Choosing love altered starlet's career

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 13, 2011

Those who follow the Peanuts comic strip know that Snoopy’s great American novel always begins with, “It was a dark and stormy night.”
The winter evening in 1980 when wife, Julie, and I visited Suzanne Kaaren Blackmer at her home on Fulton Street was not dark and stormy, but it was dark and cold. Very cold. As cold inside the house as it was outside.
Our visit had started with a tour of “Turkey Trot,” a complete little village Suzanne had created on a giant sheet of plywood in the living room amidst an incredible collection of clutter.
Eventually we got around to discussing her career in the movie business. All I knew at the time was that Suzanne Kaaren had appeared with Larry, Moe and Curly three times and had played the female lead opposite Bela Lugosi in a poverty row 1940 horror film called “The Devil Bat.” I was soon to get a crash course in film history as it concerned our hostess.
A very talented young woman, Suzanne was offered a job by Flo Ziegfeld as one of his Ziegfeld Girls when she was only 15, but her parents wouldn’t permit it.
When she was only 20 (and then legally able to make her own decisions), she became one of the original Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. The next year, Suzanne landed a $150-per-week contract with Fox Film Corp., which became 20th Century Fox, and she headed to the West Coast.
She immediately went to work, playing bit parts in films with the likes of Spencer Tracy, Preston Foster, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman.
Ironically, in 1936, she appeared in the Academy Award-winning MGM blockbuster “The Great Ziegfeld,” the film bio of the man who had offered her a job nine years earlier.
Suzanne told us that during the production of the 1937 Marlene Dietrich film “Angel,” director Ernst Lubitsch (still considered one of the industry’s finest directors) made an “inappropriate pass” at her.
She said she slapped his hand and informed him that Suzanne was a “look, but don’t touch girl.” She feared she would be fired but said Lubitsch (known for such actions) just walked away.
I have to say that when Suzanne started the name-dropping of all the people with whom she had worked, I was a bit hesitant to accept it all as fact. But after she had brought out her scrapbooks filled with news clippings and candid photographs with most of these folks, I was sold. “Please continue,” I asked.
She related how she was leading lady to cowboy stars Johnny Mack Brown and Tim McCoy and had done her own horse-riding scenes. She became good friends with Johnny Mack and his wife and said that in later years, the football player-turned-actor visited her and Sidney here in Salisbury. Dale Evans and John Wayne were also friends, though she never worked on screen with either of them.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Louie B. Mayer signed Suzanne to a long-term contract in the early 1940s and pledged, with her singing and dancing talents, to groom her into a leading lady for the studio’s grand-scale musicals, along the likes of Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson and June Allyson.
Sidney Blackmer would derail those plans, through no direct actions of his own. Divorced from actress Lenore Ulric in 1939, the distinguished actor asked the gorgeous Miss Kaaren to marry him.
“I wanted to do the right thing,” Suzanne told Julie and me, “so I went to Mr. Mayer and told him of my intentions of marrying Mr. Blackmer. He stated he was completely against the idea and told me not to do so.”
Well, I’m sure anyone who ever knew Suzanne would agree that she didn’t take to being told she couldn’t do something when she wanted to do it.
“So Mr. Blackmer and I went off that weekend and were married. We didn’t have time for a long honeymoon as I had to be back at the studio on Monday morning. Arthur Freed (producer of most of the MGM musicals at that time) had told me I was going to play Judy’s (Garland) sister in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ But I was summoned to Mr. Mayer’s office that morning.”
“Uncle Louie” (as he liked his “talent” to call him) told Suzanne that she had “disappointed him by not following his advice” by marrying Mr. Blackmer and she would have to be punished. “So he took the role of Rose away from me, gave it to that @$#*% Lucille Bremer and put me in the chorus, where I remained for the rest of my years at MGM.”
No question that Mayer was a tyrant, as were virtually all of the studio chiefs. When you signed the dotted line on their contracts, they virtually owned you lock, stock and barrel. They told you where to go and with whom to go … and how long to stay. Not all that glitters is gold.
By this time, I had learned enough about the former Miss Kaaren that she wasn’t cut out to be anyone’s “property.” In a way, I’m sorry her stardom didn’t happen at MGM, but to paraphrase Sinatra, “She did it her way.”
The hour was late, so we thanked her for an incredible evening and went home to relieve the babysitter.
I relayed the happenings of our visit to my good friend, John, who shares my enthusiasm for the picture business.
He wanted to meet her as well, so I called and asked if I could drop by sometime with a friend. She was fine with that, so a bit later in 1980, when the weather was warmer, we visited her on a Saturday afternoon.
John brought along his original movie poster from “The Devil Bat,” and she signed it for him. He has the poster to this day. I had no contact with Suzanne after that until she called me for a favor.
“My car is broken down, and I really need a new doormat for my front porch. Could you pick one up for me and drop it by?”
An odd request perhaps, but I said that I would. She told me the kind she wanted, so I picked one up and took it over. I don’t recall ever seeing her again.
Many recall the morning four years later when the Blackmer house burned. It was only a matter of time before the roaring fireplace would extend into the cluttered living room.
I assume the wonderful scrapbooks she had shared with Julie and me perished along with the citizens made of bones who resided in Turkey Trot.
Most of the remaining days of her life were spent at the Blackmer apartment at 100 Central Park South in New York City, and those days were not without turmoil.
It seems there was this building owner, a near-presidential candidate named Trump, who decided to evict this “helpless little old lady” from her living quarters.
“The Donald” didn’t know Suzanne Kaaren Blackmer as did many Salisburians. Here was a woman full of “Barney Fife spunk.”
She refused to vacate and after a long, drawn-out court battle, this “helpless little old lady” beat Trump in a 1998 New York City courtroom and was permitted to stay in her apartment.
A better case of David beating Goliath I don’t know, except for the original. She would live there until pneumonia took her in 2004. She was 92.
Yes, Suzanne Kaaren Blackmer was a “character.” Yes, she had that spunk that Lou Grant didn’t like. Yes, she stepped on her share of people’s toes in her 92 years. That’s much of what made her Suzanne.
In all of the occasions we spent together, she was nothing but nice to me. She invited me to her home, which had become her stage. Of the performances she gave for me, I give her great reviews. And if she called me this afternoon, I would take her another new doormat.
Mike Cline lives near Salisbury. His website, “Mike Cline’s Then Playing,” documents all the movies shown in Rowan County from 1920 through 1979.