Helena Carter: An Appreciation

February 14, 2020
Stephen Vagg explores the little-known actress whose story turns out to be a cautionary tale of the Golden Era of Hollywood.

I first noticed Helena Carter in River Lady (1948). This was a Technicolor western made at Universal about a brassy riverboat owner (Yvonne de Carlo) who tries to get control of a lumber mill; she lusts after a lumberjack (Rod Cameron) but faces competition from an ‘Other Woman’ (Carter).

I’d never seen Carter in anything before and thought she was sensational – it wasn’t a bad part (a rich girl who wants a man she shouldn’t have) and Carter really drove it home; she played it with a twinkle in her eye, lively, full of spark and clearly intelligent… a good girl who wouldn’t mind being “bad” for the right guy. She was no shy, retiring violent – she goes after Cameron actively, in part because it’s a rebellious act and she’s clearly sexually attracted to him – but she’s no dummy either. It was easily the best performance in the film and marked Helena Carter as someone to watch.

Why hadn’t I heard about her? What else had she done? Where did she go? Being a glamour girl in Universal adventure movies wasn’t necessarily a career dead-end as would be proved by the trajectories of Maureen O’Hara, Piper Laurie, Shelley Winters, Rhonda Fleming, Yvonne De Carlo, etc. Why did someone with such life and spunk on screen not have a bigger impact?

So I googled…

Carter was born Helen Rickerts in New York City in 1923. She earned a bachelor’s degree in teaching from Hunter College and studied English Literature at Columbia University Grad School. She became a fashion model, which isn’t surprising from the way she carried herself later on screen – her poise was always very correct, as if she could balance a book on her head all the time.

It’s hard to break into movies on the whole but being a model makes things slightly easier: Carter was visiting the Universal backlot in Los Angeles when spotted by producer Leonard Goldstein, who arranged a screen test that led to a seven-year contract with the studio.

It was a good beginning… but then, lots of attractive women in Hollywood get signed to seven-year contracts (which really meant the studio had options on your services for up to seven years… they could drop you before then). Carter could have disappeared into a world of bit parts and extras. But she didn’t.

She made her debut in a gothic romance, Time Out of Mind (1947), a film best remembered today (if at all) for (a) being director Robert Siodmak’s one dud in a series of classic films for Universal, and (b) an unsuccessful attempt to launch British star Phyllis Calvert in Hollywood. Carter plays an icy aristocrat who marries Calvert’s true love, Ric Hutton, in the third act; her ambition and coolness is contrasted with Calvert’s unquestioning, doormat-like devotion and honesty. Calvert has poise and beauty, but her inexperience is most evident in her speaking voice – she enunciates like someone who has been to finishing school. However, she already demonstrates what would be more more notable attributes – her beauty, spark and intelligence, and her ability to focus her eyes on the person she was performing a scene with.

Time Out of Mind was a big fat flop, but no one blamed Carter – that was the fault of the story, and Hutton, who is terrible. In fact, the movie would have been better off introducing Carter’s character earlier – she gives the piece a bit of life.

Universal put her in another minor part in an “A” movie, Deanna Durbin’s penultimate effort, Something in the Wind (1947); for the second time in a row Carter plays an ‘Other Woman’, the socialite fiancee of John Dall, who loses him to Durbin. It wasn’t a big part and isn’t well remembered today – few latter period Durbins are – but it was a prestigious movie to be associated with.

Carter was then loaned out to producers Sam Bischoff and George Raft for a tale of third world intrigue called, appropriately, Intrigue (1947). Raft also starred as a pilot involved in a smuggling racket in China, torn between two women: a slinky night club owner (June Havoc) and a social worker (Carter). Carter’s third film saw her in her third love triangle and she doesn’t appear until late in the movie but the part does have some meat on its bones – she’s on her own doing work in China after World War Two which was gutsy. She got the guy in this one and made it believable, even if she was more than twenty years younger than Raft.

