Mae Clarke: a name seldom spoken today, save for members of a community sometimes referred to as “Old Movie Weirdos” or “Cinephiles”, etc. If you’re familiar with the Pre-Code era of the Golden Age of Hollywood, then you’re probably at least a little familiar with Miss Mae.
Mae Clarke was born Violet Mary Klotz in Philadelphia, PA in 1910 and grew up in Atlantic City, NJ. Her father was an organist who accompanied silent films, so Mae was brought up in a motion picture kind of environment. 1924 came around and 14 year old Mae joined a New York cabaret act called May Dawson’s Dancing Girls (which, unfortunately, I can’t find much information on). Her ‘discovery’ came about here when a producer named Earl Lindsay saw her performing in the act. Young Mae was cast in a minor role at the Strand Theatre, which was located in Times Square in NYC. Her blooming success took her on to the Strand Roof nightclub (located just above the theater), where she performed as a dancer and burlesque artist. She also performed at the Everglades Club, which earned her $40 a week (which would be roughly $540 in 2015).
It was there that Mae would befriend and become roommates with an up-and-coming performer named Ruby Catherine Stevens. We know Ms. Stevens today as legendary actress Barbara Stanwyck. Mae took a big step into legitimate theatre when she landed a role in the dramatic play “The Noose” in 1926. She appeared in the show with Stanwyck and Ed Wynn (who went on to voice the Mad Hatter in the 1951 film Alice in Wonderland, among other film roles).
After acting in a stage comedy in 1927, Mae found herself Hollywood-bound. She scored a screen test with Fox in 1929 and landed her first film role in Big Time (1929). Because she wasn’t headed in the direction she wanted under Fox Films, she left the studio by 1931. It was in the Pre-Code comedy film The Front Page (1931) that she started to find her way in Tinseltown. In that movie, she portrayed a prostitute named Molly, securing Mae Clarke as a staple of Pre-Code women.
The head of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle, Jr., signed her to star in an upcoming World War I drama/romance called Waterloo Bridge (1931). This is the film that I would like to zone in on a little bit here. In the film, Mae portrays an unemployed American chorus girl named Myra Deauville who lives in London, after her former occupation as a chorus girl brought her there. She meets a kind and innocent soldier named Roy Cronin on the titular bridge during an air raid. After Myra offers Roy a place to, er, sleep, he accepts the invitation and a friendship ensues. Although Myra originally took him upstairs to her place to sleep with him, nothing physical happens (Myra has had to resort to prostitution in order to make money, unbeknownst to Roy). Nevertheless, Roy begins to develop romantic feelings for Myra. As they begin to spend more time together, Roy begins to pursue her rather vigorously. Even though Myra likes him, she doesn’t have the heart to tell him about her current means of income. When he proposes marriage, she declines. She doesn’t feel like she’s worthy of his love. Unlike the 1940 remake, Roy actually returns to her after Myra’s landlady tells him that Myra is a streetwalker. Will the war tear them apart or will they be able to continue their love affair for years to come? I won’t tell you if either of those are the correct answer, but you can find out if you tune in to TCM on Mae Clarke’s special day. I will provide specific information at the end of this post.
Clarke also landed the role of Elizabeth, the jilted bride in the classic Universal horror film Frankenstein (1931). After having some prominent and hard-edged roles in Pre-Code films, her career unfortunately began to decline in 1932. She suffered a nervous breakdown in the summer of ’32 and again in 1934, most likely from a combination of a heavy workload and marriage problems. In March of 1933, she was involved in a bad car accident and received scars on her face from it. By the time 1934 rolled around, the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code went into full force, meaning the sexy Pre-Code films of the early 1930s were going to become a thing of the past. All of a sudden, this left Clarke in a totally new and unfamiliar arena. She got work in B-pictures in the ’40s and ’50s and mostly played bit roles up through 1970. Mae was married and divorced three times. She suffered some financial hardships. In her old age, she resided at the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Los Angeles carrying out her hobby: painting. Mae Clarke died in 1992 at the age of 81.
Today, those who know the name Mae Clarke will probably first think of her most famous movie moment: the scene in which she gets a grapefruit shoved in her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931). But Mae was more than that, even if she didn’t become as successful as she should have. Regarded as having the ability to act in a naturalistic style, she also had enough spunk and ability to carry a motion picture. Perhaps at least one person will be able to discover her by catching her marathon.
Here’s a short clip from Lady Killer (1933), one of several films she did with James Cagney:
Celebrate the life and career of Mae Clarke on Thursday, August 20th all day on Turner Classic Movies. Waterloo Bridge will air at 8:00 PM (EST).
This post is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film (journeysinclassicfilm.com).