This biography of Dorothy Dell is a contribution to the Gone Too Soon blogathon being hosted by Comet Over Hollywood. You will find other entries about stars who left us too soon, specifically before age 50, as they are posted on the Comet Over Hollywood site.
The Legacy of Dorothy Dell
She only had time to appear in three feature films before the end came far too soon. Watching those three old movies I saw that little bit of Harlow and perhaps even a tiny touch of the Mae West in her that others mention. What I really saw was a whole lot of Alice Faye. So much so that I could easily imagine Dorothy Dell having had a career very similar to what Miss Faye enjoyed. If she had not died tragically at just age 19.
Her childhood friend Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton, better known by her screen name of Dorothy Lamour, did her best to keep the legend of Dorothy Dell alive for as long as she could. She mentioned her Miss New Orleans predecessor regularly in interviews years after Dell's death and even took on Dell's sister, Helen, as protege for a time, unsuccessfully trying to open Hollywood doors for the younger Dell.
But beyond the occasional rare showing of Little Miss Marker, a Damon Runyon based story which only ever airs because it stars Shirley Temple, not many excuses pop up for us to bother wondering about the short life of Dorothy Dell. Wharf Angel is a solid but forgotten Barbary Coast set film featuring Dell with admirers Preston Foster and Victor McLaglen. Shoot the Works is a Jack Oakie comedy with some musical numbers which would be better left forgotten if not for the rare chance of seeing Dell, who sings "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming" in it. The song became a hit record after Dell's death.
These three Dorothy Dell films were all done for Paramount and so none make TV very often these days. Turner Classic Movies did show Little Miss Marker in 2011, but I have a feeling you're in for a wait for the other two. I acquired my copies through this source.
Dorothy Dell Goff Before Hollywood
Dorothy Dell Goff was born January 30, 1915 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Her father, Elbert E. Goff, was said to be a Mayflower descendant. Her mother, Lillian Goff, claimed she was descended from Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Dorothy received her first major press exposure at age 15 when she won Galveston, Texas' International Pageant of Pulchritude whose judges then proclaimed her "Miss Universe." There seems to be some confusion today as to whether Dorothy Dell Goff was officially "Miss Universe" or not. What matters is that newspapers nationwide declared her so in 1930. The publicity provided a major steppingstone for the short career which was to follow.
The 1930 coverage of Dorothy Dell Goff's major beauty contest victory is responsible for getting the youngster's past into print as well. Truth or publicity, I don't know, but there are repeated reports of her being crowned Hattiesburg's Most Beautiful Baby when she was just 13 months old. Other crowns Dorothy Dell Goff was said to wear before that of "Miss Universe" were "Miss American Legion," "Miss Biloxi," "The Girl with the Perfect Back," which is said to have paid a $56 prize, and on the road to "Miss Universe" she also picked up "Miss New Orleans." Dorothy topped a field of 75 entries in that contest.
New Orleans is where Dorothy Dell and the other Goffs, including sister Helen, lived from the time Dorothy was ten years old. There she attended the Sophie Wright High School for girls and there she met her closest friend, young Miss Slaton, later known as Dorothy Lamour. Both Dorothy's actually entered the 1930 "Miss Universe" contest and while Dell won that year Lamour would win the crown the following year.
New Orleans is also where Dorothy Dell Goff decided she wanted to become a singer. Composer Wesley Lord heard Dorothy perform at school and arranged a chance for her to sing at the old Sanger Theater. Whether it was Lord's doing or reports of a radio performance prize Dorohty was said to have won at age 13, she was soon signed to a radio contract. Radio would prove a training ground for Dorothy's voice as another account of her 1930 prize victory confirms that she had spent the prior two years singing over the radio.
Press reports about Dorothy's voice were extremely well put with one from 1930 stating that she "has a rich contralto voice--almost a baritone." and another published after her death remarking that "she had a clear, low, resonant voice which made Southern blues songs come alive."
My own take on Dorothy Dell's voice was that she sounded like fellow Southerner Ann Sheridan when she spoke and that her singing voice and style was very similar to that of Alice Faye. No matter what I've heard come out of Dell's mouth it's always been very pleasant!
