Dorothy Coonan was one of Busby Berkeley's principal chorus dancers who had performed in such films as Whoopee! (1930) and 42nd Street (1933) when she met the director William Wellman, who cast her as the female lead in his film Wild Boys of the Road (1933). She then became Wellman's fifth wife, and remained happily married to him for over 40 years until his death in 1975. Ten years earlier, Wellman wrote in his autobiography of his thoughts while watching her sleeping. "What a beautiful girl. Freckles and a sensitive mouth and long black hair. That had been all mine for 30 years, and I was as much in love with it now as ever. I never got tired of looking at her, and it was always best when she didn't know."
Of Irish heritage, Coonan was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1913, but when she was four years old her family moved to Los Angeles. Shortly afterwards, her father, Ray, abandoned them and went off with his partner's secretary. Her mother, Flossie, took in sewing and laundry, and Dorothy, who loved dancing, started going for auditions at the film studios from the age of 14. Eventually she won a chorus role in MGM's first all-talkie and eventual Oscar-winner as best film, The Broadway Melody (1929).
She also appeared for Warner Brothers in the elephantine musical revue, The Show of Shows (1929), then became a "Goldwyn girl" for producer Sam Goldwyn in the films Whoopee! (which also featured a 14-year-old Betty Grable), Kiki (1931), Palmy Days (1931) and The Kid from Spain (1932), all films choreographed by Busby Berkeley, noted for his wildly imaginative routines and overhead shots of his pattern-forming dancers.
"People loved to see those glamorous musicals," said Coonan. "They were so different to real life. I don't believe many people realise just how awful those years of depression were. I was so lucky to be working."
Coonan moved back to Warners to dance for Berkeley in the landmark musical 42nd Street, in which Warner Baxter, as a stage director who has just lost his leading lady, tells neophyte dancer Ruby Keeler, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" William Wellman, who had directed the first film to win an Oscar, Wings (1927), and the film that made James Cagney a star, The Public Enemy (1931), was working at Warners while Coonan was dancing in Gold Diggers of 1933 for Berkeley. One of the numbers, "Shadow Waltz", included memorable shots of the girls playing violins that lit up with neon. "I can still remember the metal helmets we wore," Coonan said, "because they gave little electric shocks which were not pleasant."
"Dorothy was a very talented dancer," wrote Wellman in his autobiography, A Short Time for Insanity, "and one of Berkeley's best and most dependable. He had great respect for little Dottie Coonan, dance wise and otherwise. She was the quickest to catch on to his involved routines, and he used her in all his pictures. She was nineteen, supporting her family, as pretty as a picture – a freckled picture – and the only one of the so-called leading dancers who was not under contract."
Coonan was rehearsing a Berkeley routine when she caught the eye of Wellman. He recalled, "Buzz was doing a roller-skating number, and one noon on my way to the café for lunch, she skated by, in shorts. I lost my appetite." Wellman visited Berkeley's set the same day and asked to be introduced, but Coonan refused his offer of dinner, stating, "unfortunately, you are married".
He was in fact in the process of getting divorced from his fourth wife. As the set for Wellman's next film, the Richard Barthelmess vehicle Heroes for Sale (1933), was being constructed directly across from Berkeley's stage, Wellman pretended next day to be working there when the girls broke for lunch. That evening, he and Coonan dined together.
Later the same year, having completed Heroes for Sale, Wellman cast Coonan as the female lead in his next film, Wild Boys of the Road (1933, titled Dangerous Days in the UK), a brilliantly effective drama of teenagers whose fathers have lost their jobs in the economic depression, hopping freight trains in their efforts to seek a better life. Coonan gave a superb performance as a tomboyish young girl who dons boys' clothing and a cap to ride the rails with a bunch of youths. Her appearance is uncannily similar to that of Louise Brooks in her earlier incarnation of a freight-hopper in Wellman's Beggars of Life (1928). Coonan also performs a lively tap routine near the film's end – according to her son, William Wellman Jr, his mother performed the number again to celebrate her 90th birthday!
After marrying Wellman at a private ceremony in Las Vegas in 1934, Coonan was happy to give up her career and raise seven children (born in girl-boy-girl-boy order), while her husband directed such classic films as A Star is Born (1937), Beau Geste (1939), Roxie Hart (1942), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Lady of Burlesque (1943) and Battleground (1949). In 1945 Coonan made her final movie performance, playing a nurse in one of her husband's greatest films, Story of G.I. Joe, but in 1998 she was seen on television discussing her early years as a dancer in David Thompson's documentary Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof.
Dorothy Coonan Wellman, dancer and actor: born Minneapolis, Minnesota 25 November 1913; married 1934 William Wellman (four daughters, three sons); died Brentwood, California 16 September 2009.