Karen Morley, the blond star of such 1930’s movies as “Scarface” whose career was cut short when she refused to answer questions at a Congressional hearing about her possible involvement with the Communist Party, died March 8. She was 93.
Morley died of pneumonia at the Motion Picture Country House in Woodland Hills, Calif.
She appeared in about four dozen films, from her first credited role in the 1931 “Inspiration” to her last significant film, the 1951 remake of Fritz Lang’s child murderer mystery “M.”
Born Mildred Linton in Ottumwa, Iowa on December 12, 1909, she was adopted by a well-to-do family who moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1920’s. She enrolled at Hollywood High School and was pre-med at UCLA until she took a theater class.
After studying at Pasadena Playhouse, she was signed by Fox Studios. Her break came when producer Howard Hughes selected her to play the sensual blond moll Poppy in the 1932 crime epic “Scarface.”
MGM put her on a contract and she made about nine pics a year for the Lion. She starred in such early 1930’s movies as “Mata Hari” with Greta Garbo, “Arsene Lupin” with John Barrymore, and “Dinner at Eight” with an all-star cast including Jean Harlow, as well as films with Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery and Boris Karloff.
In 1934, Morley left MGM after arguments about her roles and her private life, including her intention to start a family and her marriage to director Charles Vidor. She continued to freelance for the rest of the decade, appearing in King Vidor’s “Our Daily Bread,” Michael Curtiz’s “Black Fury,” “The Littlest Rebel” with Shirley Temple and “Pride and Prejudice.” She also appeared in two Broadway productions in the early ’40s.
Always a maverick, she described herself as a “pillow red” who became involved with labor and communist causes because of her romance with actor Lloyd Gough, an avowed communist, during the World War II years. After the war, she became one of the few outspoken radicals in the Screen Actors Guild, and her support for a 1946 craft union strike led several witnesses to later brand her a communist before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947.
She was called before the committee in 1952 but refused to answer questions about her possible enrollment in the Communist Party. That all but ended her screen career.
Afterward, she continued promoting left-wing causes. She married Gough, who had also been blacklisted, and the pair moved to New York City. In 1954, she ran unsuccessfully as a New York lieutenant governor candidate for the American Labor Party.
She had a handful of guest roles on ’70s TV series, including “Kojak” and “Kung Fu,” and was much sought after in recent years for documentaries about stars with whom she worked, including Garbo and John Barrymore.
Survivors include two grandsons, a granddaughter, a great-grandson and a great-granddaughter.