Mary Dees – Piecing Together Life of Jean Harlow’s Saratoga Stand-In

"I came out here a few years ago. I was movie-struck. Finally I got in -- but everytime they'd give me a test, they would shake their heads and say 'she's a double for Jean Harlow, can't use her'. And I'd be so disappointed." -- Mary Dees, August 1937.

Mary Dees is by far best remembered for standing in for Jean Harlow in Harlow's final film, Saratoga (1937), after the iconic star passed away before filming could be completed. Appearing in about four minutes of the finished film, with her back to the camera or either binoculars or an oversized hat obscuring her face, big things seemed to loom on the horizon for Dees. They never came to pass.

I began thinking about Mary Dees after I had sorted through a recently arrived batch of press photos and came across this impressive shot of Miss Dees from 1940:

Mary Dees 1940 Press Photo noting her likeness to Jean Harlow

Handwritten on back is the text: "Note the close resemblance of Mary Dees to Jean Harlow even to the dimple on her chin."

While the more I look at it the less I think she looks like Harlow, I'll be honest: I got pretty excited when I first spotted this one. "Vintage Harlow Press Pic!" I believe was my exclamation.

Mary Dees Biography

Mary Ella Dees was born June 3, 1911 in Syracuse, New York to Arthur Guy Dees and the former Ella Maharry. The family was soon based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama where Mary was raised. Her father, cited as a successful lawyer in one Mary Dees obit, died in 1924. Mary attended public schools in Tuscaloosa and completed training in a local business college there as well. She was briefly employed as a stenographer in several local offices before leaving Tuscaloosa.

Dees repeatedly gives Tuscaloosa as her place of birth on later documents so there's no doubt she fondly remembered the place where she was brought up. But her Social Security Index listing cites Syracuse, NY as being where she was born.

Obituaries recall that Dees began her career in summer stock companies before heading to New York and playing in the back row of a chorus line. A 1937 article in a hometown Tuscaloosa newspaper says Dees arrived in Hollywood in 1930. In 1932 that same local paper reported Dees as the featured girl playing a living cameo on board a Max Factor sponsored float at a pageant held at the Los Angeles Coliseum. By 1933 Dees lived in Nazimova's Garden of Allah hotel complex in Hollywood.

Two of the earliest films Dees is said to have appeared in were the classics Dinner at Eight (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933). While I can't prove Dinner at Eight, I have seen her in press photos and clippings promoting Footlight Parade. Missing from her IMDb page is The Film Daily's assertion that Mary Dees appeared in The Fighting Texans (1933) starring Rex Bell and The Big Brain aka Enemies of Society (1933) for KBS Productions. (May 29 1933). She plays Paulette, presumably a tiny part, in Kid Millions (1934) starring Eddie Cantor.

In May 1934 Dees worked in what is perhaps her most famous film appearance outside of Saratoga, as a party guest in one of The Three Stooges most popular shorts, Hoi Polloi (1935).

Hoi Polloi

While the biographical notes appended to the Mary Dees Scrapbooks at The University of Alabama claim Dees to be the female lead in Hoi Polloi that is far from true. The IMDb lists her as "party guest." I found attribution for all of the other main actresses of Hoi Polloi, and none of them was Mary Dees. In fact, if Dees is the third girl to the right in the still shown just above as I believe she is (check against the newspaper photo shown below), then she appeared in the episode for all of five to ten seconds and did not speak a line. The same girl is spotted later in the episode far in the background dancing with Larry, but only comes to the forefront for those few seconds when Curly interacts with the girl whose back is to us in the pictured screen capture.

Prior to Saratoga the only mainstream national press coverage received by Mary Dees was a well-circulated press syndicate report, with photo, declaring her winner of a competition for "most beautiful legs in the film colony." It seems far from an official competition though it was certainly promoted as one. It was only after she replaced Harlow on Saratoga that Dees' earlier work ever received notice. She was typically mentioned in association with Harlow from Saratoga onward, with May Mann reporting that she'd doubled for Harlow in China Seas (1935) and was her stand-in for Red-Headed Woman (1932). Neither film appears on her IMDb page.

Mary Dees January 2 1936 newspaper clipping

Mary Dees in the papers, January 2, 1936

Dees continued to receive press coverage in the immediate aftermath of her work in Saratoga. There were reports that MGM had prepped her for stardom after she had filled in for Harlow and even that she was being groomed as a Harlow replacement. Her hometown paper reported that she was being trained by Mr. Trasker, an MGM dramatic teacher. It was widely reported that MGM signed her to the standard 7-year contract, but her option was not picked up after the first year had passed. One report in an Australian newspaper, and Dees soon spends considerable time there, says the contract was given just to keep the previously busy extra out of circulation until after Saratoga was completed.

