Dorothy Lee: Wheeler and Woolsey’s Third Wheel

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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).

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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 HerbertLocal Boy Makes Good (1931) with Joe E. Brown, the title role in Mazie (1933), 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 Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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