Moon Over Miami is one of my favourite films. Many years ago, I decided that I wanted to collect as many classic films as I could. In Canada, our version of the television channel Bravo would often show old movies and I would tape them. Y’know? With my VCR? One of these movies I taped was Moon Over Miami. A Technicolor musical from 20th Century-Fox in 1941, it starred Robert Cummings, Betty Grable, Don Ameche and Carole Landis. I fell in love with the film although I realized, much to my surprise, that I could not, for the life of me, see what was so appealing about Betty Grable. I loved the movie for Robert Cummings, mostly, and his interesting interaction with the charismatic Don Ameche. Also, I adore these old travelogue movies of the ’40’s. They celebrate the places they go in a wonderful way and you get a great “moving postcard” look at these places in the classic era.
Carole Landis was the second female lead in Moon Over Miami and, because of my repeated viewings of the film, I got to know her well. Then, this spring, I saw her in Behind Green Lights, a film noir from 20th Century-Fox in 1946. I have what I call “Seasonal Interest Syndrome”; I gravitate towards certain films/genres at certain times of year. Springtime always finds me watching film noir. I searched YouTube and found Behind Green Lights and noticed that Carole was in it although I really didn’t recognize any other of the performers. Carole is top billed and the male lead is played by William Gargan. Gargan was a movie, radio and television actor who eventually developed throat cancer and had to have his larynx removed. He died in 1979, aged 73, on a flight from New York to San Diego.
Behind Green Lights is a fine film but what really struck me was how Carole looked. She didn’t look like she did in Moon Over Miami, 5 years earlier. So, I looked her up. What I found was fascinating.
Carole was born Frances Lillian Mary Ridste in 1919 in Wisconsin. The family moved to San Bernardino when Carole was 4. Coming from a broken home, Frances changed her name – an homage to her favourite actress, Carole Lombard – and, at the age of 15, dropped out of school and set her sights on a career in Hollywood. By all accounts, she was a star-struck youngster.
She appeared as an extra in the original A Star is Born and made several B westerns. Her shapely figure opened doors in the modelling world and she appeared in numerous cheesecake photographs. Her appearance in One Million BC in 1940 made her a star. She appeared as cave girl Loana in the Hal Roach film that was remade in 1966. In that version, Raquel Welch took her iconic turn as Loana. Carole’s scantily-clad performance prompted one press agent to dub her “The Ping Girl” because “she makes you purr”.
Her success in One Million BC lead to many other second lead roles in successful films – including Moon Over Miami – and also brought her to the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck. Zanuck was a film mogul of the first order. He began writing scripts for silent films before going to work for Jack Warner at Warner Brothers. In 1933, he left Warner Brothers and started 20th Century-Fox. Carole was signed to Fox and during 1940 and ’41, began a sexual relationship with Zanuck, who was known in Hollywood for his conquests almost as much as his film making. Indeed, the married Zanuck had something of a system in place for his canoodling. Every day at 4:00PM, business was put aside and an aspiring starlet appeared in his office through a series of clandestine tunnels. This “secret” arrangement was known to everyone in Hollywood. It has been said that, to Zanuck, the numerous young girls were simply a diversion in a hectic day; “(they were) like polo, lunch and practical jokes”. The term “casting couch” was coined by Variety in 1937 to describe the type of abuse of power that Zanuck and others were engaged in.
This was the man Carole fell for. As an up-and-coming star of 21, who felt that happiness was beautiful clothes, fine dining and the attentions of a powerful man, her relationship with Zanuck must have seemed to her like the attainment of all her dreams. Little did she know that Zanuck was never serious about any woman and, as he went off to serve in the Army Signal Corps at the end of 1941, he forgot Carole completely. Not surprisingly, at the same time the quality of the roles offered to her declined as did her career.