A Martin Starr of New York was assistant director of the 1930 "Miss Universe" pageant and immediately set himself up as Dorothy's manager after her victory. He was said to expect numerous offers coming his way for young Miss Goff. Mr. Starr was likely stunned when Dorothy turned down offers from both Florenz Ziegfeld and George White because neither Broadway magnate was willing to take on Dorothy Lamour with Dell. Instead the two Dorothys went West to Hollywood where they performed in vaudeville for six months for Fanchon and Marco.
Dorothy Dell had blonde hair and gray eyes. Her well-publicized statistics from the time of her "Miss Universe" victory put Dorothy at 5 feet, 6 inches tall and 122 pounds. Her measurements were 34-26-36 and as the graphic reproduced on this page shows she wore size 2AA slippers.
Her early goals? "I am going to be a real actress," she said in 1930. "Not just one more actress, but a real, honest-to-goodness actress like Marie Dressler."
With the Goff dropped from her name Dorothy Dell came East in the Summer of 1931 to work for Ziegfeld. The Ziegfeld Follies returned in 1931 after a three year absence and the initial hits of the show were reported to be the discovery of 18-year-old dancer, Hal Le Roy, and the "Broadway Reverie" number in which current Ziegfeld performers impersonated stars of old New York. Dorothy's idol growing up, Ruth Etting, played Nora Bayes and performed "Harvest Moon." Dorothy appeared in the "Broadway Reverie" act herself when it brought itself back to modern times and she sang "Was I Drunk; Was He Handsome; Did My Mother Give Me Hell" in what United Press reported as "a likable manner."
The Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 ran from July 1 through November 21 of that year and provided Dorothy Dell with an unexpected break when Ruth Etting took ill and Dorothy filled in for her for four weeks. Dorothy performed not only Etting's songs during this period but also those she had previously performed for the act. On April 14, 1932 the paper from her old place of triumph, the Galveston Daily News, reported "Pageant Winner Will Sing Over Radio Tonight" referring to a National Broadcast where Dorothy performed which was headlined by Rudy Vallee.
In late 1932 Dorothy Dell appeared on screen for the first time in the Warner Brothers Vitaphone short Passing the Buck with Nina Mae McKinney. It was filmed on the East Coast while Dell was off the stage recovering from a broken arm. Film Daily reported that "she removed her plaster cast, which was tied to her arm with bandages, and went through her number in grand style." Dorothy's final bit of work before heading west was a part in the Broadway show Tattle Tales which had a short run in June 1933.
Dorothy Dell and family arrived in Hollywood in December of 1933 and Dorothy signed a long-term contract with Paramount, where she would make all of her completed feature length films. Press tabbed her for Good Dame starring Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March; Come on Marines with Richard Arlen and Ida Lupino (who I assume won the part Dorothy had been considered for); and She Loves Me Not starring Bing Crosby and Miriam Hopkins (all 1934).
She appeared in none of these. Instead the world would be introduced to the stunning Dorothy Dell playing the woman in between Victor McLaglen and Preston Foster in Wharf Angel (1934).
Dorothy Dell delivers a fantastic debut performance in Wharf Angel as Toy, a part first considered for better established actresses including Mae Clarke, Helen Mack and Isabel Jewell.
Wharf Angel is a seedy story set on the foggy Barbary Coast. Most of the story is set in the area immediately around Mother Bright's (Alison Skipworth) saloon and at sea where the male cast members stoke coal on board a ship.
It opens with Como Murphy (Preston Foster) running into Mother Bright's place to escape a group of lawmen led by no-nonsense David Landau as Moore. Como was speaking at a labor rally and wound up being accused of murder after a fight broke out. Mother Bright sends Como safely out the back way as Turk (Victor McLaglen), leader of the shipworkers, orders the other patrons not to say a word to police. Como slips out of the San Francisco fog into a little hole in the wall room occupied by Dell's Toy, a prostitute who works the docks.
