Vivacious, blonde Mae Clarke was exposed to cinema from an
early age, her father being an organist in a motion picture theatre. Growing up
in Atlantic City, New Jersey, she learned how to dance and, at the tender age
of 13, was already performing in nightclubs and amateur theatricals. In 1924
she was one of "May Dawson's Dancing Girls", a New York cabaret act,
where she was "discovered" by producer Earl Lindsay and promptly cast
in a minor part at the Strand Theatre on Times Square. She then performed as a
dancer and burlesque artist at the Strand Roof nightclub, situated above the
theatre (which was managed by Lindsay), and at the Everglades Club, earning $40
a week. While there she struck up a lifelong friendship with fellow actress
Ruby Stevens, who would later change her name to Barbara Stanwyck.
In 1926 Mae got her first chance in "legitimate"
theater, appearing in the drama "The Noose" with Stanwyck and Ed
Wynn. This was followed by the musical comedy "Manhattan Mary"
(1927). After further vaudeville experience Mae was screen-tested by Fox and
landed her first movie role in 1929. While she was top-billed in films like Nix
on Dames (1929), she was clearly headed for B-movie status and left Fox just
over a year later. This resulted in better roles for her, though she was generally
cast in "hard-luck" roles. She played prostitute Molly Malloy in the
hugely successful Lewis Milestone-directed The Front Page (1931)) and, on the
strength of this performance, was signed by Carl Laemmle Jr. at Universal and
cast to star in Waterloo Bridge (1931) (as a ballerina-turned-streetwalker, a
part made famous by Vivien Leigh in the MGM remake, Waterloo Bridge (1940)).
Reviewer Mordaunt Hall described Mae's complex performance as
"capital" (New York Times, September 5, 1931).
Also in 1931 she had the brief but memorable role for which
she will always be known: the hapless girlfriend on the receiving end of a
grapefruit pushed into her face by James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931). She
later appeared with Cagney (a close friend in real life) in still more
adversarial scenes, in Lady Killer (1933) and Great Guy (1936). Mae also had
some feisty comedy roles, in Three Wise Girls (1932) with Jean Harlow, and
starring in Parole Girl (1933). She was third-billed in James Whale's
Frankenstein (1931), as Elizabeth, the title character's bride-to-be. Her best
moment in the film, one of sheer terror, comes when she is confronted by the
monster (Boris Karloff) in her own bedroom