Today is the birthday of Marie Wilson (Katherine Elizabeth Wilson 1916-1972). Originally from Anaheim, California she broke into films in comedy shorts in the mid 30s and appeared as Mary, Quite Contrary in Laurel and Hardy’s Babes in Toyland in 1934. She specialized in playing dumb blondes throughout the 1930s and 40s, notably in films like Satan Met a Lady (1936, the 2nd version of The Maltese Falcon) and Shine on Harvest Moon (1944, the bio-pic about Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth). At the same time, she appeared frequently in Ken Murray’s Blackouts, his Hollywood based attempt to revive vaudeville.
The jewel in the crown of Wilson’s career was the title role in My Friend Irma, which she played on radio (1947-1954), in two films (1949, 1950) and on television (1952-1954). Her spacey ditzy character is a bit tough to take nowadays. There have been so MANY such characters over the years, and it’s not the most progressive thing in the world….essentially the equivalent of a blackface minstrel routine for women. (Later purveyors like Marilyn Monroe would redeem the shtick by bringing some pathos and shading to it. That was not Miss Wilson’s bailiwick). The other aspect of this of course is that she got her thunder stolen! You see, her two films My Friend Irma (1949) and My Friend Irma Goes West (1950) marked the screen debuts of a couple of shrinking violets named Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Though Wilson is the ostensible star, nobody watches those movies nowadays to see her, they watch to see Dean and Jerry cut up, and they really do steal those pictures.
After Irma went off the air (both tv and radio) in 1954, her career slowed down considerably. She played Marion Antoinette in Irwin Allen’s The Story of Mankind (1957), and she’s in the family comedy classic Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962). After this she worked sporadically until her death by cancer in 1972. Her last role was in an episode of Love, American Style.
And now, the trailer for My Friend Irma Goes West:
To learn more about film comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To find out more about the history of vaudeville (including Ken Murray’s Blackouts, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.