Dressed to the nines, MGM actress Karen Morley appeared to be the ultimate in chic, patrician haughtiness, 1930s-style. She had talent, intelligence and drive and made three dozen films throughout the decade. Many were classics, including: “Scarface” and “Black Fury” opposite Paul Muni, “The Mask Of Fu Manchu” with Boris Karloff, George Cukor's “Dinner At Eight,” King Vidor's “Our Daily Bread” and Robert Z. Leonard's “Pride And Prejudice.” The Karen Morley performance which is most often televised is the one in which she played Shirley Temple's frail mother in 1935's “The Littlest Rebel.” Although her character is a spirited supporter of the Confederate cause, even resisting the Union soldier played by Guinn "Big Boy" Williams when he tries to attack her, her slim wrists and waistline, not to mention her delicate cough, give her away. Little Shirley will soon be a motherless child.
In reality, few women in Hollywood were as tough or as plain-spoken as Karen Morley and she paid dearly for her political beliefs. She left the big screen under the cloud of the Hollywood Blacklist, never to return. But, like many who lost their careers during that era, Morley did not go gently into that good night. Later, she made appearances on dramatic television shows and participated in documentaries about Hollywood. Her perceptive remarks often supplied the most illuminating insights about the times in which she lived and worked. Towards the end of her life, Karen Morley also paid a visit to the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and those who were lucky enough to see and hear her found her unforgettable. Why Hollywood chose to forget her remains one of those still-baffling twentieth century mysteries.
A cult favorite for many movie buffs is 1932's “The Phantom Of Crestwood,” produced by RKO under an unusual arrangement with a nationally broadcast radio programme. Karen Morley plays a gal who's seen it all and done it all and who fully intends to dish the dirt on everyone: she simply can't make it through the movie alive! Luckily, there are flashbacks galore so we get to see this blonde troublemaker with the flashing sapphire eyes at her spiteful best. It's a pity that so much of Morley's work was done in overproduced MGM museum pieces and so few of her films are as much fun to watch as “The Phantom Of Crestwood.” Karen Morley was a classy woman who was out of element in the restrictive Hollywood studio system. Luckily, at 97, she outlived virtually of the big shots who tried to reign in this blithe spirit. For MM, this is MS.
© 2003 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 4/30/03