The name Mae Clarke might not immediately ring any bells. But the fair-haired, spirited, and sad-eyed beauty was a promising leading lady in pre-code Hollywood before personal disappointments, mental health issues, and a disfiguring car accident took their toll. When Clarke died in 1992 at age 81 most classic film fans remembered her as the woman who gets a grapefruit smashed in her face by James Cagney during THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) or they might have recalled her daring leap from a window to protect the man she loves in THE FRONT PAGE (1931). Thankfully, many of Clarke’s earlier films have been restored and made available since then. We’re now able to get a much broader understanding of why a 1932 issue of Picture Play magazine prophesied a “brilliant career for her” and Modern Screen claimed, “Mae Clark deserves a place among the big names of filmdom and will get there before long–watch her!”
Today many consider James Whale’s WATERLOO BRIDGE (1930), where she plays the doomed Myra, to be Mae Clarke best film and she often referred to it as her favorite role but I’d like to focus my attention on her often-overlooked performance in Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), where she plays the sympathetic fiancé of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).
Clarke was not the studio’s first choice to play Elizabeth. In fact, movie magazines at the time reported that Bette Davis was originally cast in the role but director James Whale apparently thought Davis was inappropriate and too headstrong for the part so he offered it to Mae Clarke. The two had developed a rewarding working relationship on the set of WATERLOO BRIDGE and Whale was eager to have the talented actress join the cast of FRANKENSTEIN. After taking over the role of Elizabeth movie magazines fawned over Clarke and featured her in a number of fashion layouts wearing costumes from the film, including the striking bridal dress that was reportedly reproduced and sold to style-conscious women at the time.
Although the character of Elisabeth may have captured the public’s imagination before the film opened, she was written as a rather conventional movie heroine with very little depth. Despite this, Clarke was able to imbue her character with great sensitivity and profound sorrow. Throughout the film, she frets and worries over her fiancé and his obsession with reanimating corpses made from body parts stolen from graves, hospitals, and gallows. While some might find her character rather meek and unsubstantial, Clarke portrays her without irony as a sweet and delicate woman who’s profoundly protective of Frankenstein and his darkest desires. The material lends itself to a melodramatic and baroque interpretation but Clarke’s Elizabeth is surprisingly modern and restrained. She wastes no time with unnecessary hysterics, random fainting spells, or unwarranted tears, which were typical of many female horror film protagonists at the time.
Her show-stopping scene occurs during the wedding party sequence where Elizabeth makes a grand entrance wearing one of the cinema’s most stunning bridal gowns. As the camera traces her every movement we watch transfixed as the lithe actress elegantly maneuvers through doorways and around furniture while her 15-foot tulle veil trails behind her. When the camera finally catches up to Elizabeth, she confronts her fiancé confessing her fears and trepidation about the day.
The scene emphasizes her character’s vulnerability and compassionate nature but Frankenstein ignores her warnings and abandons his distraught bride. His abandonment allows the monster to enter the room through an open window and it attacks her, leaving Elizabeth’s bruised and battered virginal body strewn across a bed. It’s a startling scene and remarkable for its grotesque beauty that recalls Henry Fuseli’s 18th-century painting “The Nightmare” which Mary Shelly referenced in her novel when describing Elizabeth’s murder at the hands of Frankenstein’s monster. Director James Whale, along with the various scriptwriters, undoubtedly used the original text as a reference but in this film Mae Clarke’s character lives to see another day although it seems likely she was driven mad by the horrific events that transpired.
It’s worth pointing out that Clarke was truly frightened by Boris Karloff in his makeup and found his ghastly appearance terrifying. Her screams in FRANKENSTEIN are genuine and derive from her own fears although before filming began she and Karloff discussed her feelings and came up with a way to lessen her anxieties. In Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration, she described how the two actors collaborated before shooting the infamous bedroom attack so she wouldn’t “fall prey to hysterics.”
“When we rehearsed, I said, ‘Boris, what are we going to do about this? When we play it, and I have all my motors running, and turn and see you, I’ll fall to the floor! I won’t make the bed!’ Boris said, ‘Mae, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. When you turn around my one arm is up–camera; focus on the little finger. I’ll be wiggling it and you’ll know that it’s Boris in make-up.’ So I looked at Boris’s little finger (and it was a little finger compared to the rest of him!) and I was all right–just!”– Mae Clarke, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration
After appearing in FRANKENSTEIN, Clarke’s career should have continued to soar but it suddenly began to fizzle. Various personal problems, including two troubled marriages, the stress of being financially responsible for her parents as well as two younger siblings, compounded by a serious car accident that left her with facial scarring; eventually led to multiple mental breakdowns and lengthy hospital stays. The actress, who enjoyed writing poetry in her free time, was often described as “moody” by the press but these moods were hard to control.
“I’m jiggered. I tell myself, ‘you’ve got a good job, you’re young and healthy, you’ve got your family here, you’ve got a nice home–of course, it isn’t all paid for yet, but still you’ve got it – you get nice notices for your work’–but it doesn’t do any good. All I can think of is to talk back to myself and say ‘Well–and so what?’”– Mae Clarke, Screen Land magazine 1932
Following her very public breakdowns, Clarke was considered unreliable and troublesome by the same Hollywood executives and journalists who had helped make her a star. Even her mentor James Whale, who had previously directed her in three films (WATERLOO BRIDGE, FRANKENSTEIN, and THE IMPATIENT MAIDEN), seemed to lose confidence in Clarke. When it came time to cast the film’s sequel in 1935, Whale reunited many of the original cast members including Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Dwight Frye, and Marilyn Harris, who had played the monster’s young victim, but the role of Elizabeth was offered to a 17-year-old budding starlet named Valerie Hobson.
According to Gregory William Mank’s Women In Horror Films: 1930s, Clarke was devastated that she hadn’t been asked to return to the role she made famous and work with a cast and crew that she was once called “family.” And although she continued to work in Hollywood, Clarke reportedly never recovered from that professional blow and in later years she often referred to herself as “the real Bride of Frankenstein.”
After the starring roles dried up she was eventually reduced to taking bit parts and uncredited roles in various films and television shows but despite numerous career setbacks and personal hurdles, the wraith-like appearance of Mae Clarke laying lifeless across her bridal bed in FRANKENSTEIN has become one of horror cinema’s most iconic images. Magnificently macabre and endlessly alluring, the original “Bride of Frankenstein” remains a fascinating figure in the minds and imaginations of classic horror fans.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in 2015