She'll always be remembered as the girl on the receiving end of James Cagney's grapefruit in The Public Enemy (1931) but Mae Clarke was more than just a target. She was born Violet Mary Klotz in Philadelphia on August 16, 1907, the daughter of a motion-picture theater organist. A nightclub dancer at 16, two years later she began playing supporting roles in stage musicals and dramas, and made her film debut in 1929.
As an actress, she shone as one of the bright lights of the early talkie era. Attractive but just short of beautiful, Clarke developed her own naturalistic acting style, eliciting raves from critics for her co-starring performances in three other 1931 releases, Waterloo Bridge, Frankenstein as Elizabeth, the wife of Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive), and The Front Page, in which she gave a good performance as the pathetic Molly Malloy. The following year she continued her onscreen abuse at the hands of Cagney in Lady Killer (1933), and re-teamed with Cagney again in Great Guy (1936).
She appeared with Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor in The Man With Two Faces (1934), and her one time leading man Lew Ayres cast her in his only directorial effort, the Civil War film Hearts in Bondage (1936), but these opportunities failed to rekindle her career. Bad luck and personal problems drove her out of the limelight, though, and by the mid 1930s she was playing leads in unimportant B pictures such as The House of a Thousand Candles and Wild Brian Kent (both 1936). She participated in a number of films during World War II, among them Women in War (1940), Sailors on Leave (1941), and Flying Tigers (1942). Her last leading role came in the Republic serial King of the Rocket Men (1949).
A few years later she was doing small, sometimes uncredited, roles, and appeared only sporadically throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Her later films include the musicals Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Royal Wedding (1951), and Singin' in the Rain (1952), as well as bit parts in Magnificent Obsession (1954), Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), and The Watermelon Man (1970). In her late seventies or so, Clarke was working in the "Court of Miracles" show at the Universal Studios Tour in Hollywood, not far from where she had filmed her role as Dr. Frankenstein's wife so many years before in 1931. Mae Clarke died of cancer in Woodland Hills, California, on April 29, 1992.
--LEONARD MALTIN, from
Leonard Maltin's Movie Encyclopedia.
A selection of Mae Clarke films.
Find Mae Clarke on eBay.com
A selection of Mae Clarke in books.
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