Tuesday, April 12

Yvonne De Carlo

A triple-threat she was.  She could act, sing and dance.  From early childhood she developed a fierce ambition that she would professionally be able to do all three.  She turned into a very attractive woman who had an exotic look when the occasion called for it.  With all said, it's a wonder that she rarely rose above B pictures.
Born Peggy Middleton in 1922 Vancouver, British Columbia, she would eventually take her middle name and her mother's maiden name to become a screen siren.  Her New Zealand-born father ditched the family when Peggy was quite young.  Her mother became her everything.  Mrs. Middleton saw a natural talent in her only child and quickly rushed her into dancing lessons, which were soon followed by singing lessons and eventually acting.  Peggy was forever putting on little skits for her neighborhood pals.

Mrs. Middleton was as ambitious for her daughter as Peggy was for herself and in 1937, for the first time, they scraped enough money together to travel to Hollywood in search of making dreams come true. Nothing materialized and the next year they made another trip with the same results. Despite no success by 1940 they decided to simply move to Southern California and take their chances.

Her looks and musical talents got her jobs as a chorus girl in various Hollywood hot spots. Her days were spent making the rounds of all the movie studios, rarely getting beyond the guard at the front gate.  One day at Paramount, she scored a $100/week player's contract and a name change to Yvonne De Carlo.  The studio needed pretty girls for any number of scenes in movies but no one was ever likely to confuse them with such studio stalwarts as Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, Betty Hutton or Dorothy Lamour.

After a short while, De Carlo was groomed as some sort of threat to Lamour in case the latter copped some sort of attitude but the idea came to nothing.  Paramount never used De Carlo with any degree of enthusiasm.  She was uncredited in a number of movies for the studio, most of which no one has heard of but the better ones were This Gun for Hire, The Road to Morocco, For Whom the Bell Tolls and So Proudly We Hail. 

Part of De Carlo's earliest problems getting a foothold in the movie capital, it's been said, was because she was too nice, too square, too simple. There came a day when she changed and became a party girl. She loved the nightlife and enjoyed sampling as many paramours as time would allow. I've seen her name in biographies of some of her costars, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and David Niven, to name a few, and all were very complimentary of her charms.

In 1944, as her Paramount contract was ending, she met with producer Walter Wanger who wanted to star her in Salome, Where She Danced (1945).  It would catapult De Carlo to the fame she had always sought. The film, considered a camp classic in some quarters, is about a dancer who flees her country because she is suspected of being a spy.  The story starts with the Franco-Prussian War and ends up in the American West.  

It was made by Universal who was impressed enough with De Carlo to offer her a long-term contract.  Essentially she was brought aboard as a replacement for fiery Maria Montez whose career had tanked. Montez toiled as Mexican spitfires in films which all resembled one another.  The sad fact is that De Carlo would essentially have the same type of career.  For every decent movie she made, she made a half dozen B films that were usually westerns or costume dramas.

Like many performers she tired of the costume fluff but she did love making westerns.  She was an excellent horsewoman, a good shot and, like Montez, she was usually fiery.  She said she liked action... the genteel stuff was not for her.  If that's the case, she likely didn't mind the junk Universal had in mind for her... like Frontier Gal, Song of Scheherazade, Slave Girl, Black Bart, Casbah and River Lady, all in the 40s.  The truth is she proved herself a good actress in these movies and was usually top-billed in her films, which she sought, but when one became known as a queen of the Bs, that's usually where one stayed.

She did get a couple of impressive films in the late 40s, both starring Burt Lancaster. The first, in 1947, is Brute Force, a noirish prison drama that featured vignettes with four women who have men behind bars.  Lancaster is doing time for a murder that his girl, De Carlo, actually committed.  It is a strong film, praised by the public and critics alike, and she received good notices.

Her best film of the decade, and perhaps ever, is as the conniving gangster's wife in Criss Cross (1949) who conspires with her ex-husband in a crime.  It is a raw noir with De Carlo as a perfect bad girl... and she gets hers in the end. Engaged briefly to future movie Tarzan, Jock Mahoney around this time, she still dallied with both Lancaster and newbie Tony Curtis. A short while later she enjoyed hot romances with Robert Stack and Sterling Hayden and was also seen around town with Howard Hughes. She was just his type... brunette, stacked and a sassy mouth. 

