Dorothy Coburn: Stunt Woman and Slapstick Comedienne

Like many in the early days of cinema, Dorothy Coburn (1905-1978) had a western background. Her grandfather founded Montana’s Circle C Ranch. Her father Wallace Coburn had acted in a couple of movies; her uncle Walt Coburn wrote western fiction. Due to her horsemanship skills, Dorothy often worked as a stunt double in westerns (even for male stars), but because she was also attractive, she got supporting roles in slapstick comedies, as flappers, pretty nurses, and the like.

Coburn’s debut was in the 1919 Stan Laurel solo short Hustling for Health (1919) — she was only 14 at the time. Her father’s only two screen credits as actor had been just prior to that: Bull’s Eye (1917) and The Kaiser, Beast of Berlin (1918). In 1926, she was hired on a regular basis by Hal Roach. She was in the early Our Gang shorts Shivering Spooks (1926), Playin’ Hookey, and Barnum & Ringling Inc (1928), as well as the silent Laurel and Hardy pictures The Second 100 Years (1926), Sugar Daddies, Sailors Beware, Hats Off, Putting Pants on Philip, The Battles of the Century (1927), Leave ‘Em Laughing, Flying Elephants, The Finishing Touch, From Soup to Nuts, Their Purple Moment, and Should Married Men Go Home? (1928), and the 1927 Charley Chase comedies Now I’ll Tell One, The Way of All Pants, and Us, as well as Max Davidson’s Dumb Daddies, That Night, and Do Gentlemen Snore? (all 1928).

In 1928 Coburn appeared with Syd Saylor in several Century Comedies’ adaptations of George McManus’ comic strips: Rubber Necks, Look Pleasant, The Cross Country Bunion Race, All for Geraldine, and Sailor Suits (1928). The following year she could be seen in Charley Chase’s Universal feature Modern Love.

Hot — And How! (1930) for Jack White was Coburn’s first talkie. That year she also appeared in one last Our Gang short Shivering Shakespeare (1930), and then a Vernon Dent short for Universal called Up and Down Stairs (1930). This was essentially the end of her career as a supporting actress, aside from one walk-on job as  a dance hall girl in the western Yellow Dust in 1936. During the intervening years she worked as a stand-in for Ginger Rogers in RKO musicals.

In 1930 she married western actor Gene Alsace. I haven’t been able to ascertain precisely when they divorced, although he did go on to marry other women. After 1936 Coburn was employed as a receptionist. A desk job? For a gal who could ride and rope and take a pratfall, and only 31 years old?  Who knows? After all those years of black and blue marks it may have been a welcome change.

For more on silent film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.