Mary Carlisle, a perpetual ingenue in dozens of 1930s films, dies at 104
Mary Carlisle, a Hollywood actress who enjoyed popularity in the 1930s as a wholesome ingenue in musical comedies opposite singer Bing Crosby, died Wednesday at a retirement community for actors in Woodland Hills.
Her son, James Blakeley III, confirmed the death but did not provide an immediate cause. She was believed to be 104 but never confirmed her age, even to her family. As a centenarian, she was known to tell visitors that her true age was “none of your business.”
With her blond hair, blue eyes and alabaster skin, Carlisle had the delicate beauty of an all-American porcelain doll. “This girl has the most angelic face I ever saw,” Universal studio production chief Carl Laemmle Jr. reportedly declared upon spotting the unknown Carlisle at the company’s canteen. “I’ve got to make a test of her right away.”
A prolific if little-heralded actress, Carlisle appeared in more than 60 films in a career that lasted about a dozen years. Much to her dismay, she was typecast as the perpetual innocent, a decorative virgin.
She began with minor parts in prestigious films, playing a newlywed in the star-filled hit melodrama “Grand Hotel” (1932). That year, the Western Assn. of Motion Picture Advertisers selected her — along with starlets including Gloria Stuart and Ginger Rogers — as a “Wampas Baby Star,” which led to a publicity build-up that augured better roles. The parts were bigger but seldom better.
She was twice Lionel Barrymore’s daughter, in “Should Ladies Behave” (1933) and “This Side of Heaven” (1934). She played the title role opposite Buster Crabbe in the collegiate romance “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” (1933) and appeared in “It’s in the Air” (1935), a minor comic showcase for radio star Jack Benny. She was a damsel in distress in the old-dark-house story “One Frightened Night” (1935), made at a “poverty row” studio.
Carlisle was the object of Crosby’s crooning in “College Humor” (1933), “Double or Nothing” (1937) and “Doctor Rhythm” (1938), films that boosted her visibility but left her with little to do but smile adoringly at her costar. Off-screen, she said, Crosby teasingly called her “Chubby” and “Bubbles.”
New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall found Carlisle “ingratiating” as Will Rogers’ daughter of marrying age in “Handy Andy” (1934), and she held her own that year in a cast of scene-stealers in “Palooka,” a boxing comedy with Jimmy Durante, Stuart Erwin and Lupe Velez. She sang the Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby ballad “One Little Kiss” to popular comedian Bert Wheeler in “Kentucky Kernels” (1934).
More frequently, she remained trapped in undemanding parts in minor features, among them the sports comedies “Hold ‘Em Navy” (1937) and “Touchdown, Army” (1938). She retired from acting after starring in the low-budget horror film “Dead Men Walk” (1943) and for decades was manager of an Elizabeth Arden salon in Beverly Hills.
Carlisle was born Gwendolyn Witter in Stockton, probably on Feb. 3, 1914, but some sources say 1912. She grew up with her mother in Los Angeles. Thanks to a family connection — her uncle Robert Carlisle was a film editor and producer — she learned of a casting call for chorus girls at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. With more ambition than dancing experience, she raced to find a dancing instructor and barely mustered a rudimentary time step before her tryout.
After her inauspicious performance, she was astounded to find herself hired.
“Of course, they soon found out I couldn’t dance, so I was made a substitute,” she told a reporter a few years later. “The girls were always deviling me by saying they’d turn an ankle and that I’d have to go on for them. I was petrified, but I only had to dance in one picture, and that was just a flash.”
In 1942, she married James Blakeley, a British-born actor who became an executive with 20th Century Fox studios and a production manager on TV shows such as “Batman.” He died in 2007.
In addition to her son, an interior designer in Beverly Hills, Carlisle is survived by two grandchildren.
Bernstein writes for the Washington Post.
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