Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stars of Public Domain: Dorothy Burgess (1905-1961)

Her mother was an actress, Grace Burgess, and her aunt the stage star Fay Bainter, so it was only natural that Los Angeles-born Dorothy Burgess would go on the stage. She did, in the popular “Music Box Revue,” and then understudied and later replaced Helen Hayes on Broadway in “Dancing Mothers.” Hollywood caught her while she was appearing in a Los Angeles production of “The Squall” and she made an indelible impression as Warner Baxter's faithless girl in O. Henry's In Old Arizona (1928). Baxter earned an Academy Award (years before someone named the award “Oscar”) and Burgess was forever saddled with playing rather tawdry sirens. She did that with some success, at least at first – she appeared in 14 films in 1933 alone – but an accident on the set of Universal's Ladies Must Love (1933), about the romantic lives of four gold diggers, left her with a sprained back and, in time, a nervous breakdown. In 1935, she left Hollywood to replace Edith Barrett on Broadway in “Piper Paid,” and when she returned five years later, mostly bit roles came her way. She turned to writing in her spare time – and by the mid 1940s she had quite a bit of spare time – even actually publishing a novel entitled “Say Uncle,” a thriller dealing with, appropriately, vampires. “I worked six hours a day for eight months,” she told the Hollywood Citizen News. “You work on what you write until you think it is perfect, and then you write some more.”

With her husband, a physician, Dorothy Burgess lived for many years in retirement in Palm Springs, CA. In March of 1961 she was brought to Riverside County Hospital with tuberculosis, succumbing to the disease on August 20, 1961.

The Stoker (Allied Pictures, 1932) PD ***
Cuckolded Dick Martin (Monte Blue), who has lost not only his wife but his once-thriving business as well, signs on as a stoker on a steamship bound for South America. There he meets the exotic Margarita (Dorothy Burgess), and although at first they don't get along, it is she who bails him out of jail once he gets in trouble with the law in Nicaragua. As it turns out Margarita is the daughter of a local planter and she soon agrees to marry Dick in the hopes that he may be able to enlist the US marines if the plantation is attacked by bandits. Dick is disgusted when he learns the truth of her machinations but changes his mind after learning that she loves him for himself and not only for who he is. And, sure enough, Dick is indeed able to summon help from the marines when the plantation find itself attacked.

Another early sound femme fatale, Natalie Moorhead (see an earlier post) plays Monte Blue's faithless wife in The Stoker, a true case of type casting. No one in 1932 needed much persuasion that Natalie, or Vera, the name of the cheating wife here, was up to no good. She never was. In contrast, Dorothy Burgess, similarly typecast in those days as a femme fatale, proves to be surprisingly heroic, and in fact ends up with the hero. But at first, of course, Monte Blue's Dick Martin assumes that Margarita is interested in him only for the protection he may provide. Then he learns that she actually loves him and, well, let's just say that a Happy Ending didn't often happen to Miss Burgess but it does here. All of this is trivial as film making goes, even early talkie film making, but director Chester Franklin keeps the plot moving at a clip from boardrooms to steamships to Nicaraguan jungles. Without ever leaving Hollywood.

(Photo: George Walsh and Dorothy Burgess)

Out of Singapore (Goldsmith Prods., 1932) PD ***

Things go very wrong indeed when Captain Carroll (William Moran) hires Woolf Barstow (Noah Beery) and his boatswain Scar Murray (Montagu Love), especially for the good captain himself who is suddenly dying from what Barstow describes as China fever. In reality, Barstow, who is known for sabotaging vessels for money, plans to take over the ship and wreck it for the insurance. But the scheme goes awry with the emergence on the ship of Concha (Dorothy Burgess), a dancer in a Singapore dive that Barstow once spurned and who is now out for revenge. At first resenting the late captain's daughter, Mary (Miriam Seegar), Concha soon enough helps the girl care for her dying father and with the aid of supposedly drunken second mate Steve Trent (George Walsh), Barstow and his crew get their comeuppance when the ship explodes. Also perishing is Concha, who sacrifices herself so that Steve and Mary may live to see another day together.

Also known as “Gangsters of the Sea,” a re-release title, Out of Singapore is really a rollicking good show if, as always, you can accept the low budget and some of the over-the-top performances. Then again, the florid performances is exactly what make movies like Out of Singapore so entertaining today. Noah Beery, for example, never met a piece of scenery he wouldn't chew, and does soe here with abandonment. The same goes for another silent screen blackguard, Montagu Love, as his second-in-command; and Dorothy Burgess, as the soiled hootch dancer adds her secial brand of tawdry glamour to the proceedings. Which have been directed with a sure sense of movement by silent screen serial star Charles Hutchison, who never let something as mundane as dialogue hold him back. Chalk up Out of Singapore as a minor winner. The film was released by poverty row's Ken Goldsmith Productions, by way of William Steiner in New York. Goldsmith issued a total of six potboilers between 1932 and 1934, including Carnival Lady (1933), featuring Wampas Baby Star Boots Mallory.

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