by Susan King
Yvonne De Carlo electrified theater audiences attending Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” over 50 years ago with her full-throated rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s anthem of survival “I’m Still Here”
“Good times and bum times,
I've seen them all and, my dear,
I'm still here.
Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I'm here.
I've stuffed the dailies
In my shoes.
Sung the blues,
Seen all my dreams disappear,
But I'm here.”
The now-standard song perfectly summed up De Carlo’s life and career. Truth be told, though, she starred in numerous films during her 50 plus year career, she’s still best known as vampire Lily Munster, the loving matriarch of the ghoulishly funny family on the 1964-66 CBS sitcom “The Munsters.”
De Carlo revealed to me in a 1995 Los Angeles Times interview that Sondheim “’wrote it for me. Just for me!”
Born Margaret Yvonne Middleton in Vancouver British Columbia on Sept. 1, 1920, de Carlo had close to a Dickensian childhood. Her father abandoned the family when she was three forcing her mother to work as a waitress to make ends meet. De Carlo was around six when her mother enrolled her in dance classes and four years later, she became member of the St. Paul Anglican Church choir. De Carlo was all of 15 when she got a job as a chorus dancer at a supper club.
She and her mother were refused visas to come to America in 1940, so they snuck across the border and moved to Hollywood. The following year she won the Miss Venice Beach beauty contest. DeCarlo and her mom finally got visas on a return trip to Vancouver and then moved to Hollywood permanently. She was signed to a contract to Paramount, making her debut in a bit part in 1941’s “Harvard, Here I Come.”
De Carlo is also an extra in a nightclub scene in 1943’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” though she was never able to find herself in the sequence, “I know I sat for days and days on the set talking with the director, Sam Wood. He was so nice. He put me in a chair next to his, and Gary Cooper came by and talked. I think they just stuck me in there as atmosphere.”
Dropped by Paramount, she was soon signed with Universal and made her starring debut in 1945’s Technicolor musical “Salome When She Danced.” With her long, thick chestnut hair, blue-gray eyes and sultry voice, De Carlo became an overnight star and sex symbol as an Austrian ballet dancer who finds herself in the U.S. The movie was roundly panned though the New York Times proclaimed she had an” agreeable mezzo-soprano singing voice, all the ‘look’s one girl could ask for, and moreover, she dances with a sensuousness which must have caused the Hays office some anguish. The script, however, doesn’t not give her much chance to prove her acting talent.”
When I interviewed her in 1995, she had recently started watching her Technicolor movies on television “I wondered how in the world I could dance like that. All that hard work. Oh, my.”
When “Salome” hit, De Carlo would later say: “I was on cloud nine all the time.” After the success of “Salome,” the studio “sent me to New York so I could learn to be a proper movie star. I lived at the Sherry Netherland for two months and I went to the John Robert Powers school. They taught me things like how to walk off a New York curb and to enter a room in a manner befitting a big-time movie star.”
It's too bad that Universal cast her in exotic roles —bshe was sort of the Dorothy Lamour of the studio. Because she demonstrated just how good she was as an actress in two landmark film noirs where she played femme fatales — 1947’s “Brute Force”, in which she has a short but telling role as an Italian woman who kills her father — and 1949’s “Criss Cross.” She more than holds her own in the later as the sensuous manipulative Anna who has Burt Lancaster wrapped tight around her little finger.
“Burt Lancaster, Howard Duff and Ava Gardner — we were all there together at the beginning of our careers when producer Mark Hellinger was there at Universal.”
Hellinger, who had produced “Brute Force,” wanted her for “Criss Cross,” but then he died in 1947. “Burt didn’t want me,” de Carlo told me. “I guess he had somebody else in mind.” Still, Hellinger’s wishes “were observed. Isn’t that something. He believed in me.”
Universal started not believing in her after 1950’s “Desert Hawk” bombed at the box office. The studio cut her movies down to one a year, so she freelanced. As TCM.com points out, she was cast in the same roles as a freelancer — “a continual parade of saloon singers, Polynesian maidens, French spies and Irish spitfires."
She did get to show her comedic chops in the 1953 British comedy classic “Captain’s Paradise,” starring Alec Guinness as a passenger ship captain who has a demure British wife (Celia Johnson) in Gibraltar and a hotsy-totsy Spanish Moroccan wife (De Carlo).
The actress also received good notices for her poignant performance as Sephora, the wife of Moses, in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Biblical epic “The Ten Commandments.”
After having two sons by her noted stuntman husband Bob Morgan, she left films, did a nightclub act and recorded an album “Yvonne De Carlo Sings.” She returned acting fulltime to make money to help pay Morgan’s medical bills after he was crushed while making 1963’s “How the West Was Won.”
She was funny in her supporting role in the 1963 John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara Western comedy “McClintock!” and then came “The Munsters.”
De Carlo replaced Joan Marshall as Lily Munster and her co-stars Fred Gwynne (Herman) and Al Lewis (Grandpa) weren’t happy because they didn’t know if she could handle the comedy. They quickly changed their minds.
Besides the series, the cast starred in the 1966 feature comedy “Munster, Go Home!,” which unfortunately was released after the series was cancelled.
In 1995, she reunited with the series stars Pat Priest, Lewis and Butch Patrick for the Fox TV movie “Here Come the Munsters” in which they had cameos as a bickering family at an Italian restaurant.
“We didn’t have to be in costumes because the Munsters have several lives,” she explained to me. “So, they are in sort of modern clothes. I was sort of resentful when Pat Priest yelled at me, ‘I haven’t seen you for 30 years!’ I said, ‘Why don’t you shut up! Thirty years, for god’s sake.’ I am not very good at facing that sort of fact of 30 years. Fifteen sounds awful long to me.’”
De Carlo died in 2007 at the age of 84.