Obituaries: Dorothy Lee
Tuesday 06 July 1999
THE VIVACIOUS, brown-eyed Dorothy Lee was an appealing actress and musical performer who brought humour and vivacity to many films of the early Thirties.
Combining innocence with a spunky zest and cute, Betty-Boopish voice, she was particularly associated with the comedy team Wheeler and Woolsey, with whom she made 13 films, countering with ingenuous charm the insults and innuendoes that were an inherent part of their act. Usually she was cast as Bert Wheeler's sweetheart, and their musical duets were highlights of such early talkies as Rio Rita and Girl Crazy. Among the songs the couple introduced on the screen were the Gershwins' "You've Got What Gets Me" and Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby's "I Love You So Much".
Born Marjorie Millsap in 1911, in Los Angeles, California, she was stage- struck from the time she could talk, and in 1913 the local newspaper noted that two-year-old Dottie Millsap had been the hit of a local show with her solo ballet dance. When she was 14, a family friend asked her to replace his ailing wife in his vaudeville act, and this convinced her that her future was in show business.
She managed to get extra work in several silent films, and was given a scene with the leading lady, Bebe Daniels, in Take Me Home (1928). At 18, she won a contest to go to New York and perform with Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians, a top band of the time, and she sang with them in a Broadway show, Hello Yourself (1928). Afterwards, she toured with the band and appeared with them in a talking picture, Syncopation (1929).
Lee had married an adagio dancer, Robert Booth, when she was 16, but they were divorced two years later and she embarked on a mercurial affair with the handsome Fred Waring - they were engaged several times over a three-year period before deciding not to marry.
The comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey had been hired by RKO to recreate their roles in the film of the Ziegfeld musical Rio Rita, and when Wheeler saw Lee in Syncopation he asked the studio to hire her. It was the start of a 40-year friendship between Wheeler and Lee. Rio Rita (1929) was an enormous success with critics and public. Photoplay magazine rated it "The finest of screen musicals to date". Running 135 minutes on its first release, it was later trimmed, losing Lee's opening number "The Kinkajou", but her duet with Wheeler "Sweetheart We Need Each Other" remains, and is captivating.
Filmed in colour, the duet had to be shot at night. Lee recalled, "From 8pm to 6am was the only time RKO could rent the Technicolor camera from Warner Bros, which was one of the first companies to own a colour camera. I got to be good friends with the milkman." Making over $2m, Rio Rita was the studio's biggest hit until King Kong in 1933.
The studio immediately teamed Wheeler and Woolsey with Lee again in The Cuckoos (1930), an adaptation of the Broadway show The Ramblers. Wheeler and Lee again share the most charming moments, notably in a song written specially for them, "I Love You So Much". Dixiana (1930) was an attempt by RKO to duplicate the success of Rio Rita, but it misfired, despite a lavishly filmed Mardi Gras finale in colour. Wheeler and Lee contributed some of the film's brighter moments, Wheeler's confession to Lee, "You're the first girl I ever wanted to be my first wife", leading to a pleasing duet, "My One Ambition is You" (Lee's own favourite of her film numbers).
Half Shot at Sunrise (1930) featured Wheeler and Woolsey's escapades as First World War soldiers absent without leave in Paris, where they meet a vivacious French girl (Lee). Wheeler and Lee's lively duet "Whistling the Blues Away" ended with Woolsey joining in, the threesome doing a mock ballet which ends with Lee being placed on the back of a truck, from which she jumps expecting to be caught by the boys who instead leave her to fall to the ground.
Lee, a fine athlete, always did her own stunts, and later recalled, "I was some daredevil. In that scene, a hole was dug, netting was laid down, and grass was placed on top of where I had to land after I jumped. I managed to do it without getting hurt." Lee's fifth film with the team, Hook, Line and Sinker (1930), was one of their biggest hits, a comedy in which Lee was heiress to a dilapidated hotel which the comedy team help her to restore while fighting off rival gangs of crooks.
In 1931 Lee married the gossip columnist Jimmie Fidler, but they divorced seven months later. She returned to the stage in a play, Rah Rah Daze, with Fred Waring and his band, then returned to movies in two films without her usual co-stars, Laugh and Get Rich (1931) and Local Boy Makes Good (1931). Lee rejoined Wheeler and Woolsey for one of their weaker vehicles Cracked Nuts (1931), but the team's next was one of their very best.
