September 8th, 2009

carole lombard 02
  • vp19

When an actress needs a friend

Among the many glories of classic Hollywood was its supply of supporting players, actors who weren't stars but were integral to the success of a film and popular in their own right. During her career, Carole Lombard worked with quite a few of these supporting players, including one who's the subject of the entry today.

Her name was Una Merkel, and her specialty -- or at least the role she was invariably cast in -- was playing the leading lady's best friend. (To be sure, other actresses made a career of it, too; think of Pert Kelton's saucy support of fellow hooker Constance Bennett in the pre-Code gem "Bed Of Roses." But Merkel was most identified with the type.) Here's Merkel, right, in one such role, with Loretta Young in "Midnight Mary" from 1933, a year Merkel appeared in 13 films:

Merkel was born in Covington, Ky., just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in 1903, and began as a stand-in for Lillian Gish in fellow Kentuckian D.W. Griffith's "Way Down East" in 1920. She focused on stage work for much of the twenties (although she did appear in a 1923 Lee De Forest experimental sound short), but turned to films in 1930, reuniting with Griffith to play Ann Rutledge in his "Abraham Lincoln." Such period pieces would be rare for Merkel during the '30s, as she was blessed with a figure that made her perfect for showgirls and other contemporary types:

In fact, she played a showgirl in "42nd Street" (1933), the film that arguably revived the musical genre.

But as stated earlier, Merkel was usually found as the heroine's best friend; her soft southern accent and no-nonsense wisecracking made her an ideal complement to many of the era's top stars, such as Jean Harlow ("Red-Headed Woman," "Bombshell," "Saratoga"), Myrna Loy ("Evelyn Prentice"), Marlene Dietrich (though not as a friend -- they had a memorable catfight in "Destry Rides Again"), and of course Lombard. They worked together in "True Confession":

That photo, featuring Lombard in a jam and Merkel there to lend support, is being auctioned at eBay -- but you don't have much time; bidding closes at just after 9:95 p.m. (Eastern) tonight. Bidding begins at $24.99, and no one has bid on it as of this writing. For more, visit

The type of screen roles Merkel was best known for faded during the 1940s, so she focused more on stage work and made relatively few films. She won a Tony for best supporting actress in a drama for "The Ponder Heart," and five years later was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress in "Summer And Smoke." She retired from acting in the late sixties (her last credit was on an "I Spy" episode in 1968), and died in January 1986 at age 82.

Not long afterward, I saw a classified ad in Hollywood Studio Magazine that read, "Una Merkel has no headstone!" and listed an address in Kentucky to mail funds. I sent $5, and evidently others contributed too, because this is now at her resting place:

The one time she needed a friend, the audience came through.
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