Before her unfair disappearance from the screen, Mae Clarke gave four great performances in four great films, in two of them creating defining images of early sound cinema.
First, she was Molly Malloy in The Front Page and Myra Deauville in Waterloo Bridge. But if these performances don't quite ring the bells they should (perhaps because both have been unfairly overshadowed by famous remakes) then think of her as Elizabeth, cowering in fear from Karloff's monster in Frankenstein, or unconscious in his arms, in her flowing wedding dress. Or think of her at the breakfast table with Cagney in Public Enemy, where her polite request that he should not drink first thing in the morning is met with cinema's most shocking ever assault with a piece of fruit.
Then reflect that Clarke made all four of these movies in 1931.
She came to the movies, like so many, via musical comedy on Broadway. The story goes that she was the actual inspiration for Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, that Anita Loos had seen her on the arm of a wealthy friend of hers and watched her all night, and went away to create one of the most enduring masterpieces of Jazz Age ephemera. But Lorelei had only a devastating naivety to offer the society in which she aspired to move; Clarke has real intelligence and seriousness as a performer.
She kept busy through the pre-Code years in crime films and snappy comedies, the lead in Parole Girl (1933), with Jean Harlow and Marie Prevost as Three Wise Girls (1932), getting more rough treatment from Cagney, this time dragged by her hair in Lady Killer (1933), a sassy reporter for editor and fellow Front Pager Pat O’Brien in Final Edition (1932, one of that legion of zippy newsroom dramas which proliferated in the pre-Code years), a nightclub hoofer, with Karloff no less, in the prohibition drama Night World (1932) and working again for James Whale in the ironic romance Impatient Maiden (1932).
Bet she didn’t think it would be more or less downhill from there, but the work dried up after ’34, and the majority of her subsequent roles were way down the cast lists of mainly forgotten films, sometimes in bits or even unbilled.
It is interesting to note which pre-Code stars did cross over into Golden Age longevity and which did not, as there often is not much logic to it. Some that seemed built for momentary fascination endured, often by radically altering their personae, just as often those that seemed to have lots more good work to offer did not, for no particular reason at all. Mae Clarke was sadly one of the latter: perhaps she was just too much of her time, like Helen Kane and Lillian Roth and Louise Brooks and so many others. By 1949, she is taking the lead in that most evocative of serials King of the Rocket Men; by the early fifties, she is in court for failing to declare forty-three dollars she had earned while drawing unemployment benefit.
“If I’d made a guess as to which of us would make it big,” recalled Barbara Stanwyck, years later, “I’d have guessed Mae, because she was the better dancer and the most vivacious.”
Of her four major appearances from ’31, Public Enemy is the most iconic, but The Front Page remains her most important film, as well as her most complete performance, though she in fact has only two long scenes. She plays Molly with more anger and less tragedy than Son of Kong’s Helen Mack in His Girl Friday.
Both of her two scenes are dramatic confrontations; the second ends with her leaping from the window. They require real presence, and Clarke dives into them with relish. (“If you were worth breaking my fingernails on, I’d tear your face wide open!”) No Lorelei she, this is real acting.