She was a multi-talented, luminous blonde who, by all accounts, should have been one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws of the 1940s, alongside fellow bombshells like Rita Hayworth or Betty Grable. After all, Carole Landis could sing, dance, and was a heck of a good actress. And while she was a popular presence in the movies during the 1940s, A-list superstardom somehow eluded Landis, and over the decades her name has, instead, become more famous for the tragic circumstances surrounding her death at the age of 29.
Born in Wisconsin, 1919, Landis (nee Frances Ridste) was just four years old when her family migrated West to California. In the early 1920s, San Bernardino was a sleepy town that–at 60 miles east of Los Angeles—might well have been a different state altogether. But Los Angeles’ mighty Pacific Electric Red Car had yet to be crushed by the automobile and its impressive fleet offered daily roundtrip services to San Bernardino. For pretty, young Frances Ridste, Hollywood was just a trolley ride away.
And Landis, like most young girls of her age, was obsessed with Hollywood movies. She belonged to that special, first generation to grow up with movies and celebrity culture as a normal part of life. She decorated her room with cutouts from fan magazines and listened to radio coverage of premieres in not-so-far-away Hollywoodland.
Although I avoided dramatics – and everything else – in school, I wanted to be a success on the stage, the screen, or the radio. So I saved my money and when I had bus fare and $16.82 over, I told my mother, Clara, I was going to leave home. She was heartbroken, but she believed in me.
But for her, this wasn’t all just normal schoolgirl fantasy: she had a very good reason for needing the escape. Her home was far from a happy, safe place for the blossoming young girl. The family was poor, and her father had abandoned her mother and her five children when Carole was still a baby. Also, she was the victim of sexual molestation–on more than one occasion–while growing up. Stripped of the innocence of having a childhood, Landis grew up much, much too quickly.
She finagled a marriage to her 19-year-old sweetheart when she was just 15 years old–her mother had it annulled, but just a few months later the married again. It lasted three weeks. She dropped out of San Bernardino High School and, even though going to Hollywood might have seemed a logical step— instead, she went to San Francisco. At the time, her dream was to be a singer, not an actress, and San Francisco was where the action was.
She started at the bottom, appearing as a Hula dancer at San Fran’s Royal Hawaiian club, before graduating to the old St. Francis in Union Square—a place where jazz greats like Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, and Artie Shaw frequently lit up the bandstand. The fearless blonde had marched into the hotel, demanding an audition, and her soft and smoky voice (coupled with a traffic-stopping figure) resulted in being hired on the spot.
The manager of the Royal Hawaiian club in San Francisco was interviewing girls to sing and dance in the floor show and when he asked me if I could sing and dance I blithely said ‘Of course, I’m great!’ when actually I was a greenhorn at both. Luckily the chorus was learning a new hula routine and in the resultant confusion no one noticed I didn’t know my right foot from my left.
After tucking away meager savings (and rechristening herself “Carole Landis” in homage to her idol, Carole Lombard) she made her way back down to Southern California where she kicked around Hollywood. Enter Busby Berkeley. According to the biography Buzz, the celebrated choreographer/director was conducting auditions for chorus girls in his current project Varsity Show. When Landis turned up in a form-fitting sweater, Berkeley’s response was immediate: “Oh, yes. We want her.” He was immediately smitten by the beautiful, bosomy blonde and managed to get her a contract with Warner Bros. He was serious about Carole and he genuinely wanted to marry her, but his mother stepped in. A salacious rumor Landis followed to Hollywood from San Francisco: that she had worked as a call girl while living there. This is, of course, completely untrue but the rumor was ever so easy for protective mothers and wives jealous of Landis’ beauty and popularity to believe…and perpetuate. Berkeley listened to his mother and the relationship was severed.
Things changed for the better with Hal Roach Studios.
