TCM's “Summer Under the Stars” Features Mae Clarke
By Ed Garea
On August 20, TCM is devoting a day of its “Summer Under the Stars” tribute to the great Mae Clarke. Although she’s best known to film fans as the woman who takes a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney, Mae had a full career on the stage as well as on the screen.
Born Violet Mary Klotz in Philadelphia, Pa., on August 16, 1910, she grew up in Atlantic City, where he father worked as an organist in a motion picture theatre. She learned how to dance, and at the age of 13 was already performing in nightclubs and amateur theatricals. By 1925, she was working as a dancer and burlesque artist at the Everglades Club, earning $40 a week. It was there she would strike up a life-long friendship with fellow dancer Ruby Stevens, who later became known as Barbara Stanwyck.
In 1926, Mae got her break in “legitimate” theater, appearing in the drama The Noose with Stanwyck and Ed Wynn. She followed this with a role in the musical comedy Manhattan Mary in 1927. While working in vaudeville, Mae was screen-tested by Fox and landed her first role in Big Time (1929). In her next film, the musical comedy Nix on Dames (1929), she was given top billing. Afterwards, however, the quality of her films declined, and she left the studio a year later.
Freelancing resulted in better parts, and she began to be typecast in “hard luck” roles. She played a prostitute in the Lewis Milestone-directed hit, The Front Page (1931), and on the strength of her performance, was signed by Universal’s Carl Laemmle, Jr. for the role of ballerina-turned streetwalker Myra Deauville in James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931). Before taking on this assignment, she was cast, uncredited, as Kitty in The Public Enemy, with James Cagney, appearing in one of the most memorable scenes in film history. She was also third-billed as Henry’s Frankenstein’s bride in Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), with her most famous moment being terrorized by the Monster (Boris Karloff) in her bedroom.
In 1932, just as her career was taking off she suffered a nervous breakdown, most likely from a combination of overwork and marital problems. A serious car accident in March of 1933 further damaged her career, as did yet another breakdown in 1934. In addition, her sexy screen persona was restricted by the clampdown and strict enforcement of the Production Code.
When she was given a clean bill of health and returned to the screen, it was in B-pictures, mainly at Columbia and Republic. Her most notable role was that opposite Cagney in Grand National’s production of Great Guy (1936). In 1949, she was reduced to starring as the female lead in Republic’s serial, King of the Rocketmen. During the 50’s she worked minor parts, mostly unbilled, with a few decent minor roles in Westerns such as Wichita (1955). Like many other actors looking for work, she turned to television and carved out a steady, if unspectacular, career, save for a few notable appearances on The Loretta Young Show. After he last film appearance in Melvin Van Peebles’ Watermelon Man (1970), Mae retired to the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital and devoted her remaining years to her favorite hobby: painting in the style of Swiss abstract artist Paul Klee. She died there of cancer in April 1992.
The schedule for August 20 is as follows:
6:00 am – A BIG HAND FOR THE LITTLE LADY (WB, 1966): Henry Fonda, Joanne Woodward. A pioneer woman replaces her ailing husband in a poker game after he loses most of their money.
8:00 am – MOHAWK (Fox, 1956): Scott Brady, Rita Gam. When a Boston artist is commissioned to paint landscapes, he gets caught up in a land war between settlers and the Mohawks.
9:30 am – WICHITA (Allied Artists, 1955): Joel McCrea, Vera Miles. Wyatt Earp fights to tame a wild and crooked cow town.
11:00 am – THE FALL GUY (RKO, 1930): Mae Clarke, Jack Mulhall, & Ned Sparks. An unemployed druggist gets mixed up with gangsters.
12:15 pm – TURN BACK THE CLOCK (MGM, 1933): Lee Tracy, Mae Clarke. A middle-aged workingman gets to relive his life and make himself wealthy.
1:45 pm – PENTHOUSE (MGM, 1933): Warner Baxter, Myrna Loy. Framed for murder by the Mob, a lawyer enlists the help of a call girl to prove his innocence in this good, all-around mystery.
3:30 pm – PAROLE GIRL (Columbia, 1933): Mae Clarke, Ralph Bellamy. A wrongly convicted woman tries to make amends after her release from prison.
5:00 pm – THIS SIDE OF HEAVEN (MGM, 1934): Lionel Barrymore, Fay Bainter. A family pulls together when the patriarch is accused of embezzlement.
6:30 pm – THE MAN WITH TWO FACES (WB, 1934): Edward G. Robinson, Mary Astor. An actor uses his skills to protect his sister from her sinister husband.
8:00 pm – WATERLOO BRIDGE (Universal 1931): Mae Clarke, Kent Douglass. James Whale directed this film an American soldier in love with a London dance-hall girl, not realizing that she’s a prostitute.
9:30 pm – FRANKENSTEIN (Universal 1931): Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, & Edward Van Sloan. The original with all censored scenes restored. A must.
10:45 pm – FAST WORKERS (MGM, 1933): John Gilbert, Robert Armstrong, & Mae Clarke. Construction workers become romantic rivals.
12:00 am – THE PENGUIN POOL MURDER (RKO 1932): Edna May Oliver, James Gleason. Schoolteacher Hildegarde Withers helps solve a murder at the aquarium.
1:15 am – LADY KILLER (WB, 1933): James Cagney, Mae Clarke, & Margaret Lindsay. Cagney is a criminal on the lam who wanders into Hollywood and becomes a star in this frantic comedy.
2:45 am – THE PUBLIC ENEMY (WB, 1930): James Cagney, Jean Harlow. William Wellman directed this electrifying rise and fall of a hoodlum as played by James Cagney.
4:15 am – THE FRONT PAGE (U.A., 1931): The original with Pat O’Brien and Adolph Menjou as Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns. It’s prehistoric and highly entertaining.