“Pay particular attention to Helen Mack,” said Picture Play in its review. They weren’t the only ones to notice. It was Mack who earned “the only burst of applause” at Radio City Music Hall’s March preview of Sweepings, according to Motion Picture Herald. Mack’s performance in Sweepings began a busy year for the actress, who only celebrated her twentieth birthday a month before her seventh and final release of 1933, The Son of Kong, in which she starred opposite Robert Armstrong. While the sequel doesn’t come close to matching the original, The Son of Kong remains Helen Mack’s best known role just by virtue of its association with its predecessor King Kong (1933).
Helen Mack was born Helen McDougall in Rock Island, Illinois, November 13, 1913. Her father William was a barber by trade with Canadian roots. Her mother Regina was a naturalized citizen from Hungary whose “mother tongue” was listed as Jewish on more than one census (1920 and 1940). The McDougalls moved to New York where Helen was educated at the Professional Children’s School over a number of years during the 1920s.
She began work as a child actor at this time appearing on the Broadway stage (plays listed here and here) and in at least five features filmed in New York* during 1922-23 (released 1923-24), including Zaza starring Gloria Swanson. For the stage and screen she shortened her name from Helen McDougall to Helen Macks, with an “s,” and Helen Mack, the name she used throughout her later years in Hollywood.
* While Mack's first feature, Success (1923), was filmed at Tec-Art Studios in Hollywood, according to one source some of it was filmed at Talmadge Studios in New York. The film was in production at least five months with director Ralph Ince beginning work in New York on October 16, 1922 ("Garsson").
Albert Parker, a screen test director for Fox Films, discovered Mack in New York and signed her to an exclusive contract on June 29, 1931. Before results of her screen test were known, Parker gave Mack permission to do one day’s work for D.W. Griffith on The Struggle (1931), a talking picture that turned out to be the legendary director’s final film ("Short Shots"). In 1932, Mack appeared in The Silent Witness and While Paris Sleeps for Fox before signing with RKO for Sweepings in January 1933. Sweepings had been delayed over six months by this time, and Mack may have been replacing Arline Judge, whose husband Wesley Ruggles had originally been assigned to direct the film before John Cromwell was put on the job.
Helen Mack would appear in thirty-nine talking films in an on-camera career that stretched to 1945, though with only three of those film appearances coming after 1941. In addition to The Son of Kong, Mack’s best known film appearances come in The Milky Way (1936) with Harold Lloyd and His Girl Friday (1940) for Howard Hawks. Beyond those classics, other Helen Mack screen appearances that I've enjoyed include her 1932 Fox releases, plus Sweepings, Blind Adventure (both 1933), Kiss and Make-Up (1934), She, The Return of Peter Grimm (both 1935), and Girls of the Road (1940).
Mack kept busy after her screen career ended, producing and directing radio programs throughout the 1940s and ‘50s. She also co-wrote a play, Mating Dance, as Helen McAvity, by that time no longer concerned about her name fitting on a marquee and having professionally taken the surname of her second husband. Mating Dance made it to Broadway, but lasted only one performance at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre.
Some time after the death of her husband in 1974, Helen moved in with friend and fellow writer Aleen Leslie in Beverley Hills, California, where she died of cancer, August 13, 1986.
Note: I wrote most of this while working on a revised version of my Sweepings essay for the fourth issue of Classic Movie Monthly (coming December 20). I wound up only using the first paragraph, and it seemed a shame to waste the rest of it.
By the way, one of the first bloggers—actually webmasters—that I became acquainted with in the early days of Immortal Ephemera (then things-and-other-stuff.com) was Daryl Curtis, whose Helen Mack Tribute Site is still online and filled with evergreen info about the wonderful Helen Mack.
- “Garsson is Producing Two Features,” Exhibitors Trade Review, October 28, 1922, 1409.
- “Helen Mack, 72, and Actress In Silent and Talking Movies,” New York Times, August 16, 1986. Web. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/08/16/obituaries/helen-mack-72-an-actress-in-silent-and-talking-movies.html.
- “Short Shots from New York Studios,” Film Daily, August 7, 1931, 5.
- “Showmen’s Reviews: Sweepings,” Motion Picture Herald, March 18, 1933, 32.
- “The Screen in Review: Sweepings,” Picture Play, June 1933, 60.