Mae Clarke: More than a Grapefruit in the Face

I was recently a guest on a podcast, on which I was asked about Mae Clarke, and I am mortified to admit that, at the time, I couldn’t think of the name of a single, solitary one of her movies. This would have been bad enough if it had been just any classic movie star, but Mae Clarke?!? One of my favorite actresses?!? Was my face red! (And that’s putting it mildly.)

For years, my only encounter with Clarke was, like many of us, watching her get smashed in the mug with a grapefruit by James Cagney in Public Enemy (1931). Other than that scene, I’d never thought much about her, never really even knew her name (Mae Busch? Mae Murray?).

But after I saw her portray Myra Deauville in Waterloo Bridge (1933), you can bet that I knew exactly who she was. And I’ve been captivated by her ever since.

The more I learned about Clarke, the more intrigued I became by her story – it was jam-packed with enough drama and pathos to satisfy even the most discriminating audience, but she also seemed approachable, like the kind of gal you’d like to sit down with to share a couple of beers and the latest gossip. She never reached the heights of stardom that her talent warranted – real life saw to that – but hers is certainly a name that deserves to be remembered, and her body of work contains numerous films that deserve to be discovered.

Clarke in the early days of her career.

The blonde actress with the soulful eyes and the slow, easy smile was born Violet Mary Klotz in Philadelphia on August 16, 1910, to Violet Mae and Walter Klotz, a movie theater organist. When the future actress was a baby, her family moved to the New Jersey shore where her father eventually became known as “Atlantic City’s Premier Organist.” As a child, young Mae, as everyone called her, enrolled at the Dawson School of Dancing and got bitten by the performing bug.

“I was fascinated by show biz,” the actress said in her oral autobiography, Featured Player. “My mother took me to see a children’s play . . . the air was so alive with magic that I just had to be with those kids, be one of them.”

In her early teens, she started performing as one of Dawson’s Dancing Dolls at a children’s theater on the Steeplechase Pier and at Atlantic City’s Apollo Theater, where she attracted the attention of vaudeville producer Earl Lindsay and was hired for his show in New York. She was 14 years old when she moved to the Big Apple, appearing as a specialty dancer at the Strand Roof supper club and the Everglades Club. One of her first friends in New York was a young lady by the name of Ruby Stevens – later to be known as Barbara Stanwyck – with whom she appeared in her first play, The Noose, in 1926. By now, she was going by the name Mae Clarke – she’d selected “Clarke” because it was close to “Klotz.” (And she stated in her autobiography that she took it as a “personal insult” whenever the “e” was left off.)

The following year, Clarke appeared in the musical comedy Manhattan Mary; during this production, she met Lew Brice, the younger brother of famed singer/comedian Fanny Brice. “He was a wonderful dresser, very swanky,” Clarke said of Brice. “He carried himself like royalty, without being snobbish. And he was funny. . . . Why did he appeal to me? I liked the way he kissed.”

In her film debut, Big Time (1929), with Lee Tracy.

After a brief courtship, Clarke and Brice were married in February 1928. A short time later, Clarke’s new sister-in-law hired producer Billy Rose to write an act for the newlyweds. The successful act led to Clarke’s screen test for Fox Pictures, followed soon after by a contract with the studio and her feature film debut opposite Lee Tracy in Big Time (1929), a backstage story about vaudeville. Around this time, her father lost his organist job and Clarke moved her family to California, becoming the primary source of financial support for her parents and her two younger siblings. She also filed for divorce from Lew Brice; according to the actress, the failure of the marriage was due to several factors, including her husband’s penchant for drinking and gambling, as well as his lack of employment.

“The [jobs] that should have come my husband’s way were not coming,” Clarke explained. “He had had the unfortunate comparisons that people do to you, being referred to as ‘Fanny Brice’s brother.’ And it hurt. But when he became ‘Mae Clarke’s husband,’ it was too much in one lifetime.” Although Clarke revealed that Brice had been physically abusive – once even breaking her nose – she remembered him fondly as a “fine man, a wonderful friend, and a very clever entertainer.”

Clarke held her own with her seasoned co-stars in The Front Page (1931).

After Clarke starred with Edmund Lowe in Men on Call, her contract with Fox was not renewed. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Her next film was her best yet – The Front Page. Based on a hit Broadway comedy written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the 1931 feature was the first of several screen versions; Clarke had a small but showy role as Molly Malloy, a streetwalker who befriends a hapless convict slated for execution. While she was seen for just a few minutes, the actress made the most of her screen time, turning in a heartfelt, expressive performance.

