September 1, 1922 – Yvonne De Carlo
For the first half of the 20th century, Hollywood was enamored of Latina film goddesses. There was Myrtle Gonzalez (1891-1918), one of Hollywood’s very first Hispanic female movie stars. She worked in silent pictures, and died at 27 years-old, ironically of the Spanish Flu. In her short lifetime, she still had 80 film credits.
Beatriz Michelena (1890 – 1942), born in New York City to Venezuelan parents, not only starred in more than a dozen movies between 1914 and 1920, she also started Beatriz Michelena Features, her own production company in 1917.
Mexico-born Dolores del Río (1904 – 1983) was offered a lot of cliched Hollywood film roles. She got her start in silent pictures, and made the transition into talkies, though her accent made it difficult to get substantial roles. She returned to work in Mexico and became one of the biggest stars in her native country.
Anita Page (1910- 2008) was born in El Salvador and started acting in the late 1920s. At one point, she was one of the most popular stars at MGM, receiving the second largest amount of fan mail after Greta Garbo.
Born in Mexico, Lupe Vélez (1908 -1944) was able to succeed in Hollywood using the nickname “Mexican Spitfire”. She started off with more serious roles, and then moved to comedies. Vélez’s personal life was as colorful as her screen persona. She had several highly publicized affairs. In 1944, Vélez died of an overdose of the barbiturate drug Seconal. Her death and the circumstances surrounding it have been the subject of much speculation and controversy.
For a few years in the 1940s, the Latin-American Maria Montez (1912 -1951) was the queen at Universal Studios, starring in Technicolored romantic exotica, referred to as “tits and sandal” epics. When Montez, whose acting ability was as minimal as her costumes, was losing her appeal, along came Yvonne De Carlo, just as gorgeous but loaded with talented to take her place.
The film that brought Yvonne De Carlo stardom was Salome, Where She Danced (1945), an unintentionally ridiculous tale of a Mata Hari-type Viennese dancer who has an opera house built for her and a town named after her in the American Wild West. Salome, Where She Danced was made at Universal who signed De Carlo to a long term contract. She was used by the studio as a backup star to Montez, and her second film for the studio saw her step into a role rejected by Montez: another western, Frontier Gal (1946) alongside Rod Cameron. Like Salome, it was shot in gorgeous Technicolor. In 1946, exhibitors voted De Carlo one of “The Promising Stars of Tomorrow”.
De Carlo’s foreign-sounding name seemed perfect for an actor who would appear in such films titled Slave Girl (1947), Song Of Sheherazade (1947), Casbah (1948) and The Desert Hawk (1950). Perfect, except that her real name was Peggy Middleton, and she was Canadian.
She took her screen name from her French mother’s maiden name. When she was three, her father abandoned the family, forcing her 17-year-old mother to become a waitress. Her mother recognized showbiz potential in her daughter and enrolled her in a dance classes in Vancouver. In 1940, at just 18, Peggy Middleton went to Hollywood and became Yvonne De Carlo.
She took jobs dancing in nightclubs, before she got a bit part as a bathing beauty in Harvard, Here I Come (1942). Because of her tawny beauty, she was cast as “exotics”, like a harem girl in Road To Morocco (1942), a Spanish girl in For Whom The Bell Tolls (1943), a Native American in The Deerslayer (1943), an Arab dancer in Kismet (1944), and a Javanese dancer in The Story Of Dr. Wassell (1944).
Frontier Gal is a comedy western where De Carlo plays a seductive saloon owner manipulating a bandit (Cameron) into a shotgun wedding. From that point on, the two mainstays of her career were horse operas and camel operas.
In the outrageously kitsch biopic Song Of Sheherazade, De Carlo played a Moroccan nightclub dancer named Cara de Talavera inspiring Russian sailor Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (Jean-Pierre Aumont) to become a composer. In one of her numbers she sings: “Me, oh, my, sounds like the buzzing of a bee!” She later turns up in St. Petersburg as the prima ballerina in his new ballet. She also plays a dancer in Slave Girl, but a talking camel steals the movie.
