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Karen Morley: Still Sexy After All These Blacklisted Years 

Wednesday, Apr 21 1999
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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."

So does Morley, in the proper place -- which was not Gabriel Over the White House. "It's about a crooked president who gets knocked in the head and becomes a liberal," she says; "It's so, so silly." Actually, the president doesn't become a liberal; he becomes a dictator. But as the president's secretary, Morley acted eye to eye with Walter Huston, who was "fantastic ... he didn't seem to be doing anything, until you saw him on the screen."

In her own terse way, Morley debunks the myths surrounding Hollywood communism. Some writers have suggested that Morley's appearances in King Vidor's salute to communal farming, Our Daily Bread (1934), and Michael Curtiz's muddled expose of labor conflict in coal towns, Black Fury (1935), proved her commitment to socially conscious roles. But Morley says simply that she was asked to do them.

Filmmaker/film historian Andrew Bergman has called Black Fury "one of the real frauds of the '30s," and Morley thinks her best scene was cut out of the movie -- a tawdry-poignant set piece of her as an 18-year-old girl trying to practice the tango in her kitchen according to a printed diagram while her siblings yowl and her mother attempts to do household chores. Studio heads made sure that makers of "A" features with social themes couldn't put across the squalor or the crazy-making closeness of real working-class life. And, as Morley notes, the few directors who had the power to do so were often "con-serv-atives, like John Ford and King Vidor. Ford made some of the most progressive pictures. I did Our Daily Bread for King and that made me popular in the Soviet Union; King was amused by that."

Morley portrays herself as a small-town girl who awoke to the wider world through personal, not intellectual, experience. For example, she was raised amid garden-variety antisemitism -- a mistrust of Jews as the Other. (She humorously screws up her face to express midwestern disapproval of "people who aren't like us," whether it's Jews or the Balinese girl she portrayed at the Pasadena Playhouse.) Yet her first husband, a solid Hollywood director named Charles Vidor, was a Hungarian Jewish emigrant.

She disdains political euphemisms: "I was a 'dirty Red,' redder than the rose" she snorts, as if answering a dare. "I was what you'd call a 'pillow Red' -- I became a Communist because I fell in love with a man who was a Red and entered the Army to take care of the Fascists, and I knew it would please him if I became one. There was very little that was political about it." The man was actor Lloyd Gough; he died in 1984. Morley says that it was in the "progressive B pictures" her husband made that raw, muckraking content entered Hollywood movies: "If these B-picture guys said 'Let's make a movie about crooked doctors,' a studio boss like Harry Cohn wouldn't care as long as they delivered it on time."

While Gough was in the Army and stationed in North Carolina, Morley became involved in organizing tobacco workers. After the war, she brought her experience and energy to the union movement in Hollywood. "The Actors Guild had been held to a 10-year no-strike agreement, and when that 10 were up, the progressives in the Screen Actors Guild made all these forward-looking proposals, most of them written on my dining-room table. I was blacklisted because of this activity, so I'm not a typical anything. From that time on, I always had the studios on my neck."

After dodging HUAC subpoenas in the small town of La Quinta (outside Palm Springs), she moved to New York, where Gough found work in the theater. But Morley was still too prominent a target to get a part on stage or screen. She never acted after 1951, when she appeared in a film she has no fondness for: Joseph Losey's turgid remake of Fritz Lang's M. ("There's no comparison," says Morley; "the first one was a pip.") She did run for lieutenant governor of New York in 1954, on the American Labor Party ticket, but says, "I don't like giving speeches -- I enjoy sitting on my rump. What happened was that someone put the arm on me. I liked getting the mail; I was 'Hon.' on everything for a few weeks. And I spoke out on women's rights, like equal pay for equal work. We haven't got around to that yet."

When it comes to Elia Kazan, she says, "I know he's old -- he's my age. But I don't think it's my place to forgive him. He was awful, and he is awful. If he wants to apologize to the people he ruined, that's up to him, and I would be delighted to hear it. If they forgive him, I'll forgive him -- but not until."

-- Michael Sragow

Karen Morley will appear at the screenings of Gabriel Over the White House at the Castro at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 25, and Scarface at the Castro at 7 p.m. Monday, April 26.

About The Author

Michael Sragow

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