Mae Clarke: Gangster, Grapefruit and Forty-One Seconds to Screen Immortality

Jimmy Cagney smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke's face, The Public Enemy, 1931.

Jimmy Cagney smashes a grapefruit in Mae Clarke’s face, The Public Enemy, 1931.

Most actors are remembered for their unique personae. Clark Gable was a man’s man. The humorous gleam in his eye sent daggers to the knees of women everywhere. Bette Davis practically cornered the market on the deeply neurotic woman clawing at the boundaries of love with Baroque fury. Gary Cooper was the classic taciturn American, a solid, self-confident Yankee who spoke eloquently through his silences. Marilyn Monroe is still the paradigm of the woman as vulnerable child waiting to be rescued by a knight in shining armor.

Of course Fay Wray, who played in over eighty motion pictures, is only remembered for her role in King Kong. Thus she is, for better or for worse, the shrieking woman, for all time.

Less common is the actor who is identified and remembered for a single brief scene.

No doubt, Mae Clarke, (1910-1992) real name Violet Mary Klotz, a superb actress who unfailingly revealed complex layers of character in her naturalistic performances, would prefer to be remembered for her finely tuned portrayal of the doomed Myra Deauville, the sweet chorus girl turned desperate prostitute, in the 1931 pre-Code, Waterloo Bridge. But the 1940 version with Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor made Clarke’s film all but invisible. This is a shame for Clarke’s version, directed by James Whale, is excellent, combining gritty realism with lyrical impressionism.

Mae Clarke, a vaudeville headliner in New York, arrived in California in 1929 under a short term contract to Fox studios. She planned to make a few movies, pick up the easy money Hollywood offered, and then return to the stage, her first love.

Clarke ended up staying for sixty-three years.

During that time Clarke appeared in, among other films, Waterloo Bridge, Frankenstein, The Public Enemy, Lady Killer, and Pat and Mike. She worked with such eminent talents as Lewis Milestone, Tod Browning, William Wellman, William K. Howard, Dorothy Arzner and Ernest B. Schoedsack.

Never a stunning beauty, but rather a compelling and distinctive actress of great depth, Clarke’s career was hampered by three failed marriages and an almost disfiguring auto accident. Bouts of mental illness led to cruel treatment in snake pit institutions where she was doped up, restrained and subjected to electric shock therapy.

King Vidor, the great American director, when musing on the mystery of great actors stated:

[Spencer] Tracy as a man had many personal and emotional problems but that is not what came through on the screen. This is a paradox I won’t attempt to explain here. Perhaps the answer is one of successful compensation. I do know that actors who have some sort of emotional problem going on underneath seem to give a more interesting performance on top.

Sadly, Vidor’s theory seems borne out in the life and career of Mae Clarke. For most of her young adulthood, Clarke was financially responsible for her father, mother and younger brother. It was a heavy burden for such a fragile creature.

By 1937, after appearing in over forty movies, Clarke was exhausted in body and mind. She retired from the screen and married Capt. Stevens Bancroft, settling in Rio de Janeiro with her handsome, aviator husband. Clarke looked forward to having children and living a solid middle-class life. Tragically, emotional instability, alcohol, and her husband’s serial infidelity conspired to destroy the marriage and the dream.

Mae Clarke returned to Hollywood after just three years. She had no agent, little money, and was all but forgotten. But like the old vaudeville trooper she was, Clarke picked herself up and made the rounds taking whatever parts were offered.

Today, Mae Clarke is remembered–most don’t even know her name for she was uncredited–for having half a grapefruit shoved in her face in the 1931 classic The Public Enemy.

This is probably one of the most famous scenes in movie history and when clips of great Hollywood films are compiled, the grapefruit scene is almost always included.

Having just played the role of the doomed streetwalker, Molly Malloy, in The Front Page 1931, Clarke was making a name for herself in Hollywood. Her Molly Malloy is unforgettable, a tortured soul who desperately wants to mend, in Clarke’s words, “another bleeding soul.”

Soon after shooting wrapped on The Front Page, Clarke’s agent called and told her he had another Molly Malloy role for her, “another whore.” Clarke, a faithful Catholic, was wary, but when told that she would be playing opposite the rising young star Jimmy Cagney, and William Wellman was directing, Mae wisely accepted the offer to play the role of Kitty in The Public Enemy.

Mae Clarke
Mae Clarke

In the film, vicious but charismatic gangster Tom Powers, an electric Jimmy Cagney, and his sidekick Matt Doyle, the dreary Edward Woods, pick up good time girls Mae Clarke and Joan Blondell in a swanky night club.

When next we see Cagney and Clarke they are shacking up in a hotel room. Cagney has already built up huge reservoirs of contempt for Clarke’s Kitty and is picking a fight, looking for any excuse to sabotage the relationship. It is in this hotel room, during breakfast, that Cagney smashes the grapefruit in Clarke’s face.

Cagney then moves on to the brassy, sharp tongued tootsie, Jean Harlow, and Mae Clarke, after just two sequences–two days of work–disappears from the storyline.

How did the grapefruit scene come about?

It was not in the original novel or screenplay.

Mae Clarke spent two years being interviewed by James Curtis. The transcript was published as Featured Player, An Oral Autobiography of Mae Clarke, an invaluable and endlessly fascinating glimpse into the actresses life and career, and the Darwinian politics of the studio system.

Here’s Mae Clarke on the grapefruit scene:

We shot the scene! That’s all there was to it. He [director William Wellman] said, “All right, that’s a wrap.” It ended just short of the grapefruit where he [Cagney] says, “Oh, I wish you was a wishing well.” That was enough. That showed his hatred of me. That was all there was to do, so I went to my dressing room on the set and got ready to tie things up, when Jimmy [Cagney] appeared at the door.

