June 9th, 1918 — July 9th, 1997
Attractive and rather petite, Carol Forman could easily have played serial heroines, but she was so adept at conveying menace that she found herself typecast as a villainess. Her serial heavies were icily imperious and frighteningly callous, periodically dropping their haughty manner to smirk over the elimination of their enemies. She could be fully as scary as her uglier and larger male counterparts; her unthreatening appearance was more than offset by the venomous malice she gave her characters. Carol was the only serial actress to specialize in villainous roles, but she’d still be well-remembered by fans even if her competition had been more extensive.
Born Carolyn Sawls in Alabama, Carol became an aspiring actress at a very early age. She was starring in school plays by the time she was six, and her interest in performing grew throughout her childhood. She concentrated on studying drama in high school, and left home for Hollywood in her late teens. She worked in small California theater groups for several years, frequently playing unsympathetic parts, until she was spotted by a scout from RKO Pictures. She signed an RKO contract in 1946 and began her screen career with a bit in the Joan Fontaine drama From This Day Forward. She played both bits and notable roles in RKO’s B-movies, including the prison film San Quentin, the mystery The Falcon’s Adventure, and the Westerns Code of the West and Under the Tonto Rim. Her characters in most of these movies were either shady, antagonistic, or downright sinister, echoing the roles she had played on stage. Unfortunately, her promising RKO career was cut short when she ran afoul of an amorous producer, who dropped her contract after she rebuffed his advances. She then began to freelance in B-movies and serials for other studios; one of her first post-RKO parts was the title role in The Black Widow, a chapterplay from Republic Pictures.
The Black Widow was a fast-moving and rather wittily-written serial that starred Bruce Edwards as Steve Colt, a mystery novelist who set out to track down the mysterious female leader of a spy ring. This woman was known only as the Black Widow to Colt, but the audience knew from the start that the spy leader was named Sombra (Carol Forman), an ostensible fortune teller who was actually the daughter of Asian despot Hitomu (Theodore Gottlieb). Sombra, a master of disguise, was out to steal an American scientist’s atomic rocket prototype to further her father’s plans for world domination, and stopped at nothing in pursuit of her goal. Though Gottlieb was technically the head villain, he only made brief appearances (via teleportation) in each chapter, leaving Forman to handle most of the serial’s villainy. Carol made her character convincingly arrogant, cunning, and ruthless, all important qualities in the daughter of a would-be world ruler; her unconcerned expression when her poisonous mechanical spider killed a hapless victim in the first chapter set the tone for the rest of her portrayal.
Carol’s next screen vehicle was another serial–Brick Bradford (Columbia, 1948), a rather jumbled science-fiction adventure that cast her as an autocratic lunar ruler named Queen Khana. Hero Kane Richmond, seeking a key element for an anti-missile weapon, journeyed to the Moon and came to the aid of a group of rebels seeking to overthrow the queen and the dictatorial power behind her throne, the prime minster Zuntar (Robert Barron) . Khana fell in love with Bradford, and kept ordering Zuntar not to kill him; however, she still remained mean enough to earn a deposing in Chapter Six, after which the scene of action adjourned to Earth and the Moon-based characters were seen no more. Forman’s part was a comparatively small one, due to the lunar sequence’s early wrap-up, but she was given some good opportunities to haughtily order people to the dungeon, snarl angrily at Barron’s overbearing Zuntar, and–for the first and last time in her serial-villainess career–display a sinisterly aggressive but definitely eager romantic interest in the hero.
Forman appeared in a few Charlie Chan films for Monogram Pictures before returning to Columbia for the 1948 serial Superman. She was cast as the Spider Lady, a master criminal determined to steal a destructive ray machine despite the opposition of Superman (Kirk Alyn). The Spider Lady’s goals, other than power and wealth, were never precisely defined, and she performed less active villainy than Carol’s earlier arachnid villainess the Black Widow–usually remaining inside her hideout while her henchmen carried out her orders. However, Forman still made her a frightening heavy, particularly when she was ordering the electrocution or disintegration of “useless” persons or sneering happily over an apparent defeat of Superman. Superman was one of Columbia’s best later cliffhangers, and one of the studio’s most widely-marketed; its fame made Forman’s typecasting as a screen villainess more or less permanent.
Republic Pictures, capitalizing on Superman’s success, signed both Carol and her super-powered enemy Kirk Alyn to appear in Federal Agents vs. Underworld Inc. (Republic, 1949). Agents, a well-done thriller with varied locales and an interesting plot, featured Forman as a Middle Eastern criminal named Nila and Alyn as her G-man opponent. This time, Carol was pursuing the Golden Hands of Kurigal, ancient artifacts that would allow her to rule both the country of Abistahn and the American underworld. However, her dreams of power were (literally) squashed by a gigantic statue in the final chapter. Forman’s haughtiness was well-suited to her character’s delusions of grandeur; she barked out orders to henchman Roy Barcroft as if she was already the ruler of Abistahn.
Carol appeared in several B-movies and TV shows over the next few years; she briefly returned to RKO for a role as a venal saloon girl in Tim Holt’s Brothers in the Saddle, and finally won some heroine parts in several episodes of Duncan Renaldo’s Cisco Kid series. She returned to Columbia in 1952 for one more serial, the generally entertaining Blackhawk. Once again she was pitted against Kirk Alyn, who played the titular leader of a group of spy-fighting aviators; Forman was Laska, the chief antagonist of Blackhawk and the field leader of a Communist spy ring. Forman’s character in Blackhawk repeatedly took direct orders from a mysterious Leader (until she shot him in the last chapter for trying to betray her), and thus did less plotting than in her other serials–but, as a result, got to engage in more active villainy than usual, frequently accompanying her henchmen on sabotage and espionage missions. She also got to display a touch of emotion in the serial’s earlier chapters, when, with apparent sincerity, she fervently tried to get one of Blackhawk’s men, her fellow-countryman Stanislaus, to join her cause in the name of “freedom.”
Forman made one more film appearance, in the 1953 musical comedy By the Light of the Silvery Moon, before marrying assistant director William Dennis and largely retiring from the picture business. Whether by accident or design, Moon served as a very appropriate valedictory to Carol’s career: she appeared in a pantomimed fantasy sequence as Dangerous Dora, a “beautiful bank crook” who dressed very like the Black Widow and was thwarted by detective Fearless Flanagan (Billy Gray, the boy who imagined the whole sequence). Several years later, Forman would play a few parts in TV shows like Surfside 6 and 77 Sunset Strip, as well as bits in a couple of features, but by 1962 her retirement was more or less complete. In 1984, she began a cordial relationship with serial fans, granting an interview to Serial World magazine and subsequently appearing at the Memphis Film Festival. She passed away in Burbank in 1997.
Several memorable female heavies menaced the cliffhanger serials’ protagonists, but few actresses specialized in such parts the way some actors did; even Lorna Gray, famous for her evil “Vultura” in Perils of Nyoka, played heroines in the majority of her serials. Carol Forman was the only serial actress that played villainous roles to the point of exclusivity, and she managed to do so solely on the basis of her acting talent–since, visually, she couldn’t have been further removed from the typical serial heavy. With one cold stare or sneering smile, she could suddenly make her charming face seem quite as threatening as that of far more grotesque performers.
Acknowledgements: Biographical information and stories of Forman’s RKO years were derived from an interview with Forman by Buck Rainey, published in the Spring 1984 issue (#37) of Serial World magazine.