Carter’s performance in this film helped establish what would be her stock in trade character – a good girl sexually attracted to the bad boy hero; moral, but not a stick in the mud; intelligent and spirited. She’s fully present and focused in her scenes with Raft – her eyes are alive, interested, alert; she’s aware, not naive, nobody’s fool. The film would have been far better off with more of her and less of the self-righteous reporter (Tom Tully) who is going to expose Raft – most of these scenes really should have gone to Carter’s character.

Universal noticed and gave Carter the second female role in River Lady (1948), a million dollar extravaganza with Yvonne de Carlo, Rod Cameron and Dan Duryea, produced by her discoverer, Leonard Goldstein. It was a good part, too – the daughter of a lumber magnate who Cameron drunkenly marries in order to spite his ex, de Carlo. De Carlo and Carter are ideal opposites – the brassy, earthy girl with a past, versus the classy dame with a sparkle in the eye. Really, both of them deserve a better man than Cameron (who, while thirteen years older than Carter, at least isn’t old enough to be her father). Carter looks great in colour.

The film performed reasonably well at the box office and one would have thought Carter was ripe to step up to the next level – say, the female lead in a film noir or Western… Instead she didn’t appear in a film for over the year. And Universal made a lot of movies.

What happened?

According to Hedda Hooper, Carter became “a little difficult to handle” after her first film. She turned down a part in an Abbott and Costello movie, and “got the silent treatment from the studio for the year.”

My guess is that Carter knew how good she was and wanted better roles. But Universal executives weren’t about to let any uppity ex model college grad tell them what to do and slapped her down.

A year is a long time to punish an actor – they would have had to pay her not to work. But Universal wouldn’t have had to pay her that much, they would’ve already made a healthy profit on her loan out for Intrigue, and it would be a useful reminder to the other girls under contract to not step out of line. I could be wrong about this, it’s only an educated guess… but that sort of behaviour was common in the Golden Era of Hollywood.

A year on the sidelines seemed to have cooled Carter’s resistance. As Hedda put it, “She finally saw the light, started co-operating.” Carter was back in front of the cameras for The Fighting O’Flynn (1949), a swashbuckler starring, produced and co-written by Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. It’s a fun movie, with Carter playing a lady who romances Irish soldier Fairbanks during the Napoleonic Wars. Her character is another good girl who looks like she wants to be naughty, a Maid Marian type, and Carter teams well with Fairbanks. This time, she’s the one who gets to have an alternate love interest – Richard Greene, who turns out to be no good – though she still has an ‘Other Woman’ to deal with, courtesan Patricia Medina. Fairbanks liked Carter, took an option out on her services for two more movies, and wanted to use her again in a film called The Caballero. However, The Fighting O’Flynn was a box office disappointment (swashbucklers really needed colour by this stage) and no follow ups ensued.

Carter hadn’t turned completely docile, and refused the role of Richard Long’s wife in Ma and Pa Kettle (1948); Meg Randall took over and played it in three films. I have a soft spot for Ma and Pa Kettle movies but I get why Carter didn’t want to play the straight man in a B comedy. Still, it must have hurt the producer, Leonard Goldstein, who had discovered the actor.

In November 1948, Hedda Hopper reported that Carter wanted out of her Universal contract “six months ago”, and would get it if she paid back all the salary she had received since September. Hopper added that the studio got enough money out of her loan outs to Fairbanks and Raft to cover two years of her pay. However, for whatever reason (a talk with her bank manager/agent? a peace offering from executives? apathy?) Carter elected to stay at the studio.

Universal put her in South Sea Sinner (1950), a south seas melodrama where Carter plays the good girl in love with MacDonald Carey, who is also loved by trashy girl Shelley Winters. This is an okay film, not as good as the one it was remaking, Seven Sinners (1941), and is most notable for giving a small role to Liberace. Winters gets all the sympathy here, pining after Carey who goes for the more respectable Carter… but it is nice to see several scenes where Carter and Winters are friendly to each other. The irony is, there were rumours of an on-set feud between the two. Carter doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic in this one.

