Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Mae Clarke
(Aug. 16, 1910 - April 29, 1992)

Feb. 7, 2010 -- There are few actresses whose entire career is remembered by one scene, and fewer still who are so completely and forever linked to a citrus fruit. But say the word "grapefruit" to any film fan, and the name of only one actress will come to mind -- Mae Clarke, who appeared in more than 100 films and TV shows, but who will always be best remembered as the woman who took a grapefruit in the face from James Cagney in "The Public Enemy" (1931).

Clarke was born Violet Mary Klotz in Philadelphia, the daughter of a movie theater organist, and started her performing career as a dancer in nightclubs and stage musicals. After making her screen debut in "Big Time" (1929), co-starring with Lee Tracy, and co-starring with Adolph Menjou and Pat O'Brien in "The Front Page" (1931), she appeared in small role in "The Public Enemy," starring James Cagney, Jean Harlow and Joan Blondell.

Clarke played the first girlfriend of Cagney, a rising star in the crime world. But Clarke didn't like what Cagney was doing, and he's looking for a chance to pick a fight with her and break up. During breakfast (after Cagney asks her to get him a drink), he picks up half a grapefruit and shoves it in her face, then heads out the door and picks up Harlow. And Clarke disappeared from the film.

That scene, and that film, made Cagney a star, and it followed both Cagney and Clarke for the rest of their lives. Whenever Cagney was in a restaurant, someone would invariably send a grapefruit to his table, and Clarke said she was so identified with that scene that it virtually ruined her blossoming career. And, though it's surpring to think today that something like a grapefruit could be so controversial, in 1931 it prompted women's groups across the country to protest and boycott the film.

The origin of the grapefruit scene has long been a topic of discussion in film circles. The scene wasn't in the original novel on which the film was based, "Beer and Blood," and wasn't in the screenplay. Producer Darryl F. Zanuck said he came up with the idea during a script conference. Writers Kubec Glasmon and John Bright said the scene was based on the story of a real gangster who threw an omlette at his girlfriend, but they thought an omlette would be too messy in the film. Director William Wellman said he came up with the idea when he saw the grapefruit on the breakfast table and told Cagney about it, but didn't tell Clarke because he wanted her reaction to be authentic surprise.

Clarke's version of the story is that she and Cagney has finished the scene -- without the grapefruit -- then Cagney came to her dressing room and said he wanted to film another version, as a joke for the crew. Cagney said he and Wellman came up with the grapefruit idea. "Come on back, we'll do the scene again, just like we forgot something and we want to improve on it," Clarke quoted Cagney as telling her. "The guys'll come back. They haven't broken the set yet. The lights are still there. And then I'll pick up this grapefruit and push it in your face and the guys will go crazy."

Clarke didn't want to do the scene, but she realized that Wellman was a powerful director, Cagney was a rising star, and she was just a supporting player who didn't want to cause any trouble. So she did the scene, after first telling Cagney that she would only do it once, and getting his promise not to hurt her. Clarke said she still thought that the grapefruit scene was just a joke for the film crew, and she was surprised to see it in the final version of the film.

Clarke also later said, "I thought that was the end of it, except they said, 'We're going to show it in the projection room tomorrow.' That was supposed to be the end of it. They had no right to put it in the picture without my permission. I gave no permission. I signed no release. I could have sued and won."

A more likely version of the story is that Wellman always intended to use the scene in the film, but didn't think Clarke would agree to it. So he had Cagney convince her that it was just a joke for the crew. And Clarke's stunned reaction of shock and humiliation wasn't the result of her not knowing what was going to happen -- in every version of the story, she knew -- but the performance of a good actress.

And if Clarke always thought that the grapefruit scene was just a joke for the crew, why are there publicity pictures of the scene? (At left, the top photo is a scene from the actual film. The bottom photo is the carefully posed publicity photo.)

When it was released -- and in spite of the threats of protests and boycotts -- "The Public Enemy" was a huge hit. At a theater in Times Square in New York City, it ran continuously, 24 hours a day. Clark's ex-husband, Lewis Brice (brother of Fanny Brice), said he would go into the theater just to watch the grapefruit scene, then leave.

After "The Public Enemy," Clarke appeared in "Waterloo Bridge" (1931), "Frankenstein" (1931), "Night World" (1932), "Fast Workers" (1933), "Penthouse" (1933) and "The Man With Two Faces" (1934), and she teamed with Cagney again in "Lady Killer" (1933) and "Great Guy" (1936).

In "Great Guy," Cagney and Clarke filmed a scene in which they were pushing trays through a cafeteria. Cagney stopped in the dessert section and said to Clarke, "The grapefruit is good here," an inside joke shared with thousands of film fans. "No, thanks," said Clarke. "I'll take ice cream." When the filming stopped, Clarke picked up a grapefruit and smashed it in Cagney's face, laughing and saying, "That's something I've been wanting to do for five years." Laughing as he wiped off his face, Cagney replied, "OK, pal -- we're even."

By the late 1930s, Clarke's career was fading and she was no longer considered a leading lady. She appeared in small and supporting roles in film and on television through the 1960s, including appearances in "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950), "Royal Wedding" (1951), "Pat and Mike" (1952), "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), "Magnificent Obsession" (1954) and "The Catered Affair" (1956), and on television in episodes of "Broken Arrow," "The Loretta Young Show," "Perry Mason," "General Hospital," "F Troop" and "Batman."

When the Screen Directors' Guild of America hosted a tribute to Cagney to honor his 30 years in films, Clarke attended and, naturally, someone stuck a grapefruit in Cagney's hand when they posed for pictures. "Darling," she said to Cagney, "I know how you hate it -- and I hated it at the time -- but I can't tell you how grateful I am for it now. What it means is that I can always get work. Talking to these casting directors today, all new to the business, and none of them knowing me from Adam -- all I have to do is identify myself as the gal Cagney socked with the grapefruit, and I automatically get a lot of attention and frequently a job."

After her final film appearance in a small, uncredited role “Watermelon Man” (1970), Clarke retired, and spent her final years at the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills, Calif. After she died of cancer in 1992 at the age of 81, the headline in the Los Angeles Times was, "Mae Clarke, Famed for Grapefruit Scene, Dies."

Clarke was married and divorced three times. She is buried at Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood, Calif., with her mother, Violet Clarke (1889-1982), and next to her father, Walter Clarke (1891-1964).

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