Carole, however, had been around the block a few times by the time she had her fling with Zanuck. By 1940, when her affair with the mogul commenced, she had been married 3 times, the first of which occurring when she was 15 years old. Carole was 14 and Irving Wheeler was 20 when they started dating. No doubt that this is an early example of Carole’s grasping for happiness and she welcomed the romantic nature of a relationship with an older man. The two eloped two weeks after Carole’s 15th birthday. Carole had lied about her age and did not have her parents consent so when her mother found out about the marriage it was quickly annulled. But it must’ve been the “real thing” because as spring that year turned to summer, the two lovers married again, this time with Carole’s father’s consent. This second go-round actually lasted longer than the first; Carole walked out on her husband – they “had an argument” – after three weeks. Irving Wheeler changed his name to Jack Robbins and wound up in Hollywood. He ended up with only two infinitesimal acting roles – however, one was in Citizen Kane (“newsreel man”).
In June of 1939, choreographer and director Busby Berkeley proposed to Carole but the two did not marry. Husband number two (or three) was yacht salesman Willis Hunt. Hunt proposed two weeks after they met and in the summer of 1940, the two eloped – three marriages, still no wedding. Hunt soon became abusive, however, and Carole walked out after two months of marriage. Carole said of their brief union that she had been “so happy, so ecstatic, so delirious” until Willis had revealed his true nature. Oddly, the two remained friends. Sadly, Willis Hunt was stabbed to death in 1969 by his wife who claimed self-defence as Willis was being abusive towards her. The last Mrs. Hunt was found not guilty.
The amazing Mr. Gene Markey appears in Carole’s story here in 1941 when Gene and Carole became engaged. Mr. Markey had been married to Hedy Lamarr, one of the most beautiful women to ever live. Carole and Gene were never wed and Mr. Markey would go on to marry Myrna Loy. Hedy, Carole and Myrna? Who was this Mr. Gene Markey and what power did he have over the most beautiful women in old Hollywood?
In September of 1942, Carole embarked on an extensive tour with the USO. Joining with Kay Francis, Martha Raye and Mitzi Mayfair, Carole travelled to England, Bermuda, Africa and Ireland entertaining the troops. During their time spent together, bisexual Kay Francis developed a crush on Carole. Carole was approached by Random House and asked if she would care to turn her experiences with the USO into a book. Carole agreed and proceeded to add author to her resume. Months before her book was even published, Four Jills in a Jeep was turned into a film musical for Fox. The four girls played themselves and Dick Haymes made his film debut. Carole was ultimately upset that the film was a mostly fictionalized account of their USO tours.
Four days after her 24th birthday, Carole married an American pilot in the Royal Air Force’s American Squadron, Capt. Thomas Wallace. True to form, this relationship fit in with Carole’s pursuit of storybook romance. Wallace proposed to her on their first date and they were married less than two months after meeting. With the Catholic ceremony held at a church in England, Carole finally got her proper wedding with Kay Francis among those in attendance. Also true to form, though, the marriage got off to a rough start. The newlyweds were denied a honeymoon as Capt. Wallace was stationed overseas. Poor Carole was quoted as saying that she wanted “a wonderful marriage and children” but the two were at odds over Carole’s career. Wallace “hated” her Hollywood lifestyle and wanted her to give it up and become a housewife. Their marriage began to fall apart and Carole attempted suicide. Although Carole always considered Tommy the love of her life, they divorced after roughly 22 months of marriage. Tommy remarried but would take his own life in 1968.
With the lack of success achieved by Four Jills in a Jeep, Carole’s film carer was on the wane. As is often the case in these situations, Carole turned to Broadway, appearing in a musical called A Lady Says Yes which featured two numbers from Carole singing songs from the score written by Gershwin sibling Arthur. Her co-star in this show was future novelist Jacqueline Susann, who would go on, in 1966, to write the scandalous novel Valley of the Dolls. Susann based the character of Jennifer North on Carole. When the novel was turned into the sensational film, Sharon Tate would portray Jennifer. While they appeared together in the short-lived A Lady Says Yes, Carole and Jacqueline had a romantic relationship.