Como and Toy fall in love fast over small talk and Toy soon heads over to Mother Bright's to get some food to bring back to Como. There she encounters Turk, who's wanted her for a long while and finally worked up the courage to go after her. Flirtacious banter turns a little ugly leading Turk to comment, "Not smart. Fresh," after one of Toy's wisecracks doesn't fly far enough over his head. "Not handsome. Rough," counters Toy as he manhandles her. Nevertheless, Turk is hooked on her. The feeling is not mutual.
Opportunity for Como to escape the long arm of the law, especially Murphy's spotlight, arises when the next ship is ready to leave port. He and Turk are soon best friends, especially after Como's expert handling of a rather brutal brawl involving Turk and one of the other crewmen. Eventually there's the inevitable small talk where each of the men moons over his girl back home, each with such vastly different descriptions that neither suspects they're in love with the same girl, Toy. It's obvious this is going to lead to trouble down the line.
Meanwhile back at the wharf Toy tries to reform. Dell's best scene comes as she sings "Down Home" before a crowd of haggard men. She seems to win them over with that velvety voice, but soon their contentment turns to lust and they drown her out with whistles and catcalls. They throw change at her feet and yell at her to dance for it. Toy walks off the stage and Dell gives us some of her best work distressed outside as she bumps into more leering men, one of whom seemed prepared to make her an offer for the evening. She stops to stare longingly at a travel agency poster for Shanghai before we cut to the boys who are docked there.
Sticking to Frisco, one rainy night the police plaster wanted posters of Como around town and Toy carefully slices an image of Como free from one of the posters. This mug shot of Como is shown later, framed and hanging in her room, when he comes back to her from the sea. After Toy pockets the soppy portrait she bumps into Landau's Moore and he engages her in small talk asking her about the job she's recently landed in a paint shop. Toy goes along with the conversation but soon remembers she's talking to a cop who knows all about her past and practically begs, "You guys are gonna give a girl a chance, ain't ya?"
Wharf Angel is really a sordid dock story focusing on the Barbary Coast's bottom of the barrel, but humanizing the main few of that group played by Dell, Foster, McLaglen and Skipworth. It's an explosive debut for Dorothy Dell who quickly proves she can do more than just sing. Her tough banter is believable and her sad saucer-sized eyes help sell her love scenes along with that velvetty voice. She's sexy, pathetic, sinful and sympathetic all at once and does a fine job opposite Foster and outshines McLaglen.
Her Toy is the bad-girl tamed by love. While we don't see much of the life she's trying to leave behind it is more than hinted at when she pushes her charms on McLaglen's Turk towards the end of the film with hopes of borrowing enough money for her and Como to get out of town.
I'd call Wharf Angel underrated if it weren't all but forgotten. Victor McLaglen has his fans, though I'm not one, so it should have greater distribution than it does, but then again it's an early Paramount title which as I mentioned earlier means it doesn't get shown much. The performances, setting and atmosphere outweigh the actual story and Dorothy Dell's Toy certainly stands out as one of the film's best features.
In The New York Times' April 21, 1934 review of Wharf Angel Dorothy Dell was referred to as "a charming newcomer" who "handles her part capably."
Little Miss Marker
Dell plays nightclub singer Bangles Carson, kept woman of Charles Bickford's Big Steve Halloway in Paramount's adaptation of Damon Runyon's Little Miss Marker featuring Shirley Temple. Little Miss Marker is Dorothy Dell's second film at Paramount and a big step up from Wharf Angel.
Once again Dorothy Dell finds herself in a less than reputable world, perhaps bringing about those eventual comparisons to Mae West. While I can see merit in the Harlow comparisons and really think Dell is the precursor of, if not model for, Alice Faye, I didn't get nearly as much Mae West out of her performances. Oh, maybe a little in the face and the body language, but Dell doesn't do a lot of wisecracking and she doesn't pour sex over her men like West does, practically victimizing them with her lewdness. Beyond that she has none of West's mean spiritedness, this kid is sugar sweet despite the surroundings, so I don't get it. The few times she does crack wise it's here though, in Little Miss Marker, and perhaps had she lived, maybe a decade or two down the line, her screen characters would have taken on more of West's attributes. But that didn't happen.
