Nancy Carroll: The Hoofer in “Hot Saturday”

I love it when you think there won’t be much to a story, then you scratch beneath the surface and there turns out to be lots. I knew Nancy Carroll (Ann Veronic Lahiff, 1903-1965) chiefly from Hot Saturday (1932), one of my wife’s favorite Pre-Code movies, and one of Cary Grant’s first vehicles (it’s even before the two Mae West movies he did, She Done Him Wrong and I’m No Angel). Also, I’ve had occasion to mention her here about a half a dozen times in posts on other performers. She was a big star in the last days of silent and early talkies, though most of her movies have fallen into obscurity, taking her with them. But her life becomes much more interesting if you explore beyond the mere filmography.

Carroll’s uncle was a Broadway character named Billy Lahiff. Like the Cohans, the Lahiffs were originally from Providence’s Irish community. Billy was 16 when he came to NYC and got a job at the Waldorf Astoria as a wine steward, where he was priveleged to serve the likes of Diamond Jim Brady, Harry K. Thaw, et al. Within a few years he put together the wherewithal to open a succession of popular restaurants: the Gayety Cafe (46th and Broadway), the Strand Cafe (47th and Broadway), the Strand Chop House (47th, off Broadway), and finally Lahiff’s Tavern (156-158 48th Street), which opened in 1922. In addition to serving Broadway talent like Al Jolson, Harry Richman, Bert Lahr, Paul Whiteman, and Bert Wheeler (of Wheeler and Woolsey), and Mayor Jimmy Walker, Lahiff’s rented apartments on upper floors, where important people like Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan, Jack Dempsey, and Sherman Billingsley (who later founded the Stork Club) hung their hats. After Lahiff passed away, Toots Shor managed the place for a while. For much more on Billy Lahiff go here.

Anyway, Lahiff’s prominence explains how his three nieces Ann (Nancy), Theresa (Terry) and Elsie began to get work as Broadway chorus girls without much of a career prior to that. Ann and Terry danced in The Passing Show of 1923. All three were in Big Boy with Al Jolson in 1925. Terry Carroll appeared in another half dozen Broadway shows through the early ’30s. Elsie was in a couple more through 1927. Nancy’s first speaking part was in a 1925 show called Mayflowers which featured Robert Woolsey of Wheeler and Woolsey. I’ve found several references to a “Carroll Sisters” playing the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit from 1927 through 1929. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that this act was comprised of a couple of these particular Carrolls (the burlesque Carroll Sisters didn’t start until the ’30s). Ann (Nancy) was said to have won a contest in an act with Elsie prior to the Broadway phase. Like the girls of Petticoat Junction, Nancy had red hair, Terry blonde, and Elsie black.

The transition from dancer to actress was no doubt helped along by the fact that in 1925 Nancy married playwright Jack Kirkland. Circa 1926, the Kirklands moved to Hollywood. Nancy was spotted by movie scouts while playing Roxie Hart in a local stage production of Chicago. Kirkland soon found work in the industry as a screenwriter. They were only hitched until 1931, by which time she had become a movie star. Professional success does put strain on marriages. Kirkland did not have to wait long for his consolation prize, though. His adaptation of Tobacco Road became a big Broadway smash in 1933.

A supporting part in Ladies Must Dress (1927) was Carroll’s first film role, followed by the part of Rosemary in the 1928 screen adaptation of Abie’s Irish Rose. The Pathe Lehrman comedy Chicken a la King (1928) paired her with Ford Sterling, by which time she already had attained star status. She appeared opposite Gary Cooper in The Shopworn Angel (1928). The Dance of Life (1929) was an adaptation of the Broadway play Burlesque, which had originally starred Barbara Stanwyck. Other early stuff included The Wolf of Wall Street (1929), Sin Sister (1929), The Devil’s Holiday (1930, for which she was nominated for an Oscar), and the all star Follow Thru (1930). She was in dozens of other films, mostly melodramas. Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby (1932) fared poorly at the time, but is well regarded now.

Carroll began to devlop a reputation for being difficult and Paramount released her from her contract in 1933. If she was demanding more vehicles like Hot Saturday, the parting is not mysterious. We love that film because it is racy and does NOT have a Hollywood ending. Her happy ending is that she decides to go live in sin with Cary Grant. It’s real and it’s satisfying, but that kind of risk taking went out the window when the code began to be enforced.

Carroll returned to Broadway to star in a Leon Gordon play called An Undesirable Lady (1933), the made another half dozen pictures for Columbia through 1935, the best remembered of which is the all-star Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round (1934), also written by Gordon. Following Atlantic Adventure (1935) with Harry Langdon (!) and Lloyd Nolan, Caroll chucked Hollywood and her second husband Francis Bolton Mallory, editor of the humor magazine Life (not the Luce publication) and rambled around Europe, including some time in her ancestral homelands in Ireland. In 1938 she took supporting parts in two more Hollywood pictures and then REALLY chucked it (for a decade, anyway).

What graudally brought Carroll back into the limelight was the fact that in 1944 her 19 year old daughter Patricia “Pat” Kirkland became a Broadway actress, appearing on seven plays through 1949, no doubt with the assistance of her successful dad. In 1948, Carroll emerged from retirement to appear in the Broadway play For Heaven’s Sake, Mother! with Molly Picon and a young Dick Shawn. In 1950 she replaced Jean Muir on the TV sitcom The Aldrich Family after the latter was blacklisted as a suspected Communist. She also took a recurring role on The Egg and I (1951), the tv version of the Ma and Pa Kettle movies, on which her daughter Pat was a regular.

Carroll took a few other TV roles around this time, then retired once again in 1953 when she married industrialist C.H. “Jappe” Groen, living mostly in Indonesia and Mexico. She returned to acting in 1959, playing another half dozen roles. She was acting in a touring production of Never Too Late when she died of aneurysm in 1965 at the age 61.

Carroll’s daughter, Pat Kirkland went on to become a top a TV casting director, working on such shows as Good Times, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons, and Diff’rent Strokes. She passed away in 2000. Pat was married to Donald Bevan, caricaturist of the wall at Sardi’s, and author of the Broadway play Stalag 17, on which Billy Wilder’s movie was based.

Read much more about Nancy Carroll in this great article at Immortal Ephemeral which helped me fill in those huge gaps about what she was doing during her time away from screen roles.

For more on show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.