Years later, Clarke recalled the experience of performing alongside such Hollywood heavy-hitters as Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, and Edward Everett Horton. “I was very aware of the talent that I was with,” Clarke said. “Very. And grateful. And stimulated. At the same time, I was terrified that I might not measure up.”

She needn’t have worried. Clarke more than held her own with the more seasoned performers – and for better or for worse, her next film catapulted her into cinematic immortality. The Public Enemy (1931) stars James Cagney as Tom Powers, a street punk who rises through the ranks of organized crime; Clarke plays the uncredited role of Kitty, a prostitute Tom picks up in a local bar. She’s only in a few scenes, but in her last, Clarke gets smashed in the face with a grapefruit by Cagney.

The famous grapefruit scene from The Public Enemy (1931).

A number of theories cropped up regarding how this famous deed came to be. Producer Darryl Zanuck claimed that the idea was his. Writers Kubec Glasmon and John Bright said that they’d based the scene on a real-life gangster who’d assaulted his moll with an omelette. And director William Wellman explained that he’d had an argument with his then-wife, aviatrix Marjorie Crawford, and at breakfast the next day, wanted nothing more than to “squash [a] grapefruit in her lovely face.” Instead, according to Wellman’s biography, penned by his son, William Wellman, Jr., the famed director instructed Cagney to carry out the act with Mae Clarke – an offshoot of this version further states that Wellman purposely kept Clarke in the dark in order to extract a genuine reaction.

But in her autobiography, Clarke said that Cagney told her that he and the director had come up with the idea of pushing the grapefruit in her face as a way to play a gag on the unsuspecting crew. “I didn’t want to do that,” Clarke said, “but all I had done . . . was all out the window if I said no. I’d be a lemon. So I knew I had to do it.” The actress said she had no idea that the scene would be in the final print, adding, “They had no right to put that in the picture without my permission. I gave no permission, I signed no release.”

Regardless of the origin of the famed scene, Clarke seemed years later to have mellowed considerably, even going so far as to express gratitude about her role in the incident: “All I have to do is identify myself as the gal Cagney socked with the grapefruit and I automatically get a lot of attention and frequently a job.”

My introduction to Clarke was her superb performance in Waterloo Bridge (1931).

Clarke’s screen presence continued to expand that year, starting with a second-billed part in Frankenstein, as Elizabeth, the mad doctor’s bride; she was singled out by several reviewers, including the critic for Variety, who found her “charming.”  Next, in The Good Bad Girl, she portrays the titular role of a moll who leaves her gangster boyfriend to marry a banker’s son, followed by Waterloo Bridge, in which she arguably gives the performance of her career. In this film – set in World War I London – Clarke portrays Myra Deauville, a prostitute who falls in love with an idealistic soldier, played by Kent Douglass (later known as Douglass Montgomery). The role was originally assigned to actress Rose Hobart, but she later refused the part when she learned that the studio was not renewing her contract. Clarke was glad to get the chance to play Myra: “At last I could get my teeth into something and really bite through it and spit it out,” she said. “I really had something to say.”

Clarke’s performance in Waterloo Bridge was a revelation – she displayed a natural acting style that was liberally infused with poignancy, sincerity, and subtlety. Critics agreed; the reviewer for the New York Daily News labeled her a “splendid dramatic actress reaching really great heights,” the Chicago American announced that her performance ranked “among the finest of the year,” and the critic for the New York Evening Post proclaimed that “her fame is assured.”

Clarke was a standout in Night World (1932).

Following Clarke’s appearance in Waterloo Bridge, she signed a five-year contract with Universal, and went on to appear in a series of memorable films during the next two years. The first of these was Night World (1932), a kind of Grand Hotel set in a New York nightclub. In it, Clarke plays Ruth Taylor, a nightclub dancer who’s pursued by a local gambler (George Raft) but is drawn to Michael Rand (Lew Ayres), a troubled young patron who drinks himself into a nightly stupor in an effort to blot out the memory of a family tragedy. The proverbial showgirl with a heart of gold, Ruth takes pity on Michael when he collapses in the club, placing cold compresses on his head and keeping his watch and wallet safe from the other employees. A short time later, Michael impulsively proposes to Ruth, asking her to accompany him on a voyage to Bali – “one of the few unspoiled places in the world” – and the film’s explosive climax finds them facing their future in each other’s arms.

