The life and career of a Canadian screen beauty and TV icon.
Lily Munster and Sephora, wife of Moses. Exotic desert adventure beauty and sharpshooting western firebrand (equally on target with guns or words). Think about those roles, and the type of actress it takes to ace them all. Someone earthy, beautiful and confident but not vain, someone capable and no nonsense, who will take none of your guff, definitely someone a little bit nutty, a lot self deprecating and as devastatingly funny as she is gorgeous. If you grew up watching reruns of The Munsters over a bowl of cereal and then discovered that same lady was the stunner that graced pinups and headlined Hollywood pictures through the 40s and 50s, then you know all those things describe Yvonne De Carlo. I know Canadians aren’t the only funny people in the world but I like to think we have a unique sense of humour, a wry and healthy sense of the ridiculous, and with De Carlo a big part of her success and appeal was the brains and amusement behind the glam, the sense that she was just a regular gal in on the joke of stardom, and knew the priorities of life in general, which helped her get through the ups and downs, and, along with her talent made her so fun to watch.
De Carlo was born on the outskirts of Vancouver, British Columbia in West Point Grey (now a part of the city) in 1922, or 1924 if you go by the always reliable studio bios. Before her birth, her mother told the nurses “I want a girl, it must be a girl! I want a dancer!” as if the nurses could grant her wish, but indeed it came to pass that in the middle of a storm and an accompanying thunderclap (as the family lore went) Peggy Yvonne arrived. She would later say that dramatic tale helped her think of herself as a girl who could shout the thunder down. Her father wandered away, nobody ever knew where to, or revealed it if they did, so mother raised her and soon started guiding the dancer she so wanted. From age 3 Yvonne studied all disciplines and styles, became accomplished in everything except ballet, to her disappointment. She loved school, wrote plays and won a poetry contest, sang well, soloed in the church choir and even aspired to opera.
This multitalented teen got a dancing job at the Palomar supper club in Vancouver, where she did impressions of Mae West, Eleanor Powell and Ruby Keeler. After hearing the success stories of relatives and other Canadian creatives, mother and daughter started making regular trips to L.A. to get De Carlo seen. According to which story you believe, De Carlo either won a Venice Beach beauty contest judged by the owner of the very important Florentine Gardens club, or she ended up dancing there after walking out of another club due to their topless audition requirement. Either way, she got a job as a chorus girl and was definitely being seen. There were periods without work leading to a deportation, months back in Canada where she continued to perform, as well as time spent entertaining Canadian troops. After a letter hailing her as having no equal south of the border, and a guarantee of employment, she was soon back in the L.A. clubs. At one point her big crush, bandleader Artie Shaw, steered her away from her professed goal of singing and told her he was so sure of her future in movies that he’d pay for her first acting lessons.
Sure enough, she soon appeared on screen in bit parts, and uttered her first line in 1942’s This Gun for Hire: “cigarettes, sir?” She worked through 20 or so Paramount movies playing some “girl” or another, of the hatcheck variety, the chorus type, etc. and then was let go by the studio. Producer Walter Wanger was just then conducting a search for publicity, I mean, for “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” to play the title role in Salome, Where She Danced. He picked De Carlo as That Girl, and Universal saw value in her immediately, as their poor man’s Maria Montez. Predictably, those two actresses’ lives kept crossing; De Carlo got the western Frontier Gal when Montez turned it down, and she did Song of Scheherazade with Montez’ husband Jean-Pierre Aumont. But though she began her prime movie years as a second string exotic/ethnic beauty, she quickly made the type her own and proved to be a marketable bombshell through the further adventures of Desert De Carlo (in Song of Scheherazade, Slave Girl, Casbah and Desert Hawk). She later said she was at her most beautiful in those pictures, but never bought into the hype of being the world’s most beautiful, naming Hedy, Linda, Merle and others as more worthy of that description. She also yearned to get away from sand, sandals and beaded curtains and into more serious roles.
