With Beauty and Brains, Mara Corday Battled the Beasts
My lifelong obsession with the horror classic Tarantula is well known among my family and friends.
The second column I wrote for Classic Movie Hub detailed my love for the film even though it still gives me nightmares.
There is just so much to enjoy: a cool monster, a scientist dabbling in ill-advised experiments, a few good scares, fun atmospheric music/sounds and a handsome leading man. It also has a personal bonus of memories of watching it late at night with my dad.
And then there is Steve.
Steve was the nickname of the character Stephanie Clayton, played by actress Mara Corday. Being a “Toni” (short for Antoinette), I was always excited to meet another female with a man’s name – especially one as remarkable as Steve.
She was intelligent, beautiful and confident – and I wanted to be like her.
The same could be said about Corday. Although she made only three horror films – Tarantula, The Black Scorpion and The Giant Claw – Corday and that horror film trio left their mark in B-movie creature-feature history.
Her characters in those three films broke the stereotype of women who were relegated to swooning and screaming in horror movies. True, Corday’s characters screamed (wouldn’t you if a tarantula was so large it was looking into your second-story bedroom?) and swooned (her leading men were John Agar, Richard Denning and Jeff Morrow after all), but the women were strong, too.
And they didn’t sit back waiting to be saved.
In Tarantula, she was a young biologist who helps a well-meaning professor with his efforts to fight world hunger, only to learn his disastrous experiment caused a tarantula to grow as large as a house.
In The Black Scorpion, she played a rancher fighting oversized scorpions that were unleashed by a volcanic explosion in Mexico.
And in The Giant Claw, she was a mathematician saving the world from a killer flying object.
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Mara Corday was born Marilyn Joan Watts on Jan. 3, 1930 in Santa Monica, Calif. She was a dancer and model, auditioning at only age 15 to dance in the cabaret-restaurant Earl Carroll Review. It was there that she later decided to change her name to Mara Corday after thinking it was “too plain.”
“In those days, the actresses had names like Lamarr and Lamour and DeCarlo, so I thought, ‘I’m gonna be something exotic,’ ” she told Tom Weaver in his book It Came from Horrorwood: Interviews with Moviemakers in the SF and Horror Tradition.
She took Corday from a perfume bottle ad and Mara from Marita (“pretty little Mara”), a name she was called by a bongo player at the Mayan Theater where she ushered. The lovely name fits her perfectly and seems natural given her exotic beauty, which is reminiscent of Ava Gardner.
During the first few years of her film career, Corday was relegated to bit parts in mostly uncredited roles starting with her 1951 debut in Two Tickets to Broadway, followed by such films as Son of Ali Baba (1952), Toughest Man in Arizona (1952), Tarzan and the She-Devil (1953), Drums Across the River (1954) and Francis Joins the WACS (1954).
Corday was signed briefly with producer Hal B. Wallis and as a contract player with Universal-International Pictures. She also continued to model, becoming a popular pin-up girl and magazine cover star. She earned the title of “the most photographed model in the world” after having tens of thousands of photos taken. (She later was a somewhat chaste and clothed Playmate of the Month.)
By 1955, however, she was thrust into the spotlight with director Jack Arnold’s great big-bug classic, Tarantula. Though she was hoping to take on dramatic roles, she was happy to work with Arnold again after starring in his film The Man From Bitter Ridge just a few months earlier.
In Tarantula, Corday’s character of Steve gets more than she bargained for after accepting a job as a lab assistant in a small Arizona town. Even as a kid, I was struck by her first appearance in the film as she steps off a bus in the dusty desert town impeccably dressed in a fitted white suit, hat and short gloves. She quickly gets to work helping Professor Deemer (Leo G. Carroll) and looks quite at home holding a clipboard and wearing scientific gear.
In her next film, The Black Scorpion, she spent a lot of time on screen without as much to do. She is resilient and smart as Teresa Alvarez, the head of a ranch located in an area that has been under some type of mysterious attack.
She has a quiet strength as she calms and rallies her terrified workers to return despite the unknown threat, yet she’s also a fitting match in life and love for a visiting geologist played by Richard Denning. I like that she’s allowed to be attractive without being too dolled up, dressed mostly in a rancher’s uniform of pants, button-down shirt, neck scarf and black cowboy hat tilted just right on her head. In later scenes, she glams it up for a few romantic dinners showing women can be tough and beautiful.
For The Giant Claw, Corday plays a mathematician who doesn’t take nonsense from anyone, including a flirtatious scientist and pilot played by Jeff Morrow (admittedly, they do fall quite fast for each other). She helps unravel the mystery along with all the male scientists and military men. She holds her own in meetings surrounded by men and she figures out a key element that can help take down the terror from the sky.
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In January of 1957 – the same year she made The Black Scorpion and The Giant Claw – Corday married actor Richard Long who she met on the set of the 1954 noir Playgirl. Her career tailed off after that.
Corday stopped acting just a few years into the marriage to raise her family and was married to Long until his death in 1974. Though they would be married for 17 years, they had problems only two weeks into the marriage and she filed for divorce numerous times.
Sadly it appears from interviews with Corday and other reports, that Long stymied and even sabotaged her career by turning down roles for her behind her back including one on his series The Big Valley.
I’m sorry Corday never had the chance to do the dramatic type of roles she wanted or that she was only able to build off the strong character of Steve in Tarantula in her two other horror films. We could have used more inspirational characters from her.
But we will still appreciate her trio of horror films where she showed us beauty could not have killed the beast without her brains, too.
Her ‘dear friend’ Clint
One of the most popular pieces of film trivia is that Clint Eastwood has an uncredited role as a pilot toward the end of Tarantula. The film started a lifelong friendship between Corday and Eastwood. Years later, he cast her in his films when she was in financial need after twice losing her insurance.
The roles were small but important. In Sudden Impact (1983) she was the waitress pouring sugar into Eastwood’s coffee in the iconic “Go ahead, make my day scene.” He also cast her in The Gauntlet (1977), Pink Cadillac (1989) and her final film, The Rookie (1990). Corday considers Eastwood a dear friend, calling him a “godsend” in interviews.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.