She seems even more bored in her next assignment at Universal, the Donald O’Connor pirate comedy produced by Goldstein, Double Crossbones (1951). Carter plays a lady who’s meant to be into O’Connor but never looks convincing; Hope Emerson gets to have a lot more fun as a female pirate. The film was not released for over a year, and O’Connor later claimed it was one of his worst movies. It’s not that bad but it’s very underwhelming. Incidentally, this is Carter’s one movie where she had a younger male co-star.

A more prestigious assignment followed when William Cagney borrowed her to play the second female lead in Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950), Jimmy Cagney’s crime-y follow-up to White Heat at Warner Bros. Carter played another good girl who wants to be naughty – the daughter of a local tycoon who marries Cagney not knowing he’s a gangster. It’s quite adult for 1950 – Carter is clearly attracted to Cagney because he’s different, he marries her to sleep with her (that’s what is implied), he’s okay with it being annulled, but she still wants him. The reputation of this was in the shadow of White Heat for many years, but has recently been reappraised, in part because the other female role is played by the now legendary Barbara Payton, she of the exotic private life and tragic demise.

Payton plays a rough around the edges type who breaks Cagney out of prison to help rescue her brother (Neville Brand), then falls for him after her brother’s death; Carter is the classier good girl in comparison. Both Payton and Carter are a little too attractive looking for pudgy old Cagney, who was pushing fifty at the time – did he ever play such a stud muffin? It’s the biggest flaw in an otherwise solid gangster story.

Carter enjoyed no career momentum from the film. She appeared in two westerns at Warners, Fort Worth (1951) with Randolph Scott (who, like Cagney, was born in the previous century, and was old enough to be Carter’s father) and Bugles in the Afternoon (1952) with Ray Milland (a comparative spring chicken at 44 years of age); Carter was mostly decorative in both films. Fort Worth was the last movie from director Edwin Marin, who had worked with Carter in Intrigue; she plays the former love of Scott who has hooked up with his ex, and loses him to Phyllis Thaxter. The role is so small that you wonder why Carter agreed to make it unless it was a favour to Marin – of course, she may have simply just wanted to pay the rent. Bugles, produced by Bill Cagney, at least had her at the centre of a love triangle between Milland and Hugh Beaumont, and gave her something to play: a girl keen on Milland despite the mystery of his past; she won’t take any crap from him. But her voice is too enunciated – she once claimed sound engineers said she spoke too fast so she slowed it down… and you wonder if this at times made her too self-conscious about speaking.

Carter was back to being the ‘Other Woman’ in The Golden Hawk (1952), a Sam Katzman swashbuckler, losing Sterling Hayden to Rhonda Fleming. Fleming easily had the best part – a noblewoman turned pirate – but Carter’s wasn’t bad, as a Spaniard; it’s nice how she and Fleming become friends. Katzman used Carter again in The Pathfinder (1952), a Western-in-a-weird-time-period with George Montgomery set during the French-Indian Wars; Carter was once more “the girl”, but this time she was the female lead and given heaps of cool stuff to do: translate French, shoot Indians, trek across country, make out with Montgomery. Both films were written by Robert E Kent who, in hindsight, wasn’t bad creating female characters for these sort of movies (at least compared to others made around this time).

Carter’s last movie was the independently-financed Invaders from Mars (1953) where she was top billed. For the first time in her entire career, Carter played something other than a love interest for the male lead; she’s the kindly psychiatrist who believes the young boy (Jimmy Hunt) who claims aliens have taken over his parents and helps him investigate. She’s brave, kind and heroic and while, yes, she does have to get rescued at the end, she’s not a love interest (though there are hints she’ll wind up with the doctor played by Arthur Franz). The film has since gone on to become a classic, particularly beloved by baby boomers who identified with the Jimmy Hunt character.