As soon as September 1937 Louella Parsons reported that Dees, "whose sky-rocket to fame seems to have subsided, will try her luck at making personal appearances." On that note she received some press notices for some live performances with old-timer Monte Blue including one by Sylvia Smith that was printed in Dees' old hometown paper, The Tuscaloosa News. Smith's January 1938 feature mentions that Dees had performed a Harlow scene opposite Blue and had also done impersonations by of Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo and ZaSu Pitts.

See Glamourous Mary Dees

Dees is listed down below Judith Rutherford with (Jean Harlow's Double) noted under her own name

A year later Jimmy Fidler protested MGM's poor treatment of Dees writing that "Her resemblance to an established star was a handicap, but a few changes in hairdress and make-up would have solved that problem." Based on the few pics I've seen of Mary Dees I absolutely agree with Fidler. Fidler reported that Dees had earned $75 a week, every week, during her MGM stay. He also announced that she was headed to Australia to play a role in The Women on stage.

Obituaries and those University of Alabama notes claim that Dees appeared in the 1939 film version of The Women. While this is possible, it's unlikely.

Dees played the role of Crystal (the Joan Crawford part in the later film) in a successful Australian tour of The Women which also featured another American actress, Irene Purcell. The MGM film was made between April 25-July 7, 1939 and while I couldn't discover Australian news reports placing Dees there in either April of May of that year, she was definitely in Sydney on March 27 and mentioned as being in the area in another Australia newspaper on June 9. By late July Dees was featured in announcements for a coming second tour of The Women. I suppose it's conceivable that she did return to Hollywood to appear as an extra in the classic film version, but seems most unlikely.

Has anybody actually spotted her? Please chime in below if you have.

What is documented is that Mary Dees departed Sydney on the S.S. Mariposa September 13, 1939 and arrived back in Los Angeles on October 2.

Obituaries give a vague report of Dees continuing on stage in the New York area until 1960 when she moved to Florida. She continued performing there until her retirement in 1985. There aren't many specifics to be found when digging backwards.

She did receive regular mentions in the Lebanon Daily News of Lebanon, Pennsylvania throughout 1941 when she was a member of A.E. Scott's Gretna Players of the Gretna Theater. One Daily News report teemed with excitement as Hollywood star Lyle Talbot was on hand to witness a performance. Talbot was often linked romantically with Mary during this period with Walter Winchell going so far as to speculate that they were secretly married.

Don't blink! A rare glimpse of Dees' face passes quickly in this scene from Saratoga. Mary Dees is in the middle with black hat.

If it were not for Saratoga any remembrances of Mary Dees might be based around her well-tracked romantic career. I found only one mention of her rumored romance with boxing champion Jack Dempsey and no period clippings mentioning famed mobster Johnny Roselli, whom obituaries and current biographies associate her with. I did discover numerous mentions of Talbot and passing reference to Bruce Cabot. A Dorothy Kilgallen column from 1944 linked "former cinema actress" Dees with Chico Marx. This is interesting in that Dees' final film appearance is listed as a bit part in the Marx Brothers' 1946 film, A Night in Casablanca.

Dees seemed to play the marriage card to occasionally gain press attention. It was widely circulated throughout U.S. newspapers in late 1937 that she was to marry MGM photographer Hyman Fink. Australian newspapers went a bit further and referred to the couple as married in multiple reports published early in 1938. In August 1939 an Australian newspaper claimed Mary Dees had announced her engagement to an anonymous Melbourne business man. Dees did claim to be single both on the record logging her aforementioned 1939 Mariposa voyage as well as on a later trip from Venezuela back to the states in 1940. That latter voyage would also nullify Spring 1940 reports of Dees impending marriage to NHL hockey star Charlie Conacher which grabbed more than one small town America front page.

Mary Dees in Saratoga

A more typical view of Mary Dees in Saratoga

Mary Dees died August 4, 2004 in Lake Worth, Florida. She was 93. Prior to her passing Dees had worked at a thrift shop in Florida where she had met Patricia Blake, who became a close friend. Blake made sure Dees' wish of cremation was carried out and eventually saw that her ashes were buried with her parents at Evergreen Cemetery in Tuscaloosa in 2011.

While cleaning out Dees' apartment Blake would also find the two scrapbooks that would wind up residing at The University of Alabama in the W.S. Hoole Special Collections Library (Image of the scrapbooks posted HERE). The scrapbooks were filled with photos and clippings from Dees' time on Saratoga and her tour of Australia in The Women, the two jobs which in the end appear to be the high points of her career.

Assumptions


My own take on the career of Mary Dees is that she was a hard working actress whose only break was an unfortunate one. I do get the feeling that the idea of her being held back because she looked so much like Harlow is overblown. At least prior to Harlow's death. First, she doesn't look much more like her than many other actresses of the period (early Alice Faye, anybody?) until, that is, MGM made her look like Harlow. Dees herself certainly believed her career was cursed by the similarity, but I wonder if that was due more to the ideas that MGM put in her head during and immediately post-Saratoga than reality?