Next up, in Three Wise Girls (1932), Clarke plays Gladys Kane, one of the “wise girls” of the film’s title, along with co-stars Jean Harlow and Marie Prevost. Gladys is sweet, kind-hearted, down-to-earth, and worldly wise – and involved in a “back street” affair with a married man. When her hometown pal, Cassie (Harlow), comes to New York, Gladys doesn’t hesitate to share her wise counsel, although she’s unable to heed her own warning. “Take my advice, Cassie – never fall in love,” Gladys tells her. “Do you know what you become when you live the way I do? A panhandler. You have to bow and scrape and beg for everything you get. And that goes for love as well as money. Their wives get everything – a home, security, respect. Everything. And what do you get? Nothing. Nothing but grief.” For her performance, the critic for Variety judged that Clarke “takes the acting honors.”

The Final Edition (1933) saw Clarke re-teamed with her Front Page co-star, Pat O’Brien.

After Three Wise Girls, Clarke enjoyed one of her most progressive roles in The Final Edition (1932), where she was seen opposite Pat O’Brien as a shrewd newspaperwoman. Clarke’s Anne Woodman grabs our attention from her first appearance on screen and never lets go; in her opening scene, she confronts her boss and lover, city editor Sam Bradshaw (O’Brien), who has just fired her from the newspaper: “Last night, I told you some things about yourself I thought you ought to know,” she says, looking at him unflinchingly. “When I get married, it’ll be to a man, not a newspaper. Aside from that, I thought you were pretty all right. I certainly never thought you’d sink low enough to fire me just because I wouldn’t marry you.” Later, Anne shows her moxie on the job as well – beating out her competition to snag a scoop about the murder of a police commissioner, and fearlessly putting her safety at risk to secure evidence against those responsible for the crime. Even when she’s abducted by the killers, she’s cool as a cucumber, losing her neither her nerve nor her wits. Following the film’s release, the actress was praised in the New York Times, whose reviewer wrote, “Mae Clarke, looking lovelier than she ever has before, does a fine bit of sleuthing in this role.”

Clarke had another juicy part in Parole Girl (1933) where, as Sylvia Day, she plays a cunning ex-con whose misdeeds include fleecing department stores through an extortion racket, earning her release from prison by courageously extinguishing a fire that she herself had set, and employing an elaborate ruse to gain revenge on the man who sent her to jail. In one of her best scenes, Clarke’s emoting skills run the gamut from earnestly begging for compassion from department store manager Joe Smith (Ralph Bellamy), to vowing vengeance when he callously dismisses her pleas. The film is seldom cited as one of Clarke’s best, but it’s never dull and Clarke plays a multifaceted character that you can’t help but root for. (Plus, she sports an unusual – for the time period – strikingly attractive, close-cropped hairdo that’s not to be missed!)

Another first-rate performance in Lady Killer (1933).

On the heels of a small role in Penthouse (1933) – in which, after just two brief scenes, she ends up shot dead on the floor – Clarke was back to her bad-girl ways in Lady Killer (1933), which re-teamed her with James Cagney. Here, Clarke portrays Myra Gale, the distaff member of a gang of low-level hoods, who gets involved with the gang’s newest recruit, played by Cagney. Another one of Clarke’s delightfully memorable characters, Myra was one tough cookie – feisty, shameless, and bold: “Let me give you a tip,” she warns Cagney’s Dan Quigley in one scene. “You know, I could change all this good luck of yours. If I ever whisper in a cop’s ear what I know about you . . . Say, I think you better start being nice to mama.” (Incidentally, as in Public Enemy two years earlier, Clarke is once again the recipient of a notable form of abuse at the hands of James Cagney. This time, he drags her across the floor by her hair and physically tosses her out of his room, with a swift kick to the rear as a closer.)

Clarke’s first marriage, to Lew Brice, ended in divorce.

But while Clarke was making a name for herself with these films, she was experiencing ups and downs behind the scenes. Just 10 months after she filed for divorce from Lew Brice, the Los Angeles Times announced her formal engagement to publicist John McCormick, who had previously been married to silent star Colleen Moore. The following year, though, during a trip to Hawaii, McCormick got married to someone else. Clarke said she found out from an item in the newspaper. (“Oh, it was a shock, to say the least,” she said. “And the embarrassment!”)

Not long after, Clarke fell ill; sources commonly report that she suffered a nervous breakdown. According to the actress, her problems began innocently enough – the result of overwork, a lowered resistance, and a severe sinus condition – but took a turn for the worse after she checked herself into a hospital in Palm Springs. “I had nothing wrong with my mind and my judgment. . . . I had an infection,” Clarke said. “I needed intravenous feeding and blood and rest. I didn’t need half-nelsons and big men sitting on my stomach. [But] that’s what happened.” Clarke was eventually sent to two separate sanitariums, where she was continuously medicated, restrained, and given shock treatments.

