Today is the birthday of Dorothy Lee (Marjorie Elizabeth Millsap, 1911-1999). Los Angeles born Lee jumped into vaudeville at age 14, and married an adagio dancer named Robert Booth two years later.
When she was 18 she won a contest to go to New York and sing with Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians and this wound up being her lucky break. She hit it off with Waring — the two had a romance (she’d divorced Booth, the first of her six husbands), and she starred with his band on Broadway, on records, and in the 1929 film Syncopation. Bert Wheeler caught her performance in Syncopation and this began her long relationship in the movies with Wheeler and Woolsey, beginning with their first picture Rio Rita (1929).
She appeared in 13 pictures with Wheeler and Woolsey — which isn’t ALL of their movies by a long stretch, but somehow one associates her closely with the team, much as one associates the later Dorothy Lamour with Hope and Crosby, or Margaret Dumont with the Marx Brothers, although much more like the former than the latter we hasten to point out. Adorable and perky, she almost invariably paired up as the love interest with the equally child-like Wheeler, while Bob Woolsey wound up with the older, more experienced women. Her scenes and musical numbers with Wheeler were among the highlights of the pictures she appeared in.
BUT! We hasten to point this out: She wasn’t ONLY in Wheeler and Woolsey movies. She had her own career going right along. Other movies outside the Wheeler and Woolsey universe included Laugh and Get Rich (1931) with Edna May Oliver and Hugh Herbert, Local Boy Makes Good (1931) with Joe E. Brown, the title role in Mazie (1933, later remade starring Ann Sothern), Take a Chance (1933) with James Dunn and Lillian Roth, and several other pictures, including some dramas.
When Bob Woolsey died in 1938, Lee stepped up to help Bert Wheeler launch his solo career. She’d earlier appeared with Wheeler without Woolsey in the 1931 comedy Too Many Cooks. Her presence might have bolstered the fortunes of his first post-Woolsey solo comedy The Cowboy Quarterback (1939), but she was in semi-retirement and Marie Wilson was cast. The movie didn’t fare well, and suddenly Bert Wheeler, a top box office draw until only recently was in desperate straits. Dorothy Lee formed a vaudeville act with him and they made live appearances throughout the early 1940s. Lee’s own film career was on the wane by this time. She continued to appear in films though 1941, although only in bit parts.
For more on classic comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
History is very complicated. It’s even more complicated to five year olds. When we hear that the Pilgrims and Puritans came to America seeking “Religious Freedom” that always sounds terrific, and by definition (since they are the Founders) much in line with contemporary ideals. However, the truth is that though they themselves were seeking Freedom from the tyranny of the Church of England, it was NOT part of their plan to practice what we think of as religious tolerance themselves. If you had different ideas from the Pilgrim and Puritan leaders, you would be punished, and by methods that today would be considered cruel and unusual. Which is ironic, because there were many people of conscience who were part of their own movement, but just happened to go farther in many of their beliefs. Many of these people were banished from Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth. They became the founders of the settlements that were to become known as Rhode Island. And in Rhode Island, we get the first colony that practiced what we think of as true religious tolerance. It may have been the first place so instituted in the world.
Providence was founded by Roger Williams, a Cambridge educated jurist and theologian whose conversion to Puritanism ruined his chances for a career with the Church of England. He arrived in Boston in 1631, was briefly a prominent citizen both there and at Plymouth but ran into trouble with the leaders at both colonies. He founded his own at Providence in 1636, bringing dissenters with him, simultaneously founding Rhode Islamd and what was to become the Baptist Church. Some of my ancestors were among his earliest followers:
Daniel Abbott — an early pioneer of Providence. He arrived in Massachusetts with Winthrop’s fleet in 1630 and settled in Providence prior to 1639. His grandson and namesake would be Deputy Governor of Rhode Island, Clerk of the Assembly, and Speaker of the House of Deputies.
Benjamin Harrington — There are different stories about this colorful early American character. The Harringtons are my mother’s patrilineal line. There are many spellings of the name; our variation ended up being “Herindeen”. Benjamin’s grandfather was Sir John Harington, the “Saucy Godson” of the Court of Queen Elizabeth — I’ll write much more about him on a later occasion. John’s son James seems to have run away as a teenager and become a farmer and run off to the colonies with his family. Benjamin Harrington came to Massachusetts with his father James and the rest of family on a cattle boat with the Winthrop fleet (see previous post) in 1630. Now: Rhode Island had two reputations during the colonial period: one was for being a religious haven, the other was being a hive of every sort of crook and scoundrel known to man (the second reputation never went away). Harrington seems to have been a bit of both. Posterity remembers him as “The Rogue of Rhode Island”. He was a follower and friend of Roger Williams. He was also arrested in 1647 for beating his bride Elizabeth White (who herself had been in the dock for stealing clothes). And later he was also under suspicion for encouraging a Narragansett Indian to murder one of Williams’ servants with an ax. Fortunately, to balance out the scales, we are also descended from this man:
Pardon Tillinghast — immigrated to America circa 1645 and became one of Rhode Island’s most substantial citizens. He became pastor of the Baptist Church of Providence (the first Baptist church in America, started by Roger Williams) in 1681, a position he held until his death in 1718.
