Carol Landis, born 100 years ago today

Carol Landis (January 1, 1919 – July 5, 1948) was a successful actress and singer in the early 1940s, who had a tulmultuous and difficult life even by Hollywood standards. She was married five times (to four guys), and  had relationships with Hollywood heavyweights like Busby Berkeley, Darryl Zanuck and Rex Harrison. She committed suicide at age 29. Was she a victim of a brutal system that allowed men to take advantage of girls who wanted to become stars? 

Here’s a brief bio, mostly from wikipedia. 

Carole Landis was born as Frances Lillian Mary Ridste on January 1, 1919, in Fairchild, Wisconsin, the youngest of five children of Clara Stentek, a Polish farmer’s daughter, and Norwegian-American Alfred Ridste, a drifting railroad mechanic who abandoned the family after Landis’ birth. According to Landis’ biographer E.J. Fleming, circumstantial evidence supports that Landis was likely the biological child of her mother’s second husband, Charles Fenner. Fenner left Landis’ mother in April 1921 and remarried a few months later.

In 1923, Landis’ family moved to San Bernadino, California. Landis’s mother worked menial jobs to support the family. 

Landis was married five times, none of them very happy. She had no children (she was unable to conceive due to endometriosis). In January 1934, 15-year-old Landis married her first husband, 19-year-old Irving Wheeler. Her mother had the marriage annulled in February. Landis convinced her father Alfred Ridste (who had left the family shortly after Landis was born and who, by coincidence, lived near the family in San Bernardino) to allow her to remarry Wheeler. He finally relented, and the two were remarried on August 25, 1934. After three weeks of marriage, Landis and Wheeler got into an argument and Landis walked out. Neither filed for divorce.

At the age of 15, Landis dropped out of high school and set forth on a career path to show business. She started out as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub, where she was described by her boss as a “nervous $35-a-week blonde doing a pathetic hula at her opening night at the old Royal Hawaiian on Bush Street…that’ll never get anyplace in show business” and apparently who employed her only because he felt sorry for her. She also sang with a dance band. She bleached her hair blonde and changed her name to “Carole Landis” after her favorite actress, Carole Lombard. After saving $100, she moved to Hollywood.

She made her film debut as an extra in the 1937 film A Star Is Born, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. She appeared in the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, The Emperor’s Candlesticks starring William Powell and Luise Rainer, and Broadway Melody of 1938 starring Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor.

 

5ed838be20cefeb8becdb9a263a2828a

 

Landis began a relationship with director and choreographer Busby Berkeley, appearing in musicals starring Dick Powell— Hollywood Hotel and Varsity Show — and in Gold Diggers in Paris starring Rudy Vallee.  In 1938, her two time husband Irving Wheeler reappeared and filed a $250,000 alienation of affections lawsuit against Berkeley. Even though Landis and Wheeler were estranged, he claimed that Berkeley had enticed and otherwise persuaded Landis to transfer her affections. Landis maintained that she had not seen Wheeler in years and heard from him only the previous year when he claimed to want a divorce. Wheeler’s lawsuit was dismissed, and Landis and Wheeler were divorced in 1939. In June 1939, Berkeley proposed to Landis, but later broke it off.

In 1938, she was in two films starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland (who turns 103 this year): The Adventures of Robin Hood and Four’s a Crowd. She also had bit parts in The Invisible Menace starring Boris Karloff and A Slight Case of Murder starring Edward G. Robinson. More substantial roles came in 1939 in B-movie westerns, such as Three Texas Steers starring John Wayne.

 

967da213d6d2c91c49ff242b0cf68151

Her breakthrough came in 1940 when Hal Roach cast her as a cave girl in One Million B.C. The movie was a sensation and turned Landis into a star. A press agent nicknamed her “The Ping Girl” (because “she makes you purr”). 

a1c455a7a44e3811eec844f50bf9832c

 

On July 4, 1940, she married yacht broker Willis Hunt, Jr. in Las Vegas. Landis left Hunt after two months of marriage. They were divorced in November 1940.

Landis appeared in a string of successful films in the early 1940s, usually as the second female lead. In a time when the singing of many actresses was dubbed in, Landis’s own voice was considered good enough and was used in her few musical roles. Landis landed a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox and began a sexual relationship with Darryl F. Zanuck. She had roles playing opposite fellow pin-up girl Betty Grable in Moon Over Miami and I Wake Up Screaming, both in 1941. When Landis ended her relationship with Zanuck, her career suffered and she was assigned roles in B-movies. Her final two films Noose and The Brass Monkey were made in England.

In 1942, she toured with comedian Martha Raye, dancer Mitzi Mayfair and actress Kay Francis with a USO troupe in England and North Africa. Two years later, she entertained soldiers in the South Pacific with Jack Benny. Landis traveled more than 100,000 miles during the war and spent more time visiting troops than any other actress. Landis became a popular pin-up with servicemen during World War II.

 

84d3b9695a6cebc843b54135418af8e1

 

Landis wrote several newspaper and magazine articles about her experiences during the war, including the 1944 book Four Jills in a Jeep, which was made into a movie starring Landis, Kay Francis, Martha Raye, and Mitzi Mayfair. She also wrote the foreword to Victor Herman’s cartoon book Winnie the WAC.

While touring Army camps in London in 1942, she met Army Air Force Captain Thomas Wallace. They were married in January 1943 but separated in May 1945 and divorced in July 1945.

She starred on Broadway in 1945 in the musical A Lady Says Yes, with future novelist Jacqueline Susann in a small role. Susann is said to have based the character of Jennifer North in part on Landis in her best-selling novel, Valley of the Dolls.

On December 8, 1945, Landis married Broadway producer W. Horace Schmidlapp. They separated in 1947 and Landis filed for divorce in May 1948 charging Schmidlapp with “extreme mental cruelty”.

During her separation from Schmidlapp, Landis entered into a romance with actor Rex Harrison, who was then married to actress Lilli Palmer. The affair became an open secret in Hollywood. Landis was crushed when Harrison refused to divorce his wife for her. She committed suicide on July 5, 1948 in her Pacific Palisades home at 1465 Capri Drive by taking an overdose of Seconal. Harrison was the last person to see her alive, having had dinner with Landis the night before she committed suicide.

 

0d939ff0-640f-465a-903b-bb2f658029c3_1.24238f658e324a0c0fec4449d74d537e.jpg

 

Harrison and the maid discovered her on the bathroom floor the next afternoon. Harrison waited several hours before he called a doctor and the police. According to some sources, Landis left two suicide notes, one for her mother and the second for Harrison who instructed his lawyers to destroy it. After Landis’ death, Harrison downplayed their relationship and publicly claimed that she was merely a close friend of his and Palmer. During a coroner’s inquest, Harrison denied knowing any motive for her suicide and told the coroner he did not know of the existence of a second suicide note. Landis’ official web site, which is owned by her family, has questioned the events of Landis’ death and the coroner’s ruling of suicide. 

She is interred in Forest Lawn Cemetary in Glendale in plot 814 of the “Everlasting Love” section. Among the celebrities at her funeral were Cesar Romero, Van Johnson and Pat O’Brien. Harrison attended with his wife.

Landis has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

 

6cb43efb96f4b38ff469a61ee24b8c7c

 

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the nice summary of Carole’s rather unhappy life. I don’t think she ever really got her due as an actress. BTW, Jacqueline Susann claimed that she and the gorgeous Miss Landis had an affair. You can check out my blog @ maxmcmanus.com.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s