She certainly had her fair share of admirers and I fall back on a quote from her admittedly sometimes inaccurate Guardian obituary which leaves me to wonder if Mary Dees might have tugged at the wrong heart string:

"A favourite of Thalberg, he requested her to call him 'Pappa'. 'If one played with Pappa,' Dees recalled 70 years on, 'then Pappa gave one parts in pictures.'"

There seems to a lot said in and in between that line. But given one definite inaccuracy, one presumed inaccuracy and one exaggeration all found in that same obituary, I'm not too sure how much faith to put in the quote itself.

It appears that it is only several months after Saratoga was completed and no project followed that Dees really began to be pigeonholed by the inevitable Harlow references. Note that even the Mary Dees quote at the very top of this article is dated August 1937. "Jean Harlow's Double" seemed to preface her name in every report, both domestic and internationally for the rest of Mary Dees' life.

Sources

  • Ancestry.com. California Passenger and Crew Lists, 1882-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2008-2011.
  • Ancestry.com. New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.
  • Fidler, Jimmy. "Jimmy Fidler in Hollywood." Joplin Globe. 21 Septmber 1930: 10.
  • "Harlow's Double to Wed Film Aide." Ogden Standard-Examiner 27 July 1937: 12.
  • Holland, Taylor. "Actress who grew up in Tuscaloosa buried with her parents in Evergreen Cemetery." Tuscaloosanews.com. 27 December 2011. Web. 1 April 2012. < http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/article/20111227/NEWS/111229846 >
  • Kilgallen, Dorothy. "Dorothy Kilgallen." Lowell Sun. 19 May 1944: 19.
  • "Local Girl Featured in California Pageant." The Tuscaloosa News. 9 October 1932: 11.
  • Mann, May. "Mary Dees Goin' To Town As Jean Harlow's Double." Ogden Standard-Examiner. 22 August 1937: 13.
  • Mary Dees' Scrapbooks, W.S. Hoole Special Collections, The University of Alabama. Web. 1 April 2012. < http://acumen.lib.ua.edu/u0003_0002562 >
  • "Miss Mary Dees: Engagement Reported." The Sydney Morning Herald. 2 August 1939: 6.
  • "Miss Mary Dees Now Being Coached for Featured Roles, Says Letter." The Tuscaloosa News. 26 August 1937: 3.
  • "Most Beautiful Legs." Nevada State Journal. 11 February 1936: 4.
  • Mutti-Mewse, Austin. "Mary Dees." The Guardian 21 September 2005. Web. 2 April 2012. < http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2005/sep/22/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries >
  • Parsons, Louella O. "Doris Nolan Shuns Films for Fun." San Antonio Light. 8 September 1937: 8.
  • "Star Doubles Are Not Appreciated." Barrier Miner (of NSW Australia). 15 September 1938: 6.
  • Smith, Sylvia. "Southern Actress." The Tuscaloosa News. 10 January 1938: 4.
  • Wilk, Ralph. "A Little from the Lots." The Film Daily. May 29, 1933. Web. 2 April 2012.
  • "Will Marry Hockey Player." The Daily Courier. 28 March 1940: 9.
  • Winchell, Walter. "The Man on Broadway." Syracuse Herald Journal. 12 February 1941: 33.
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Comments

  1. Sarah says

    I’ve been carrying this post around on my phone for two days now, and I keep rereading it. I love knowing more about Mary Dees! And I love this article. You are a fabulous writer and I just love your blog. Thank you for posting this!

  2. Laura says

    This is some great research, Cliff.  Really enjoyed it!  Thanks so much.  I’ve always been fascinated by the sad and obvious use of the double in SARATOGA.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    • says

      Thanks @6c46afbc58a703991f6026e90f2c0107:disqus I’m still not sure whether Saratoga cursed Dees’ career or if it was the best thing that could have happened to it, but it’s interesting to think about either way!

  3. ReWrite Man says

    I just happened to be doing some research on Mary Dees and came across your ‘snapshot bio’ of her life. I happen to live about 6 blocks from the Iris Apartments, where Miss Dees lived during and after her ‘Saratoga’ experience. Being an avid Harlow fan, I always assumed Dees left Hollywood bitter because of ‘Saratoga’. After reviewing your findings, I think she was a smart cookie who refused to let those 4 minutes of screen time overshadow the full 93 years of life. She left Hollywood, and never looked back. Thank you! Max Pierce

    • says

      Thanks, Max! That’s definitely the impression I had as the clippings piled up. It was interesting pulling info together about her as ‘Mary Dees, actress’ and not first and foremost as ‘Jean Harlow’s stand-in’ … coming at it that way seemed to color the information a little differently than the standard presentation. Cliff

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