The other major religious settlement in Rhode Island, Portsmouth, was founded on Aquidneck Island in 1638 by Dr. John Clarke, William Coddington and Anne Hutchinson. (Several of my ancestors were among the signers of the Portsmouth Compact, which established the town). The following year Clarke and some others broke off and founded nearby Newport after a falling out with Hutchinson. Because that’s how dissenters are.
As I say, my ancestors were among the founders and earliest settlers. they included:
Philip Sherman (sometimes spelled Shearman) — He arrived in Massachusetts in 1633, but became an early follower of Hutchinson and became one of the founders of Portsmouth. Follow the link to learn about some of his famous descendants. He married Sarah Odding the stepdaughter of John Porter (see below). And Philip and Sarah’s daughter Sarah married another of my ancestors Thomas Mumford (see also below).
Thomas Lawton, younger brother of George Lawton, one of the earliest settlers of Portsmouth (1638) who served as Deputy to the General Assembly, and Assistant to the governor.
Thomas Fish — arrived in Portsmouth in 1643, and became a substantial citizen of that town. More importantly, he was to be great grandfather to one of New York’s most important bankers and one of the first brokers on the New York Stock Exchange, who just happens to have one of the funniest names in American history. Learn what it is here. I have gazed at portraits of this man in museums many times without ever realizing I was related to him.
Reverend Obadiah Holmes — moved to Salem in 1638, then to Rehoboth in the Plymouth colony in 1645. There he came in increasing conflict with leaders over his religious beliefs and so he moved to Newport in 1650. While visiting a friend in Lynn, Massachusetts the following year he was apprehended by the authorities and publicly whipped. In 1652 he was made the pastor of Newport’s Baptist church, a post he held for 30 years. Good article about him here.
Christopher Holder — Perhaps the greatest hero in these annals, an early Quaker missionary. He preached in England, Massachusetts and the Caribbean, but it was only in Rhode Island that he was able to enjoy religious freedom without persecution. Indeed while he lived there he was one of Portsmouth’s and Newport’s most honored citizens. (Whereas in Massachusetts he suffered public floggings, imprisonment, and had his ear cut off.) I am proud to say he was my (11th) great grandfather.
Giles Slocum –– one of the first settlers of Portsmouth (1638) – – a Baptist for many years, he and his family became Quakers in 1673, with Holder’s teachings an undoubted factor. Giles’ son Peleg Slocum was to become a reverend in the Quaker faith and married Holder’s daughter Mary (my ancestor is Mary’s sister Elizabeth) . I find it inconceivable that the area of Slocum, Rhode Island isn’t named after this family, but haven’t turned up any reference to it yet.
And now I save the best for last!
My home town!
I wish I’d known this when I was a kid, but in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t because I would have been INSUFFERABLE. I mean, I was already insufferable but this would have made me ten times more obnoxious. I am descended from the earliest settlers of the very town I grew up in. The Pettaquamscutt Purchase encompassed the lands that today comprise the towns of South Kingstown and Narragansett, Rhode Island, where I grew up. I know about the historic purchase from my boyhood — I was a junior member of the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society between the ages of 11 and 13, when my brother served as its President. I actually spent a lot of time in their headquarters, an old jailhouse, working on volunteer projects. This is it:
It would have been mighty cool at the time to have known I was descended from these guys:
John Porter — Arrived in Massachusetts in 1633. Like Philip Sherman, was a founder of Portsmouth and signer of the Portsmouth Compact , but more importantly he was one of the partners in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase, and thus was one of the pioneers and founders of my hometown. His daughter Hannah married my (8th) great grandfather who was….
William Wilbore — And my 8th great grandfather William was a cousin of Samuel Wilbore, yet another founder of Portsmouth. His son, Samuel Wilbore, Jr was also a partner in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase, and thus also a founder of my hometown. One of Samuel’s descendants was Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, which brings us back to this blogpost. Is yer head explodin’ yet, man?
