Elyse Knox: Actress who became queen of 1940s B-movies

 

Elyse Knox was one of the most popular and prolific leading ladies of 1940s B-movies, the heroine of such diverse fare as the spine-tingler The Mummy's Tomb; the slapstick comedy Hit the Ice, and the film noir I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes. A beautiful blonde, she usually epitomised all-American wholesomeness, as in Sheriff of Tombstone, co-starring the singing cowboy Roy Rogers. But she also could be seductively sultry, as demonstrated by her voluptuous harem girl in Arabian Nights (1942). A fashion designer and Vogue model before entering films, she was a popular pin-up during the Second World War.

Born Elsie Lillian Kornbrath in 1917 in Hartford, Connecticut, she was the daughter of William Franklin Kornbrath, who would later change his surname to Knox and become Secretary of the Navy under President Roosevelt. On graduation she moved to New York to attend the Traphagen school of fashion but soon moved into modelling, appearing regularly in Vogue. After signing with the prestigious John Powers agency she appeared in a newsreel called Fashion Forecasts where she was spotted by a 20th Century-Fox talent scout who offered her a contract.

Her screen debut was in the musical, Wake Up and Live (1937), one of several uncredited roles, though some sources list her first film as Free, Blonde and 21 (1940), a B-movie about a hotel for women. Although she played Alice Faye's sister in the musical Lillian Russell (1940), she was barely visible in the final print, and she had equally unimportant roles in five other films in the same year, after which she asked to be released from her contract.

At RKO in 1941 she was in the comedy Footlight Fever and the popular western Sheriff of Tombstone. A move to Universal brought greater success; after Top Sergeant (1942), she was cast in the (now) cult classic The Mummy's Tomb (1942), starring Lon Chaney Jr. She said she enjoyed making the film, and was amused that Chaney had straps fastened to his arms to enable him to sweep her into his arms and carry her up stairs.

In 1942 Knox married the photographer Paul Hesse, who had worked with her on fashion shoots, but the marriage ended within a year. Knox was still a favourite model, and twice appeared on the cover of the weekly service magazine, Yank (in 1943 and 1944).

In the serial Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (1943) she was the female lead, but her next film, Mister Big (1943), showcased the song-and-dance team of Donald O'Connor and Peggy Ryan and Knox's part was minimal. Nevertheless she later credited it, and the comic Lou Costello with helping her career. "My guardian angel is Lou Costello", she said. "Before I ever met him, he saw me in some little picture and went to the front office insisting that I be given better parts."

Next came Hit the Ice (1943), starring Costello and his comedy partner Bud Abbott, in which she had a prominent role. Hi'ya, Sailor (1943) was followed it with a farce, So's Your Uncle (1943), co-starring Donald Woods as a man who impersonates his own elderly uncle to evade creditors. She was herself in the morale-boosting musical Follow the Boys (1944), in support of USO troops, and she did several bond-selling tours. After appearing as a lady rancher in the musical Moonlight and Cactus (1944), starring the Andrews Sisters, Knox left Universal to freelance, and ominously signed with Monogram Pictures, known as a Poverty Row studio.

Her first film there, A Wave, a WAC and a Marine (1944) was produced by Costello, and had higher production values than the average at the studio. After finishing the movie, Knox married Tom Harmon, the all-American football star of the University of Michigan, who had won the Heisman Trophy in 1940. He had also starred in a feature film, Harmon of Michigan, made in 1941. While in the Army Air Corps he received the Purple Heart for his valour in combat, having been shot down over China.

For her wedding, Knox wore a white silk gown fashioned from the parachute that saved Harmon's life – it still had two bullet holes in it. "Tom had played dead in the parachute," said Knox, "so it had great sentimental value."

Knox returned to the screen as a boxer's socialite girl-friend in Joe Palooka, Champ (1946), based on the long-running comic strip. It was successful enough to start a series – 10 more were made, though Knox withdrew after her sixth, Joe Palooka in The Counterpunch (1949).

Other films included an engaging musical drama, The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi (1946); the western Black Gold (1947), the first film to give Anthony Quinn a starring role, and Linda Be Good (1947), in which she played an author who becomes involved with a burlesque company.

Ironically, she was given the sort of dramatic role she had long aspired to as her acting career was coming to an end. I Wouldn't Be in Your Shoes (1948), based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, was a moody suspense tale in which Knox was part of a dance team with her husband (Don Castle), who throws his shoes out of the window at noisy cats, then finds his footprints have been planted to convict him of murder. Her last film was the mediocre There's a Girl in My Heart (1949).

Knox then retired to concentrate on her family life and painting, in which she became very accomplished. Her husband became a sports broadcaster when his war injuries halted his football career and the couple had two daughters and a son, Tom Mark Harmon, who is now a well-known actor whose many credits (as Mark Harmon) include the long-running crime series NCIS.

Elsie Lillian Kornbrath (Elyse Knox), actress and model: born Hartford, Connecticut 14 December 1917; married 1942 Paul Hesse (divorced 1943), 1944 Tom Harmon (died 1990; two daughters, one son); died Los Angeles 16 February 2012.

News
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
science
News
Richard Dawkins dedicated his book 'The Greatest Show on Earth' to Josh Timonen
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Extras
indybest
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Travel
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
travel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Sport
football
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home