Her big break came in 1940 when Roach cast her in his ambitious, big-budget production One Million B.C. He’d been won over by her athleticism and running ability, which makes sense since this was the girl who, when she was a 15, tried to organize an all girls High School football team. (The principle shut it down, saying it was too “unladylike.”) But Landis pushed her athleticism into full thrust for the film, and she did quite a good job with a uniquely challenging role which required little dialogue, relying almost entirely on conveying thought by pantomime. The film was a box office hit and Landis became … a name.
Now, director/producer/all-around-showman Hal Roach holds a unique distinction amongst his fellow Hollywood moguls in that he was something of a mensch. Not only was his studio the home of the early Harold Lloyd comedies as well Our Gang and, of course, the Laurel and Hardy shorts, but it was also a breeding ground for talent. Will Rogers, Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Zasu Pitts and Jean Harlow got their start there, as did great directors like George Stevens and Frank Capra. Roach knew how to nurture talent, which is what he did with Landis.
When you think about some of the most popular actresses from Hollywood’s golden age, you’ll find a number of have one thing in common: the great studio PR nickname. It started in the late 20s with Clara Bow being christened “The It Girl” and took off from there as a popular way for studio publicity to package their starlet’s sex appeal. You’ve got Lana Turner, “The Sweater Girl,” Thelma Todd, “The Ice Cream Blonde,” Dorothy Lamour, “The Sarong Girl,” Carole Lombard, “The Profane Angel,” Carole Lombard, and Ann Sheridan, “The Oomph Girl,”—to name but a few.
As silly (and sexist) as these monikers might have been, they were very effective publicity moves. And if anyone ever knew the value of publicity, it was Hal Roach.
I want to be as good an actress as Bette Davis, and I’d like to be a great singer. But more than that I’d like to be happily married and have some children.
And so, following the success of One Million B.C., he took Carole Landis and introduced her to the press as “The Ping Girl”. Stealing from a popular motor oil ad which claimed to take the ping out of the engine and make it purr, Roach created the slogan “The Ping Girl: She Makes You Purr.” Landis, however, took to the trades and informed them that she most certainly did not approve of the nickname and LIFE magazine seized on it, giving the starlet splashy cover story…just in time for the release of her next film, Turnabout.
The timing was a PR dream, and the film is of interest because, if for no other reason, that Landis’ smoky voice that once sang at nightclubs in San Francisco can be heard as she croons an original Hoagy Carmichael tune … while taking a shower in a bathing cap. The combination, as Film Daily proclaimed it, is a “bull’s eye.”
The film, which takes Carole Landis was in fact knocked unconscious during that scene, which considering the fact that she insisted on doing as many of her own stunts as possible, was more or less inevitable.
Carole’s next studio, Fox, would have been a terrific break for Landis, except for one problem: Darryl F. Zanuck. According to multiple contemporary accounts, the mogul’s “contract girls” were little more than his own call girls: every day he’d have them come to his office, lock the door, and have his way with whoever he wanted. His favorites? Blondes. And he took an immediate fascination to the curvaceous, luminous Carole Landis.
Don’t gossip – particularly about other women. Don’t make sarcastic and catty remarks. Kindness is the secret to true femininity.
She quickly became his favorite, and Landis found herself stuck: she was nothing more than a contract player and her contract could be canceled at any moment—and refusing Zanuck’s kisses meant kissing your career goodbye. (Bette Grable said no—but she was one of the biggest stars in town and Fox needed her.) We’re not certain how long Zanuck presumed upon Landis, but it was long enough for less than complimentary rumors to start spreading around the studio about her. Namely, her being branded the scarlet letter “M” for mistress: the studio hooker.
To the press, Landis was always resilient and strong, acting as though such hurtful rumors didn’t ruffle her in the least. The truth was, of course, quite the opposite.
After the U.S. entered the war, Carole Landis was one of many Hollywood performers who made entertaining the troops their top priority. But few meant it more than Landis. No other Hollywood actress spent as much time visiting and entertaining the troops than she did, abandoning her film career to entirely dedicate herself to the War effort.