“It was too awful. Shouldn’t happen to a dog,” Clarke recalled, adding that her mother was denied access to her.  “They wrapped me with canvas and stuck me in a long tube of very hot water with my head poking through a hole at one end, which is like hanging you from a tree. Everything is designed to make you know you’re a prisoner and to put more fear into you. I kept begging, ‘Please, send me home.’”

Clarke and Phillips Holmes were in a serious car accident in 1933.

By the time she was released, Clarke’s contract with Universal had been terminated “due to illness.” And her downward slide continued in March 1933, when she was involved in a car accident with actor Phillips Holmes after leaving a party. Driving down a narrow street on an especially foggy night, they ran into the back of a parked car; Clarke broke her jaw and lost several teeth. (According to the L.A. Times, Clarke later sued Holmes, charging that he drove his car in a “grossly negligent manner” and asking for $21,500 in damages. The suit was dismissed in March 1934, when Holmes agreed to pay Clarke’s hospital bills.)

Clarke’s first film after the accident was Turn Back the Clock, opposite Lee Tracy, but her part was a relatively small and thankless one and, by now, most of her best roles were behind her. She was also seen in Nana (1934), a period piece intended by producer Sam Goldwyn to introduce Anna Sten as his answer to MGM’s Greta Garbo; This Side of Heaven (1934), a soaper where Clarke played the daughter of Lionel Barrymore and Fay Bainter; and The Man With Two Faces (1934), starring Edward G. Robinson and Mary Astor.

After the last film, Clarke was hospitalized again – this time because of her family. “My nurses and family all said, ‘She’s having another breakdown. We know it because we’ve seen it before.’ So they overpowered me and put me in a strait jacket, and I sure did have one. I hadn’t up to that point,” Clarke said. “How can you be in this business and not have temperament? And a right to burn off steam once in a while? How would you like to be accused of having a breakdown every time you say, ‘I’m not going to do that picture?’”

According to Clarke, she was actually suffering from manic depression – at that time, the remedy for the disorder was shock treatment, which was administered without anesthetic. She recalled, however, that this second experience with the treatments was less traumatizing than her first: “It did not generate the same fear in me,” she explained. (There was also a third “breakdown” in the late 1940s – this time, Clarke checked herself into L.A.’s Olive View sanitarium and demanded to see a psychiatrist. She was there for three months. “I was perfectly fine,” she said. “I needed to cool off and be relieved of people watching me and interpreting this and that and telling somebody else behind my back.”)

She appeared opposite Holmes in House of a Thousand Candles three years after the car accident.

Clarke returned to the big screen in 1935 with The Daring Young Man (1935), a comedy with James Dunn and Neil Hamilton, then appeared in a number of films for Republic Studios, including House of a Thousand Candles (1936), a spy drama opposite Phillips Holmes, and Hearts in Bondage (1936), a well-done drama set during the Civil War. She was in only a handful of features during the remainder of the 1930s; the best-known was Great Guy (1936), her third film with James Cagney. Her output during the 1940s wasn’t much better, with mostly small parts – some uncredited – in just a few films a year; her most noticeable role during that decade was as the heroine of the Republic serial King of the Rocket Men in 1949. “The only thing I remember about King of the Rocket Men is being completely bored with the whole setup and yet grateful for the work,” Clarke said.

While Clarke’s on-screen presence was dwindling, her romantic life was far from idle. In 1937, she married Stevens Bancroft, a pilot and business manager for Pam Am airlines, and moved with him to South America. Bancroft has been characterized by some sources as “the love of Clarke’s life,” but after two years, the marriage was over, and there are indications that Bancroft was a heavy drinker and a serial philanderer. For her part, Clarke spoke highly of her second husband – categorizing her marriage as “beautiful, unusual, rare, special” – but she declined to give specifics on why the couple split: “It hurts so much, I’ve largely put it out of my mind,” she said.

Less than 10 years later, in 1946, she married again, this time to Herbert Langdon, a musician and captain with the Army Special Service Forces; the couple married after Langdon’s returned to the U.S. following his overseas duty in London.  Like Lew Brice before him, however, Langdon’s inability to find work took a toll on the relationship. “There weren’t any immediate openings for entertainers, and he wasn’t that big of an entertainer,” Clarke said. “I couldn’t carry him as a load, and he wasn’t going to help me any. I had to go, and he didn’t mind letting me go. It was a fast marriage to begin with, an emotional thing at the time of war.”