“Can I come in a minute?”

“Yes, come on.”

He came in and he said, “Bill [Wellman] and I have been talking this thing over and we thought of a heck of an idea. We’d like you to do it again to give the guys a kick. This is really something you won’t forget.”

And he told me.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I said, “You’re kidding!”

He said, “No, come on back, we’ll do the scene again, just like we forgot something and we want to improve on it. The guys’ll come back. They haven’t broken the set yet. The lights are still there. And then I’ll pick up this grapefruit and push it in your face and the guys will go crazy.”

I didn’t want to do that, but all I had done to meet the new man and be at the new studio and work with Wellman was all out the window if I said no. I’d be a lemon. So I knew I had to do it. The only thing I could have done is get my agent on the phone and let him be the one to say no. But I couldn’t get to a phone. Jimmy was sitting right there being very persuasive.

I said, “Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll do it–once. I’ll trust you not to hurt me, and that’s all. Just for the guys, okay?” So that’s what we did, and we did it just once. Didn’t hurt me.”

So: Cagney presented the addition of the grapefruit as a gag to amuse the movie crew.

I have my doubts. “Wild Bill Wellman” was a demanding director, a man who walked heavily and carried a big stick. In fact, James Woods was originally cast in the Tom Powers role, but after watching dailies Wellman realized that Cagney was lightning in a bottle and handed Cagney the leading role, relegating Edward Woods to the lesser side kick.

Thus, Cagney carried the weight of the starring role and he must have been acutely anxious to do everything possible to ensure the film’s success.

After twenty years writing and producing film and TV in Hollywood, I have seen every sly, sneaky and underhanded manipulation by directors, and, ahem, writers, in order to elicit superior performances from, often, frightened, temperamental and brittle performers.

To me, it’s obvious that Wellman and Cagney always intended to use the grapefruit scene in the finished film. But sensing that Mae Clarke, a vulnerable day-player, might not cooperate, they cooked up the gag story in order to gain Clarke’s cooperation. Obviously, once the film was exposed, there was no recourse for Clarke, a powerless bit player.

Cagney was the messenger because, as Clarke explains, Wellman paid her no attention whatsoever. He never gave her a word of direction, just blocked the young actress, leaving her to her own instincts. Though never close, Clarke and Cagney, did have, at least, a cordial and respectful professional relationship.

Clarke concludes:

I thought that was the end of it, except they said, “We’re going to show it in the projection room tomorrow.” That was supposed to be the end of it. They had no right to put it in the picture without my permission. I gave no permission. I signed no release. I could have sued and won.

It’s highly doubtful if Clarke could have sued and won. After all, when you’re an actor in a movie it is understood that whatever is shot can be used in the film. This was especially true under the old studio system where actors were, in essence, highly paid indentured servants. Here, I think Mae is being a bit fanciful. And in truth, Cagney and Wellman’s dramatic instincts were on target. Ending the scene with Cagney’s dialog would have been soft. The cut to the next scene, flabby. The unexpected grinding of the grapefruit in Clarke’s face is shocking and cruel, yet it provides the perfect, if horrifying, exclamation point to the scene.

Clarke’s stunned reaction to Cagney’s display of violence is as authentic a display of humiliation as any committed to celluloid. Certainly, Clarke knew the grapefruit was coming, but the impact–physical and psychic–is simply overwhelming. Clarke, dissolving in tears, burying her face in her hands, appears naked, terribly vulnerable. Every time I view the scene I feel a wave of sadness, revulsion and shame.

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The entire scene is just 41 seconds long. But it lingers in the memory for all time.

It’s a testament to the unearthly power of the movies.

The Public Enemy was a huge hit and when it was first released ran twenty-four hours a day at a theater in Times Square. Clarke’s ex husband, Lewis Brice, entered the theater just to watch the grapefruit scene. Brice delighted in his ex-wife’s public mortification.

Like all good actors, Mae Clarke constructed an elaborate and thoughtful inner life for the character of Kitty. All good actors become proprietary about the roles they play, falling, to some extent, in love with their fictional selves. It’s the only way an actor can successfully inhabit another skin. Mae Clarke, in a deeply moving passage, ponders the inner life of the young woman who had a grapefruit shoved into her face:

…That girl was pretty shocked and hurt. She hadn’t done anything that bad to him. She’d stayed to keep him warm. She gave. What did she get? She didn’t show any money. She didn’t show a new dress or anything–nothing, just bad treatment. And she stayed. But, of course, there again, why did she take that? It didn’t show her with an extreme love for him, either. She was just a I-hope-this-turns-out-all right-dumbell. And yet I didn’t play her quite like a dumbell. She was weak-willed–there wasn’t much justification for what she did. But it wasn’t so malicious that she needed to be treated like that.

Clarke should have had a brilliant movie career. Alas, talent alone is no ticket to success in the movie business. Toughness, resilience–the ability to accept endless rejections and not take them personally–and personal relationships are crucial to survival in Hollywood.

A generous interpretation of her characters and an instinctive understanding of the craft of movie acting characterize Clarke’s performances. Sadly, at a time when her career should have been flourishing, Mae Clarke was pretty much finished as a leading lady. Through the mid-sixties, she was reduced to bit parts in movies and television, almost always uncredited.

Mae Clarke died at age 81 in the Motion Picture Home, Woodland Hills, Ca.

Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass in Waterloo Bridge, 1931.

Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass in Waterloo Bridge, 1931.