Carole and Capt. Wallace were divorced in 1945. Later that year, Carole went to the altar again; it was her fourth husband, fifth wedding in 11 years. This time it was William Horace Schmidlapp from a wealthy Cincinnati family. Jacqueline Susann introduced the two in the spring of ’45, perhaps before Carole’s divorce from Capt. Wallace was final. A mere 8 months later, the two were married. Again, Carole was romantically optimistic and hopeful, stating that in Schmidlapp she had found “the ideal husband”. The newlyweds built a nursery in their Pacific Palisades mansion but soon found that Carole could not conceive. As somewhat of an additional sadness in her pursuit of perfect family and marital bliss, Carole suffered from endometriosis. Carole was faced with her sister having four healthy children and was also stricken every time she saw a woman with a baby. The glamourous Hollywood actress wished often that she could trade lives with ordinary housewives.
It was around this time, 1946, that Carole made the film noir I mentioned at the outset, Behind Green Lights. I also mentioned that the whole genesis for this article was the fact that Carole looked so different in Green Lights compared to the way she looked in Miami. I wondered if she’d had cosmetic surgery or a car accident or something. Well, the mystery persists because I learned that, yes, Carole DID have a nose job – but she had it in 1940, six years before Green Lights. So – and this is poor reporting, I know – I still have no idea why Carole doesn’t look like Carole to me in Behind Green Lights.
At the outset of her marriage to Schmidlapp, Carole was quoted as saying that now, finally, she had everything she wanted, including “the feeling of deep security which will ensure a permanent future”. She said she was planning an additional home in the east from which she would commute for her film assignments. And still she mentioned children; three, she hoped. But it seems contentment was not to be for Carole Landis. Despite the grand pronouncements of her happiness, after a mere 18 months she became disillusioned with her marriage and began an affair with actor Rex Harrison. She finally filed for divorce in March of ’48.
By the summer of 1947, Rex Harrison had been seen in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and Anna and the King of Siam. He was a popular and successful 39-year-old actor from Lancashire, England who had been married to German actress Lilli Palmer for four years. It was during her separation from Horace Schmidlapp that Carole fell hard for Rex. He was erudite, urbane and a gentleman. As was Carole’s wont, she began to envision an idyllic life with Rex. She decided that he was her new ideal.
It is the summer of ’48 and for the past year, their affair is an open secret in Hollywood. They are together often and Carole has hosted many parties at her Pacific Palisades home at 1465 Capri Dr. that Rex has attended. Carole had a love for holidays and the 4th of July was no exception. Carole threw a pool party on that day for a dozen friends. She announces to her guests, however, that they will have to leave early as she is having dinner alone with Rex; it is the seventh consecutive evening they spend together. Carole and Rex enjoy cocktails and then a light dinner. It is surmised that the two engage in yet another discussion of when or, indeed, if, Harrison will leave his wife and marry Carole. Apparently, Harrison refuses to end his marriage, he and Carole argue and their relationship is ended.
Harrison says later that he leaves Carole’s home at 9PM, though others say he leaves much later. Rex Harrison is the last person to see Carole alive. He goes to his friend, Roland Culver’s house nearby while Carole continues drinking to ease her pain. One can easily assume that, by this point in her life, she is more than heartbroken; she is broken. From a young age, she had always been a dreamer, a romantic. She had always dreamed of the perfect man, the perfect marriage, the perfect love. She began early and had pursued that ideal with a much older man when she herself was just 14 years old. She eloped twice by the time she was 21. She had affairs with older, influential and powerful men who easily discarded her, further crushing her dreams. She longed for children, to be a mother but even that was not to be. Her brief career in Hollywood flamed brightly only to diminish in the glare of many other young starlets with similar attributes and appeal. Rex Harrison, another distinguished, older, married man that Carole fell in love with, denies her in the end.
Carole, alone now in her lavish home, calls her friend, Marguerite Haymes, the mother of singer, Dick Haymes. Haymes is not home and Carole leaves a message. Marguerite will get the message later that night but assumes it is too late to call. Between 1AM and 3AM on the morning of the 5th, Carole gathers up many photos and mementoes from her relationship with Harrison and packs them in a suitcase. Carole takes them over to Culver’s house and leaves the suitcase in the driveway. She also leaves a note saying that she is going to kill herself. The suitcase and note are not discovered until the following evening. When Roland Culver finds these things in his driveway, he burns everything – including the suicide note. Back in her home, Carole writes two final letters; one to Harrison, one to her mother. At approximately 3AM, Carole takes an envelope of Seconal from her medicine cabinet. She takes 40 Seconal tablets with water and lays down in her bed. At 3:30, no doubt feeling the effects of her overdose, Carole gets up out of bed and goes into her bathroom. She will die on the bathroom floor. Five times the amount of Seconal needed to cause death made this third suicide attempt successful.
