Dorothy McGuire

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The Independent Online

Dorothy McGuire, actress: born Omaha, Nebraska 14 June 1918; married 1943 John Swope (died 1979; one son, one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 13 September 2001.

An actress whose serene beauty and soft voice conveyed warmth and integrity, Dorothy McGuire became a star in her first film and gave several memorable screen performances in the 1940s, including her beguiling child-like bride of Claudia, the resolute mother of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the deaf mute in The Spiral Staircase, the drab drudge given inner beauty by the power of love in The Enchanted Cottage, and the socialite made to confront her latent prejudices in Gentleman's Agreement. Later she was to be equally convincing in matriarchal roles in such films as Old Yeller and Swiss Family Robinson while maintaining a close link with her first love, the theatre.

Strong-willed and protective of her personal privacy, she was married for 35 years to the still photographer John Swope, and once confessed that her screen work could have been more prolific:

I was very lucky in the film material sent me, but sometimes I preferred being in the theatre and other times going travelling with John.

Born in 1919 in Omaha, Nebraska (a city that also spawned Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando), she was the only child of a prosperous attorney and his wife, and was encouraged in her theatrical ambitions by her parents. While in school she wrote plays and directed and acted in them. On the advice of her head teacher, her parents enrolled her in the Omaha Community Playhouse, one of whose prime activists was Dorothy Brando, the mother of Marlon.

When Henry Fonda, who was making a name for himself as an actor, returned to Omaha to appear in J.M. Barrie's A Kiss for Cinderella, the 13-year-old McGuire made her stage début co-starring with him. A leading actress of the day, Violet Heming, saw the production and told the press,

The girl is a born actress. She reads lines with a natural intuition, not as a child who has been coached. She is like a breath of spring.

McGuire continued with her schooling, but during the 1937 summer vacation from college she became an apprentice with a repertory company in Maine, and while ushering and painting scenery between roles she determined to leave college. "Acting had been just play," she said, "and I don't know how it suddenly became serious. But it did, and from then on I wanted more than anything to be in a hit." She added, "It never occurred to me that I might not make it."

Her father, who died in 1933, had left her some money which she used while she tried to find work in New York. She acted on radio, playing Sue in the serial Big Sister (1937) and took part in an experimental television broadcast, The Mysterious Mummy Case (1938), then was hired by the producer Jed Harris to understudy the ingénue in a Broadway play, Stop Over (1938), starring Sidney Blackmer, but it ran only 23 performances.

As understudy to Martha Scott as Emily in Harris's Broadway production of Our Town (1938), she took over the role when Scott left to appear in the film version. When the play's author, Thornton Wilder, subsequently took over the role of the Stage Manager, the New York critics revisited the play and hailed McGuire's performance. "You need luck and I've had it," said McGuire later. "But you also have to be ready for it, and you have to work after you get it."

After playing a recurring role on a radio soap opera, McGuire returned to the stage in My Dear Children (1939) starring John Barrymore. She played Helena in Swingin' the Dream (1940), a short-lived musical version of A Midsummer Night's Dream which featured Benny Goodman's band. After another short-lived Broadway play, The Medicine Show (1941), a well-meant but dull piece that pleaded for the establishment of a national health service in the United States, McGuire found the hit she wanted when she auditioned for the leading role in Rose Franken's play Claudia (1941). Franken later recalled that McGuire arrived for the audition looking "unlike any actress I have ever seen – but she had a fresh, wind-blown quality and an impressive, though subdued personality".

The play's producer was not impressed with McGuire's reading of the role, but Franken told him, "Here is Claudia!" The plum role – Claudia is on stage for all but five minutes of the play's running time and virtually all the dialogue and action centre on her – made her a star and won her the New York Drama Critics Circle Award. "This will be to her like The Warrior's Husband was to Katharine Hepburn," proclaimed the writer John O'Hara in his review for Newsweek, and Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times reported,

She gives a splendid performance of a part that would be irritating it it were played by a dull actress. She is personally genuine; the charm she radiates across the play is not merely theatrical mannerism.