Carter’s career was now at an interesting stage. She was trapped in “B” movies but that wasn’t a death sentence. She could have shifted to television, made some more science fiction, kept on with Katzman. It only takes one role to turn things around.

 

But instead… she quit.

In December 1953, Carter married producer Michael Meshekoff, best known for Dragnet, and gave up acting entirely – no TV, no films, nothing. In acting terms, she vanished.

There must have been opportunities – she had the lead in her last film. Television was about to boom. She was still beautiful. At the very least she could have been up for roles played by, say, Rhonda Fleming or Arlene Dahl.

What happened?

Had she come to dislike acting that much? Did all those love interest parts break her spirit? Was it her husband? Did she just like not working?

Either way, it meant we never got to see how good Carter could be. The best roles she had were Maid Marian type parts. Now, Maid Marian is a pretty good role, but it is limited; Olivia de Havilland played Maid Marian, then moved on to other things. Carter never got the chance.

She kept a very low profile in retirement. No memoirs, no comeback – I haven’t even been able to find a single career-overview interview, which is especially weird when you consider how beloved Invaders from Mars was.

If anyone knows what happened to her and what she was like please let me know. Because, for me, she was definitely a hidden gem in Hollywood of this time. I don’t want to over praise her – her talent was raw and untested, it’s entirely possible her range was limited. But she was often the best thing about her movies.

Comments

  1. Danny-O

    I learned a lot from this — and like you i knew very little of this nearly forgotten talented actress! Unfortunately, people from that era are in short supply to provide more in depth answers, however from some of the stories and rumours of other starlets — some of the top-billing type as Monroe, Garland and (briefly) Frances Farmer — and the sordid news reels of producers Harry Cohn, Howard Hughes, now Weinstein, director Singer (et al), hints at potential reasons why some starlets’ careers may have hit the wall, or never caught fire. People from that era, especially women, were not likely to talk about such topics and the power corridor was stacked with many men who used Hollywood’s contract system as a honeypot. While the ‘casting couch’ almost got to be a comical reference during the time, it no doubt was a very horrible, sad and tragic reality for many. And while studio publicity was good at building up the stars’ and their stories, it was equally no doubt as creative at hiding the dirty secrets of predators and bury the careers of the non-compliant. The Hoppers and Parsons were useful aids in all that. Of course, this is pure speculative, but at this stage so is most of the other info on the Carters of Hollywood.

  2. Michael Tanaka

    Thank you, Stephen for your interesting article on a very unsung, and in her subtle way, a quietly mesmerizing actor!

    I’m one of those baby boomers you speak of, who was scared deep under the covers by the nightmarish paranoia of 1953’s INVADERS FROM MARS, in which Carter is top billed.

    Three things from this little sci-fi programmer became stamped upon my young, impressionable mind… the frighteningly weird choral effects of composer Raoul Kraushaar (unique even to this day!), which alerted me to the sheer power of music to affect how we feel. So much so, that I became a composer.

    Second, the disorienting, off-kilter look of the sets and props (spot the inflated condoms!) that hinted at the story being a dream loop à la 1945’s DEAD OF NIGHT. As a result, I became an ardent sci-fi/horror film fan.

    And thirdly… my little heart just fell in love with Helena Carter!

    As an actor, she had an aura about her – a unique mix of gentle softness and quiet intelligence which grounded her physical beauty in a way I’ve never seen in any other actor, before or since.

    What a loss to film that INVADERS was her last movie! I was moved and saddened by this fact from your informative tribute. I’m going to search out her other films you mentioned…

    It is my understanding that Ms. Carter passed away in 2000. I like to think that she would be happy to know that there are people that still love her work and remember her…

    I hope that she enjoyed her life as much as I’ve enjoyed watching her final performance all these years!

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