Mackay discovered a threadbare blue sweater, and wrapped in the garment was Pierre Collings’ Oscar statuette.
Concerned that he would be arrested for the possible theft of the Oscar if he tried to return it to its owner, Mackay walked up to Hollywood Boulevard to think. By chance he ran into screenwriter Arthur Caesar, who himself won an Academy Award a few years earlier for Manhattan Melodrama (1934). He told Caesar his story and the writer took him and the Oscar to the Academy’s office where the secretary told him that Collings had died a few months earlier in poverty. It was assumed that, probably in need, Collings had been forced to leave the sweater and Oscar as hostage for his unpaid rent. The Academy gave Mackay $25 for the Oscar, told him to clean up, and they assumingly kept the Oscar.
Charles Mackay, center, is shown holding the Oscar given to Pierre Collings. At left is Donald Gledhill, scretary of the Academy, and at right is screenwriter Arthur Caesar.
During research for this article, I contacted the Academy and was told that Pierre Collings’ Oscar was not in their possession and there were no records of the transaction. It’s possible the unclaimed statue could be lying in a box somewhere in the Academy’s attic or, since his father was still living at the time, it was returned to him. In any event, both Oscars won by Collings that night are missing.
If you watch the Academy Awards ceremony in two weeks, when the award for Best Screenplay is presented, remember Pierre Collings – may he rest in peace.