January 1, 1919 – Carole Landis:
“Every girl in the world wants to find the right man, someone who is sympathetic and understanding and helpful and strong, someone she can love madly.”
She was born Frances Lillian Mary Ridste in Fairchild, Wisconsin, the youngest of five children of a Polish farmer’s daughter and a Norwegian-American railroad mechanic who abandoned the family after her birth, although it is likely that she was the biological child of her mother’s lover who also split after her birth.
In 1923, her family moved to San Bernardino, where Landis’s mother worked as a cleaning woman to support her family. At 15 years old, Landis dropped out of school with her eye on a career in showbiz.
She began as a dancer in a San Francisco nightclub, where her boss described her as a “nervous $35-a-week blonde doing a pathetic hula at her opening night at the old Royal Hawaiian on Bush…that’ll never get anyplace in this business”. He apparently hired her only because he felt sorry for her. She then found a gig as the girl singer with a dance band. She became a blonde and changed her name to Carole Landis after her favorite film star, Carole Lombard. After saving $100 she moved to Hollywood.
Landis made her film debut as an extra in A Star Is Born (1937, not the one with Streisand with an afro). She booked more bit-parts in B-movies and posed for hundreds of cheesecake photographs. In 1940, Hal Roach cast her as a cave girl in One Million B.C. (not to be confused with the 1966 remake with Raquel Welch in a fur bikini). It was a sensation and turned Landis into a star.
Portions of it were used as stock footage for years afterwards in such films as Robot Monster (1953) and Teenage Cave Man (1958). The Academy Award-nominated special effects influenced other films that I am sure are some of your favorites, such as The Giant Gila Monster (1959), The Killer Shrews (1959) or The Giant Spider Invasion (1975) . One Million B.C. is not quite as silly as most of those movies; it’s less exploitative, more thoughtful, and more ambitious. It is also an good example of why films about prehistoric people fundamentally do not work, although I find the made-up languages amusing.
Landis appeared in a string of successful films in the early 1940s, usually as the second female lead. In an era when the singing of many actors was dubbed, Landis’s own voice was used in her musical roles.
In 1941, Landis was put under contract with 20th Century-Fox, and by coincidence she also began an affair with studio honcho Darryl F. Zanuck. She was given roles playing opposite fellow pin-up girl Betty Grable in Moon Over Miami and I Wake Up Screaming (both 1941). When Zanuck ended their fling her career suffered and she was assigned roles in B-movies. The Hollywood press dubbed her Landis was known as “The Chest”, and not for her singing voice.
Her final two films Noose and Brass Monkey ( both 1948) were both made in England.
Gay actor Cesar Romero was Landis’s closet friend. She met him in 1941 when they costarred in the musical Dance Hall. It was the first of four films they made together. She was his beard at many premiers and parties and they often went out dancing together. The gossip columnists claimed they were dating. Romero even offered to marry Landis, but she refused.
“Cesar Romero, beside being the greatest dance partner I’ve ever danced with, is the most, how shall I say it, soothing person. When you’re with him you can completely relax, be at ease. You don’t have to worry about making conversation, you can be absolutely natural. He is so sympathetic. He is one of those fellows everybody likes; he never puts on airs, is sensible, understanding, kindly, truly chivalrous. Just an all around good guy.”
In 1942, she toured with brassy comedian Martha Raye and actor Kay Francis in a USO show in England and North Africa. Two years later, she entertained the soldiers and sailors in the South Pacific with Jack Benny. Landis traveled more than 100,000 miles during the war and spent more time visiting troops than any other Hollywood personality. She became a very popular pin-up for the boys serving in World War II.
In 1945 she starred on Broadway in a musical A Lady Says Yes, which ran for nine weeks and was never heard of again. Also in the cast was future novelist Jacqueline Susann. Susann claimed based the character of Jennifer North in part on Landis in her 1966 bestselling novel, Valley Of The Dolls.
