Yvonne De Carlo (born Margaret Yvonne Middleton; September 1, 1922 – January 8, 2007) was a Canadian-American actress, singer, and dancer whose career in film, television, and musical theater spanned six decades.
She obtained her breakthrough role in Salome, Where She Danced (1945), produced by Walter Wanger, who described her as "the most beautiful girl in the world." Success followed in films such as Criss Cross (1949) and The Captain's Paradise (1953). Her film career reached its peak when director Cecil B. DeMille cast her as Sephora, the wife of Moses, her most prominent role, in his biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956).
Yvonne De Carlo was born on September 1, 1922, in West Point Grey (now part of Vancouver), British Columbia, as Margaret Yvonne Middleton. She was generally known as "Peggy". She was the only child of William Middleton, an Australian-born salesman, and Marie DeCarlo (August 28, 1903 – December 19, 1993), a French-born aspiring actress of Sicilian and Scottish origin. Her mother had run away from home at 16 to become a ballerina. After several years of working as a shop girl, she married. Peggy [Yvonne] was three years old when her father abandoned the family. She then lived with her grandparents, Michele "Michael" de Carlo (c. 1873 – July 1, 1954), who was born in Messina, Sicily, and Margaret Purvis (December 30, 1874 – October 26, 1949), who was born in Scotland.
When De Carlo was ten her mother enrolled her in the Jean Roper School of the Dance in Vancouver.
By the time she entered grade school she found her strong singing voice brought her the attention she longed for. De Carlo was taken to Hollywood, where her mother enrolled her in dancing school. Mother and daughter were uprooted when their visas expired, and ultimately they returned to Vancouver.
Entry into show business
She was hired by showman Nils Granlund as a dancer at the Florentine Gardens. She had been dancing for Granlund only a short time when she was arrested by immigration officials and deported to Canada, but in January 1941, Granlund sent a telegram to immigration officials pledging his sponsorship of De Carlo in the U.S., and affirmed his offer of steady employment, both requirements to reenter the country.
Seeking contract work in the movies, she abruptly quit the Florentine Gardens after less than a year, landing a role as a bathing beauty in the 1941 Harvard, Here I Come. Other roles were slow to follow, and De Carlo took a job in the chorus line of Earl Carroll. During World War II she performed for U.S. servicemen, and received many letters from GIs.
In May 1941, she appeared in a revue, Hollywood Revels. A critic from the Los Angeles Times reviewed it saying that the "dancing of Yvonne de Carlo is especially notable." In December 1941, she was dancing in the revue "Glamour Over Hollywood" at Florentine Gardens. Being a skilled horserider, she also appeared in a number of West Coast rodeos.
De Carlo's earliest screen appearances were in Columbia Pictures, including the feature Harvard, Here I Come! (1941) and the two-reeler comedy Kink of the Campus (1942). She sang and danced in a three-minute Soundies musical, The Lamp of Memory (1942), shown in coin-operated movie jukeboxes, and later released for 16mm home movie showings and television by Official Films. She also appeared as a Native American "princess" in an independently produced version of The Deerslayer released in 1943 by Republic Pictures.
De Carlo was spotted dancing at a Hollywood nightclub by a Paramount talent scout, who signed her to the studio as a back up Dorothy Lamour – what the New York Times later dubbed a "threat girl... for when Dotty wanted to break away from saronging." She was kept busy in small roles and helping other actors shoot tests. "I was the test queen at Paramount," she said later. But De Carlo was ambitious and wanted more. "I'm not going to be just one of the girls," she would say.
Cecil B. DeMille saw de Carlo in So Proudly We Hail!, and arranged for her to be screen-tested and interviewed for the role of Tremartini in Cecil B. DeMille's The Story of Dr. Wassell (1943); it was announced she would play a key role. She wasn't cast in the end, but DeMille promised to "make it up" to her on another film "in the future."
De Carlo was set to replace Dorothy Lamour in Rainbow Island, but Lamour changed her mind about playing the role. De Carlo was given a bit part in the final movie.
Salome, Where She Danced
De Carlo received her big break in September 1944 when she was chosen over a reported 20,000 girls to play the lead role in Salome, Where She Danced (1945), a Walter Wanger production in Technicolor. Wanger would later claim he discovered De Carlo when looking at footage for another actor in which De Carlo also happened to appear.
