Karen Morley: Still Sexy After All These Blacklisted Years

LOS ANGELES -- There's an irony at the center of The Unvanquished, the festival series "that honors filmmakers who have faced repression and censorship." The blacklisted honorees have been sharp, humorous individuals -- though at the time of their persecution they were pictured as dour zealots and ideologues. Last year's honoree, John Berry, zipped through an entire Borscht Belt routine before breaking matzo with me in a New York hotel room. This year, Karen Morley, who played a stunning moll named Poppy in Howard Hawks' Scarface back in 1932, suggested we talk at "a fun place to eat" when I picked her up at her North Hollywood home. Wearing a plastic fruit-and-vegetable bag instead of a rain hat to protect herself from a torrential downpour, she guided me ever closer to Burbank, reassuring me that I was "doing fine," then asking whether I "saw him yet."

The "him" turned out to be the trademark figure of Bob's Big Boy. Once inside, Morley ordered her favorite plate: deep-fried French toast and a thick ham steak.

Even when she's wearing makeshift rainwear or chowing down on unpretentious grub, there is something regal about Morley in her 90s -- a firm yet playful politesse. (She lists her age as 90; others say 93.) Apparently, she never lost her mastery of the flirtatious brand of mime that makes her a knock-out even in messed-up movies like Gabriel Over the White House (1933). She fended off a potential coffee spill tidal wave from the next booth with a raised-palm, raised-eyebrow combination that acted on the waitress like an SOS. She punctuated her replies to questions with gestures and expressions that either expanded her answers or made a whole line of inquiry seem flabby and unnecessary. There's nothing fake or sentimental about her -- whether talking about Old Hollywood or the Old Left, she has the welcome bluntness of a grande dame who no longer has to give a damn.

In an invaluable collection of interviews called Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (edited by Pat McGilligan and Paul Buhle, and recently reprinted in paperback), Morley's questioners position her as a conscious fighter against anti-female, anti-proletarian stereotypes from her earliest days in Hollywood. But in our talk she emphasized instinct, emotion, and the honest job of movie acting. She was born in Ottumwa, Iowa -- "it means rippling water," she notes with amusement -- and came to Hollywood at age 14 because she was tubercular and needed its hot, dry, pre-smog climate. She was always a regular moviegoer, though not if the theater manager warned her parents that a movie depicted a child, woman, or animal being abused.

Morley spent a year at UCLA until the family financing ran out, then worked in a department store ("but there didn't seem to be much future in that") and acted in workshop productions at the Pasadena Playhouse before making the rounds of Hollywood casting offices. She was at MGM one day when Hedda Hopper was asked to read lines with a young leading man named Kent Montgomery. Hopper said she was too old, but Morley volunteered -- "I would have tested the furniture if they'd asked me" -- and impressed the director, Clarence Brown, who put her into her first picture (Inspiration, in 1931). She became a contract player at Metro. Though she turned down roles she thought degrading, like that of a landowner's daughter who horsewhips peons then gets horsewhipped herself in Villa Rides, she says, "I mostly did what they gave me. I was glad to have the work."

Metro loaned her out to Howard Hawks for Scarface. Morley had her pick of the female leads: the blonde vamp Poppy or Scarface's brunette sister Cesca, for whom the gangster has an incestuous yen. Cesca was the juicier role, and she would have worn "the prettiest wig, full of black curls, and beige," but Morley chose to do Poppy. She says this was "probably the nicest thing I did in my life, since Ann Dvorak, a darling girl, would never have gotten the other part. She was all wrong for it. Playing the sister made a star of her." Scarface, Morley says, was "the most fun I had making a picture. Everybody was in awe of Paul Muni, he was so great. I was just barely of age, and that set was an exciting place to be. It was all men, and there I was prancing around in gowns that barely got past the censors."

Like the other directors she toiled for in the '30s, Hawks didn't confer with the actors. It was Morley who created her character's wary sensuality, put-down humor, and ambiguous emotions -- which are apparent even in the oft-reprinted shot of Poppy in the Paradise nightclub (a production still snapped on the set but not duplicated in the movie). Morley respected directors like Hawks for getting what they wanted without dithering with the ensemble, and Scarface is one of the few films she made that she says she'd like to see again. Her favorite line was someone else's: It belonged to Scarface's bodyguard, who tells his boss, after they take in a "serious" play, "I like a show with jokes."

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