26 May 2024

Mary Carlisle

American actress, singer, and dancer Mary Carlisle (1914-2018) starred in more than 60 Hollywood films. The petite, blue-eyed blonde made a name for herself as a wholesome ingénue in numerous 1930s musical comedies. After her marriage in 1942 and a starring role in Dead Men Walk (1943), she retired from acting.

Mary Carlisle
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 743. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Mary Carlisle
Postcard by I.P., no. 1002b. Photo: MGM. Collection: Marlene Pilaete.

Angelic looks

Mary Carlisle was born Gwendolyn Witter in 1914 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents were Arthur William and Leona Ella (Wotton) Witter. Born into a religious family, she was educated in a convent in Back Bay, Boston.

Sometime after her father's death, when she was 4,. Her mother married industrialist Henry J. Kaiser and the family relocated to Los Angeles. Mary's uncle, Robert Carlisle, a film editor and producer, allowed her to appear as an extra in the Jackie Coogan silent film Long Live the King (Victor Schertzinger, 1923).

The story goes that studio executive Carl Laemmle Jr. discovered Carlisle at the age of 14 while she was eating lunch with her mother at the Universal Studios canteen. Laemmle praised her for her angelic looks and offered her a screen test. Though she passed the test and started doing extra work at Universal, she was stopped by a welfare officer who noticed that she was underage and had to finish school first.

After completing her education, she headed to MGM. After a one-day basic tap-dancing lesson, she won a brief part alongside future star Ann Dvorak in a film. In 1930, Carlisle signed a one-year contract with MGM and had small parts in such films as Madam Satan (Cecil B. DeMille, 1930) and Passion Flower (William C. deMille, 1930).

She also had a bit role in Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932) as a bride named Mrs. Hoffman. Alongside Gloria Stuart and Ginger Rogers, she was one of the 15 WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1932.

Mary Carlisle
British postcard by De Reszke Cigarettes, no. 18. Caption: Born in 1914, Mary Carlisle entered films at the age of fifteen as the result of a try-out of a drama. She and Ann Dvorak were chosen out of 600 applicants. Her first role was with Jackie Coogan in If I Were King, and after playing leads in short subjects appeared in Grand Hotel and other films, and soon started making a name for herself in featured roles.

Mary Carlisle and Bing Crosby in Doctor Rhythm (1938)
British postcard by Art Photo, no. 169. Mary Carlisle and Bing Crosby in Doctor Rhythm (Frank Tuttle, 1938).

The standard prototype of the porcelain-pretty collegiate

Mary Carlisle's major acting break came when MGM "loaned" her out to Paramount to star in the musical comedy College Humor (Wesley Ruggles, 1933) alongside Bing Crosby. The performance was well regarded by critics and catapulted Carlisle to leading actress status.

She made two more films for Paramount with Crosby, Double or Nothing (Theodore Reed, 1937) and Doctor Rhythm (Frank Tuttle, 1938). Gary Brumburgh at IMDb: "She was the standard prototype of the porcelain-pretty collegiate and starry-eyed romantic interest in a host of Depression-era films. (...) Disappointed with the momentum of her career and her inability to extricate herself from the picture-pretty, paragon-of-virtue stereotype, Mary travelled and lived in London for a time in the late '30s."

Mary continued working for different studios, mainly in B-movies as a leading lady. One of Carlisle's few appearances in an A-movie was in Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940), opposite Lucille Ball and Maureen O'Hara. She acted in over 60 films in a career that spanned about a dozen years.

She retired after co-starring as the doctor's wife in the Horror film Dead Men Walk (Sam Newfield, 1943) with George Zucco. In 1942, Carlisle married British-born actor James Edward Blakeley, who later became an executive producer at 20th Century Fox. The couple had one son, James, and two grandchildren during their nearly 65-year marriage.

In later life, Carlisle was the manager of the Elizabeth Arden Salon in Beverly Hills, California. Her husband passed away in 2007. Carlisle died in 2018, at the Motion Picture & Television Fund, a retirement community for actors in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles. No cause of death was reported. She was believed to be 104, but never personally confirmed her age or birth date during her life. She is buried in Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California. In 1960, Carlisle received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 6679 Hollywood Boulevard.

Mary Carlisle
Big German card by Ross Verlag. Photo: Paramount.

Sources: Gary Brumburgh (IMDb), Find A Grave, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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