I hope you don’t mind if I use my column to plug a friend’s book, Michael Ankerich’s new Mae Murray biography, The Girl With the Bee Stung Lips (OK, so he did dedicate it to me. But you needn’t dedicate a book to me to get me to plug it, I also accept flat-out bribes).
Michael is both an excellent writer and an excellent researcher, a combination which is essential for a good biographer, but which is so often lacking on one side or the other. And the book is not biased, neither a “perfect, wonderful Mae!” fan-mag piece nor a “bad Mae!” hatchet job. He obviously admires and likes Mae Murray, but he does not cut her any breaks: her bad performances and bad behavior get fully covered. He also—I am torn between admiration and jealousy!—interviewed her nephew and son, neither of whom has ever talked to the press before.
Poor Mae, as you probably know, was a real-life Norma Desmond and Baby Jane Hudson rolled into one. A cabaret dancer and Follies Girl, she was whisked off to Hollywood in 1916 and became one of the more eccentric stars of the late 1910s and early ’20s. As an actress . . . well, she was one of those people who was capable of giving a brilliant performance if a stern director really put his foot down and made her stop posing and making faces and Mae Murraying all over the place. Erich von Stroheim got good work from her in The Merry Widow (1925), as did her old pal Lowell Sherman in her last two films, Bachelor Apartment and High Stakes (both 1931). In that last film—which TCM showed once, and never since!—she spends the first few reels acting so twee and bizarre you think she has lost her mind; then a plot twist in the last reel reveals what she has been up to and you go, “Ah! Now that was brave.”
But after High Stakes, it was all downhill for poor Mae, who lived in a little pink bubble and was helpless to defend herself when times got rough. Poverty and dementia led to a Grand Guignol finale for her, bless her little cotton socks.
I leave you with several YouTube clips of Mae: with her lifelong pal Rudolph Valentino in The Delicious Little Devil, 1919 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pnx5DmonZVw); some clips of her in The Merry Widow with John Gilbert—say, isn’t someone doing a book about him, too? (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEUrMTLlidA); a clip of Mae struggling with the mike in her first talkie, 1930’s Peacock Alley (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfQzkhEZnAA); and a 1922 Kodachrome test of Mae and three other actresses (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J_RTnd3Smy8). Mae comes in at 1:51, Mae Murraying all over the place in a gorgeous red cloak (the first lady shown is Hope Hampton, who basically ruined John Gilbert’s directing career—but that is a story for another day).