Little Miss Marker is filled with Runyon's rough and tumble characters, but it quickly zeroes in on the relationship between little Markie (Temple) and the aptly named Sorrowful Jones, played by Adolphe Menjou. Sorrowful does his best, with the assistance of Bangles, to keep Markie away from the law after her father leaves her as collatoral, a marker, on a horse bet and subsequently commits suicide.
"Hello tightwad," Dell's Bangles greets Sorrowful as they first pass one another. "Hello golddigger," he shoots back. While this could be playful it's not, there's a bit of malice involved, though we soon see Menjou's Sorrowful gazing longingly at Bangles as she performs "I'm a Black Sheep Who's Blue" while seated atop the piano at Steve Halloway's Horse Shoe Caberet.
While Shirley Temple is billed before the title credits she's mostly on hand to make possible the relationship between Bangles and Sorrowful when Bickford's Steve lams out of town after setting up a crooked wager. One night after Sorrowful puts Markie to bed the bell buzzes and Bangles struts in like she owns the place mumbling to Sorrowful to get rid of the fellow who's followed her to the door (Dell's most West-like moment ever!). Sorrowful scolds her for bringing a "good-time Charlie" up to his place but Bangles soon makes herself useful singing a lullaby to Markie which winds up putting all three of them to sleep for the night.
This leads to a bit of a predicament the next morning when Bangles calls her maid, Sarah (Mildred Gover), to have a change of clothes delivered to her at Sorrowful's place. Sarah's actually a spy Steve has keeping tabs on Bangles so he soon receives a telegram from her urging him home from Chicago to look in on Bangles. While Steve is making his way back off-screen Bangles is upset that Markie's exposure to their gang has had a bad effect on the girl.
Gone are Markie's once whimsical dreams of a world populated by the heroes of King Arthur. The fantasy has been replaced by wisecracks, street slang and a pessimistic general outlook. Bangles and Sorrowful arrange to have the mob dress as characters from King Arthur and close down Steve's Horse Shoe to hold a private party for Markie to try and get her back to how she was. Markie isn't won over right away , not until her Charger, a race horse decked out in medieval gear same as the rest of the bunch, is brought into the room. Unfortunately for all that's when Steve makes his cranky return.
Beacause of Shirley Temple's legendary status Little Miss Marker is the best chance most will have to witness Dorothy Dell on screen and it's a good one. Besides singing Temple to sleep with a lullaby she also shares a song with Shirley the next day and has the spotlight all to herself in that opening number at the Horse Shoe Cabaret. Dell is tough early in the movie when she's still with Steve, but softens once he leaves town and her feelings for Sorrowful begin to grow.
Despite the colorful characters Runyon's world is dark and it takes the innocence of childhood to bring any light to it beyond Runyon's dialogue. Dell's Bangles is the one who realizes the darkness may just be too much and that for all the good Markie has done for her and Sorrowful, they've perhaps done her more harm by sinking her into their gutter.
Mordaunt Hall in his May 19, 1934 review for The New York Times heaps praise upon Little Miss Marker with his only direct comment about Dorothy Dell being that she, "as Bangles Carson also contributes real talent."
Shoot the Works
Shoot the Works is the most over the top and least likable of Dorothy Dell's three feature length films. Had her career continued, especially with another Shirley Temple vehicle, Now and Forever, scheduled next, Shoot the Works would just be a blemish to forget amongst what looked like it was going to be a long line of successes. Instead it is Dorothy Dell's last movie. It features Dell in a run-of-the mill romance with Jack Oakie. It's a relationship where Oakie walks over her so much that I didn't really see any reason for Dell to hang around.
Alison Skipworth is wasted here and Roscoe Karns is unbearable. I liked Arline Judge on the whole, but she probably was given more to do than she should have been. She's certainly bubbly! William Frawley is obnoxious though it's a bit of fun to listen to some of that hep cat dialogue spilling out of Fred Mertz's mouth! The biggest kick I got out of Shoot the Works was my first exposure to, yowsa, Ben Bernie as the old Maestro, Joe Davis, but he was mostly entertaining in front of an audience and didn't offer too much to the movie once he and his boys left the stage.