Landis wrote several newspaper and magazine articles about her experiences during the war, including the 1944 book Four Jills In A Jeep, which was later made into a film starring Landis, Francis and Raye.
Landis was married four times and had no children. In January 1934, 15-year-old Landis married her first husband, 19-year-old Irving Wheeler. After three weeks of marriage, Landis and Wheeler got into a fight and Landis walked out. Neither filed for divorce and Landis began pursuing an acting career. In 1938, Wheeler reappeared and filed a $250,000 “alienation of affections” lawsuit against director/choreographer Busby Berkeley. Despite the fact that Landis and Wheeler were married only in the legal sense, he claimed that Berkeley had enticed Landis into having an affair. Landis claimed that she had not seen Wheeler in years and only heard from him the previous year when he asked for a divorce. Wheeler’s lawsuit was later dismissed, and Landis and Wheeler officially divorced in 1939. In June 1939, Berkeley proposed to Landis, but later broke it off.
The next year, she married yacht broker Willis Hunt, Jr. in Las Vegas. Landis left Hunt after two months together and they were divorced before the end of the year.
While touring with the USO in London in 1942, she met U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Thomas Wallace. They were married in January 1943 but divorced two years later.
In 1945, Landis married Broadway producer W. Horace Schmidlapp. This one lasted three years. In the divorce she charged Schmidlapp with “extreme mental cruelty”. While married to Schmidlapp, Landis had an affair with actor Rex Harrison, who was then married to fellow actor Lilli Palmer. Their affair was an open secret in Hollywood. Harrison publicly claimed that she was just a close friend.
But Landis was devastated when Harrison refused to divorce his wife for her; unable to cope any longer, in July 1948, she took her own life at her home in Pacific Palisades by taking an overdose of Seconal. She was just 29 years old. Harrison was the last person to see her alive.
Harrison and a maid discovered her on the bathroom floor. Harrison waited several hours before he called a doctor or the police. Landis left two suicide notes, one for her mother and one for Harrison who instructed his lawyers to destroy it. During the coroner’s inquest, Harrison denied knowing any motive for her suicide and told the coroner he did not know anything about a second suicide note. There were many questions left unanswered surrounding the events of Landis’s death.
Wet movie star Esther Williams writes about the incident in her memoir The Million Dollar Mermaid, saying that she was at Palmer’s house waiting for Harrison to discuss some business thing. The two women talked until 2 a.m. but Harrison never showed up so Williams went home. Williams:
“His (Rex Harrison) affair with Carole Landis was the worst-kept secret in Hollywood. The gossip columnists referred to them as the ‘English star whose name begins with an H and the local glamour girl whose name begins with L’. Glamour girl was putting it mildly-Landis was not exactly a paragon of virtue. At the age of 29 she was already a waning starlet who was separated from her fourth husband.
The following morning the scandal broke-Miss L was dead. Carole Landis had committed suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. The newspapers conjectured that she became despond because Rex Harrison had told her their affair was over. There was some factual underpinning for this speculation-Rex was leaving Hollywood for New York to appear as Henry VII in the new play Anne Of The Thousand Days.
Lilli knew, as I did, that Rex must have been with Carole the night of the suicide. Lilli knew that her husband had been having an affair, but she kept her head high through the maelstrom that followed. She answered questions from the press and stood by him through the coroner’s inquest…The two of them denied that there was any romantic relationship with Landis at all.“
You can visit Landis at one of my favorite places, Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale. She is in plot 814 of the “Everlasting Love” section.
Among the Hollywood celebrities at her funeral were Romero, Van Johnson, and Pat O’Brien. Harrison attended with his wife. Harrison was married six times, including to Welsh actor Rachel Roberts from 1962 to 1971. Despite his having married twice since their divorce, Roberts tried over and over to win Harrison back, which always proved to be futile; she took her own life in 1980. Apparently, whatever Harrison had, it was to die for.