Monday, November 10, 2008

Living History: Mary Carlisle

I wrote here, following the death of Anita Page, that I would try to highlight all the living screen stars of the thirties (and perhaps forties) I could find, every criminally untapped first-hand resource, with real, living memories of what it was like to work under the studio system, on the sound-stages, and with the directors and moguls and fellow stars of Hollywood's golden age.

It's not as if there are scores of them out there, so why are they not being interviewed at vast and fanatical length, on film and in print? Soon enough, they will all be gone.

Let's start, then, with Mary Carlisle, a thirties starlet of whom much was predicted but little that was momentous materialised, save that very thing this strand intends going out of its way to emphasise the value of: a routine career in movies, in the most amazing place, at the most amazing moment, the movies will ever know.

Born in 1912, Mary was one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1932 (thirteen starlets chosen from all the studios by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers as the most likely candidates for future stardom). The picks of Mary's year, 1932, feature in a delightful Hollywood on Parade short, in which the girls are stood in a line and, as in a beauty pageant, each is asked a single, fairly inane question. (Some, notably theatre-trained Gloria Stuart, are clearly not having a good time.) It has to be said that the WAMPAS predictions were rarely accurate, and Mary proved to be one of the majority from whom the anticipated superstardom was withheld. (Of her year, only she, Stuart and Laurel & Hardy co-star Dorothy Layton are still alive.)

The WAMPAS stars of '32: Mary's on the left of the trio in the front row, Gloria Stuart and Ginger Rogers are standing at the back; name the others, I dare you.

Her screen debut was a memorable walk-on in De Mille's Madam Satan as Little Bo Peep in the zeppelin costume parade. More bits and walk-ons followed, in Frank Tuttle's This Reckless Age, Passion Flower with Kays Francis and Johnson, and Grand Hotel (as honeymooner Mrs Hoffman).
In her WAMPAS year she took featured supporting roles in a number of pre-Code eye-openers for MGM, Fox and several independents, including Night Court with Walter Huston and Anita Page.
From here, she drifted into the (often) college-based musical comedy revues made definitively (but not exclusively) at Paramount, typically showcasing the likes of Crosby, Burns & Allen and Jack Oakie. Mary was the foxy blonde partway down the cast list in College Humour, Saturday's Millions (both 1933) and several other Crosby pictures through the thirties, and the lead in the indies The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1933) and Girl o' My Dreams (1934). She was also made welcome in frantic, lowbrow comedies like Should Ladies Behave? (1933) and the boxing comedy Palooka (1934) with Jimmy Durante and Thelma Todd.
All of this should have been enough to catapult her into the big league; she was certainly attractive, her round, slightly sleepy face a likeable mix of Todd, Harlow and Toby Wing. Instead, though she was often to be seen in major studio releases she was never able to break out of supporting roles, showing up behind Lionel Barrymore and Mae Clarke in MGM drama This Side of Heaven (1934), and Ralph Bellamy and Fay Wray in Once To Every Woman (1934). MGM paired her with Una Merkel (they play switchboard operators) in a charming second-feature (Murder in the Private Car [1934]), but her daily lot seemed fixed as fourth-billed ingenues or decorative support to comics (Will Rogers in Handy Andy, Wheeler & Wolsey in Kentucky Kernels [both 1934], Jack Benny in It's In The Air [1935]).
Through the thirties she remained popular without ever becoming a genuine star. Sensing that the majors would never come to her rescue, she came increasingly to accept the overtures of the Poverty Row studios, where smaller films at least offered larger roles, and for a few years at least she was able to successfully combine featured work for the independents with support work (and the occasional musical comedy: she's terrific in the Preston Sturges-scripted farce Hotel Haywire [1937]) for the majors.
At the time this decision, also made by many another star both before Carlisle and after, smacked of desperation, now - with the patina of charm that all thirties films possess - many of these cheapies make for a fine hour and five minutes of entertainment. (Which do you prefer - the demeaned Lugosi that hangs around Universal's back entrance looking for scraps in the likes of Night Monster or Black Friday, or the imperious one that lords it at PRC and Monogram in The Devil Bat and Bowery at Midnight?)
So what if the sets are cheap and the film-making perfunctory? It's great to see Carlisle finally get the camera's undivided attention in the spooky mystery One Frightened Night (1935) and the PRC horror Dead Men Walk (1943). She also did some good, pacy B-thrillers for Paramount: Tip-Off Girls, Hunted Men and Illegal Traffic (all 1938) and a couple of Republic westerns.
But she was losing enthusiasm by the end of the thirties, and after a support role in a Dorothy Arzner ballet drama (Dance, Girl, Dance [1940]) she made only another three movies, two for PRC and one for something called Pine-Thomas Productions. The PRCs are an odd pair: Baby Face Morgan (1942) is best (if hardly clearly) described as a non-gangster movie, with another thirties wash-up, the likeable Richard Cromwell. Her last film of all, Dead Men Walk, is a fascinating vampire film with George Zucco at full speed as twins, one good (and bald) one vampiric (and wearing a wig), and Dwight Frye, unrecognisably at the end of his tether, shortly before his death the same year. Mary does the screaming heroine as well as anyone on the Universal lot; perhaps she could have gone on a few more years in this mode... Instead, she gracefully bowed out.
As I said at the outset, it is not a career studded with great roles or great movies. But it is a full career, it is a life lived at the heart of Hollywood, at MGM and Paramount and RKO and Columbia as well as at Republic and PRC. It is a career full of interest, as the less linear and cosseted ones so often are. Doubtless she has much to tell us, if we will only listen.