It’s not only a duty, it’s a lark. Even if your clothes are wrinkled, your face is chapped to the ears and you’re deaf from flying in bombers, it’s like home when you come down in the midst of Americans. It’s living such as I have never known back here.
The press called her the “pride of the yanks,” and she was immensely popular with the troops. Her list of affiliations included the USO, the Hollywood Victory Committee, the Red Cross, and the Naval Aid Auxiliary. She traveled more than 125,000 miles in support of the troops, even starting a 5-month tour of Europe and Africa with Martha Raye, Mitzi Mayfair, and Kaye Francis. She would later turn the story of their time abroad into a book called “Four Jills in a Jeep.” In 1944, the book was turned into a film, starring Landis and the girls–a highly entertaining example of wartime propaganda filmmaking.
But Landis’ popularity did not sustain the decade. When she finally said “no” to Zanuck’s advances, he quickly took action to derail any hopes of becoming the A-list star she should have been. By the late ‘40s, she was reduced to playing supporting roles in B-movies. There is also, of course, the matter of Landis’ personal life.
Carole Landis married four times in her short life, none of the marriages lasting more than a year or two at most. It made her personal life a target in the tabloids, one of the most publicized affairs being an elopement with a pilot she met while filming Three Jills in a Jeep–it sounds all very romantic, only the marriage lasted just two years. After that came a Broadway producer, Horace Schmidlapp and, true to form, after two years they separated as well.
Why do people attack me for getting three divorces? It’s legal; if there’s something wrong about it, why don’t they attack the laws of the land, and let me alone?
But it was during this separation that she came into the company of Rex Harrison. In 1948, Harrison was a rising star in Hollywood, at the same time Landis’ star was fading quickly. Harrison also very much married, to actress Lilli Palmer. (Like Landis, his track record here is also spotty. Harrison has six marriages to his credit.)
Harrison’s affair with Landis was, in every sense, a torrid one, but it all came to a tragic, terrible end– one that no one, to this day, holds the true answer to.
On the Fourth of July, 1948, Landis did what countless people do on that holiday: she hosted a pool party for her friends–including Harrison. There was laughter and fun in the sun and, after the friends left, she and her lover had dinner together. It was the seventh such night in a row the two had been ensconced away together, and all indications show that Landis was serious about their future.
Let me tell you this: 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. Actresses are no exception; the glamour and the tinsel, the fame and the money mean very little if there is hurt in the heart.
She’d filed for divorce from her husband and put her house up for sale. But Harrison threw her a curve ball with the devastating news that, no, he won’t be leaving his wife.
Harrison’s biographers have all been (unsurprisingly) guarded about the affair, adhering loyally to Harrison’s explanations after her death. From Harrison biographer Roy Moseley: “Rex, knowing Carole to be a carefree girl, had not entered the affair with her with any serious intent, and could not have expected this intensity to surface in Landis. What Rex tragically underestimated was how seriously Carole took the affair. “
Whatever actual conversations occurred between Harrison and Landis are lost to time, and all we know is that just a few hours later, early on the morning of July 5th, 1948, Carole Landis would be dead at the age of 29.
Was it genuine heartbreak that drove her to consume 40 Seconals that tragic night? Was it something more sinister? Decades have been spent pouring over the possibilities of what transpired during those tragic hours, and we have just as many facts now as we did almost 70 years ago.
The only thing more tragic than Landis’ death, is the fact that the sensationalism surrounding it has come to overshadow her legacy on film. A lot of this has to do with the fact that Landis finest films, although available on DVD if you look for them, are hardly given the A-list treatment of her contemporaries. I Wake Up Screaming was given a decent release as part of the Fox Film Noir series, thanks, of course, to it being a Betty Grable film. Whereas the “Blu-ray” currently available for One Million B.C. is a joke.
Landis’ life and her work on film is in dire need of reevaluation, and hopefully, one day soon, the beautiful blonde who’s greatest fault was putting too much trust in her dreams of happiness, will get the respect and recognition she deserves.