The Influences of Dorothy Dell

by Sean Martinfield | See: All, By Sean, Ladies of the Nightclubs

Breaking News – Wikipedia is going to the moon! Every jot and tittle – all preserved on tiny sheets of nickel and in a number of translations. [See: The Arch Foundation’s first step toward building a Lunar Library] And, perhaps, in the nick of time – seeing that none of us really know when The Big One will hit. (According to First Thessalonians, 5:2-4, the arrival will be similar to that of “a thief in the night.”) Thus, the Lunar Library is a helluva proactive feat – one that offers a smattering of hope that Our Story will not become forever lost. Picture it: some way-into-the-future space beings, traversing our presumably intact moon, will stumble upon this cache, recognize the obvious, and know pretty much how to unravel its coded files. Just like the Nag Hammadi experience, yes? To that end the folks at Arch agreed on the word according to Wikipedia. And, consequently, its heavy load of editorial ticks – all those unfulfilled demands for supporting evidence: needs citation. I’m pondering how these explorers will respond to the page dedicated to singer/actress Dorothy Dell (1915–1934): “She is best remembered for her tragically short life.”

Oh, yeah? Says who? [needs citation]

Florenz Ziegfeld signs “Miss Universe ’31” (Dorothy Dell) to his Follies of 1931 – Glorifying the American Girl. Beauty Queen to perform Charlie Farrell and Chick Endor’s, “Was I ?”

Letter to the Lunar Explorers
Singer/actress Dorothy Dell will be best remembered as the promising 19-year-old contralto who gained Immortality sixty-four years after her death. This unforeseen phenomenon came about in 1998 when the Library of Congress gave its go-ahead to preserve Little Miss Marker, Dorothy’s second feature film at Paramount Pictures, released June 1, 1934. The National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) agreed that Little Miss Marker (along with twenty-four other nominated titles) met its controlling guidelines for being declared “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.” In other words, A–1 chapters for the Our Story collection. (Heads-up on the gossipy plant about Dorothy and ill-fated crooner, Russ Columbo, heading toward the altar. Uh–– Hmmm. Nah.)

Dorothy Dell – Russ Columbo

Little Miss Marker also pushed six-year-old Shirley Temple into her first major role. Dorothy portrays “Bangles Carson” – a nightclub singer who is the mistress of the club’s gangster owner, “Big Steve Halloway” (Charles Bickford). He is also the brains behind a betting operation into horse racing. Following the NFPB declaration, 35mm prints of each of the twenty-five films (including Phantom of the Opera, Gun Crazy, and Bride of Frankenstein) were spirited to a climate controlled cave somewhere around Culpeper, Virginia (38.4730° N, 77.9963° W).
Just so we’re all on the same page – Dorothy Dell was a 5’6″/ 34-26-36 babe. Assuming Planet Earth has not been reduced to an ash-blue cinder, you’ll thank me when you locate this concealed treasure. Hopefully, the preservationists also parked a 35mm projector in the cave – one upgraded to solar power, of course. Back in ’34, one of the favored machines was the Western Electric Universal 35mm Sound Projector Peerless Simplex. It made sexy Dorothy simply peerless. Sincerely yours, S.M.]

“Here, watch this,” says fellow film maven Janet Roitz, handing me a DVD +R disc (from one of her sources) labeled, Wharf Angel (1934). “It’s our dear Dorothy’s first film! She plays a prostitute named ‘Toy’ – in San Francisco – she has a nightclub scene – somewhere down on the wharf.” What, again? Is there an earthquake? “No, but her song is by our boys – Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin.”

Fast-forward Wharf Angel to 00:30:28 – the nightclub scene. From the looks of the joint, the Barbary Coast Palace is convenient to The City’s red light district. The tables are dressed with checkered cloths and a potted palm sits near the pianist. [Trivia Alert: Ralph Rainger is at the piano.] A close-up on the Palace menu shows beer selling at a nickel a glass (today, about $1.40) or 10-cents a bottle. [Sounds familiar? During last New Year’s Eve bash over at Blackie Norton’s Paradise, just above the red light district, there was some serious talk about doubling that same-size glass of beer to a dime. Thus, for the next 60+ minutes, our wharf angel is wandering around San Francisco’s decaying waterfront at the dawn of 1906 and within a block of time that precedes Wednesday, April 18, 5:12am. No doubt, a monetary decision by Paramount’s cash-strapped executive producer, Emanuel Cohen. As is, Wharf Angel was assigned a bring-your-own-lunch budget. And the wardrobe looks pulled from a nearby Goodwill. After all, earthquakes cost money. You can hear Cohen echoing all around the Paramount scriptorium: “We don’t need a bunch of critics crunching the word disaster.” So – why locate Wharf Angel in San Francisco? No matter the where-or-when – tonight’s gathering at the Palace is a really sorry-looking bunch. “Toy” is about to step into the small performing square next to the pianist. The aproned waiter calls for attention and introduces her as, a young lady. “Says she can sing! We’ll see!” (What’s it gonna be, Toots?)

[DOWN HOME – by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin. Copyright, 1934. 4 pgs. A complimentary copy distributed by Paramount’s own Famous Music Corporation. Cover: Dorothy Dell. No re-issues. Preserved in the archives of]

The Palace patrons seem a bit skeptical about the young lady and her debut. Maybe she’s sporting a spangled tear-away surprise underneath all those widow’s weeds. I’m sure some of the guys out there recognize the anonymous blonde from that other rough&ready saloon further on down the dark and dingy wharf – Mother Bright’s. “Mom” is a well-worn and shrewd entrepreneur. She knows her way around cops.
The pianist starts the introduction. It’s a new song to everybody. And everybody there is from somewhere else.
“I walk wearily / Thru the traffic of the town. While the sun is going down, Down Home.”