Clarke can be seen in a bit part in Singin’ In The Rain.

By now, Clarke’s finances were feeling the effects of her diminishing screen offers. She continued to work during the 1950s, but most of her roles were reduced to uncredited bit parts – she played a party guest in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), “Telephone Operator #1” in Royal Wedding (1951), and a hairdresser in Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Around this time, one news account reported that she’d gotten a job as a secretary and a receptionist and was “hoping to regain fame in acting.” She began appearing on television, with numerous roles throughout the 1950s and 1960s in such shows as Dragnet, Playhouse 90, The Loretta Young Show, Perry Mason, and Batman. (Incidentally, it’s said that Clarke was author Anita Loos’ model for the character Lorelei Lee, played by Marilyn Monroe in the hit 1953 feature Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I’m not really sure how Clarke inspired this character, but that’s what they say!)

In 1957, Clarke was back in the news again when she sued a local Los Angeles television station, KTLA. The station was airing Frankenstein for the first time, and the hostess for the broadcast introduced herself as none other than Mae Clarke. And that wasn’t all. The fake Mae reportedly told viewers, “I’m in a picture you’re going to see when I was young and pretty and had enough money to pay my bills. I can’t pay my bills now.” The real Mae filed suit for $1 million. “They were stupid,” Clarke said. “They thought they could get away with anything – they were television. We didn’t want to know how they did it, or if they were sorry and all that shit.” She eventually settled for $10,000.

Between bit parts and lawsuits, Clarke took up painting, and it turned into a hobby that she would enjoy for the next several decades. She even had a “showing” of her work in the early 1960s – in her unemployment insurer’s office.  “No sense hiding my talent on my apartment wall,” Clarke told the press. “The ideal thing would be to have an exhibit at Raymond Burr’s gallery, but he only has Picasso and people like that. Or I’d have a big party and let Vincent Price introduce me. I can’t afford it.”

With brief appearances in A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967), Clarke’s screen career came to an end. She’s credited with a bit part in Watermelon Man (1970) as her final film, but Clarke insisted that she was not in the picture, which starred Godfrey Cambridge as a bigoted white man who awakens one morning to find that he has turned black. “I was paid for having been in it, but I never appeared in it,” she said. “The crowd gathered and they forgot to call me. They never missed me.” On a positive note, Clarke enjoyed meeting Cambridge – so much so that she asked him to escort her to the American Film Institute’s tribute to James Cagney a few years later. (Cambridge was unable to attend, but Clarke acknowledged that it “would have been a knockout.”)

If you only know Mae Clarke from the grapefruit scene in The Public Enemy, treat yourself. Discover her.

After her retirement, Clarke moved to the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California, where she continued to receive mail from fans on a daily basis. In 1990, she began recording her memoirs, which were eventually turned into Featured Player: An Oral Autobiography of Mae Clarke. Two years later, at the age of 81, Clarke died of cancer; the book was released after her death, in 1996.

At the book’s end, Clarke was asked how she wanted to be remembered. She replied, “I’ll refer you to a little remark that Jimmy Cagney made when he was speaking of me. He said, ‘Mae Clarke was a very professional actress who knew what was required of her and did her job excellently.’

“I think I’ll leave it at that.”

If you only know Mae Clarke as the recipient of that grapefruit assault in The Public Enemy, or you’ve only seen her trying to escape the monster in Frankenstein, do yourself a favor and track down some of her films from 1931 through 1933. Start with Waterloo Bridge, toss in The Good Bad Girl, Night World, and Parole Girl, and give yourself an extra treat with Three Wise Girls and Lady Killer. You won’t be sorry. I promise. You may even find yourself as fascinated by Mae Clarke as I am.

If that’s even possible.


A version of this article appeared in The Pre-Code Companion, Issue #1.

~ by shadowsandsatin on September 8, 2019.

6 Responses to “Mae Clarke: More than a Grapefruit in the Face”

  1. Great post! Featured Player has been on my wishlist for a while, but it’s been too expensive to buy. So thank you because your thorough and interesting post just saved me a bundle and made me want to go watch Three Wise Girls again (I watched the last half of it on TCM once and always wanted to see it in its entirety)!

    • Thank you so much, Zoe! I was just re-watching Three Wise Girls about a weeks ago, and loved it as much as I did the first time. Mae really had a great run of some first-rate films in 1931-1933.

  2. Thanks for your article. If you read Victoria Jackson’s Barbara Stanwyck bio there is very poignant story about Mae Clarke at the start of her career.

  3. Wow– what an excellent tribute !

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