Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy
The Siren has nothing but work today, but fret not. Robert Avrech has an excellent post up at Big Hollywood about Mae Clarke, the female half of a breakfast gone very, very wrong.
The Siren's admiration for William Wellman's movies just keeps growing, and so some time back she saw the William Wellman episode from The Men Who Made the Movies. And of course the director discussed Public Enemy's most famous scene. (You can read an interview with Scott Eyman that touches on the same thing here.) Wellman wryly noted that he was embarking on a third marriage, the woman was giving him grief, and the director said he would have loved to cut her off in mid-sentence the same way. But, he added, there was no need, once it was on film. (Wellman also claimed the moment was in the script as Cagney throwing the grapefruit.) Almost eighty years after the picture was made, that grapefruit half smashing into Mae Clarke's face still makes most of us wince.
It was a bitter sort of screen immortality for the talented but star-crossed Clarke, who was wonderful in the original Front Page and Waterloo Bridge, and showed she could have done much more opposite Cagney when she gave a warm, charming performance in his low-budget Great Guy vehicle five years later. Clarke had just divorced Fanny Brice's brother when Public Enemy came out and in his memoirs, Cagney talked about how Monte Brice would go into showing after showing, wait for the grapefruit, "gloat," then leave. Cagney also claimed that the bit of business derived from a gangster in Chicago who shoved an omelette in the face of his girlfriend when her breakfast chitchat began to weary him. The eggs, Cagney says, "would have been a shade too messy," so grapefruit it was.
Clarke's story of the scene is even more disquieting than that of Cagney or Wellman, so do go, read, even if Big Hollywood ordinarily isn't, um, your thing. Robert goes deep into Clarke's truncated career and unhappy life, and it's a splendid tribute to her.
The Siren wonders if Clarke got some small measure of vengeful satisfaction in knowing that for the rest of his life, Cagney seldom went into a restaurant without some joker sending him a plate of grapefruit.