Alongside the foreign adventures came a lot of westerns, a genre that kicked off in the most promising way with the aforementioned Frontier Gal, one of three movies she made with fellow Canadian, hunky Calgarian Rod Cameron. The pair had fantastic chemistry and a friendship off screen, two strong willed characters clashing with hilarious and romantic results. Westerns were a great place for her pluck, her grit and spirit, her passion bringing to life a tragic love story, her comedic ability perfecting that hot temper and juicy comeback, whether it was in Tomahawk, Scarlet Angel, Black Bart, Shotgun, The Gal Who Took the West, Border River, Calamity Jane and Sam Bass, or McLintock! She was thrilled (and insistent) about doing her own riding wherever possible, and was well qualified to do so since she belonged to a riding club for years and won numerous trophies.
Of course she did just as well putting her beauty and complexity to work in drama as in the noirs Brute Force and Criss Cross, where she made a most excellent femme and proved without doubt there was talent galore to go with the beauty. But not everyone was convinced at that point in her career, not enough to let her stray from the leading glam girl image and let her take character roles, and so she was talked out of (if not denied) the part Shelley Winters played in the award winning thriller A Double Life. (Fun fact: right about this time a young actress named Sophia Loren started appearing in film; she would claim De Carlo to be a major influence in her look and styling). But De Carlo never let expectations or prescribed roles or typecasting stop her, and was from the outset known for her dedication. Alec Guinness praised her comedic talents after they worked together in the comedy The Captain’s Paradise. Clark Gable, her Band of Angels co-star, praised her determination and habit of giving “everything” to her work. She learned Italian for The Sword and the Cross, she translated her nightclub act into Spanish, at a time nobody did such things, for performances in South America, and she started a business, Vancouver Film Productions.
When Cecil B. DeMille saw her “saintly” role in Sombrero, he decided he wanted her to play Moses’ wife Sephora in The Ten Commandments, and the blockbuster epic became her best known film. During the shoot she once again ran into stuntman Bob Morgan, who soon after lost his wife to illness; they eventually married and had two sons. In 1962 Morgan lost his leg while shooting How the West was Won, so De Carlo put aside their emerging marital problems and took on the role of caregiver and financial supporter. Unfortunately by then her headlining and top earning years were behind her, and with the piles of medical bills ahead of her, she told her agent to accept any job, no matter how small, so long as it paid. She soon ended up with her most familiar and lasting contribution to pop culture.
She had to audition for the role of Lily Munster in this new Gothic comedy TV series, and hesitated at the prospect of 3 hours of daily makeup to become the 150-something year old white-streaked matriarch of 1313 Mockingbird Lane, but the comedy drew her to the role. The show ran only from 1964-66 (plus movies in 1966 and 1981, plus a De Carlo cameo in a 1995 version), but through syndication it had a constant presence in homes for years to come. For her acting De Carlo said she was inspired by ZaSu Pitts, but told to play it like Donna Reed, what a combo. The best part, and what made it work, is that she thoroughly embraced the role, the fame, the renewed career hotness and fandom that came with it, even tricking out her own Jag with full horror regalia: spiderwebs, coffin rails and Munster family crest. De Carlo had become an icon to a new generation of fans, and the second wind kept her working on stage, film and TV into the 90s, with appearances on Murder She Wrote and in the Stallone movie Oscar, to name just a few. When she died in 1998 she was universally remembered as both big screen beauty and lovable Lily Munster, looks and talent recognized in equal measure.
When in 1987 she appeared at the celebration for the 60th anniversary of Vancouver’s Orpheum theater, she recalled how as a teen she worked there as usherette, showing people to their seats for the movies, probably not thinking then that she’d be in those pictures. And when in 1971 she got the chance to show off her stage talents in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, performing the showstopping tune, “I’m Still Here” she said the song must have been written with her in mind– “It was my life.” A life that involved singing, dancing, acting, a career that took her from Vancouver to Biblical epic to monster makeup, let her be sultry and funny, while reinventing herself and entertaining us.
Some of the lyrics from I’m Still Here:
I’ve gotten through “Hey, lady, aren’t you whoozis?
Wow, what a looker you were.”
Or better yet, “Sorry, I thought you were whoozis;
Whatever happened to her?”
Good times and bum times, I’ve seen ’em all, and, my dear,
I’m still here.
Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer,
but I’m here.
I’ve run the gamut, A to Z;
three cheers and, dammit, c’est la vie.
I got through all of last year,
and I’m here.
Lord knows, at least I’ve been there, and I’m here.
Look who’s here.
I’m still here.