A photo of Polly Walters that has been listed on EBay at $49.95.
My friend Mel Neuhaus and I have been singing the praises of the Say Girls lately—those wise-cracking dames who flourished in the pre-Code era (Patsy Kelly, Una Merkel, Isabel Jewell) and kept brightening up screens well into the 1960s (Barbara Nichols, Jayne and Audrey Meadows, the great, gravel-voiced Jean Carson).
Mention Patsy Kelly, Una Merkel or Isabel Jewell to a film fan and their face will light up: but one of my favorites is a flash-in-the-pan few remember (and oh, don’t act like you’re surprised). Saucer-eyed, deadpan blonde Polly Walters played bit parts a dozen or so Warner Bros. films in 1931 and ’32 (as well as two First National films, Union Depot and Fireman, Save My Child, Paramount’s Make Me a Star, Columbia’s By Whose Hand? and American Madness, and RKO’s Young Bride)—and then she vanished from the screen.
What happened to Polly Walters? Did she marry happily and settle down to raise a family? Did she tire of those bit parts and finds a career elsewhere? Was she recalled to the Say Girl factory for retooling, like The Six Million Dollar Broad (“We can rebuild her. We have the technology. Better than she was before. Blonder, sexier, more sarcastic”)?
She was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1913, but spent most of her childhood in Columbus (“I still claim that city as my home,” she said, leading to some bruised feelings in Zanesville). Polly started her career as a dancer, not an actress: “I guess ever since I first walked I have loved to dance,” she told reporter Martha Leavitt in 1933. She appeared in such musicals as Harry Delmar’s Revels (1927-28), Fioretta (a Fanny Brice flop of 1929), and danced cross-country in those live movie prologues that give the plotline to Footlight Parade. She reportedly toured with two men in an acrobatic adagio act, “The Three Demons,” at one point. Eddie Cantor spotted her, and she played his stooge in stage appearances, till Warner Bros. signed her in 1931.
Polly Walters was not a classic beauty; she was cute and quirky. With her platinum hair, huge eyes, long nose and prominent teeth, she rather looked like Jean Harlow had a baby with Max Schreck’s Nosferatu. Her forte was the bored, dumb-but-cynical, wise-cracking dame, and Warners’ was place for her. Except—with such competition as Glenda Farrell, Joan Blondell, Mae Clarke, Winnie Lightner, Charlotte Merriam (the “dipsomaniac and proud of it!” mother in Night Nurse), and Inez Courtney—Polly had a hard time getting good roles.
Her characters rarely had names: she was the salesgirl, the manicurist, the second banana’s date. When she was named, it was always a perfect Say Girl name: Mabel, Gladys, Lola. Most often, thanks to her wonderful nasal whine, Polly was a “telephone operator” or “switchboard girl” (Five Star Final, Manhattan Parade, Fireman, Save My Child, Love Is a Racket, American Madness). Indeed, in that last film—which was her last film—Polly played the hinge upon which the plot turned. As the gossipy switchboard girl for a bank, her loose lips do indeed sink ships. “They cast me as a telephone girl so many times I used to say ‘number, please’ in my sleep,” she complained in 1933.
After her brief but busy stint in the movies, it was off to Broadway for Polly: she costarred with Burgess Meredith in Howard Lindsay’s 1933-34 comedy She Loves Me Not, appeared (with Arlene Francis and Garson Kanin) as a “prima stripperina” in the 1935 flop The Body Beautiful, and played Peaches LeFleur (!) in Cole Porter’s hit musical Red, Hot and Blue (1936-37, alongside Ethel Merman,. Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope and a young Vivian Vance).
Things looked promising for her; of her turn in She Loves Me Not, the New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Polly Walters has caught the right impulse of comic vulgarity for the night club dancer.” Her photo was featured in the New York Herald Tribune’s review of The Body Beautiful, in which Percy Hammond praised her: “Like the sun itself, she shines on the cesspools and is not polluted. A plump young moron, she speaks in a sort of meow, and is half-girl, half-kitten.” One 1933 newspaper article called her “destiny’s latest tot . . . well up on anyone’s list” for stardom.
In 1933 and ’34, there was talk in the trade papers about a return to Hollywood: Paramount and Universal were both rumored to be signing her, with various film projects named. One press squib has her in the 1933 comedy short The No Man, but the cast listing does not show her. The last mention of her in the newspapers was in early 1935, when the L.A. Times crowed nastily over her failure to return to Hollywood fame: “ . . . she went East, made a hit on the stage again, and that was what caused her to be re-signed. However, the return is ended.”
Her last major credit seems to be the Broadway comedy The Life of Reilly, which opened and closed like a suitcase in the spring of 1942, when Polly was all of 29. Then, nothing, till she died in New York at age 81, in 1994. She didn’t even rate a Variety obit. Unless she left curious children or grandchildren with scrapbooks and letters, it’s unlikely we will ever know more of her than those vivid glimpses on film. Polly turns up every so often on TCM—keep an eye out for those dozen or so 1931 and ’32 appearances. She is hard to spot on YouTube, but I leave you with two clips. In the trailer for Blonde Crazy (a film packed to the rafters with Say Girls), Polly folds laundry and trades quips with Joan Blondell: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HN76FwVt3E. And she opens and closes this clip from her last film, American Madness, single-handedly causing a run on the bank: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_BtIFlTtPA