Day Two of Noirvember: Martha Vickers and Noir
On Day Two of Noirvember, I’m shining the spotlight on Martha Vickers, who died on today’s date in 1971. Vickers was seen in four films noirs, including one of the era’s best – and, arguably, most confusing – features, The Big Sleep (1946).
But let’s begin at the beginning.
The lovely auburn-haired actress was born Martha MacVicar on May 28, 1925, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After attending schools in Florida, Illinois, and Texas, Martha and her family settled in California, where she found work as a model and attracted the attention of movie producer David O. Selznick. Selznick signed Martha to a contract, but it didn’t do much for her budding career. Instead, her contract was taken over by Universal and she made her big screen debut playing a corpse in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943). She was later seen in films of similar quality, including Captive Wild Woman (1943), Hi’ya Sailor (1943), and The Mummy’s Ghost (1944). Between these less than star-making vehicles, Martha – who had, by now, modified her last name to Vickers – was seen on several covers for the GI magazine Yank.
In 1946, Martha signed with Warner Bros., and landed a featured role in the first of her three films noirs, playing Lauren Bacall’s thump-sucking nymphomaniac little sister in The Big Sleep (1946). In her biggest role to date, Martha more than held her own alongside Bacall and Humphrey Bogart and caught the eye of several critics, including one who called her performance “stunning.”
In her next noir, Martha again played the little sister to the star, this time providing support to Ida Lupino in The Man I Love (1947), and later that year played her first starring role, opposite Dane Clark, in a so-so comedy, That Way with Women.
Off-screen, Martha’s love life was often in the news – she reportedly dated several actors, including James Stewart – and in 1948 she married producer A.C. Lyles. The union lasted a little over a year – Martha claimed that Lyles was so jealous he wouldn’t even allow her friends to enter their home. Just a month after the couple’s May 1949 divorce, Martha became the third wife of Mickey Rooney (whose second marriage officially ended just six hours before his wedding to Martha). Martha and Rooney went on to have a son, Ted Michael, but the actor’s increasing drinking habit and downward career spiral contributed to the end of the marriage in 1951. Martha would give matrimony another try three years later when she wed Chilean polo player turned actor, Manuel Rojas, with whom she would have two children, Maria Christina and Marta Teresa. Although this would be her longest union – 10 years – this marriage, too, would end in divorce. Martha would claim that Manuel “wanted his freedom and didn’t want to be encumbered with the responsibility of marriage.”
Meanwhile, Martha was seen in several low-budget films and two more noirs – Ruthless (1948), starring Zachary Scott and Sydney Greenstreet, and The Burglar (1957), with Dan Duryea and Jayne Mansfield (in a rare dramatic role) – but most of her roles were on the small screen, on such programs as Playhouse 90, The Millionaire, and Perry Mason.
In 1960, Martha was seen in her last feature film, Four Fast Guns, starring James Craig and Edgar Buchanan (who would soon reach a new level of popularity of TV’s Petticoat Junction). That same year, she guest-starred on two episodes of the western series The Rebel. They would be her last performances. The actress faded from public view, and in 1971, she died of cancer of the esophagus in Hollywood. Gone too soon, she was only 46 years old.
If you’ve never seen Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep – or you were too busy watching Bogie and Bacall to pay her any mind – do yourself a favor and check it out! You’ll be glad you did. (Just don’t try to figure out who killed the chauffeur.)
And join me tomorrow for Day Three of Noirvember!