Our latest Mystery Guest, the singularly fabulous Una Merkel, was correctly guessed by several clever readers. But the first was Pancakes Barbara, about whom we sadly know little -- except that our Adonis figures won't last forever without a little help from the kitchen.
Una, of course, enlivened countless films of the 1930's, ranging from the dreary (Murder in the Private Car, anyone?) to the sublime -- our favorites being Red Headed Woman (1932) and Bombshell (1933), two of her hilarious pairings with Jean Harlow, who was no slouch in the cracking wise department herself. La Merkel also duked it out with Dietrich in Destry Rides Again (1939), resulting in one of the most famous catfights in screen history.
Strangely, Merkel's career tapered off in the 1940's; she appeared in only 15 films in the entire decade (and in increasingly diminished productions), as compared to more than 50 in her 1930's heyday. Perhaps personal troubles contributed to this downward turn: in 1946, Merkel nearly died when her mother committed suicide by turning on the gas in their home. Still, this wry-yet-bubbly dynamo was still capable of eliciting guffaws, which she is seen doing below to Gary Cooper, no less, and starlet Phyllis (ex-Mrs. Cary Grant) Brooks in 1943.
Happily, Merkel enjoyed a comeback in the 1950's, transitioning from sidekick to mother/aunt roles for both stage and screen. She won a Tony in 1959 for The Ponder Heart, and in 1961 she finally earned an Oscar nomination for her against-type work in Summer and Smoke. That same year, she made a memorable appearance as Verbena, the chatty maid in The Parent Trap; La Merkel must have been a hit with the good folks at Disney, as they quickly cast her in two successive pictures, Summer Magic (1963), another Hayley Mills vehicle, and A Tiger Walks (1964). The latter is notable, incidentally, as being a thoroughly unremarkable family film with an absolutely spectacular cast: besides Merkel, it also features the glorious Vera Miles, the divinely dishy Peter Brown, and, in his final film, delightful Sabu Dastagir.
Una Merkel herself only had one more film left to make -- rather ingloriously, Spinout (1966) with Elvis. But it was a long and wonderful career, vividly etched with some of the best supporting turns ever preserved on celluloid. Miss Una Merkel passed away in 1986 at age 82.