Yvonne De Carlo – Biography
by Ralph Lucas
Yvonne De Carlo, born September 1, 1922 in Vancouver, British Columbia, grew up to be an exotic film star in such 1950s movies as Salome, Where She Danced, Song of Scheherazade and The Ten Commandments. But getting there was far from easy. She started out in life as Peggy Yvonne Middleton. Although some sources say her name was Margaret, it seems fairly certain she was named Peggy by her parents. A life in front of the cameras could only have been a daydream for the young Miss Middleton. Her very first years were not a great time and her father walked out of her life when she was just three-years-old. Her mom, to make ends meet, worked as a waitress, but she had once dreamed of a career in show business and did everything she could to start young Peggy on the road to stardom.
Peggy Middleton was enrolled in a local dance school and also studied acting. An outgoing kid, her neighbours recalled after she became famous that she was prone to staging little impromptu productions to keep herself busy and to amuse her friends. But her mother remained the driving force behind the dream, and when she was only 15-years-old they set off for Hollywood, undoubtedly with stars in her eyes. Their effort wasn’t rewarded. Despite making the rounds of casting agents and talent scouts, there was nothing for Peggy and they returned home disheartened shortly afterward.
A few years passed and they thought they would try their luck again. The young Miss Middleton was all of 18-years-old. It was 1940, and while war raged in Europe, the West Coast of the United States languished in its easy lifestyle and the warm breezes and palm trees, the promise of fame and fortune had their effect. This time they had decided that she would take whatever work she could find until she got the break she knew, instinctively, would come. Her days were long and hard. At night she danced in chorus lines and would get up the next day to go from studio to studio in search of even a small role. She was clearly hungry for a chance in front of the cameras.
Finally it came, just one year after making the move to Hollywood. It was only “extra” work, but it was a start. I Look at You, made in 1941, was nothing more than a musical short, but she was working in the movies, even though she didn’t receive a credit. This was followed by two more short, uncredited films made in 1942. However, these small films led to a bit of a break. She was cast as a bathing beauty in the mainstream film, Harvard, Here I Come. The phone didn’t exactly ring off the hook, as they used to say. The remainder of 1942 and all of 1943 brought more uncredited work, primarily as an extra. Although, if you look closely, you can spot her in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby hit, Road to Morocco (1942), or in the 1943 hit film based on Ernest Hemingway’s book, For Whom the Bell Tolls. The only film worth mentioning from this period is Deerslayer (1943). Her character was actually given a name, which made for a bit of a change. But fate had yet to find the young, struggling actress. With the United States now involved in the Second World War, much of Hollywood`s production was given over to, if not pure propaganda films, then to films that had a definite patriotic stance. The exotic, slightly foreign-looking actress was having trouble with her career. These were also dark days, and filmgoers wanted, perhaps needed, to see their brightest stars. Just like the two previous years, 1944 started off with more of the same. Although now landing what are called “bit” parts, in reality nothing much had changed. De Carlo would usually be cast to play one of the “native” girls, or as an office clerk, or a member of the typing pool. She celebrated her 24th birthday in 1944 and wondered what her future might bring.
The new year brought the first murmurs that the war that raged around the world might soon be over. De Carlo hoped her career wouldn’t end too. There wasn’t much work, and she appeared in only two films, but one of them was a very important breakthrough. Although the film itself is terrible, Yvonne De Carlo was cast to play the lead in star in Salome, Where She Danced. Acting opposite fellow Northernstar Rod Cameron, she played an exotic dancer who is, in reality, a Mata Hari-type spy. Although the critics hated it, Universal was extremely pleased and the movie made a lot of money at the box office. Yvonne De Carlo would be 25-years-old that year and she was a star.
The rest of 1945 wasn’t that remarkable, and she didn’t work at all in 1946, but when she returned it was to star as Cara de Talavera, the supposed inspiration for composer Rimsky-Korsakov, in Song of Scherazade (1947). Despite its okay cast, including Brian Donlevy, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Eve Arden, the only reason to see the film is Yvonne De Carlo. Her star was rising and the titles of her next few films tell it all, such as Brute Force (1947), one of the most powerful prison films ever made, starring Burt Lancaster and with a stunning performance from Hume Cronyn. In Black Bart (1947), De Carlo starred in her first so-called “oater,” or Western movie, and comes off as a strong, independent character who prevents a Wells-Fargo office from being robbed. Casbah, in 1948, was also a huge success.
At the start of the 1950s, De Carlo continued to land solid leading roles, although not all of them were hits and a few are totally forgettable. However, 1956 would bring the film that would, essentially, confirm her presence among the stars of Hollywood. In the epic The Ten Commandments she played the wife of Moses, co-starring opposite Charlton Heston. The film was a major success and her acting is unmatched.
While she continued to land many leading roles and remained quite active in movies throughout her career, De Carlo was enticed into television for another role that would cement her name in the minds of millions of people. The series was The Munsters, and she played Lily Munster, as pictured at the top of this biography. The series led to the 1966 movie Munster, Go Home, in which the family of ghouls travels to England after inheriting a castle. In 1995 a made-for-television movie was produced titled, Here Come the Munsters.
In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Yvonne De Carlo played many different roles in many different movies. Young actors starting out today should look to her career as inspiration that perseverance can pay off. From those faltering first steps in Hollywood, she always knew she would make it. Far from an overnight success, she stayed true to her craft and true to her dreams. It`s too bad there isn’t some reward for that.
Yvonne De Carlo died of natural causes at the age of 84 at the Motion Picture & Television facility in Woodland Hills, California on January 8th, 2007.
Also see: Yvonne De Carlo’s Filmography.
This biography is Copyright © 2002 by Ralph Lucas and may not be reproduced without written permission. For more information about copyright, click here. All of the images used in this biography were scanned from originals in The Northernstars Collection.