Marie McDonald: The Body

I first noticed Marie McDonald (Cora Marie Frye, 1923-65) in her last film, Tommy Noonan’s Promises! Promises! (1963), in which she is presented rather cruelly as over-the-hill, an unappealing, crazy alternative to Jayne Mansfield, who made history by going topless in the movie. McDonald’s turn was sadly ironic since she had made a name for herself as a sex symbol with the nicknames “The Body” and “The Body Beautiful” two decades earlier.

The daughter of a Ziegfeld Girl, McDonald began modelling and winning beauty pageants when still a teenager, being voted Miss Yonkers, The Queen of Coney Island, Miss Loew’s Paradise, and Miss New York State of 1939. That year she was in the choruses of George White’s Scandals and Earl Carroll’s Vanities. In 1940 she moved to Hollywood and joined Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra on the radio as a singer. She’s just an extra in her first two films It Started with Eve (1941) and You’re Telling Me (1942), but she was featured to good effect in Abbott and Costello’s Pardon My Sarong (1942). Meanwhile she was busy becoming one of the most popular pin-up girls of the World War Two era. By 1943, McDonald was the female lead in the Republic Studios B movie A Scream in the Dark. She’s the title character in the 1945 remake of Getting Gertie’s Garter. She co-starred with Gene Kelly in Living in a Big Way (1947). It was her big moment, but the movie tanked and she quarreled with Kelly. MGM bought out her contract and here begins decline. She is 4th billed in Tell It to the Judge (1949), playing second fiddle to Rosalind Russell. Third billed in Once a Thief (1950), eclipsed by June Havoc. Hit Parade of 1951 was her last film for many years.

Now on her third marriage, McDonald ostensibly retired to raise the child she was carrying, but the infant was stillborn. For a time, she sang in nightclubs, did live theatre, and cut a record. She also became addicted to drugs, smashed up a car, had violent altercations with her husband, and bore a second child, who suffered health problems because of drugs McDonald used during pregnancy. In 1957 there was an incident where, inspired by a novel she read, she faked her own kidnapping. In 1958 she overdosed on sleeping pills, but was revived. Nevertheless, despite all this notoriety, in 1958 Jerry Lewis cast her as the female lead in The Geisha Boy.

By the mid 60s, McDonald had been married seven times, to six husbands. (Twice-husband #3 and #4 Harry Karl later married Debbie Reynolds). Her many lovers included mobster Bugsy Siegel and the actor Bruce Cabot. Her last husband Donald F. Taylor had been the producer of Promises! Promises! Taylor was the one who found her one morning in 1965, dead of an overdose of sleeping pills. Three months later, Taylor took his own life by a similar method. “The Body”, indeed.

To learn more on old school show biz history, please read No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedians like Abbott and Costello and Jerry Lewis, with whom Marie McDonald costarred, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.