Obituary: Mary Carlisle

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Obituary: Mary Carlisle

Actress who starred alongside Bing Crosby


TYPECAST: Mary Carlisle starred in dozens of 1930s films. Photo: John Springer
TYPECAST: Mary Carlisle starred in dozens of 1930s films. Photo: John Springer

Mary Carlisle, who has died, aged 104, was a blonde Hollywood actress, singer and dancer whose career began in the 1920s; typecast as a virginal ingenue, she simpered adoringly as Bing Crosby’s love interest in three films in the 1930s and retired in 1943 after appearing in the horror classic Dead Men Walk.

She was born Gwendolyn Witter in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 3, 1914 (some sources suggest 1912, but Mary Carlisle never confirmed her age, telling inquirers to mind their own business). Her father died when she was young and in 1916 her mother took her to Hollywood in the hope of finding work.

She was cast as Jackie Coogan’s infant sweetheart in If I Were King in 1922 and as a teenager was spotted in the Universal Pictures canteen by Carl Laemmle Jr, who reportedly declared: “This girl has the most angelic face I ever saw. I’ve got to make a test of her right away.”

She was offered a contract, but Laemmle was well-known as a womaniser and her mother, through family connections, engineered a screen test with MGM instead. A feature player contract was quickly arranged, and in 1929, she joined a long list of pretty ingenues given bit parts in mostly fluffy musical melodramas as well as promotional work for film and fashion magazines.

She began in uncredited roles in such films as Grand Hotel (1932, starring Greta Garbo), before making her big break with Bing Crosby in College Humor (1933). She went on to co-star with him in Double or Nothing (1937) and Doctor Rhythm (1938).

But she never warmed to Crosby, whom she described in an interview in 2002 as “paranoid”: “He was not only terribly self-conscious about his height – he wore lifts in his shoes – but he had those giant ears of his pinned back, his teeth whitened constantly, and what is more, he drank like a fish.”

She often took him to task over his treatment of his then wife, the actress Dixie Lee: “He was so ghastly and mean to her. There were the rumours that he often beat her. On one occasion I offered her $50 to get out of town, but she couldn’t live with, or without, Bing.”

Mary Carlisle appeared in more than 60 films, including as Lionel Barrymore’s daughter in Should Ladies Behave (1933) and This Side of Heaven (1934). But she never managed to rise above the studio’s typecasting.

In an attempt to shake off her sweetly, innocent image she briefly moved to Britain in the 1930s, working at Elstree and Shepperton studios. Back in Hollywood in 1937, she was signed to a contract to Paramount and then Republic, where she once again became disillusioned by the roles she was given in films such as the Gene Autry musical-western Rovin’ Tumbleweeds (1939), the low-grade melodrama Rags to Riches (1941) and as a damsel-in-distress in Dead Men Walk (1943), her final film. In 1942 she married James Blakely, an executive with 20th Century Fox who would later work as production manager on television shows of the 1960s, including Batman. Later she ran a Beverly Hills beauty salon.

After her husband’s death in 2007, Mary Carlisle could frequently be seen, often on the arm of Bing Crosby’s widow Kathryn Grant, browsing the newspaper stand on the Sunset Strip or enjoying a milkshake with a male walker in a cafe, her navy blue Bentley with the number plate MARY 1 parked on the pavement.

More recently she was a resident of the Motion Picture Fund Retirement Home in Woodland Hills, from where she was taken out weekly by a young legion of admirers.

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Mary Carlisle, who died on August 1, is survived by a son.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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