Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013

Mae with the Bee-Stung Lips

A Golden-Curled Idol of Hollywood's Golden Years

By David Luhrssen
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Twenty-first century film buffs might know Mae Murray from only one movie, Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow (1925), but in the 1920s she was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. Michael G. Ankerich has written the first entirely reliable narrative of her life in Mae Murray: The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips (University Press of Kentucky). He will probably have the last word on the subject after finally establishing such basic facts as her date (May 10, 1885) and place (New York City) of birth.

She was born in the slums and escaped poverty as a teenage dancer on the Ziegfeld stage. By her own account, she was pursued by producer Adolph Zukor after she received glowing notices from theater critics and her biographer finds no better explanation for her arrival in Hollywood at the end of 1915. The tiny, half-rural suburb of Los Angeles was fast becoming America’s movie mecca; studios were just beginning to displace orange groves when she made her first picture, a historical costume drama called To Have and to Hold (1916). She stomped her feet a lot, complained continually and made a nuisance of herself. Murray’s movie career ended on the same note, but somehow, in between, she became a star.

By Ankerich’s description and from contemporary reviews, Murray’s movies were mostly flimsy things, yet she had a golden-curled flapper magnetism that appealed to Jazz Age audiences. However, she annoyed her bosses. Just as pictures began to talk, studio mogul Louis B. Mayer vowed she would never work in Hollywood again. He almost had his way. She made a few talkies of no great interest and disappeared from movie houses after 1931.

Sound cut short her career, not because her voice sounded weak or silly a la Singing in the Rain, but from scores being settled.

Although Murray was already too old for the parts she was famous for playing, she lived on until 1965. If she wasn’t the model for Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, it was only because she had lost her fortune to the machinations of her onetime husband, a Georgian fortune hunter, Prince David Mdivani. Murray was occasionally reduced to sleeping on park benches; mostly, she scrounged along on the kindness of admirers willing to endure her disconnection from reality. Like Desmond, she dreamed of a triumphal return—of audiences yearning to see her face again. She even co-wrote a screenplay more suited for the silent age than the Technicolor world. It was never produced.

Murray was a vain, deluded soul who saw little beyond her own craving for fame. She was ridiculous, as Ankerich more or less admits, and yet her biographer finds pathos in her dreamland. A child of grinding poverty and misfortune, she escaped through her dreams.

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