Dorris Bowdon

Actress in Ford's 'The Grapes of Wrath'

The actress Dorris Bowdon is best remembered for her role as a member of the Joad family in John Ford's masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and she cut her film career short when she married the writer-producer Nunnally Johnson, making her last film in 1943.

Born Dorris Estelle Bowdon in Coldwater, Mississippi, in 1914, she was one of seven children born to James Bowdon, a doctor, and his wife Estelle. She would later recount proudly that her father was the only doctor in the region who would deliver African American babies. He died when Dorris was two years old. She was an English and speech student at Louisiana State University in 1938 when a New Orleans critic saw her in a school play and suggested to Irving Kahn, a 20th Century-Fox talent scout who was travelling all over the South looking for new faces, that he take a look at her. Kahn's report to the studio stated, "New type on screen - reads well and could be developed for type of roles somewhat similar to Bette Davis."

The offer of a screen test set Bowdon on her way to Los Angeles. "Mother thought it was outrageous of me to quit school before I had my degree," she said. "She had also been persuaded by the press that Hollywood was a den of iniquity and that I shouldn't go near it. But I knew it was a kind of Cinderella break for me." Kahn had discovered two other talents during his trip - Linda Darnell and Mary Healy - and the trio travelled together by train to Hollywood. Healy, who became a lifelong friend, confessed that at first Bowdon, the more mature of the three, seemed embarrassed by the star-struck attitude of her companions, and Bowdon admitted, "I was such a stuffy young girl."

Bowdon was unhappy with the walk-on parts she was initially given, and took to personally badgering producers for better roles. One of those producers was Nunnally Johnson and, although he did not give her a part, he married her two years later. She later said that Johnson was "the quickest-witted man I had ever met".

Bowdon had her first speaking part on screen in the "B" movie Down on the Farm (1938), one of the "Jones Family" films made by Fox as an answer to MGM's popular Andy Hardy series. She was then directed by John Ford in his masterly Young Mr Lincoln (1939), as a farm girl whose fiancé is accused of murder and is defended by the young Abraham Lincoln.

She replaced Linda Darnell in Ford's film about colonial pioneers, Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). Darnell had become a personal protégé of the studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who decided, after several weeks' shooting, that she should not be playing a subsidiary role, so he switched her to a co-starring role with Tyrone Power in Daytime Wife, though she can still be glimpsed in some of the long-shots in Ford's film.

John Steinbeck's highly praised but controversial novel, The Grapes of Wrath, had been considered unfilmable, but in 1939 Zanuck courageously gave the green light to a film version directed by Ford and scripted by Johnson. Magnificently photographed, superbly acted and brilliantly directed, it is an undisputed masterpiece, though several factions in the US wanted it suppressed.

The story is told mainly through the eyes of Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) and his family, sharecroppers dispossessed by banks and farming combines, who set out in a ramshackle truck to make a new home in California. Bowdon played Fonda's pregnant sister, Rosasharn (Rose-of-Sharon), who is deserted by her husband during the arduous trek. She told the Los Angeles Times in 2001, "I was so proud of my husband's script. I was doubly pleased when I heard John Steinbeck say to him, 'That's the best script I have ever read.'" She had less happy memories of Ford, who repeatedly picked on her on set.

Her final film, Irving Pichel's The Moon is Down (1943), was another Steinbeck novel adapted for the screen by Johnson, and it gave Bowdon a strong dramatic role. Set in a Norwegian village occupied by the Nazis, it cast her as a woman, widowed by a firing squad, who takes her revenge by luring a Nazi officer to her bedroom where she stabs him to death. It was a fine film, but was not popular, prompting Zanuck to comment, "Every picture yet made dealing with occupied countries has laid a magnificent egg with the public. I can imagine no subject less inviting to an audience than the subject of slave labour."

It was to be Bowdon's last film, for she then retired to raise their three children (two of them Johnson's from a previous marriage). After Johnson died in 1977, Bowdon co-edited a book of his letters (The Letters of Nunnally Johnson, 1981) that succinctly captured the essence of Hollywood life during the vintage years. When Bowdon recorded an oral history for Southern Methodist University in 1981, she talked of those days: "The parties were the grandest, the people were the most beautiful, the clothes were the most elegant. It was a courtly time."

Tom Vallance