Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Stars of Public Domain: Rita La Roy (1901-1993)

Although seen more often in supporting roles in A movies than poverty row B fare, Rita La Roy was in many aspects a brunette version of Natalie Moorhead. Both were renowned clotheshorses both on and off the screen and both saw their careers decline in the late 1930s.

The following essay first appeared under my byline on the All-Movie Guide database website:

Dark and sultry-looking, Rita La Roy was burlesque queen Taxi Belle Hooper in Josef Von Sternberg's The Blonde Venus (1932) and thus on the receiving end of some of Marlene Dietrich's more stinging barbs. The role should have been a breakthrough but thanks to censorship (even pre-code censorship) most of La Roy's footage ended up on the cutting-room floor and she spent the remainder of her screen career playing catty and sometimes downright vituperative women in potboilers. The daughter, she claimed, of a French actress and a British nobleman, La Roy (born Ina Stuart, but in Idao and not Paris) had been a dress designer and stock company actress prior to making her screen debut in 1929. The Delightful Rogue (1929), opposite matinee idol Rod La Rocque, earned her a contract with RKO and she played a femme fatale in Check and Double Check (1930), an attempt to turn radio's Amos 'n' Andy into viable screen stars and perhaps her most visible film today. "In movies just for the money," as she often stated, La Roy apparently never turned down a role, no matter how miniscule, and her subsequent career was mostly spent playing minor vamps. She retired in 1943 but returned to the screen to play a fashion editor in You're My Everything (1949), a backstage musical from Fox, and perform a bit on early television.

Although always rumored to have been a lesbian, Rita La Roy was nevertheless married twice: 1931-1935 to Ben Hershfeld, her agent; and 1943-? to A.G. "Hank" Foley, "a well-known horse breeder." Since I included Rita in my book "Vixens, Floozies and Molls" in 1999 and submitted the above essay to AMC around 2002, I've learned that the former actress became a sort of 1950s version of Janice Dickinson, running her own modeling agency. By 1960 she had her own local Pasadena, CA television show, the Rita La Roy Show, where she and guests like Mr. Blackwell would discuss fashion and makeup tips. The show aired at 11 am on Saturdays, sandwiched between reruns of Mr. and Mrs. North and I Love Lucy.

In July of 1963 Rita La Roy, “stage, screen and television star and head of the world's largest modeling and charm school,” and Hollywood makeup man Mike Westmore were guest speakers at a seminar organized by the Studio Girl Cosmetics Co. of Glendale, CA.  And on June 7, 1969, the Van Nuys News announced that Rita La Roy, “former model agency owner, who is now writing a television series for Latin-American stations,” would be the guest speaker at the “sixth annual Woman of the Year presentation of the Burbank Junior Chamber of Commerce Women's Auxiliary” at the Five Horsemen Inn. She later ran a business engaging women to sell encyclopedias in their spare time.

Check and Double Check (RKO, 1930) PD *

Amos 'n' Andy come to the screen courtesy of Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll, who recreate their radio characters in a stretched-out feature film version. The two language-mangling cab drivers unwittingly get involved with a case of a stolen deed that if recovered will provide poor Richard Williams (Charles Morton) with the means of marrying upper crusty Jean Blair (Sue Carol). Standing in the way of love conquering all are the Crawfords, Ralph (Ralf Harolde) and Eleanor (Rita La Roy), a tougher than nails pair of schemers. Amos and Andy, however, save the day and are soon back in the good graces of their (uncredited) girlfriends, Madame Queen and Ruby Taylor.

This is truly a matter of “we'll watch this so you don't have to.” To say that Check and Double Check makes for uncomfortable viewing is to state the obvious. Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll were white comedians and what could work on radio – and did, to an astonishing degree, for decades despite the inherent racism of Caucasians assuming “black” accents – was close to outright repulsive when acted out before the cameras. It is that way today and it was that way then, nothing much has changed. Yes, Check and Double Check made money for upstart sound film factory RKO but the embarrassment was enough to leave Amos 'n' Andy to the radio airwaves until actual African American performers could be persuaded to do a television version in the early 1950s. As for the white supporting cast, well, La Roy, Harolde, Carol, Morton and Irene Rich (who certainly should have known better having been a major star in the 1920s) perform their tasks with typical early talkie spirits. That is, slightly over-the-top and somewhat screechy.

The Honor of the Press (Mayfair Pictures Corp., 1932) PD ***Enterprising cub reporter Daniel Greeley (Edward J. Nugent) gets suspicious when a rival newspaperman, Larry Grayson (Reginald Simpson), phones in a news flash about one of the notorious Gold Baron's robberies even before said robbery has taken place. Is newspaper owner Roger Bradley (Bryant Washburn), whose daily Golden Nugget column remains a constant irritation for his city editor (Russell Simpson), actually the Gold Baron himself? And is he in cahoots with Grayson and the paper's gossip columnist, Daisy Tellem? Well, Daniel and his hat check girlfriend, June (Dorothy Gulliver) will soon find out – if they can survive a hail of machine gun bullets!

Gossip columnist Daisy Tellem (tell 'em, get it?) is played by Rita La Roy, of course, who earns top female billing in this Mayfair production despite her role being clearly subordinate to ingenue Dorothy Gulliver. Not to mention the fact that Daisy disappears entirely from the picture in the climactic 20 minutes or so. But before that, and in typical pre-code manner, Daisy has displayed her lovely gams to young Greeley after suggesting that he strike his match on the bottom of her shoe rather than the desk. Greeley gets his thrill and Daisy gets to reveal that she had earlier displayed her legs before both Florenz Ziegfeld and George White, rival Broadway connoisseurs of pulchritude. La Roy also has a typically snooty encounter with Miss Gulliver (“Glad to know you,” she says insincerely when introduced) and her presence is actually sorely missed when she suddenly disappears. Leading man Eddie Nugent is quite good in a breezy Depression era sort of way and the supporting players are all well-known professionals around Poverty Row. Which is where Mayfair Pictures Corporation was located, in the old Charles Ray Studio at 4376 Sunset Boulevard  in Hollywood, a complex that later became Monogram Pictures (The Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi filmed there,) and is today public television KCET. Mayfair came out of sound technician Ralph M. Like's Action Pictures (Mrs. Like, the lovely and untalented Blanche Mehaffey, appeared in plenty of the films) and existed 1932-1934. The studio's perhaps best remembered film was the mystery The Monster Walks (Action Pictures, 1932).

Rita La Roy at her haughtiest confronted by Rosalind Keith (left) in Columbia's Find the Witness (1937 not PD)

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