SOUTH AFRICAN CLASSIC FILM STAR MOLLY LAMONT By Deborah Painter

Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont, far left)

Her performances are often described as “tense” and “dignified”.  Her real life personality, however, was described as “kind” and her demeanour “well trained”.  On May 22, 1910,  the historic little gold mining town of Benoni, Gauteng province, gave the world Molly Lamont.  This same town, coincidentally, was also the birthplace of another internationally famous actress, the motion picture star Charlize Theron.

The beauteous Lamont won a beauty contest in the early 1930s.  This break led to her being offered a motion picture contract with B. I. P. (British International Pictures) at Elstree, Great Britain.  She packed her bags and made the long journey to England.  Lamont worked on forty “B” movies, mostly comedies, such as What a Night! (1931), Uneasy Virtue (1931), The House Opposite (1931), Old Soldiers Never Die (1932), Lucky Girl (1932), Leave it to Me (1933), based on a story by British humorist P. G. Wodehouse, and Letting in the Sunshine (1933).American motion picture production company RKO (RKO Radio Pictures) offered Molly Lamont a contract when she was twenty-three.  She moved to Hollywood, California and acted opposite David Manners and C. Aubrey Smith in Jalna, a drama about a wealthy Canadian family.

The Awful Truth was a“breakout” role for Molly
Lamont. Credits: RKO

In Mary of Scotland (1936), also for RKO, Lamont had a small role as Mary Livingstone, childhood friend of Mary, Queen of Scots (Katharine Hepburn), who left France and made her fateful and fatal attempt to take what she thought her rightful place as Queen of England. Molly decided that she had been successful playing socialites and wealthy women thus far in her short careerand would continue.It was when Lamont co-starred with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in RKO’s The Awful Truth in 1937 that she achieved the attention she deserved for her acting skill. Irene Dunne’s character Lucy Warriner, and Cary Grant’s character Jerry Warriner, plan to divorce due to misunderstandings about fidelity.   Both actively pursue new loves.  Dunne will marry the unrefined Daniel Leeson (Ralph Bellamy) and Grant will marry the refined Barbara Vance (Lamont).  The comedy multiplies as each aims to ruin the plans of the other. The American Film Institutes listed The Awful Truth among the “Top 100 Funniest American Movies” in 2000.

Molly Lamont married commercial airline pilot Edward Bellande on April 1, 1937.  Bellande had been the co-pilot on TransWorld Airline’s first trans-continental flight, with Charles Lindbergh as pilot. He went on to have a very successful career as one of the founders of the Northrup Aircraft Company.

Lamont continued working while doing morale boosting work for the Armed Services.  The Moon and Sixpence (David L. Loew-Albert Lewin, 1942) used an unusual sort of narrative.  A writer (Herbert Marshall) visits Tahiti. In bits and pieces he learns the story of Charles Strickland (George Sanders), who left his wife, child and the life of a stockbroker behind to become an artist.  One of the people the writer interviews is Mrs. Strickland (Molly Lamont), who has her own story to tell. The film, adapted from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, was inspired by the true story of artist Paul Gauguin. It boasted not only Lamont but a score by the excellent composer Dimitri Tiomkin.

The chic star departed from her socialite roles to be the working class “Mrs. Simmons” in Universal’s noir drama The Suspect in 1944.  Charles Laughton is Phillip Marshall, a London shopkeeper who begins an innocent friendship with young Mary (Ella Raines).   Unfortunately, his wife Cora (Rosalind Ivan) doesn’t like it, or him, for that matter.  Soon afterward, Cora lies dead at the foot of the stairwell.  Scotland Yard cannot pin anything on Marshall.  Simmons, (Henry Daniell), a neighbor, chats with the detective and goes to Marshall, saying he heard him killing Cora the night she “fell” and now wants hush money. Marshall now leaves no doubt in the mind of the moviegoer that he is capable of murder: He poisons Simmons (although we never actually see him do it)and for a while is willing to let Simmons’ quiet and long suffering wife (Lamont) be accused of the crime. Just as he and Mary are about to move to another country, Marshall has a pang of conscience and a major decision ahead of him.

The formerly prominent German director Frank Wisbar and Molly Lamont both tried hard, but nothing could raise Devil Bat’s Daughter (Producers Releasing Corporation, 1946) beyond the status of “so bad that it’s good”. It was a profitable picture, nevertheless.

Horror icon Bela Lugosi’s first and only colour starring vehicle (in Cinecolor) was the 1947 Golden Gate Pictures psychological drama Scared to Death.   The story is told in flashback by Molly’s character Laura van Ee, or rather, her corpse’s, as it lies on a slab in the morgue.  Using the technique employed in the more famous Sunset Boulevard produced five years later, the deceased explains to us, the viewer,how she came to be there, frightened literally to death.

The First Legion, a 1951 Universal drama about a purported miracle,was Lamont’s final film. This critically acclaimed picture also starred Charles Boyer.  It was a fine way to end her cinematic career.  Molly Lamont died in Hollywood Hills, California, on July 15, 2001 at the age of 91.  Her husband had preceded her in death in 1976.  Fortunately, most of Lamont’s 56 films surviveand many are available for our enjoyment.

 

Suggestions for Further Reading

Humphriss, Deryck, and David G. Thomas (B.A.). 1968.  Benoni, son of my sorrow: the social, political and economic history of a South African gold mining town.  The University of California 293 pages.

Nicolella, Henry. 2017.Frank Wisbar: The Director of Ferryman Maria, from Germany to America and Back.  McFarland & Company Publishers 239 pages.