On this day in 1910, actress Mae Clarke was born as Violet Mary Klotz in Philadelphia. Who is Mae Clarke? you may ask. Well, she’s best remembered for a film role in 1931 for which she did not even receive onscreen credit.
Clarke plays Kitty in The Public Enemy, the unfortunate recipient of a grapefruit to the face courtesy of James Cagney’s gangster character, Tom Powers. Clarke did not receive billing in the film’s credits (the other love interest, Jean Harlow, did), but this memorable “morning after” scene is an iconic image of pre-Code filmdom.
Another famous (and credited) role came to Clarke in 1931: playing a damsel in distress in James Whale’s horror classic, Frankenstein. Clarke plays Elizabeth, the young lady whose marriage to Colin Clive’s character, Dr. Henry Frankenstein, is interrupted by a visit from the Frankenstein Monster.
Earlier that same year Clarke had perhaps her greatest acting triumph in another Whale film, the first film version of the tragic World War II romance Waterloo Bridge. Playing Myra Deauville, the character later known as “Myra Lester” when portrayed by Vivien Leigh in MGM’s 1940 remake, Clarke brings pathos to her performance as a prostitute in love with a soldier. The film is perhaps remembered by some for featuring one of Bette Davis’s first film performances, but it’s Clarke’s show all the way.
Clarke had other notable roles in films of the early 30s like The Front Page (1931), Three Wise Girls (1932), The Impatient Maiden (1932) and Fast Workers (1933). The steady stream of work, combined with problems she was experiencing with husband Lew Brice, led to a nervous breakdown in June 1932. Another major blow to her career came with a serious car accident in March 1933, which left Clarke with facial scarring. She was thereafter often demoted to supporting roles in her “A” pictures, playing second fiddle to Myrna Loy in Penthouse (1933), Anna Sten in Nana (1934) and Mary Astor in The Man with Two Faces (1934), although she once again had the female lead when she was reteamed with Cagney for Lady Killer (1933, pictured above).
After some time spent away from Hollywood starting in 1937, Clarke tried to come back to her career in 1940, but there wasn’t much of a chance for her. The industry had moved on and she was relegated to small, sometimes uncredited, roles. Clarke made only 12 films in the 1940s, compared to the 36 films she made between 1930 and 1937. Although Clarke continued acting until 1970, most of her roles were mere bit parts. For example, among her uncredited roles, she played “Counter Lady with Change for a Quarter” in The Reformer and the Redhead (1950), “Telephone Operator #1” in Royal Wedding (1951), “Hairdresser” in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), “Golfer” in Pat and Mike (1952), “Woman in the Office” in Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and “Old Woman” in Watermelon Man (1970). On a few occasions, Clarke had credited work, like in Magnificent Obsession (1954), Women’s Prison (1955, pictured above, left), Not as a Stranger (1955) and A Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966).
Mae Clarke died of cancer in 1992 after living for years at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital. (Her Los Angeles Times obit headline read, “Mae Clarke, Famed for Grapefruit Scene, Dies.”) Before she passed away, she worked with James Curtis to create a memoir of her fascinating life, published as Featured Player: An Oral Autobiography of Mae Clarke in 1996. The photo above is from 1973, commemorating 40 years of Frankenstein with an interview by Forrest J. Ackerman for the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Mae Clarke is not as well-remembered by the general public, certainly not on the scale of Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck, but she has her place in the pantheon too.