Dorothy Comingore: Kane, Communism, and Comedy Shorts

Career’s end for actress Dorothy Comingore (1913-1971) is easy to predict once you know the inputs. Having played the part of Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), the role most calculated to infuriate William Randolph Hearst as it seemed to ridicule Marion Davies, she fell victim to a campaign to destroy her, exploiting her leftist activities and connections, and other aspects of her private life. Roles became scarce and then non-existent.

Yet her critically acclaimed performance in Kane was not Comingore’s only role. In early years she worked under the pseudonym Linda Winters. Having attended UC Berkley, she had begun acting with the Carmel Little Theater around 1934. Legend was that she was brought to Hollywood at the behest of Charlie Chaplin, who’d caught one of her performances. Starting in 1938 she bounced around several of the studios, frustrated with the work that was sent her way. She played bit parts and extra roles in some classic films like Golden Boy and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but was more commonly in B pictures like Five Little Peppers and How They Grew and Blondie Meets Her Boss (all in 1939). Late in this period she even had a lead in the B movie western Pioneers of the Frontier (1940). Of more interest to readers of this blog I should think: her roles in the comedy shorts Oily to Bed, Oily to Rise (1939) and Rockin’ Through the Rockies (1940) with the Three Stooges, and The Awful Goof (1939) and The Heckler (1940) with Charley Chase.

During this period (1939) she married screenwriter Richard Collins, who’d worked on the films Rulers of the Sea (1939), One Crowded Night (1940), Hudson’s Bay (1940), Lady Scarface (1941), Journey Into Fear (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), and, most damningly, Song of Russia (1944). Meanwhile, Comingore, whose career had been an uphill slog after nasty attacks by Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper, was only only able to secure the second female lead in the screen adaptation of O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape (1944), fourth billed behind William Bendix, Susan Hayward, and John Loder.

Collins and Comingore divorced in 1945, but not before the pair engaged in pro-Russia and other left-wing activities activities throughout the Second World War. Collins had literally been a member of the Communist Party. Comingore was deeply involved in unionism and civil rights causes. In 1945 she appeared in the Broadway show Beggars are Coming to Town, directed by the Group Theatre’s Harold Clurman and also featuring Adrienne Ames, Luther Adler, Herbert Berghof (best known today for HB Studios), Arthur Hunnicutt, Paul Kelly, and E.G. Marshall. Collins worked on one more picture, Little Giant (1946) with Abbott and Costello, before giving noncooperative testimony to HUAC, resulting in a blacklisting that lasted from 1947 through 1952. At which point he recanted and got his career back, amassing scores of credits as a screenwriter and producer until the mid 1990s.

In 1947, Comingore married screenwriter Theodore Strauss, then on a hot streak that would include credits on California (1947) with Ray Milland and Barbara Stanwyck, and Moonrise (1948) with Dane Clark, Gail Russell, and Ethel Barrymore. At the same time, Comingore’s career was foundering. She had small roles in Any Number Can Play (1949) with Clark Gable, and The Big Night (1951) with John Drew Barrymore (son of John, father of Drew), and made a handful of TV appearances.

In 1952 Comingore too was called before HUAC, deemed unfriendly, and subsequently blacklisted. Already an alcoholic, she lost custody of her children. Strauss divorced her that same year. Then in 1953 she was hauled in to the dock on prostitution charges, the death knell for her career. She was then sent to a mental health facility for a couple of years for treatment. Her fall, in a way, seemed to echo Susan Alexander’s.

By 1962 she had had married a postman in Stonington, Connecticut. She was only 58 when she died of a heart ailment likely related to her long-term drinking.

For more on slapstick comedy shorts of the type Dorothy Comingore appeared in prior to Citizen Kane, please read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.