Jack Oakie is Nicky Nelson, skilled carnival barker aspiring to vaudeville greatness. There's wasted potential in his intriguing team that's best shown off in the opening scene before we ever see Dell. The Countess (Skipworth) sells tickets to Sailor's (Karns) attempt at breaking the flagpole sitting record. Down below Joe Davis (Bernie) and his band perform and eventually toss it up to Sailor who tells the crowd about his loyal girl, Jackie (Judge), watching over him every hour of his record breaking attempt from the building across the way. As the crowd turns to the building Jackie is late to greet them because she's canoodling with Oakie's Nicky.
Sailor's jealousy over Jackie, who's involved with just about every male in the movie except Bernie, plays a major, too major, of a part in Shoot the Works. Roscoe Karns is usually so enjoyable but his Sailor has enough time on screen to ruin this one by being way over the top in just about every scene. His big showstopper is playing the clarinet while swinging upside-down on a trapeze, a trick shown more than once and twice as irritating each time since we know Karns isn't actually performing either feat!
Even after Sailor wins five hundred dollars for his flagpole sitting exploits the Countess explains that their financial outlook is dire. Nicky heads to the offices of crooked theatrical agent Axel Hanratty (Lew Cody) hoping to sell some songs but is turned away. It's in Hanratty's lobby that Nicky meets Lily Raquel (Dell), a strong performer who's out of work because her first and last job was in a real turkey of a show. Nicky does what he can for Lily in getting her into Hanratty's office, but she's turned away too. She tracks down Nicky just as all of the gang except the Countess are walking out on him.
Lily perfects the lyrics on Nicky's song "With My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming," and Dell as Lily performs it throughout Shoot the Works. Working together they fall for each other but every time Nicky tries to get them ahead he goes to the wrong man, Hanratty, for help. Rather than getting the financial backing he seeks, Nicky loses what money he did have gambling with Hanratty. This leads to the eventual break between Lily and Nicky. Lily, who's been making extra money singing for the old Maestro, is soon discovered professionally and romantically by radio exec Alvin Ritchie (Paul Cavanagh).
Shoot the Works winds to its inevitable romantic conclusion with Winchell-like Larry Hale (William Frawley) maneuvering the relationships from his hospital bed.
In an overall damning review of Shoot the Works, which agrees with many of my own points, the July 7, 1934 edition of The New York Times takes the opportunity to note "two of the performers in the picture make post-mortem appearances ... and justify the regrets expressed at their passing." Dorothy Dell is specifically referred to as having been "a highly promising ingenue" in the past tense.
The Death of Dorothy Dell
Shoot the Works premiered in New York, July 6, 1934, almost one month after the death of 19-year-old Dorothy Dell. Castmate Lew Cody, a former silent star who had previously been married to Mabel Normand at the time of her death, actually predeceased co-star Dell by nine days when heart disease claimed his life May 31, 1934. It was in an article published a couple of months after the death of Dorothy Dell where Dell is quoted as having told her maid, "Death always comes in threes, you know. First Lilyan Tashman, then Lew. I wonder who'll be next?"
The answer came in the early morning hours of June 8, 1934.
The most complete and unique report of events leading up to and occurring the night of Dell's death come in the unattributed article "What Never Was Told About the Tragic Crash of Lovely Dorothy Dell," which appeared in The Salt Lake Tribune a little over two months after the terrible night. Dorothy's companion for that evening was 28-year-old Dr. Carl Wagner, a Pasadena dentist who was described as well-known and was likely a bit notorious at the time of his death. Dr. Wagner had been questioned several times by police over the December 12, 1933 murder of another Pasadena dentist, Dr. Leonard Siever, in what turned out to be a mysterious case which went unsolved until at least 1936 at which time a suspect was finally pending arrest.
The Salt Lake Tribune article describes Dr. Wagner as a friend of Dorothy Dell's, but nothing more. In fact "What Never Was Told" appears to have been the Tribune's assertion that Dorothy was seriously involved with Nat Carson, a young caricaturist, who was then overseas working for a famed English revue producer. Carson had supposedly made a success in London and had called Dorothy just a week prior to her death making a proposal that the young star accepted. Plans were made for Carson to arrive in America on June 11 to marry Dorothy and then take her back with him to London where she'd enjoy a six-month honeymoon before they both returned to Hollywood as newlyweds. After Dorothy's death Carson turned in his steamship ticket and remained in London.
