“I’m sorry I ever agreed to do the grapefruit bit.” – Mae Clarke
In black & white film, Mae Clarke inhabited the grey zone exclusive to Pre-Code cinema. “Nice Girl”, “Bad Girl”, “Hooker with a Heart of Gold”: Clarke’s characters never stayed still long enough to fit into easy Hollywood tropes. She wouldn’t let them.
Sexy but too sophisticated for cheesecake and yet too edgy to be a sophisticate, Mae’s defiance at being easily defined is probably one of the reasons why her career waned with the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in July of 1934.
In 1931 though, during Hollywood’s bold Pre-Code era, Mae was at the height of her career, delivering memorable performances in four important films which continue to awe, inspire and influence today: Frankenstein, The Front Page, Waterloo Bridge and The Public Enemy. In three of these films Mae comes to a bad end; in one she dies, in two she narrowly escapes death and in the fourth she famously endures a degrading humiliation. In all four movies, Mae portrays tragic figures who derive little pleasure and much pain from their romantic attachments.
Here I will explore Mae’s most famous roles. Interestingly, Mae was rumored to be author Anita Loos’ inspiration for bubbly blonde showgirl Lorelei Lee in her 1925 novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”, suggesting that perhaps Mae’s real life personality contradicted her somber onscreen presence.
Kitty: The Public Enemy (1931)
The most criminal thing about Warner Brothers’ 1931 influential gangster picture is that Mae Clarke did not even receive a screen credit for her portrayal of Kitty, Tom Powers’ starter-moll. In the film, bootlegger Tom (James Cagney) meets Kitty at a speakeasy (unrelated to Mae but still interesting: the speakeasy where the fated lovers meet has a sign outside that reads “Black and Tan”; modern viewers have mistaken this sign for the name of the club. In actuality, “Black and Tan” was a term for a speakeasy that was open and welcoming to people of all races. In The Public Enemy, Sam McDaniel – brother of Hattie McDaniel – plays the owner of the speakeasy). Immediately taken with the comely Kitty, Tom makes a bee-line for her table. “You’re a swell dish,” he says, giving her the once-over. “I think I’m gonna go for you.” There is a fly on the set during this scene, which you’d probably only notice if you’ve watched the film as many times as I have; the fly hovers around Mae, unintentionally symbolizing the type of men that her character attracts. Tom whispers something in her ear and judging by the shocked look on Kitty’s face, it is something crude. Later, in the most infamous scene of the film, Tom sits down for breakfast with Kitty. They have obviously just had sex and Tom is more than a little distracted. Kitty, sensing his growing disinterest, asks him if he has met someone else that he likes better. His face curling up like a fist, Tom grabs half a grapefruit and smashes it into Kitty’s face. Mae’s performance in this scene is so visceral – her pain so palpable – that many have incorrectly speculated that Cagney improvised the grapefruit. A friend of mine who teaches film history told me that his students – who have grown up on violent video games and movies – always express shock at this scene. I had the pleasure of viewing The Public Enemy at the Revue theater recently; during the grapefruit scene, the audience gasped almost in unison – I’ve never seen an audience react like that to on-screen violence before and I’ve seen Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019) three times. I think one of the reasons that the grapefruit scene resonates so deeply, besides Mae’s incredible performance, is that it is unprovoked; Tom has simply grown tired of Kitty, through no fault of her own. It’s painfully easy to identify with Kitty: most of us have probably found ourselves unceremoniously evicted from an inhabitable romantic relationship. Lesson learned: if you’re going to let a bootlegger stay for breakfast, hide the grapefruit!
Elizabeth: Frankenstein (1931)
Lovely in pearls and lace, for once Mae Clarke gets to play a lady instead of a “lady of the evening”. Frankenstein was Mae’s second film with director James Whale. In an era that favored flash, Mae Clarke’s earthy sensuality was usually lost on the directors of her time. This was not the case with Whale, who was smart enough to appreciate Mae’s juxtaposition of sex and sorrow. The admiration went both ways: according to film historian Gregory W. Mank, in the Universal Studios documentary The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster (2002), Clarke described Whale as “a perfect gentleman and a genius.”
In Frankenstein, Mae’s Elizabeth rebuffs the advances of the handsome and attentive Victor in favor of distracted mad scientist Henry Frankenstein. Menaced by Mary Shelley’s monster (a tortured, misunderstood creature whom Kitty probably would have understood better), Mae Clarke is the original scream queen. None of the flowery histrionics of her successors though, her Elizabeth is a distressed dame, not a damsel in distress. She also gets one of the film’s best lines: “Heaven wasn’t so far away all the time, you know.”