Throughout the next morning, Rex calls Carole’s house repeatedly. He is told by the maid that Carole must still be asleep. Rex goes to Carole’s house, walks in the door and curiously says to the maid “Well, I think she’s dead”. Together they go to the bathroom and discover Carole. “Oh, no, my darling. Why did you do it?”, Rex exclaims. He feels Carole’s wrist and detects a slight pulse. Like any proper philanderer in old Hollywood, instead of calling for an ambulance, he goes home and calls a studio head. The maid calls the police and Carole’s best friend. Rex returns to the house and, when questioned by the police, claims that he and Carole were just good friends. The police find the note Carole left for her mother but there is conflicting reports about what happened to a second note that Carole apparently left for Rex. Lilli Palmer will later admit that she and Rex paid the police officer who found the note $500 to destroy it.
In the aftermath, Carole and Rex were linked in newspaper reports that hinted at scandal. This did not stop Rex and his wife, Lilli, from attending Carole’s funeral, also attended by friends Van Johnson, Pat O’Brien and Cesar Romero, who served as a pallbearer. Rex’s career was damaged but he carried on and later enjoyed successes in Cleopatra, My Fair Lady and Doctor Doolittle. He and Lilli Palmer were divorced in 1957. He left as a legacy two sons when he died in 1990, aged 82. Carole’s mother and sister were disconsolate. Carole died with $412 in the bank and extensive debt. Her family sold her house and auctioned off Carole’s belongings, weeping every time a personal item was sold to a stranger. The family contested – as they do to this day – that Rex Harrison was culpable in Carole’s death which they insist was not suicide. In the ensuing years, reports of new evidence would pop up but would quickly vanish resulting in no new investigations.
I have to make special mention of the website that Carole’s family maintains. Never have I seen a site so devoted to its subject and so loaded with detail and peppered with appropriate links. I highly suggest you visit the site. Far be it for me, a stranger to the participants in this sad tale and 70-plus years removed from the events, to disagree with the family’s assertions. However, looking at Carole’s life, albeit from this distance, things seem clear.
I think of a young girl 14 years old, a girl who had supposedly been sexually molested. I think of this young girl receiving (somewhat inappropriate) attentions from a 20-year-old man. It’s not difficult for me to think of this young girl as one who would grasp at the chance to accept such attentions. I can imagine this girl would have been romantically intoxicated with this situation. As soon as she reached 15, she eloped with this man. Her mother, of course, had it annulled but Carole was insistent and remarried him. After an argument – an argument – she caved and left him, her romantic dream shattered.
Modelling and Hollywood beckoned. This would feed her ideas of a glamourous life. She may not have reached the super stardom she dreamed of and she engaged in trysts with older, married men who treated her poorly. Marriages ensued. Each time Carole seemed to feel that she was finally attaining the perfect life she’d been seeking. After very short periods of time, perhaps when unglamourous effort or realistic thoughts are called for, she bailed, always in search of elusive perfection. Consider that Carole, in a 14-year span, got married 5 times to 4 different men. All 5 of her marriages together only resulted in roughly 3 years and 8 months of wedded bliss. None of her marriages lasted two years. She couldn’t have children. Dreams of home life and motherhood were shattered. And then, one final straw. Another older married man denied her. At 29 years old, I can easily imagine that Carole thought she would never attain happiness, either through her work or her love life. There may indeed be some mystery surrounding her death but the circumstances leading to it also seem very familiar in the film industry of the era. The way starlets were treated by moguls like Darryl Zanuck. The way film careers were killed by “scandal” or simply by the failure of the most recent film. I have a saying that I sometimes apply to the victims of the studio system and the “golden age” of Hollywood. The phrase can certainly apply in this case: “I love old Hollywood. And then I think of what it did to Carole Landis”.