No one seems to be in the mood for this bummed-out blues ballad. Toy is tanking. She continues….
“Folks talk cheerily / No one ever wears a frown. While the sun is going down, Down Home.”
Suddenly, a few coins are tossed at her feet. One of the patrons hollers, “Alright!” Another shouts, “Let’s see you dance!” She bolts.

After its release on March 16, 1934 and following Dorothy’s death on June 8, Paramount consigned Wharf Angel to The Vault. It was never re-released, televised or made available as a home video product. And Dorothy’s voice never made it into the record shops. Nevertheless, since being handed the above-mentioned DVD (in a plain brown envelope), Wharf Angel has been up-loaded to YouTube.

Ralph Rainger – Dorothy Dell – Leo Robin

So, 85 years later, any of Dorothy’s remaining mourners can dry their tears and newly-alerted movie buffs can leap way-beyond Wikipedia’s lame conclusion while we recognize the obvious: She that was lost hath been found! Dorothy Dell has been recalled to life – via 21st Century Internet – and Wharf Angel is once again a brand spanking new experience for everyone on the planet.

You’ll grow up and find it’s all a racket. Cards are stacked against ya from the start. Us gals have got to take it from the time that we’re born. Because we’re born with a heart. (by Rainger and Robin)

Ralph & Leo became our boys the day Janet brought in the sheet music to “Low Down Lullaby” – one of three songs written for Dorothy in Little Miss Marker. Thanks to, I have come to accept that I may be the only surviving witness to its prestigious television premiere in San Francisco – on Thanksgiving Day, 1960. I was twelve. Also on the air – The Game. The New York Titans are playing the Buffalo Bills. “You’re gonna watch a – Shirley Temple movie?”


Actually, my motive was to watch leading man Charles Bickford. (Not like I could declare that – right? And it’s not my fault, what with the nuns constantly screening Song of Bernadette.) So – “Yeah! I’m watching a Shirley Temple movie.” Six decades later, I finally own it on an authorized DVD. I had not seen Little Miss Marker since that strategic Thanksgiving broadcast. Turns out, Dorothy Dell’s performance got burned into my memory.

I’ve got what money buys. But I want things no money can buy. I’m ridin’ high for a fall. Where will I go when I’m through? Why doesn’t someone take me away from it all? I’m just a black sheep who’s blue.
(by Rainger and Robin)
To little girl: “Beat it! You’re crabbing my act.”

The melody and arrangement of “Low Down Lullaby” totally flatters Dorothy’s warm contralto. Her story behind the lyrics is provocative, the scene is mesmerizing, and it’s all very camera friendly. Little Miss Marker was released less than three months after Wharf Angel. Clearly, Paramount producer B.P. Schulberg assigned Little Miss Marker a larger budget. He likewise gifted Dorothy with the “Star Treatment” – starting with art director Hans Dreier who glorified Paramount’s ensemble of dazzling leading ladies – Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, and Jeanette MacDonald. Again, Ralph and Leo tailored their compositions to maximize Dorothy’s innate gifts – starting with a microphone-friendly contralto range and a radiant visage projecting keen awareness and deepest empathy.

✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮ ✮

Janet and I are also steadfast defenders around our pantheon of performers – no matter how long each of them lived or in which centuries they appear. Like a couple of hungry agents, we play at re-casting classic films. For instance – had Dorothy Dell made it to 1939, I would have campaigned for her to portray “Belle Watling” in Gone with the Wind. Janet re-works Charles Bickford into just about everything.
[Pause for a re-casting caucus: Wharf Angel]
I think, says Janet, that if Alison Skipworth had not been available, Marjorie Main or Marie Dressler – Dorothy’s ideal actress – could have stepped into the role.

Dorothy Dell & Alison Skipworth – Marjorie Main – Marie Dressler

Call Blanche Yurka, I cry. The best-ever “Madame De Farge” in any Tale of Two Cities. Imagine giving Blanche the shakedown about her “girls upstairs”!

James Burke – Blanche Yurka – Dorothy Dell
girls? What stairs?”
Dorothy Dell – James Burke – Preston Foster

Over the years I always alerted my voice students, particularly the very-Broadway-bound, that the most enduring singers are those who have inspired contemporary composer/lyricists to write for them – or who discover along their career paths that they have a knack for re-vamping certain composers from the past, i.e., Victor Herbert and Rudolf Friml.

Harry Revel – Dorothy Dell – Mack Gordon

The July to November stretch of Ziegfeld Follies of 1931 included songs by another composer/lyricist duo – Harry Revel and Mack Gordon – who were delighting in Dorothy Dell and knew for certain they could write material for her. That opportunity came with Dorothy’s final film, Shoot the Works (r. June 29, 1934). Harry & Mack and Ralph & Leo (also Ben Bernie) created the song list. Its most memorable tune came from Revel and Gordon, “With My Eyes Wide Open I’m Dreaming”. As “Lily Raquel” – another nightclub singer – Dorothy Dell goes out with the best song of her career. Two amazing teams of writer/composers found their perfect girl singer and she had secured the musical champions who would ultimately set her apart from Hollywood’s similarly qualified. It was observable then, it is provable now.

Jack Oakie and Dorothy Dell
With my eyes wide open I’m dreaming. Can it be true, I’m holding you close to my heart?
With my eyes wide open I’m dreaming. You’re with me now, sharing a vow – never to part.

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