The Tribune claims that Dorothy was celebrating Carson's impending arrival that evening with Dr. Wagner. Wagner took the Hollywood star to meet his mother in Pasadena where they stayed chatting for an hour before driving off to the Marcil Inn in the hills of Altadena, California. According to the Tribune Dorothy Dell eventually glanced at her watch and declared "Good heavens, Carl! It's nearly one o'clock in the morning. Let's be on our way." Well, I don't know about that, but surely the pair were ready to leave and did so right around that time. The same article stresses more than once that Wagner was sober going so far as to say he "rarely sipped a cocktail and never more than one."
As creative as The Salt Lake Tribune may be in describing the events leading to the terrible crash it offers the most colorful description of the crash itself which does in this case corroborate with other printed reports from the period. Wagner was driving 50-70 miles per hour when on the "wide, banked, sweeping curve of Lincoln Avenue in Pasadena" he lost control of the car. First they hit a 50-pound rock from which they caromed into a light pole which was sheared in half. From there it was into a palm tree after which the car flipped end over end several times until "it came to rest--an unrecognizable mess of twisted steel."
Dorothy Dell was killed instantly at the scene of the crash. Dr. Carl Wagner, whose body was thrown from the wreckage, died from a basal skull fracture six hours after the crash without ever having regained consciousness.
Services were held for Dorothy Dell in Hollywood on June 10 where her old friend Ruth Etting sang "The Rosary." Somewhat sadly the AP reported that "So quickly had Miss Dell risen to screen fame she was not widely known among the other players and Jack Oakie was the only film star among the limited group of friends and kin attending." After those services her grief stricken parents, Elbert and Lillian Goff, and "inconsolable" sister Helen, took her body back with them and buried their daughter at Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans.
At the time of her death Dorothy Dell had been next scheduled to star opposite Gary Cooper in another Shirley Temple vehicle, Now and Forever. The part went to Carole Lombard instead.
- "Broadway and Side Streets." Charleston Gazette 12 Jul. 1931: 26.
- "Dorothy Dell Is Back After Triumph Hour." Hammond Times 11 Jun. 1934: 12.
- "Dorothy Dell Loses Life on Way Home from Party at Night Club." El Paso Herald-Post 8 Jun. 1934: 1.
- Golden, Eve. "Dorothy Dell: The Last Ziegfeld Girl." Classic Images Nov. 1998. Web 5 Mar. 2012 < http://www.classicimages.com/past_issues/view/?x=1998/november98/dorothydell.html >.
- "Great Beauty Gives Advice to All Girls." Cumberland Evening Times 15 Aug. 1930: 6.
- "Last Rites Held for Dorothy Dell." The Salt Lake Tribune 11 Jun. 1934: 2.
- "'Miss Universe' of 1930 Meeting with Success on Broadway in the Follies." The Galveston Daily News 2 Aug. 1931: 5.
- "Near Solving 3-Year-Old Murder Case." The Bee 7 Nov. 1936: 3.
- "New Orleans Lass Dislikes Housework; Keen for Stage." Evening Independent 9 Aug. 1930: 1-2.
- "Pageant Winner Will Sing Over Radio Tonight." The Galveston Daily News 14 Apr. 1932: 3.
- Sampas, Charles G. "Dorothy Lamour's Special Protege." Lowell Sun 18 Jan. 1940: 50.
- "What Never Was Told About the Tragic Crash of Lovely Dorothy Dell." The Salt Lake Tribune 12 Aug. 1934: 7.
Note: The sources above are in addition to any online sources which are linked throughout the body of this Dorothy Dell article. If a source is linked within the article it is not included in this section.
Once more this biography of Dorothy Dell is part of the Gone Too Soon blogathon hosted by Comet Over Hollywood. This article was first published on Immortal Ephemera. Other Gone Too Soon entries may be seen HERE.
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