Later that same year she made Calamity Jane and Sam Bass, another routine western. It's noteworthy because she started a long love affair with costar Howard Duff (she met him when they both appeared in Brute Force). They had the same high sexual drive and a propensity for fighting which was often reported in the newspapers.

She continued working in such films as The Gal Who Took the West, Buccaneer's Girl, The Desert Hawk, Tomahawk, Hurricane Smith, Fort Algiers and Sombrero. She had dalliances with Scott Brady, John Ireland and Vittorio Gassman, her costars in some of those films.  She did two costume dramas with Rock Hudson, Sea Devils and Scarlet Angel, and two decent westerns with Joel McCrea, The San Francisco Story and Border River. Not a single Oscar nomination for any of them.

She had another good shot at an A film in 1953 when she made The Captain's Paradise... a comedy, no less.  She and Celia Johnson played the wives of a bigamist ferry boat captain played by Alec Guinness. With him as a costar and being in a different film than she was usually offered, she thought this might be a shot at better roles.

She apparently gave up her playgirl ways in 1955 when she married movie stuntman, Bob Morgan.  He was an alcoholic but their marriage seemed good until he had an accident while filming the great train sequence in 1962s How the West Was Won. Some logs involved in the scene rolled on him and he had to have a leg amputated.  It turned out there was no insurance to cover the accident and the Morgans suffered financial setbacks.  While De Carlo was devoted to caring for him and would accept any film roles that came her way to make some money, they were divorced in 1974. He was her only husband.

The finest film she ever appeared in came in 1956 when Cecil B. DeMille hired her to play Moses' patient wife, Sephora, in The Ten Commandments. (I must be on a roll with this film's cast as I just recently did postings on Vincent Price and John Derek.) It also happened to be De Carlo's favorite... no surprise there.  The same year she had an engaging role in Death of a Scoundrel where she is the secretary of an egomaniacal murderer, smartly played by George Sanders.

In 1957 she made the Civil War film, Band of Angels, playing a mulatta at the center of the drama.  It is one of Sidney Poitier's first films, one of Clark Gable's worst and one of De Carlo's best. It would be her last leading lady role in a decent film.

She had a supporting role in 1963s McLintock, a John Wayne-Maureen O'Hara western.  De Carlo was Wayne's housekeeper and the mother of Patrick Wayne, in real life the star's son.  Her scenes with O'Hara are fun and one is reminded what similar types of B flicks they made, although O'Hara got better breaks than De Carlo.

In 1964 Universal signed her to play 156-year old monster-mother, Lily, in TVs The Munsters.  It wasn't on the air that long but it seemed like everyone was tuning in and it provided De Carlo with ever-lasting fame.

Her movies got worse and worse (Law of the Lawless, Hostile Guns, Arizona Bushwackers, Arizona Slim) and of course she did numerous television guest roles. In the late 60s she teamed up with an old pal of hers, Virginia Mayo, and they took their act on the road... singing, dancing, chatting up old Hollywood. Damn, I wish I could have seen it. 

In 1971 she opened on Broadway in Follies.  A tale of the ghosts of show business past, it starred Alexis Smith, Gene Nelson, Dorothy Collins and John McMartin. De Carlo had a small role but delivered the best song, I'm Still Here. She said at the time... that wasn't really my kind of woman; it wasn't somebody I could identify with. You know, a brittle, society -type dame. She would go on to perform in many plays and musicals, in stock companies, Las   Vegas and Australia.

Her last appearance in any medium was in 1995. Nothing was heard of her again until her passing. In 1998 she suffered a minor stroke and moved into the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, California. She died there at age 84 in 2007 from heart disease.

I knew of Yvonne De Carlo long before I became aware of some bigger stars because of those costume dramas and the westerns, movie staples of my young life. I have always thought she was a beauty and a talented one as well. It's too bad that that little girl with movie star ambitions grew up to work at Universal and make B movies.

Next posting:
A redhead not unlike De Carlo

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