Florence Rice, Step Up and Take a Bow

Like any diligent Marx Brothers fan I know about Florence Rice (1907-1974), primarily through her appearance as the ingenue in At the Circus (1939).

If you ever wondered how we go from the likes of Kitty Carlisle and Maureen O’Sullivan (the Marxes’ previous two ingenues at MGM) to Florence Rice, you may be edified to know that in her day she was not quite so anonymous as she now seems. She was the daughter of the-then-well-known sportswriter Grantland Rice (1880-1954), the man who nicknamed the Notre Dame backfield “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and a guy who helped make national sports stars of Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Bill Tilden, Bobby Jones, Red Grange, and Knute Rockne. Thus he was something a jazz age eminence. This is probably why his daughter Florence was able to go directly from Smith College to chorus parts in Broadway shows, starting in 1926. The Fred Stone vehicle Ripples (1930) was her last job as a chorine. She had a real part in She Loves Me Not (1933) opposite Burgess Meredith which ran nearly a year, and this is what gave her the juice to get cast in Hollywood.

It’s not everyone who has the starring role in their first film, but Rice did. The picture was Fugitive Lady (1934), with Neil Hamilton (Commissioner Gordon on Batman), with William Demarest and Clara Blandick. She was in nearly 50 films over the next decade. Besides At the Circus, her best remembered pictures include Broadway Melody of 1940, and Todd Browning’s last film, Miracles for Sale (1939) opposite Robert Young, with whom she co-starred in many a film. After The Ghost and the Guest (1943) with James Dunn, she retired from the business, tired of being consigned to forgettable B movies.

In 1946 Rice married Fred Butler, the last of her four husbands. Her last three decades were devoted to her life with him, which can’t have been too bad since they were living in Honolulu at the time of her death. Her previous husband, actor Robert Wilcox, went on to marry Diana Barrymore, daughter of John Barrymore.

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To learn more about entertainment history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.