Many young hopefuls dreaming of wealth and fame descended on Hollywood during its Golden Age. Most fell short of that dream, while others found moderate success through hard work and determination. Lovely blonde actress Carole Landis - one of WWII GI's favorite pinups due to her ample curves and beaming smile - fell into the latter category, but her personal life was rife with problems that would eventually overwhelm and consume her. After small parts in some major productions and leads in a handful of minor ones, Landis's beauty and athletic abilities earned her a cheesecake role in Hal Roach's campy fantasy "One Million B.C." (1940). The attention she gained from that role led to the her being labeled the "Ping Girl" and to garnering more challenging parts in A-list pictures like "Topper Returns" (1941), "I Wake Up Screaming" (1941), "Four Jills in a Jeep" (1944), and "Having Wonderful Crime" (1945). While she was a consistently competent and sometimes genuinely impressive performer, her career never reached the heights she had hoped for. Between several failed marriages, emotional issues, and her refusal to be manipulated by studios to the degree that was common during the contract player days, Landis' life eventually took a turn that she could not face and she committed suicide. But her legacy as a radiant, all-American bombshell who kept the home fires burning for thousands of grateful GI's was well assured.
Carole Landis was born Frances Lillian Mary Ridste in Fairchild, WI on New Year's Day in 1919. Her father abandoned the family, which included four other children, when she was less than a year old, and he reappeared and disappeared throughout the girl's childhood. His unreliability made life especially difficult for Landis' mother, and the family's struggles were amplified by the tragic deaths of two of the children. At the age of seven, Landis scored her first taste of performing when she sang onstage at an open night for amateurs. She excelled at athletics and unsuccessfully tried to organize an all-girl football team at her school, but Landis did not care much for her classes and had eloped and married Irving Wheeler, three years her senior, by the time she was 15. The union was annulled after less than a month at the order of their respective parents, but she went on to marry Wheeler again six months later. Their relationship proved to be rocky from the outset.
The following year, Landis decided to seek a career in show business and relocated to San Francisco, CA. After lying about her age in order to land some singer and dancer jobs, she headed to Los Angeles and was briefly under contract to Warner Brothers. An affair with Busby Berkeley led to a lawsuit from Wheeler that was later dismissed, but Berkeley nonetheless reneged on his promise of marriage to her. Following uncredited roles in films like "A Star is Born" (1937), "A Day at the Races" (1937), and "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938), Landis was signed by B-movie studio Republic Pictures and received her first notable parts as the female lead in the John Wayne Western "Three Texas Steers" (1939) and the serial "Daredevils of the Red Circle" (1939), one of the finest chapter plays of its period.
Landis' big break came when producer Hal Roach cast her as a cavegirl in the prehistoric fantasy "One Million B.C." (1940). Neither the part nor the film were especially memorable, but Landis, who had now dyed her hair blonde, made quite a visual impression. When Roach tried to capitalize by promoting the lovely, well-endowed ingénue as the "Ping Girl" ("ping" being short for "purring"), Landis publicly rebuked her new title and stated that she wanted to impress solely on the basis of her acting talents. Aside from the comedy hit "Topper Returns" (1941), Roach used Landis in less-than-stellar productions. Off-screen, the actress' life once again experienced turbulence. Not long after she divorced Wheeler, Landis was involved in a disastrous third marriage that lasted only four months. Her luck seemed to change for a time when she accepted a contract offer from 20th Century Fox. Landis' exquisite looks somewhat hindered her quest for prime parts, but she enjoyed a fine role in the terrific film noir "I Wake Up Screaming" (1941), starring the studio's biggest star, Betty Grable.
In 1942, the actress' career entered a new phase when she became involved with the USO during the war. Along with fellow starlets Martha Raye, Kay Francis and Mitzi Gaynor, Landis travelled to various spots overseas to entertain American troops, a duty that she found highly fulfilling. Upon her return, she impressively wrote a book about the experience called Four Jills in a Jeep which Fox turned into a movie the following year, with the four actresses playing themselves. Most of Landis' assignments during this time came in minor but generally amiable productions and some later speculated that her refusal to be cowed by the system - particularly by Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck - accounted for the lack of major movies on her résumé. Nonetheless, she usually acquitted herself well, particularly in the lively mystery/comedy "Having Wonderful Crime" (1945), which she made while on loan out to RKO Radio Pictures.
Nevertheless, whatever professional successes Landis enjoyed seemed to always be accompanied by personal setbacks that involved the men in her life. After choosing her previous husbands without spending sufficient time to get to know them, Landis entered into a fourth marriage to a former Eagle Squadron pilot that ensued after yet another brief courtship; that union lasted two years. Landis then married millionaire W. Horace Schmidlapp, but once again, the two eventually drifted apart. Her contract with Fox ended in 1946 and she was quickly reduced to working for the small B-movie company, Eagle-Lion Films. Like a number of moderately well known contract players whose stars had fallen, Landis was lured to England and starred in "Noose" (1948) and "Brass Monkey" (1948), a pair of local crime thrillers. She was also occasionally weighed down by health issues that resulted from bouts of amoebic dysentery, malaria and pneumonia that Landis had suffered during her USO duties in the South Pacific a few years earlier.
While estranged from Schmidlapp, Landis began seeing popular British actor Rex Harrison, who was married to actress Lili Palmer at the time. Landis took their affair much more seriously than Harrison, who refused to leave his wife. The combination of yet another failed relationship and the career setbacks she had been experiencing were building to a tragic climax. After spending part of the evening of July 4, 1948 with Harrison, Landis took a massive overdose of Seconal. Her body was discovered some 10-12 hours later by Harrison, who came by her home to check in on Landis when her maid had not received an answer from the actress' locked bedroom by early afternoon. According to phone records, Harrison did not call police until over an hour after he and the maid had discovered Landis' body. A suicide note addressed to Landis' mother was found in her apartment, but it did not specify the reason for why she chose to commit suicide. Friends reported that Landis had not displayed any behavior that suggested she was experiencing depression or other behavior that might have resulted in their intervention. Sadly, the life of the beautiful girl who struggled for respect in her career and unrequited love in her personal life was cut short, but her legacy as a delightful actress and a tireless morale booster for WWII soldiers was never forgotten.
By John Charles