William Seiter's Peach O'Reno (1932) was a fast-paced, hilariously scripted farce with the comics as shyster divorce lawyers in Nevada. Wheeler got a lot of humour out of his speciality drag act, and with Lee he did an enticing tap number, "From Niagara Falls To Reno". Seiter's Girl Crazy (1932), based on the hit Broadway musical with a score by the Gershwins, should have been another triumph, but during production David O. Selznick was hired as the studio's production chief and immediately cut the film's budget.
"The atmosphere at the studio was considerably more congenial before the arrival of David Selznick," said a still bitter Lee years later. "He was disliked by almost everyone." Lee and Wheeler did have a number written for them by George and Ira Gershwin, "You've Got What Gets Me (What Gets Me You've Got)", though their dance to the song was disappointingly brief. In 1933 Lee met and married the football star Marshall Duffield. "It was love at first sight," she said, though they divorced two years later.
With script and songs by Kalmar and Ruby, Hips Hips Hooray (1934) included a supremely eccentric number in which Wheeler, Woolsey, Lee and Thelma Todd sing "Just Keep On Doing What You're Doing" while destroying the office in which they are performing, at the end of the song throwing Lee to the ceiling, where she hangs from a chandelier.
Cockeyed Cavaliers (1934) transposed them to 16th-century England for another superior vehicle in which Lee, as a runaway maiden who dresses as a boy, enchantingly sang "I Love to Dilly Dally" with Wheeler. With increasing censorship and the formation of the Hays Code, comics like Wheeler and Woolsey had to temper the sort of humour that had been part of their appeal, and the last films in which Lee appeared with the team, The Rainmakers (1935) and Silly Billies (1936), were more popular with children than with adults.
In 1936, while Lee was on Catalina Island for publicity photographs, she met and married the businessman A.G. Atwater, who asked that she give up show business. Her number with Wheeler in Silly Billies, "Tumble On Tumbleweed, Tumble On", was to be the last they would do together. Recalling the comedians later, Lee stated, "Bert was such a soft touch, a darling man. He would visit me over the years, and my children got to know him as Uncle Bert. On the other hand Bob was the feisty one, and he'd try to upstage us. I got along well with both of them, but I know that Bert and Bob would disagree once in a while."
When Woolsey died in 1938, Wheeler asked Lee to join him in a stage act and, despite her husband's objections, she agreed. The following year she divorced Atwater and appeared in the revue One for the Money. In 1941 she was in the short-lived Romberg-Hammerstein operetta Sunny River. Her film roles had become scarce and increasingly minor - in Twelve Crowded Hours (1939), she was a switchboard operator in a newspaper office - and after Too Many Blondes (1941) she retired and married the businessman John Bersbach.
In the 1950s she returned to the stage to appear in fund-raising shows for Jane Russell's "WAIF" international adoption programme. In 1960 she divorced Bersbach and married Charles Calderini, an attorney, and they divided their time between Chicago and San Diego. After her husband's death in 1985 Lee moved to San Diego permanently.
Lee once stated that she had been able to do all the things she wanted to do in her life. A star player for the US lacrosse team in 1925, she also won numerous golf and tennis tournaments and learned to fly. "My only regret," she said, "is that I never parachuted out of an airplane!"
Though forgotten for many years, television screenings and laser-disc reissues awakened interest once more in the films Lee made with Wheeler and Woolsey, but she declined offers to appear at conventions and other functions attended by film enthusiasts, chuckling as she bluntly stated, "They expect a cute and perky 20-year-old but they would get an old bag."
Marjorie Elizabeth Millsap (Dorothy Lee), actress: born Los Angeles 23 May 1911; married 1927 Robert Booth (marriage dissolved 1929), 1931 Jimmie Fidler (marriage dissolved 1931), 1933 Marshall Duffield (marriage dissolved 1935), 1936 A.G. Atwater (marriage dissolved 1939), 1941 John Bersbach (three sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1960), 1960 Charles Calderini (died 1985); died San Diego, California 24 June 1999.
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