Actress Frances Drake, 91, Checks Out

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:51

    That "career" comprised twentysome movies made between 1933 and 1942, the era cineastes invariably call Hollywood's "Golden Age," and included the 1935 screen adaptation?the first?of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, in which she plays Eponine, and 1934's soapy Forsaking All Others, wherein she embodies the "other woman," sultrily wooing away Robert Montgomery from Joan Crawford. Additionally, she shows up to good effect alongside James Stewart and Claudette Colbert in the 1939 screwball comedy It's a Wonderful World, and, as the audacious jewel thief Princess Thania of Arvonne, she matches wits with Francis Lederer in 1938's The Lone Wolf in Paris. But she is best remembered?when she is remembered at all?as the leading lady in two tingly thrillers: 1935's Mad Love, with Peter Lorre, and the following year's The Invisible Ray, with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi?the former film a touchstone of psycho-horror, the latter proto-science fiction.

    At 5 feet, 2-and-a-half inches tall, with a mound of raven hair, penciled-in eyebrows like spindly canals, and enormous hazel eyes hooded by billowy eyelashes, Drake resembled, as Gregory Mank characterizes her in his book Karloff and Lugosi, "a sexy archangel." Regardless of the role, her aristocratic accent transformed "darling" into "dAHling," "father" into "fAHther," and "can't" into the last name of an 18th-century German philosopher. Clothes adored her: from furs and four-inch heels in a subdued wedding scene in The Invisible Ray to the white, floor-length, suitable-for-sacrifice Greco-Roman robe she wears when she first appears in Mad Love.

    She sports virtually the same getup in the opening scene of The Invisible Ray, heaving a gargantuan sigh as she pensively peers out a window of a remote castle in the Carpathians, fireplace in overdrive, a great Dane placidly resting on the carpet, and a storm?you knew?raging outside. Improbably, she's married to the brilliant scientist Dr. Janos Rukh (Karloff?billed in the credits by only his surname), who becomes mentally unhinged after being poisoned by Radium X, an element he discovers in deepest Africa, ultimately snuffing several colleagues, including the esteemed Dr. Felix Benet (Lugosi in an atypically understated performance). As Diane Rukh, Drake does her cinematic duty despite an undernourished script, morphing convincingly from concerned wife, gently cupping her husband's cheek when he huffs, "They'll never laugh at me again," to mildly unnerved damsel in distress when Janos?deadly to the touch, hands and face literally aglow?moves in to dispatch her in the climatic scene: "No, I can't kill you," Karloff moans, "I can't."

    Even better in the highly expressionistic Mad Love, Drake, as Yvonne Orlac, star of the Grand Guignol-y Theâtre des Horreurs and married to a gifted pianist/composer (Colin Clive), becomes the idée fixe of nonpareil surgeon Dr. Gogol (Lorre in his American film debut). Based on Maurice Renard's French novel Les Mains d'Orlac, the film, like The Invisible Ray, explores the good/evil duality of humankind's nature, only with considerably more finesse and insight. Lorre, head shaved and eyes like golf balls, effortlessly elicits both sympathy and terror, even when he murmurs to himself, "Each man kills the thing he loves," in the movie's final moments, preparing to strangle Yvonne?a prone damsel in distress again!?with her own long, dark hair.

    Oddly, Drake backed into both roles: Virginia Bruce bowed out of Mad Love at the last second, while Gloria Stuart quit Universal just prior to her scheduled appearance in that studio's The Invisible Ray. Drake similarly backed into the acting profession. Born Frances Morgan Dean on Oct. 22, 1908, in New York City, she grew up in a wealthy family that made its money in mining, and attended schools?most notably a finishing school?in Canada and England. In fact, she was visiting her aunt and grandmother in London when the October 1929 stock market crash moltenized her family's fortune faster than Janos Rukh's death/healing ray. For the first time Frances needed to work. She moved from ballroom dancing in posh London clubs to musical comedies in the West End to films: "They paid even better than the stage," she told Lamparski.

    Hollywood noticed. At least three studios?Paramount, Universal, Fox?attempted to sign her, and she chose Paramount only because "They offered the most money." Paramount changed her name from Dean to Drake, thereby avoiding confusion with the then-popular Frances Dee, and tossed her into 1934's Bolero when silent-film star Renée Adorée, scheduled for the part, suddenly died. In 1939 she married Cecil John Arthur Howard, a son of the earl of Suffolk. He'd spotted her in 1934's Ladies Should Listen and disapproved of her career, persuading her to give up the pictures in 1942 when he finally came into his inheritance. She never made another movie after that year's The Affairs of Martha, retiring to a Beverly Hills estate, high above L.A., with her husband, who died in 1985.

    "I did miss it a bit for a while," she confided to Lamparski. "I consoled myself that I'd at least not have to be anywhere near such coarse, crass people as [Paramount boss] Al Kauffman and [Columbia Pictures chief] Harry Cohn," both of whom, she claimed, tried to test-drive her on the casting couch. With brutal candor, Drake also demythologized costars Fredric March (Les Misérables) and John Boles (She Married an Artist), who had unseemly designs on her?"They just lunged without any warning"?and Joan Crawford (Forsaking All Others) and Loretta Young (Love Under Fire), who were "both quite horrid to me, each in her own hateful way."

    Despite Drake's remarkable sense of timing in snagging roles, she had the extraordinary bad luck to die in an Irvine, CA hospital, age 91, on Jan. 17. That was two days before the better-known Hedy Lamarr, her costar in 1940's I Take This Woman, was found dead in her Orlando home, which virtually obliterated coverage of Drake's own death. Not surprisingly, none of the posthumous hosannas heaped on Lamarr included Drake's incisive indictment: "As utterly stupid as she was beautiful."

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