Another source says 21 Royal Canadian Air Force bombardier students who loved her as a pinup star campaigned to get her the role. De Carlo later said this was done at her behest; she took several pictures of herself in a revealing costume and got two childhood friends from Vancouver, Reginald Reid and Kenneth Ross McKenzie, who had become pilots, to arrange their friends to lobby on her behalf.
Though not a critical success, it was a box office favorite, and the heavily-promoted De Carlo was hailed as an up-and-coming star. In his review for the film, Bosley Crowther of the The New York Times wrote:
"Miss De Carlo has an agreeable mezzo-soprano singing voice, all the 'looks' one girl could ask for, and, moreover, she dances with a sensuousness which must have caused the Hays office some anguish. The script, however, does not give her much chance to prove her acting talents."
Salome was released by Universal who signed de Carlo to a long-term contract. She was used by the studio as a backup star to Maria Montez, and indeed stepped into a role rejected by Montez when she starred in Frontier Gal. In 1946, exhibitors voted her the ninth-most promising "star of tomorrow."
De Carlo wanted to act in different types of movies and was given a small role in Brute Force. She was then cast in her first important role opposite Burt Lancaster in the film noir Criss Cross (1949). Bosley Crowther noted that De Carlo is "trying something different as Anna. The change is welcome, even though Miss de Carlo's performance is uneven. In that respect, she is right in step with most everything else about Criss Cross." De Carlo considered the role the highlight of her career to date.
However, Universal preferred to cast De Carlo in more conventional fare – Black Bart (1948), Casbah (1948) and River Lady (1948). She made three movies in 1949 and 1950, The Gal Who Took the West, Buccaneer's Girl and The Desert Hawk, all directed by Frederick de Cordova.
When De Carlo was in England making Hotel Sahara in early 1951, she asked Universal for a release of her contract even though she still had three months to go; the studio agreed. After that, she signed to make one film a year for Universal for three years, but actually did not return to the studio until 1955.
De Carlo travelled extensively to promote her films, and her appearances were widely publicised. In 1951 she became the first American star to visit Israel.
Trained in opera and a former chorister at St Paul's Anglican Church, Vancouver, when she was a child, De Carlo possessed a powerful contralto voice. In order to expand her appeal she began frequently singing on television and trained in opera. In 1951 she was cast in the role of Prince Orlovsky in a production of the opera Die Fledermaus at the Hollywood Bowl.
De Carlo was also a successful character actress on television. She made her debut on a 1952 episode of Lights Out. The part led to other roles in The Ford Television Theatre, Shower of Stars, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Bonanza, Screen Directors Playhouse, Burke's Law, Follow the Sun (2 episodes), Adventures in Paradise, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game and The Virginian, among others.
She starred in the British comedy The Captain's Paradise (1953), as one of two wives a ship captain (played by Alec Guinness) keeps in separate ports. Crowther described her in the film as "wonderfully candid and suggestive of the hausfrau in every dame."
In 1954, after the success of The Captain's Paradise, she expressed a desire to do more comedy:
"I've had my share of sirens and am happy to get away from them, no matter what the part. Just to look pretty on the screen as a romantic lead is probably all right, but – so what? I'd much rather do something in a good Western provided there's plenty of action. Action is what I like."
The Ten Commandments and last notable film roles
In September 1954, director Cecil B. DeMille cast her as Sephora, the wife of Moses (played by Charlton Heston), in his biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956). She prepared extensively for the role, taking weaving lessons at the University of California, Los Angeles, and shepherding lessons in the San Fernando Valley. Months before filming began, she had worked on the part with a drama coach. Her performance was well received by film critics, described as "notably good" by Bosley Crowther. In his autobiography, DeMille explained why he decided to cast De Carlo as Moses' wife:
"I cast Yvonne De Carlo as Sephora, the wife of Moses, after our casting director, Bert McKay, called my attention to one scene she played in Sombrero, which was a picture far removed in theme from The Ten Commandments, I sensed in her a depth, an emotional power, a womanly strength which the part of Sephora needed and which she gave it."
De Carlo released an LP record of standards called Yvonne De Carlo Sings on Masterseal Records in 1957. This album was orchestrated by future film composer John Williams under the pseudonym "John Towner."