She was a good singer and dancer, and she could really act. In Jules Dassin‘s prison drama Brute Force (1947), she plays a wife whose husband is taking a murder rap for her; and as a scheming woman in Robert Siodmak‘s film noir Criss Cross (1949), she is caught between her nasty current husband, Dan Duryea, and her ex, Burt Lancaster.
But, she mostly alternated between slinky femme fatales, such as the singer Lola Montez in Black Bart (1948) and Sheherazade in The Desert Hawk (1950), and tough broads in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949) and Buccaneer’s Girl (1950). Through the 1950s she continued to successfully play saloon girls and cabaret singers in films that were sort of dumb, yet plenty entertaining to a gay teenager watching the local television station’s afternoon movie.
She had had comedic chops shown to advantage in two British films: Hotel Sahara (1951) as Peter Ustinov‘s cheating fiancee, and in intriguing The Captain’s Paradise (1953), in which bigamist Alec Guinness has to handle her tempestuous Spanish character along with the very English Celia Johnson.
After playing Sephora, the wife of Moses, played, of course, by gun-loving Charlton Heston in Cecil B. DeMille‘s epic Easter favorite The Ten Commandments (1956), and a beautiful mulatto woman opposite Clark Gable in Band Of Angels (1957), De Carlo found a new career and greater fame doing television. She is now mostly remembered for a role in a silly sitcom, and we will always love her for that.
For The Munsters (1964-66), De Carlo transformed herself from a vamp into a vampire as Lily Munster, loving wife to monster Herman (Fred Gwynne) and mother to wolf-boy Eddie (Butch Patrick). With her silver-streaked hair, and pale makeup that could not hide her beauty, she played the Transylvanian-born Lily as an ordinary American housewife.
The series aired on Thursdays at 7:30 pm on CBS, for a total of 70 episodes. It was cancelled after ratings dropped because of the huge popularity of ABC’s campy Batman, which was in color. The Munsters finally found a larger audience in syndication. This popularity warranted a spin-off series, as well as several films. The same cast starred in Munster, Go Home (1966), in which the nutty family inherits an English mansion, and they were later reunited on television in 1981 for The Munsters’ Revenge. My sources tell me that Seth Meyers is developing a modern-day version of the series that will take place in Brooklyn, sadly without De Carlo.
After that, De Carlo needed work. She appeared in musicals in summer stock and in schlock movies such as Russ Meyer‘s silky soft-core The Seven Minutes (1971), where she plays a senator who writes a steamy pornographic novel under a pseudonym. In Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977), she gets to deliver the line: “Kill! Mutilate! Destroy!”, before being ripped apart by frothing dogs.
I am so fortunate that I got to see De Carlo in a career high point. In 1971, she played Carlotta Campion in Stephen Sondheim‘s Follies (my second favorite musical of all time) on Broadway, stopping the show with I’m Still Here. She sang the Sondheim lyric: “I’ve run the gamut from A to Z, three cheers and dammit, c’est la vie. I got through all of last year, and I’m here!” with special poignancy for those of us who remembered her Hollywood days.
She continued to work in supporting roles on stage, television and films into the early-1990s. In 1998, De Carlo suffered a stroke and became a resident of the Motion Picture & Television Country House in Woodland Hills, where she spent her last years. She was taken by heart failure in 2007.
De Carlo became a naturalized citizen of the United States and was an active Republican. A true conservative, she told an interviewer:
“I’m all for men and I think they ought to stay up there and be the bosses and have women wait on them hand and foot and put their slippers on and hand them the pipe and serve seven course meals, as long as they open the door, support the woman, and do their duty in the bedroom.”
Silly Tid-Bit: I was 17 years old when Follies was on Broadway in 1971 and I played the fuck out of the original Broadway cast album. Crazy for de Carlo’s big number, but being a brat, I changed the lyric to: “I got through a six pack of beer, and I’m queer…”