Mae Clarke — Thirty-five Minutes To Go (1930) 🇺🇸

February 13, 2023

They say one must be born to acting. By "they" I mean that variegated segment of the public revolving in, on the fringe, or outside of, the theatrical world.

by William H. McKegg

To the players' way of thinking, it may be true. But in pure fact, it is apple sauce. The pictures, or movies, or cinema, or kinema — whichever name appeals to you most — is one of those branches of art wherein players come and go. Some rise to inspiring heights, yet few are of theatrical families.

Nevertheless, it is commonly thought that one must be born with the gift to act.

Whereupon I point to Mae Clarke.

When I saw ''Big Time" on the screen it seemed that I had walked into the lair of the Greek muses of comedy and drama — so very human was the acting of Mae Clarke and Lee Tracy. They were real!

An attaché of the Fox publicity department gave me various details of Miss Clarke's life prior to her coming to Hollywood. Glancing over the résumé, it was surprising to discover that la Clarke had not come from a theatrical family. Outside of the fact that her father was an organist in a theater in Atlantic City, that her mother had once had a hankering for the stage, no theatrical strain was in Mae's blood.

Well, no doubt you saw "Big Time." Do you not agree that Mae Clarke, with none of that old Hollywood cuteness and posturing, delivered the artistic goods and won her fans?

In "Nix On Dames" she was even better. And that is saying a lot. La Clarke has become picturized. In this second film, the camera man lighted her advantageously. She is not beautiful. Nevertheless, all drawbacks are enhanced to assets. From now on it should be interesting to see how one not born to acting can soar to the heights.

More than a week passed before I was granted an appointment. To my chagrin, it was for Saturday afternoon. I had to give up an operatic performance of Zaza. Perhaps that was as well, for having seen Geraldine Farrar in the role one has seen perfection.

"Anyway," I consoled myself, "I am about to meet a person who surely has no traits of the ordinary player."

On Saturday morning I was informed that Miss Clarke was being taken to the football game by her husband.

With Zaza lost, my expected interview gone up in smoke, the afternoon was spent in disappointment.

"However," I moaned, "she was not born to acting, and she has not had time to acquire any Hollywood ideas. She won't keep me waiting; there will be no old gags during the interview."

The day arrived. Gliding like an aspiring soul to the gate of St. Peter, I slid across the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel, took up a phone and asked for Mrs. Lew Brice.

Such is la Clarke's private name. She is married to Fanny Brice's brother.

In spite of that, she was not at home. Nor did she arrive until fifteen minutes later.

I was lifted up to the tenth floor and rang at her door.

Miss Clarke's very business-like mother bade me sit down. Then the actress herself appeared. Light-brown hair, brown eyes — both shining — give her a fresh-air appearance. A green ensemble accentuated this.

There is a frankness and breeziness about Mae Clarke that made me like her — even if I had lost my Zaza.

She made no allusion to the postponed first interview, nor did she apologize for being late for the second. I was led to surmise that on both occasions something bigger had cropped up. And who shall say she did not act natural about it?

I believe that if you can't look facts in the face and be a good sport she has little use for you.

La Clarke's biography states clearly that she abhors smoking. Either her press agent got the information twisted, or Mae has suddenly altered her habits, for she smoked all the time I was with her. Even mother did. But by now mother had departed, giving daughter a meaningful look which said, "I'll look after the time, dear. Leave it to me."

And time was flying. Duty had to be attended to. I did my little song-and-dance about it not being necessary to be a born actor.

Mae took her cigarette from her lips and stared — almost puzzled.

"I don't know about that," she said slowly, rather bewildered. "I think certain people are given various talents to use. Different people have different talents. You've got to have it in you. Acting can never be taught."

I had felt sure that la Clarke would second my remark. It seemed so obvious in her case. I recollected that the Moscow Art Theater taught acting to its protégés. The Comédie Française did the same. Also the New York Theater Guild School of Acting, of which Marguerite Churchill was a pupil.

But there! My thoughts are superfluous. Mae Clarke's are of more interest. She said, "Ever since I can remember, I hoped to go on the stage. Mother placed me with a dancing instructor when I was three years old."

Amateur performances in Atlantic City gave Mae a keener taste for the theater.

And now the big moment in Mae's early life.

"It was funny how I got my first chance," Miss Clarke related, laughing in sweet recollection and lighting another cigarette. "There was a carnival, to open Atlantic City's winter season. The girl who sold the most tickets was to be queen. I intended to be queen so I sold and sold, until I had outsold my competitors.

"We were informed at the last moment that Earl Lindsay, a producer, was to be present. He would choose one girl for a Broadway show and give her a chance.

"Instead of singing the song I had planned, I changed it to another one. When I stepped out on the stage the orchestra started to play the first piece while I sang the second. I refused to be in the wrong, and with a gesture stopped the musicians.

"'Boys,' I said, 'if you'll turn over to the next page, you'll come to the song I rehearsed this afternoon. Let's get together once again.'

"I saved myself there, but I felt I was done for. Still more, when, stepping into a tap dance, I landed after my first step in a sitting position. All the same, I was chosen by Mr. Lindsay. He had admired the competent way I put over my song-and-dance against two breakdowns."

There you are. That was Mae's narrative. And she put the act over.

From that she went into night clubs and then to vaudeville for more experience, making a tour of the Keith Circuit. Back in New York, she became leading dancer in Gay Paree, a musical show.

A short while ago she was wondering what path to tread. She could sing, dance, and act. Musical comedy or drama? Her agent persuaded her to take a test for a vaudeville film Fox was to make. It called for a girl who could do all three.

"Barbara Stanwyck was the one they wanted," Mae said, "but she was engaged elsewhere. In the test I did various scenes from The Noose. The girl's part offers her a diversified role — a singing, dancing, and acting part. It was the very thing for me. So here I am."

Here she is, children! And although she vetoed most of mv opinions, you must give her credit for thinking up her own.

Before I could broach some new topic the phone rang. I knew it was Mae's mother waiting downstairs to tell daughter that thirty-five minutes had elapsed.

"Very well," Mae said to the phone, "I’ll be right down."

My charming player had already learned some of Hollywood's diplomatic gags for hurrying interviewers on their way.

It was, of course, the signal for me to depart. And depart I did.

All I can smash home to you is the fact that Mae Clarke proves my first statement — that one does not have to be born to acting to become a good actor.

She is one of the best.

Mae Clarke is a graduate of night clubs and vaudeville.

Acting, says Miss Clark, can never be taught.

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, May 1930