Thomas Mumford — I am also directly descended from this third partner in the Pettaquamscutt Purchase. He was married to Philip Sherman’s daughter Sarah. He was High Sheriff of the region for a time and High Constable for the entire colony for many years. Most significantly, the climactic battle of King Phillip’s War, the Great Swamp Fight took place on his land.
I’ll have a post dedicated to that sad event, and my ancestors who participated, on Memorial Day.
Tonight on TCM: a program of films from one of my favorite cinematic subgenres: the sinking ship flick.
8:oopm (EST) The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
The first movie I ever saw in a cinema and my second favorite movie of all time. I’ve already written my thoughts about it here. I’ve probably seen it 20 times, most recently about a month ago, so I’ll likely skip the honor tonight. However, I most certainly will watch —
10:15pm (EST) Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)
Believe it or not, I’ve NEVER seen this one (apart from a few minutes on television)! It tanked (pun intended) upon release and seldom gets shown. A brilliant producer, Irwin Allen was a terrible director, and this was during his period of hubris when he was doing both. (Have you seen The Swarm? It’s almost totally incoherent). At any rate the plot of this one has the crew of a tugboat jumping aboard the doomed ship to claim salvage rights, and a bunch of Greek medics (secretly looters) jumping aboard to “save lives”. Along the way they meet surviving crew and passengers of The Poseidon we never met in the first film: The cast includes Michael Caine, Telly Savalas, Sally Field, Karl Malden, Shirley Jones, Peter Boyle, Mark Harmon and Slim Pickens as a Texas millionaire! Wild seahorses couldn’t drag me away.
12:15am (EST) Juggernaut (1974)
This one doesn’t fit in the program at all — it’s not so much a ship disaster movie as a bomb disposal and defusing suspense thriller, and like most ticking time bomb movies, it’s a whopping bore. Richard Harris is the bomb expert, Anthony Hopkins a detective whose family just happens to be on board the ship, Omar Sharif the ship’s captain, and Ian Holm is the guy who runs the shipping company. All they do is sweat a lot and look real nervous for two hours. And I suppose this amounts to a spoiler, right? Because if the bombs sink the ship the movie wouldn’t be…a whopping bore, right?
2:15am (EST) A Night to Remember (1958)
This British film is the least best known of all the Titanic films nowadays, yet happens to be one of the best in quality, for it is quite true to Walter Lord’s incredible book of the same name. Naturally everyone knows James Cameron’s 1997 love story. Before that, the one Americans knew best (I think) was the 1953 film of the same name with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. At least that was one I knew best until then.
I never got to see A Night to Remember until about two years ago, when they screened it at Loew’s Jersey City on a double bill with The Poseidon Adventure. And it is indeed incredible. It’s told pretty much from the point of view of Second Officer Lightoller (Kenneth More), the most senior officer to survive the disaster. One bit I recall loving in the film, is a recurring shot of an old man sitting in a chair reading a book all through the ship’s last moments. His identity and the identity of the book are enigmatic. It’s just how he is choosing to spend his last minutes. Not with craziness, but with calm. You can be sure I’ll watch this one again. As I will this one:
4:30am (EST) The Last Voyage (1960)
This is an amazing movie! I had never heard of it til I saw it on TCM in 2010. It seems seminal to me, solving a lot of the technical and special effects problems that would later come into play in The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno and Earthquake. Furthermore it was shot on a real ocean liner so it actually looks more realistic than the The Poseidon Adventure. (Yes, I know parts of TPA were shot on the Queen Mary, but the rest was done on Hollywood sound stages. ALL of this one was shot on a real ship)
The predicament: a fire breaks out on an ocean liner. The stubborn and foolish captain (George Sanders) scoffs at certain safety measures (like stopping so the crew can see to some things). Meanwhile some safety valves have fused shut, causing a boiler explosion that rips through several floors and puts a fatal hole in the hull. A woman (Dorothy Malone) is trapped under wreckage. Much of the film concerns the efforts of her husband Robert Stack to free her, aided by stoker Woody Strode, and later an engineer played by Edmund O’Brien (who spends most of the film trying to save the ship itself.) Malone and Stack’s daughter is a creepy-devil child…very strange casting.
Student film-makers! This movie teaches an interesting cinematic lesson. Sometimes realism is NOT the best solution. A case in point: Whereas, yes, in real life an explosion only takes a second, in a film, it has to be stretched out into several shots and take a little bit of time, otherwise it lacks drama. In this film the explosion only takes a second and thus seems underwhelming though the plot informs us that it’s really catastrophic. But otherwise there are so many amazing scenes in the film done right on the ship. It bears repeated viewing.