Gregory W. Mank also states in the above mentioned documentary that as an elderly woman, Mae would act out scenes from Frankenstein in her cottage at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. But rather than acting out her own role in the film, Mae “relished playing the monster,” Mank said, adding that she was “quite good, she made a good monster.”
Molly Malloy: The Front Page (1931)
You haven’t truly seen a Pre-Code film until you’ve seen The Front Page, a film that both figuratively and literally gives the finger to the Establishment. In this gritty newspaper drama, a communist named Earl Williams (George E. Stone) is set to be hanged to death for shooting a policeman. He’s innocent of the crime but no one seems much concerned about that – certainly not the newspapers (it’ll be a great front page story!) and not the mayor or police chief who are more concerned with winning votes during the upcoming election. The only one who does care is Molly Malloy (Mae Clarke), a self-professed “common streetwalker”. Though she’s seventh-billed, Mae has the best entrance in the film: we first see her framed by the newspaper office windows (windows frame both her entrance and her exit – more on that a little later), resplendent with short kiss-curls and dark lipstick, she’s the light and the heart of the film. With fire in her eyes, Molly confronts the unscrupulous newspaper reporters who have been making up salacious stories about her relationship with Earl Williams. Clarke fidgets with her purse in this scene – a great gesture that exposes the tough talking Molly’s vulnerability. Molly is nervous and slightly afraid of these men with their warm Underwoods and cold hearts. She’s scared – but she’s going to fight them anyway:
“If you was worth tearin’ my fingernails on, I’d tear your face wide open.”
But when the men callously joke about Williams’ hanging, Molly doesn’t hold back:
“Oh, shame on you! A poor crazy little guy, never did anybody no harm, sitting out there alone this minute with the Angel of Death beside him and you cracking jokes!”
The men laugh at her emotional nakedness in the same way that Pontius Pilate’s soldiers mocked Jesus before his crucifixion. In many ways, Mae’s Molly is the Jesus to Williams’ Mary Magdalene, defending him from the stones that the newsmen cast upon him. “You’re the most beautiful character I’ve ever met,” a thankful Williams says to Molly. “Yeah?” she asks, clearly pleased.
When Williams escapes his cell, Molly refuses to reveal his hiding spot. Like a caged animal – one that bites – she swings a chair at an interrogating policeman. “You’ll never get it out of me, I’ll never tell!” she cries before throwing herself backwards out the window.
She’d rather die than see someone she loves suffer.
Myra Deauville: Waterloo Bridge (1931)
We continue the theme of Mae Clarke as Christ figure with her performance in James Whale’s 1931 war drama Waterloo Bridge.
It is Mae’s knock-out performance in Waterloo Bridge, and not that damned grapefruit, for which she would undoubtedly prefer to be remembered. The setting of the film is London during World War I but the real war rages within Clarke as Myra Deauville, a chorus girl turned streetwalker whose self-loathing runs so deep that she truly believes herself unworthy of the kindness and love of Roy (Douglass Montgomery), an innocent solider on leave. The upper-middle class Roy can offer the impoverished Myra a life of comfort, yet in spite of this – and the fact that she is secretly in love with him – Myra spends most of the film fending off Roy’s marriage proposals while also trying to hide her true profession from him (he believes she’s a down-on-her luck showgirl). At the end of the film, Roy discovers that Myra is a prostitute but he doesn’t care; he still wants to marry her – “It wasn’t your fault. You had to do it.” Myra melts into Roy’s arms as he promises to always take care of her. The two kiss passionately in the middle of the air raid – it is their first kiss and it is nearly as explosive as the bombs going off around them. “Goodbye darling, I’ll think of you every minute,” Roy promises as an army officer instructs him to move on. After they bid adieu, Myra walks down Waterloo Bridge, a fur stole beginning to fall from her shoulders. She is too happy, too in love to be paying proper attention. A bomb falls and we hear a woman’s scream. Myra is dead. The camera zooms in for a final shot, not of her dead body but of her purse and fox fur stole, abandoned on Waterloo Bridge.
Myra dies to save Roy from the sin of loving her.
Whether it was being menaced by a monster, unsuccessfully dodging a Zeppelin, jumping out a window to save her lover or being on the receiving end of a grapefruit, Mae Clarke moved within the limits of the sexual politics of her time and yet she was never boxed in by them.
Written by Heather Babcock, 2019