Lucille Lund

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The Independent Online

Lucille Lund, actress: born Buckley, Washington 3 June 1913; married 1937 Kenneth Higgins (died 1973; two daughters); died Torrance, California 19 February 2002.

When the film director Edgar G. Ulmer cast Lucille Lund to play Karen in The Black Cat (1934) it was not because he thought she was a good actress. "They talk about a woman spurned," she recalled last month. "A man spurned is a lot worse."

Lund had heard stories about the casting couch but, rather naïvely, hadn't expected to be caught up on it herself. Ulmer begged for a date. He told her, "I can turn you into another Dietrich." Frustrated, he began to inflict pain on Lund on set. Lund, too scared to say anything in case she put her career at risk, nearly died.

Born in Buckley, Washington, to Norwegian immigrant parents, Lund began her theatrical career as a child doing play extracts and readings. After leaving school she joined a stock company, the Henry Duffy Players, and toured up and down the Pacific Coast. She then studied drama at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Notice went round that Universal Studios were sponsoring a beauty contest, a search for "the most beautiful and talented woman on campus". A friend entered Lund's picture and she won the title "The All-American Girl", beating 1,200 contestants, and took the train to Hollywood, arriving at the Union Station in July 1933. The Los Angeles Times reported, "The five-foot four-inch blue-eyed blonde holds promise in the capital of dreams."

Awaiting his new starlet's arrival was Universal's crown prince, the 25-year-old Carl Laemmle Jnr. "I was shown into this grand office," Lund remembered,

and from the other end of this huge room behind a walnut desk sat Laemmle complete with fresh carnation and a toothy smile. He was a spoiled little rich man's son and not capable of running a studio; his father had scratched his way up to the top, but Junior had it handed to him. Of course he was after the girls and if you didn't co-operate then you didn't last long at Universal.

Lund made her film début in 1933 in a slapstick comedy, Horseplay, followed by Saturday's Millions, a football saga. The next year she played the heroine in Pirate Treasure, before appearing in Folies-Bergère and Fighting Through.

Laemmle was dependent on his producers and directors. Early in his career he made many mistakes, often pushing the studio further and further into the red – whilst MGM and Warner Bros flourished. But he enjoyed the Hollywood high life. He was "a very strange sort of man", Lund remembered:

He made proposals to me. I sound as if I am trying to make myself into some sort of femme fatale – I'm not. Because I refused to sleep with him he said, "I will ruin you in Hollywood." Casually I answered back and said, "Fine", and that was it. I was pretty well prepared, I wasn't one of those chorus-girl types from New York trying to look like . . . well, you know . . . a floozie. I knew the score.

It appeared that her stay at Universal was over, and then she met the director Edward G. Ulmer. The 30-year-old director had become friends with Laemmle, who thought of him as an intellectual. Ulmer conceived of Lund as perfect for the role of Karen in The Black Cat – whom he envisaged as the human equivalent of a Siamese. Laemmle agreed.

The Black Cat, the first on-screen teaming of Karloff and Bela Lugosi, told the story of a couple (David Manners and Jacqueline Wells) who, on their way to honeymoon in Hungary, share a train compartment with Dr Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), a courtly but tragic man who is returning to the remains of the town he defended before becoming a prisoner of war for 15 years. When their bus crashes in a mountain storm and Wells is injured, the travellers seek refuge in the fortress-like home of the famed architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Boris Karloff). There, the cat-phobic Werdegast learns his wife's fate, grieves for his lost daughter (Lund) and plays a game of chess for Wells's life.

"Boris Karloff was a very charming British gentleman," said Lund,

a delight. He looked ferocious in his make-up but didn't have the voice to go with the part.

Ulmer, however, was a problem:

[He] and I started out fine and he was very pleasant to me. Then one day, whilst filming the scene set in Poelzig's boudoir, he came up to me and said, "I'd like to take you out for dinner tonight in Hollywood and talk about the picture." I was young and new in the business and thought, fine why not? So I went out to dinner with him. From across the table he put out his arm and grabbed my hand and whispered, "If you will be my girlfriend I could turn you into another Dietrich, that is if you let me be your von Sternberg!" I thanked him and told him I wasn't interested in such a situation. We spent the rest of the evening in silence.

 

Ulmer decided to act out his own sadistic fetishes on the woman who dared turn him down. Shooting the scene where Karen is hanging in a glass coffin, the director yelled "Cut" and called everyone away for lunch. Lund was left hanging by her neck for over an hour too weak to call for help. On another occasion, she said,

I was lying on this operating table with a wishbone curvature for my neck. The nape of my neck was on this iron pipe which curved upwards. Ulmer fixed the pipe so tight that it cut off the blood supply – then once again he left me while they broke for lunch.

Lund started to bleed at the mouth. Had it not been for the actor Harry Cording, who resuscitated her, she would have died. Lund never acted at Universal again.

Later in 1934, she was selected by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (Wampas) as one of 12 most promising faces of the year, and appeared in two films with her fellows, Paramount's Kiss and Make Up, sharing a scene with Cary Grant, and Young and Beautiful with William Haines and Judith Allen

For the next two years, Lund freelanced at any studio offering her work, finding her niche in crime dramas, musicals and westerns. In 1937, she signed a year's contract with Columbia. When she couldn't find work in features, she played in comedy shorts starring Charley Chase and the Three Stooges:

I never paid much attention to the Three Stooges and they never paid much attention to me. They were so busy doing their own thing trying to figure out who was going to take the next slap or who was going to poke the other in the eye and then fall on his knees. They really were quite violent.

In August 1937, Lund married the radio producer and writer Kenneth Higgins, and made her final film a year later, There's That Woman Again, for Columbia.

Although she made some television commercials during the 1960s as a favour to friends, she remained out of the limelight until she attended a reunion of Universal players in 1993. Thereafter she graced the film convention circuit, winning standing ovations from fans of her work with Lugosi, Karloff and the Three Stooges.

In 2000, she was interviewed on film for the first time since she left Hollywood for the documentary I Used to be in Pictures. "I was so disgruntled by the whole thing," she said:

I did a lot of things, but nothing world-shattering, nothing to be proud of. I left pictures as I didn't have the energy or the inclination to battle that hard.

Howard Mutti-Mewse

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