Dorothy Burgess: The Young Lady In Old Arizona

Paging Friends of Dorothy! Haha, and straight people, too. But on a whim I just did a little tally and realized that we have done articles on nearly 30 Dorothies here on Travalanche. That would appear to be a lot. I don’t know if it’s a factor of the name being especially popular among stars of the silent and talkie era (as was my instinct) or if the name was particularly in vogue among the wider American public around the turn of the last century. It’s not completely extinct now; I’ve got a family friend and a cousin with the name (and I once wrote a play populated entirely by Dorothies), though I also note that at the moment I can’t think of any contemporary movie stars with the handle. (Please don’t rush to tell me about any; I don’t care that much.)

At any rate, we come now to Dorothy Burgess (1907-1961). Born and raised in Los Angeles, Burgess had famous show business people on both sides of her family. Fay Bainter was her maternal aunt; Dave Montgomery was a relative of her father’s. Burgess was educated at Mrs. Dow’s, a posh boarding school in Briarcliff Manor, New York. She was still a teenager when she danced in Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revue (1924 edition) on Broadway. From here she graduated to proper speaking roles in three more Broadway plays: The Adorable Liar (1926) with Beatrice Blinn; as the title character in Bye Bye Bonnie (1927) with William Frawley and Ruby Keeler; and Synthetic Sin (1927). In 1928 she did a season opposite Henry Hull at a stock theatre in Rochester run by George Cukor.

Also in 1928 Burgess made her screen debut in the early western talkie In Old Arizona with Edmund Lowe and Warner Baxter. Her sexy Senorita character in that film was typical of how she was cast in films and plays, a factor of her dark hair and exotic beauty, though she was neither Spanish nor Latina. For a couple of years she alternated Los Angeles theatre roles (like the title role in David Belasco’s Lulu Belle in 1929) with films. Burgess had parts in nearly 50 movies, though few of them were classics. Classic comedy fans will appreciate that she played the title role in Oh! Oh! Cleopatra! (1931) with Wheeler and Woolsey. She was sixth billed in Taxi (1931) with James Cagney.

In late 1932 Burgess was charged with manslaughter after an 17 year old passenger died in a vehicular accident when she was at the wheel. Burgess spent some time in a sanitarium and eventually paid several thousand dollars in damages to settle the case. The event doesn’t seem to have brought an immediate stop to her career. She continued to be seen in such things as Fashions of 1934, Black Moon with Fay Wray, Gambling with George M. Cohan, and The Circus Clown with Joe E. Brown (all 1934). Then after a couple of movies in 1935, there is a substantial break in her career. She does return to the screen in 1940 for several more films, the last of which was The West Side Kid (1943) with Red Barry and Henry Hull.

Burgess was only 54 years old when she died of lung cancer in 1961.

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To learn more about the show business history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous. For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.