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Mae Clarke, Famed for Grapefruit Scene, Dies

April 30, 1992|BURT A. FOLKART and STEPHANIE STASSEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Mae Clarke, the quintessential gun moll whose sharply etched features once were conjoined to a grapefruit, thus ensuring her a place in motion picture mythology, died Wednesday afternoon.

Miss Clarke was 81 and died after a short bout with cancer, said a spokeswoman for the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital in Woodland Hills, where the platinum blonde tough girl in "The Public Enemy" and other films of the 1930s had lived since 1980:

Although she was a co-star with Boris Karloff in the original 1931 "Frankenstein," Miss Clarke found film immortality in "The Public Enemy," a 1931 gangster drama about two slum kids who move from bootlegging to killing.

In one scene Miss Clarke--who had one of her smaller roles--drew the wrath of an outraged James Cagney, who picks up a breakfast grapefruit and grinds it into her face. The hundreds of photographs produced from that single frame of celluloid remain a preferred keepsake of film buffs, many of whom forget that the picture starred Jean Harlow.

However, Miss Clarke's favorite part, she told The Times in 1983, was her starring role in 1931 in "Waterloo Bridge," in which she played a nice girl forced to turn to prostitution by her circumstances. "My name appeared above the title," she said.

The grapefruit scene, she said in another interview, was not in the script but was invented by Cagney as "a piece of business" from the fabled tough guy's childhood. "He knew a gangster from the East Side of New York who once threw his breakfast at his girlfriend. Jimmy thought it would add to the scene."

She also said she might not have agreed to the scene if she knew that it would be kept in the final cut of the film. "I just did it for the crew to laugh."

The actress that Anita Loos reportedly used as a model for Lorelei Lee in "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was born Mary Klotz in Philadelphia and grew up in Atlantic City, N.J. She was in her teens and dancing on the Steeplechase Pier when a Broadway producer saw her and brought her to New York, where she performed in supper clubs. She also met and married Lew Brice, brother of Fanny Brice, America's "Funny Girl."

Her new sister-in-law hired producer Billy Rose to write an act for the newlyweds that they performed successfully in vaudeville. From that evolved a screen test for Miss Clarke, who was hired by Fox Talking Pictures ("That was before 20th Century" was added, she said).

She came to films with "Big Time" and "Nix on Dames," both in 1929. At about the same time, her father lost his job as an organist accompanying silent movies. She sent for her family and bought them a chicken ranch in Canoga Park.

Two years later--1931--she celebrated what proved to be the apex of her career with appearances in "The Public Enemy," "The Good Bad Girl," "Waterloo Bridge," "Frankenstein," "Men on Call" and "The Front Page," in which she turned in a poignant portrayal of the pathetic Molly Malloy.

Some of her later films included "Singin' in the Rain," "The Great Caruso," "Annie Get Your Gun," "A Big Hand for the Little Lady" and smaller parts in "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "The Watermelon Man" in 1970. She then retired to teach drama.

Her marriage to Brice ended in divorce as did two others. By the mid-1950s her film career had been reduced to bit parts and cameo roles.

But if she no longer was a star she did not act it, telling a reporter in 1985 that she did not want her picture taken until she had put on her eyelashes and to please turn off a tape recorder because "I have a little hesitancy in my speech lately."

There are no immediate survivors and services are pending.

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