Behold a rare few moments in two-strip technicolor of Mae Murray singing/dancing/impersonating a bullfighter in the 1930 movie ‘Peacock Alley’. Murray was a former Ziegfield Follies star who achieved major movie stardom in the 1920s, known as ‘the girl with the bee-stung lips’. Her career climaxed in 1925 when she co-starred in ‘The Merry Widow’ with John Gilbert. Much less talked about was Murray’s then unusual self-advocacy, becoming her own producer and co-founding Tiffany Studios in 1921 with then-husband Robert Z. Leonard (later a posh MGM contract director of, among other films, ‘The Great Ziegfield’). Considered a low-budget studio, Tiffany nonetheless was profitable due largely to the Murray-starring vehicles it produced. (It survived into the early 1930s, declaring bankruptcy in 1932. MGM purchased Tiffany’s nitrate original film negative library and burned the collection during the burning of Atlanta sequence in ‘Gone With The Wind’.) . Additionally, Murray was one of the founders of the Motion Picture Fund – a charitable organization that offers assistance and care to those in the motion picture and television industries without resources and which eventually evolved into the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland Hills.

Alas, Murray was ahead of her time in demanding her independence as a female in Hollywood. The Tiffany movies were released through MGM and, in the midst of a business dispute with Louis B. Mayer in 1927, Murray walked out on her contract. Rather than producing the desired effect of forcing Mayer to acquiesce to her demands, this led to Mayer unofficially blackballing her with the other studios. Murray’s career went into a precipitous decline. ‘Peacock Alley’ was an attempt to rehabilitate it and establish Murray as a talking pictures leading lady. The film was lavishly produced (for Tiffany) with elaborate sets despite its low budget. Unfortunately it earned mostly unfavorable reviews, with Photoplay calling the film “a sorry affair” and Murray’s performance “more affected and more bee-stung of mouth than ever. You’ll laugh at the drama and weep over the comedy.” This was more or less the end of Murray’s film career.

In the 1940s, Murray appeared regularly at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe, a Manhattan nightclub which specialized in a ‘Gay 90s’ atmosphere, often presenting stars of the past for nostalgic value. Her appearances collected mixed reviews: her dancing (in particular the Merry Widow Waltz) was well received, but she was criticized for her youthful costumes and heavy makeup application, trying to conceal her age. In 1946, she taught ballroom dancing to young teenagers at a dance studio in Los Angeles. Her finances continued to collapse and for most of her later life she lived in poverty. On the evening of February 19, 1964, 78-year-old Murray was found disoriented in St. Louis, thinking that she had completed a bus trip to New York. Murray explained to an officer that she had become lost trying to find her hotel, which she had forgotten the name of. She also refused bus fare back to Los Angeles as she claimed to have a ticket for the remainder of the journey in her purse, “if she could find it.” She died the following year at age 80, having lived her final year in the Motion Picture Country Home, a place whose very existence she was in large part responsible for.


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