Carole Landis is known primarily as the bosomy blonde movie star who offed herself over Rex Harrison. Of all the schmucks who’ve driven ladies to leap, the idea of killing yourself over a tool like “Sexy Rexy” seems especially senseless. But in Hollywood’s Golden Years one of filmdom’s most glamorous and popular stars did indeed end her life over that Doolittle douche.
Today not many people have heard of Carole Landis, but her story is one of Hollywood’s most fascinating tales, with more twists and turns than her enviable curves.
Carole’s story begins in Midwestern Gothic luridness with a steady stream of heartbreaking details that make you periodically have to stop reading and go, “Seriously?!”, then sigh and warily dip in for more.
She was born Frances Ridste on New Year’s Day in 1919 in the aptly named burg of Fairchild, Wisconsin, to a farmer’s daughter and a “drifting railroad mechanic” who’d already abandoned the family before little Carole came along. (The “drifting railroad mechanic” wasn’t a stable family man? Quelle surprise!) Her mother was no saint either; Charles Fenner, her second husband, and the man with whom she’d been having an adulterous affair, was most likely Landis’s biological father. The youngest of five children, two of whom died in childhood, her early years were filled with poverty and sexual abuse.
Carole was such a beautiful infant she earned the nickname “Baby Doll”. According to family sources, she was sexually molested by a relative for much of her childhood. Given young Baby Doll’s shitty start in life, it’s no surprise that Carole 1) seemed much older than her years, and 2) was interested in being in show biz. Little Carole covered her walls with photos cut from magazines of movie stars like Mary Astor and Clark Gable. At age nine, little Carole ran up on stage during a local talent show and started to sing. Using make-up tricks to hide her age, she started entering beauty pageants at the tender age of twelve! (She won a pair of silk stockings and an electric heater. Who says beauty can’t buy you anything?)
In high school Landis often skipped class – “boy crazy ” was the general consensus. “I always seemed so much older than the other kids my age,” said Carole, “They seemed like tots.”
She was ahead of her classmates and ahead of her time. As a teenager she tried to form an all female football team at school, but the principal stopped her because it was “unladylike”. It’s not surprising that Carole dropped out of high school at 15 to get her whole show biz thing underway. She worked as a hula dancer in a San Francisco nightclub, she sang with a dance band, and she worked at a hamburger stand, a department store, a movie theater. She dyed her hair blonde and changed her name to “Carole Landis” after her favorite actress, Carole Lombard. She eventually saved up $100 and hightailed it to Hollywood.
The Ping Girl
Her 1937 film debut was as an extra in the original film version of A Star Is Born. Next she found herself in various horse operas and an untold number of cheesecake photos. Eventually her cheesecakery paid off big; in 1940 studio head Hal Roach cast her as a scantily-clad cave girl in the original film version of One Million B.C.. Just as it would for Raquel Welch a quarter-century later, the movie made Landis a star. Soon, just as Clara Bow had been dubbed the “It Girl” and Ann Sheridan was crowned the “Oomph Girl”, publicists gave Carole the title the “Ping Girl.”
The Ping Girl moniker was attributed to a take-off on the popular motor oil ad at the time that claimed to take the ‘ping’ out of an engine and “make it purr”.
Some claimed it was a mash-up of PIN-up Girl. Some say it alludes to Carole’s erection-generating abilities, as in “I saw her and –ping!” Miss Hard-On of 1940 may have very well been aware of this etymology; once in an interview Landis said ‘ping’ was a term in Hollywood slang, but neglected to mention for what.
Most interesting to me about the whole “Ping Girl” thing was how brilliantly Carole (or possibly her PR folks) leveraged being against the sobriquet:
“I want a fair chance to prove myself something more than a curvaceous cutie. I want to get out of bathing suits and into something more substantial. Unfortunately the publicity department of my studio does not agree. They have conceived the brilliant idea of selling me to the public as ‘the Ping Girl’. This flash of genius is to be illustrated with a series of pictures out of their files, suggestive of anything but acting talent.”
Still, Landis was well aware that being pin-uppity had been her ticket to the big time:
“Leg art did the trick — naughty leg art, if you happen to look at it in that light. When the boys needed someone to pose in a skin-tight white bathing suit, go sleigh riding in shorts, or climb a ladder in a skirt, they’d yell, ‘Get Landis!’ That made everybody happy except, maybe, the goody-goods and the bluenoses, and I suspect they took a second peek now and then.”
Like a lot of women, Carole had a lot of ambivalence about using her assets to get ahead. She posed for cheesecake photos by the thousands, but then resented all the attention they garnered.
“Heaven knows I want people to think I have sex appeal. But I also want to think I have something besides sex appeal.”
God knows Carole was a smart cookie in every sense of the word. She loved to read, and was a fan of Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, and W. Somerset Maugham. (Hemingway gifted her with a set of personally autographed books.) But it was Landis’s more physical charms that got her places, both on and off-screen. She scored a contract with Twentieth-Century Fox, and was involved with studio head Darryl Zanuck, though it’s not entirely clear to me which came first, the chicken or the egg. She was in a series of successful films, playing second fiddle to Betty Grable in I Wake Up Screaming and Moon Over Miami. But she lost a pivotal role that ended up thrusting Rita Hayworth into stardom in the soapy bullfighter pic, Blood and Sand — very likely because she ended her affair with Zanuck. In fact, her ditching Darryl got her relegated to B pictures at the studio from then on. Continue reading The Hollywood Star & Scandal You Never Heard Of