David O. Selznick bought the rights to the play and put McGuire under personal contract. He then sold the property to 20th Century-Fox with the proviso that they cast McGuire in the lead. The role of Claudia, an immature and impulsive newly wed not yet ready for marriage until a personal tragedy shocks her into adulthood, could indeed have been tiresome if played by somebody less gifted, but McGuire brought the same conviction to the 1943 film version that she had displayed in her 722 performances on Broadway, and the film was a great hit.

McGuire was then suspended for refusing to make a sequel ("I wanted to get away from her ingénue flutter"), but when Gene Tierney's pregnancy prevented her taking the role of Katie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), the part was given to McGuire, who brought a superb combination of sensitivity and steel to the role of the poverty-stricken mother who works as a caretaker to support her young children. The first mainstream film directed by Elia Kazan, it was one of the director's finest.

"I was rather immature to play the role," said McGuire many years later:

It was a strain for me to assume a generally harsh attitude. In fact, although the role became my favourite, I didn't enjoy playing it.

She credited much of the film's impact to the cameraman Leon Shamroy:

He really introduced Kazan to some of the intricacies of film-making and had much to do with the success of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Though McGuire gave fulsome praise to her co-stars, the child star Peggy Ann Garner commented,

Kazan had a marvellous quality. He even knew how to handle Dorothy McGuire, and there was a certain way you had to handle that lady.

Her next film is another that is fondly remembered, John Cromwell's The Enchanted Cottage (1945), based on the Pinero play about a dowdy girl and a disfigured war veteran who achieve spiritual beauty through their love. McGuire and Robert Young (her co-star in Claudia) were praised for the sensitivity of their performances and the film, released just before the end of the Second World War, proved timely.

Initially, it was planned that the heroine should be given elaborate make-up to make her ugly, but McGuire objected:

I said, "This is wrong. This is not a story about make-up. This girl's plainness is something that comes from within." Cromwell said, "Do the tests anyway, for the bosses." So I did them and then just walked off. I am not temperamental but I knew what they were planning was a mistake. My husband and I left for Arizona, where we were living then. Eventually, they rewrote the script and I came back and did the film without the heavy make-up. Mostly, our terrific cameraman, Ted Tetzlaff, used lighting to help create the girl's drab look.

Though she was proved right, McGuire's refusal to wear make-up was reported at the time as having made her no friends.

Robert Siodmak's splendid Gothic thriller The Spiral Staircase (1946) was based on Some Must Watch, a novel by Ethel Lina White, and it was widely thought that McGuire would receive an Oscar nomination for her performance as a deaf-mute servant girl in fear of her life when a killer stalks the neighbourhood murdering girls with deformities. She spoke only in the final moments of the suspenseful thriller in which, until his identity is revealed, the killer is seen only as a peeping eye (which was actually that of the director, Siodmak).

McGuire had a more glamorous role than usual in Till the End of Time (1946), in which she was a war widow who seduced a young soldier (Guy Madison) trying to adjust to civilian life. It was a role she campaigned for (even agreeing to a Claudia sequel) but later admitted that it was a mistake, though the film was popular.

I've fought for things, and sometimes I have been right. I fought the hardest for this role and it was my least successful. I went right back to playing nice girls and faithful wives.


She and Robert Young repeated their roles in Claudia and David (1946), and the film was considered a fine sequel to the original, then in Gentleman's Agreement (1947) she was given the key role of the divorcee who falls in love with a journalist (Gregory Peck) exposing anti-Semitism. Allegedly she was given the role after the studio head Darryl F. Zanuck heard her performance as Nora in a radio version of A Doll's House.

