I was watching an old black-and-white horror film from the 50s when I noticed that one of the women in an early scene was a bit-part actor called Sally Yarnell. I knew she was in the film -- she was the reason I was watching it, as I was trying to track down all of her brief cinematic appearances for a blog post I was writing on her career -- but I'd been led to believe that she appeared only briefly in a much later scene. It turned out that she had a pretty big part (in the scene, if not in the film as a whole). She was playing the young wife of the hero, who was in deep theoretical discussion with a man who would later be revealed to be a mad scientist. As she listened to the two men talking about some scientific procedure, she realised that the mad scientist's theories had horribly evil implications (she caught on much faster than her husband). The camera drifted towards her, cutting the men out of the frame as it pushed in on her face, which wore an expression of increasing terror. Then she fainted.
It was a great performance. What an actress!
Notes for Freudian Interpretation
The film that I was watching was a dream version of The Black Sleep, a terribly stiff and unexciting cheapie horror. The poster would have lead 1956 audiences to expect a wonderfully lurid ride, with a green Tor Johnson leading an army of mammoth monsters who were rising from the depths of a black hell! However, the monsters don't really show up until the last reel, and, even then, they're not mammoth, and there's only four of them, and, up until that point, there's just a lot of people standing around talking.
Great poster, though.
Sally Yarnell really is in the film. She plays one of the monsters -- that's her on the left of the poster, like a strange pink growth emerging from the side of Tor Johnson's head. As you can see, her monster credentials appear to be based mostly on premature hair loss. (I told you it was a cheapie.) I first came across her in a Robert Mitchum film in which she can be seen for about two seconds. She played a pianist, and you only saw the back of her head -- it struck me as being just about the most anonymous role an extra could get without actually being just a blurry out-of-focus blob in the deep background, so I looked into her career to see what else she'd done. The Black Sleep, which appears to be her highest-profile performance, is almost the last one in her IMDB filmography before a decades-long break from cinema.
There's an awful lot of guesswork and supposition involved in working out what happened in someone's life when all you've got to go on are a few unconnected facts, and I'd assumed that she'd quit acting because she was depressed that, after 15 years in Hollywood, the best role she'd managed to get was that of an alopecia-afflicted ghoul who appears for a few minutes at the end of a rubbish B-movie. It seemed to be a reasonable assumption, based on the little information I had.
Her story seemed a little too ordinary to bother about at first, but I kept her in mind in case I ever managed to dig up something interesting about her. The newspaper archive site that I use for research updates hundreds of pages a day and, if you can't find something interesting about a person the first time you check them out, you can drop in some other time to see if anything good has cropped up. In Sally's case, when I checked up on her again after a couple of years, it had. It turned out that there was a much more depressing reason for her early retirement than I'd assumed, which was that, just after she'd appeared as a balding monster in The Black Sleep, she'd been in a horrible car crash that had torn off her scalp.
It's an awful thing to happen, and the ironic twist must have made it just that little bit more terrible for her to bear. However, as you'd imagine, my first reaction was, "Wow! That'll make a good story!"
I feel a little bad about that -- only a little, mind -- and, whenever I scan one of her old films, examining the faces of the female extras to find her, it occurs to me (only fleetingly, but enough to register) that I'm only interested in her because of the terrible thing that she had to go through rather than for any merit she might have had as a performer, and that that's not very nice of me.
So I'm grateful to this dream for letting me off the hook by coming up with a brilliant scene for her and allowing me to feel good about myself again for acknowledging her as an actor, not just a tragic victim. Good old subconscious -- I'm a nice guy after all!