Her last notable screen appearances were in the Civil War drama Band of Angels (1957), with Clark Gable and Sidney Poitier; the Italian biblical epic The Sword and the Cross (1958), with Jorge Mistral and Rossana Podestà; and the western comedy McLintock! (1963), with John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara.
The Munsters and last appearances
De Carlo was in debt by 1964 when she signed a contract with Universal Studios to perform the female lead role in The Munsters opposite Fred Gwynne. She was also the producers' choice to play Lily Munster when Joan Marshall, who played the character (originally called "Phoebe"), was dropped from consideration for the role. When De Carlo was asked how a glamorous actress could succeed as a ghoulish matriarch of a haunted house, she replied simply, "I follow the directions I received on the first day of shooting: 'Play her just like Donna Reed.'" She sang and played the harp in at least one episode ("Far Out Munsters") of The Munsters. After the show's cancellation, De Carlo reprised the role as Lily Munster in the Technicolor film Munster, Go Home! (1966), partially in hopes of renewing interest in the sitcom. Despite the attempt, The Munsters was cancelled after 70 episodes. Of the sitcom and its cast and crew, she said: "It was a happy show with audience appeal for both children and adults. It was a happy show behind the scenes, too; we all enjoy working with each other." Years later, in 1987, she said: "I think Yvonne De Carlo was more famous than Lily, but I gained the younger audience through The Munsters. And it was a steady job."
Butch Patrick who played Eddie Munster said in a 2013 interview with Rockcellar magazine: "Yvonne would be a maternal influence. She'd be a mom because my mom wasn't around so she'd be a matriarch, not only on the show but when I'd see her outside of the makeup on Mondays and Tuesdays. Once in a while she'd bring her kids down to the set."
After 1967, De Carlo became increasingly active in musicals, appearing in off-Broadway productions of Pal Joey and Catch Me If You Can. In early 1968 she joined Donald O'Connor in a 15-week run of Little Me, staged between Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas. Her defining stage role was as "Carlotta Campion" in Stephen Sondheim's musical, Follies in 1971-1972. Playing a washed-up star at a reunion of old theater colleagues, she introduced the song "I'm Still Here," which would become well-known.
She had a small cameo role in a television film remake of The Munsters, Here Come the Munsters in 1995. Her final film appearance was in the 1995 television film The Barefoot Executive, a Disney Channel remake of the 1971 film of the same name.
In 1954 she told a journalist:
"I think it is wonderful to work. I dedicate more time now than ever to study. I really like to delve deeply into the characters and the stories in order to make the most of each part I play. It seems best to remain free of any serious romantic attachments under these circumstances. I will have to meet an exceptional and understanding person, indeed, before I think of marriage. I haven't met such a person yet."
De Carlo married stuntman Robert Drew Morgan, whom she met on the set of Shotgun, on November 21, 1955. They had two sons, Bruce Ross (b. 1956) and Michael (1957-1997). Morgan had a daughter, Bari Lee (b. 1947), from a previous marriage.
Morgan lost his left leg after being run over by a train while filming How the West Was Won (1962). However, his contract with MGM assumed no responsibility for the accident. De Carlo and Morgan filed a $1.4 million lawsuit against the studio, claiming her husband was permanently disabled. They divorced in June 1974. DeCarlo's mother died in 1993 from a fall. Her younger son Michael died in 1997.
De Carlo suffered a minor stroke in 1998. She later became a resident of the Motion Picture & Television Country House and Hospital, in Woodland Hills, where she spent her last years. She eventually died from heart failure on January 8, 2007, and was cremated.
Awards and honors
- In 1957, she received a BoxOffice Blue Ribbon Award for The Ten Commandments (1956).
- In 1960, she was awarded two stars (for motion picture and television) on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
- In 1964, she received a second BoxOffice Blue Ribbon Award for McLintock! (1963).
- In 1966, she was named honorary mayor of North Hollywood.
- In 1987, she won the Fantafestival Award for Best Actress for American Gothic.
- In 2005, she was one of the 250 female legends nominated for the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Stars.
- In 2007, she was nominated for the "Who Knew They Could Sing?" TV Land Award for The Munsters.