The director Elia Kazan later wrote that he thought the most important scene in the film was the one in which she tells the journalist's Jewish best friend (John Garfield) that she has unjustly been accused of anti-Semitism by her former lover. She describes a dinner party she has just attended at which a powerful and wealthy man had outraged her with anti-Semitic slurs. Garfield asks, "And what did you do?" She describes her moral fury, how she despised the man, how she wanted to leave the table and how she wanted to yell, "Why do we sit here and take this?" Garfield asks her again, "What did you do?", and eventually she gets his point. Kazan wrote,

He stares at her. For a moment, avoiding his gaze, she's unable to speak. Then she puts her hands over her eyes and the scene is over.

McGuire's performance won her an Oscar nomination but she lost to Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter. Celeste Holm, who won a supporting award for the film, said,

Dorothy McGuire was lovely to work with, but I remember that she was kind of unhappy, though, because she had just lost a baby. And I had just had one, and was blooming.

While McGuire and Peck were on location in New York, they discussed forming a repertory theatre, and with the help of Selznick, Jennifer Jones, Mel Ferrer and Joseph Cotten they formed the La Jolla Playhouse Group. The first production, Night Must Fall starring Dame May Whitty, was a hit, and McGuire appeared subsequently in The Importance of Being Earnest, I Am a Camera, The Winslow Boy and Tonight at 8:30.

The Swopes then spent a year in Italy before returning to New York for the birth of their child Mary – a picture of her when she was 176 minutes old, taken by her father, became a Life magazine cover. When McGuire returned to the screen in an amiable but minor comedy, Mother Didn't Tell Me (1950), it was after a three-year absence and her film career had lost some of its impetus. "To this day I don't know what shapes a Hollywood career," she later said.

I was never a classic beauty. I had no image. So I found myself in a lot of films by accident.

She played opposite Burt Lancaster in the crime comedy Mister 880 (1950), though the film was stolen by Edmund Gwenn as a loveable old forger, toured in Tennessee Williams's play Summer and Smoke (1950), and returned to Broadway to star with Richard Burton in the short-lived Legend of Lovers (1951) by Jean Anouilh. On the radio she was Ophelia in Hamlet (1951) with John Gielgud. She partnered Fred MacMurray in an amusing screen satire on television's use of old movie stars in Callaway Went Thataway (1951) and had dramatic roles in two routine soap operas, I Want You (1951) and Invitation (1952).

In 1953 her son Mark was born, then she travelled to Italy to make her biggest hit in some time, Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), the story of three women who make romantic wishes by the Trevi Fountain. Aided by its title tune and stunning scenery, the film was enormously popular, and McGuire gave a touching performance as a secretary nurturing a secret passion for her terminally ill boss (Clifton Webb).

Two years later she won National Board of Review's Best Actress Award for her portrayal of a strong-minded Quaker mother whose adherence to all tenets of Quaker doctrine breeds as much discord as peace in her home, in William Wyler's Friendly Persuasion. It was the first of several matriarchal roles to which she brought appropriate warmth, including three Disney productions, the frontier tale Old Yeller (1957), the shipwreck adventure Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and the musical Summer Magic (1963), plus The Remarkable Mr Pennypacker (1959), in which she was the mother of eight, This Earth is Mine (1959) in which she played mother to Jean Simmons, and A Summer Place (1959) as mother to Sandra Dee.

In 1963 she was cast as the Virgin Mary in George Stevens's The Greatest Story Ever Told. After filming, she stated, "My part is not very long, but it has been a great experience." She made only one more film, Flight of the Doves (1971, as a grandmother), but was the voice of the mother in Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1973). She returned to Broadway in 1976 to give an acclaimed performance in a revival of Tennessee Williams's Night of the Iguana, and made frequent appearances on television, winning an Emmy nomination for her role in Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) and starring in such shows as Another Part of the Forest and Little Women (as Marmee).

Jane Wyatt (McGuire's sister in Gentleman's Agreement) once asked Loretta Young why McGuire did not make more films. "I'll tell you why," said Young. "I wanted to be a star. Dorothy wanted to be an actress." Wyatt reiterated: "She really was an actress through and through, and everybody adored her."

Tom Vallance