Obituary: Dorothy Kingsley
Saturday 04 October 1997
"I never think of myself as a real writer," said Dorothy Kingsley, looking back on a long career. "I only wrote because I needed the money." The money was steady, and came principally from MGM, who employed this prolific, witty writer for 16 busy years on such musicals as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Kiss Me, Kate, and no less than seven vehicles for the swimming star Esther Williams.
Born in New York to an actress mother and a journalist father, Kingsley moved with her mother to Detroit after her parents divorced. After her own marriage was dissolved in the late 1930s, she took her three sons to Los Angeles, determined to support them by becoming a gag writer. She wrote radio comedy for Bob Hope and, later, for the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, who started her in screenwriting when he and his dummy Charlie McCarthy appeared in RKO's Look Who's Laughing (1941). This low- budget second feature was a surprise smash hit, and Kingsley also contributed material to its successful sequel, Here We Go, Again (1942).
She then started writing original screen stories and submitting them to the studios. MGM's legendary producer Arthur Freed was impressed with her work and had her placed under contract - her first assignment, to write additional dialogue for the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musical Girl Crazy (1943). She was also asked to bring some order to the chaotic screenplay of Bathing Beauty (1944), a Red Skelton-Esther Williams musical, on which six other writers had already laboured. The result of her endeavours was a top-grossing film that made Williams one of the studio's biggest stars.
Her fourth script for the "Chlorine Queen" was Neptune's Daughter (1949). Frank Loesser, who was writing the score, told Kingsley that he'd composed a surefire duet, but didn't know what to do with it. After hearing the song, she wrote a new scene, in which Williams and Ricardo Montalban could sing it. The number, "Baby, It's Cold Outside", won the 1949 Best Song Oscar.
After writing the screen version of Sam and Bella Spewack and Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate (1953), Kingsley was asked to refine Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett's script for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Deciding that Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) had too much to do and his wife Milly (Jane Powell) too little, she wrote a scene in which Milly taught Adam's brothers how to woo a female. She then got Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul to write "Goin' Co'tin' ", one of the film's most winning song-and-dance numbers.
Reviewing the film version of Rodgers and Hart's musical Pal Joey (1957), Time magazine stated, "Almost everything that could be done wrong the moviemakers have done wrong in this production, and yet somehow the picture comes out remarkably right." Columbia Pictures had indeed cut out most of the Broadway show's songs while bowdlerising the remaining ones, and Kingsley's script had changed the lecherous Vera Simpson (Rita Hayworth) from an adulterous wife to a widow, disinfected John O'Hara's original dialogue, and allowed the reptilian Joey Evans to give up his womanising ways by the final scene. Yet, the film was still far sexier and sharper than most screen musicals, studded with classic Rodgers and Hart songs from other sources, and blessed with the perfect Joey in Frank Sinatra. So pleased was Ol' Blue Eyes with Kingsley's contribution to Pal Joey that he later accepted, sight unseen, the screen version of Cole Porter's Can-Can (1960), which she co-wrote.
In 1967 Kingsley and Helen Deutsch co-wrote the profitable film version of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls. Clearly, the experience gave Kingsley a taste for soap opera; in 1969 she created and wrote Bracken's World, an hour-long television series set in the mythical Century Studios. Variety called it "the classiest soap yet. The setting is the entire 20th Century-Fox lot." Perhaps Bracken's World was too classy for the general public; it lasted only two seasons. After its cancellation, Dorothy Kingsley retired from writing and concentrated on her social activities, her children and her second marriage, to William Durney, owner of a seafood company and a winery.
For 27 years her name was absent from film credits, until 1994, when the Disney corporation remade Angels in the Outfield, her 1951 comedy- fantasy about an eight-year-old orphan girl (Donna Corcoran) whose prayers turn a losing baseball team into a world-beating one. Despite some abusive reviews, the remake was a smash hit - Kingsley's last.
When Pat McGilligan interviewed her eight years ago for Backstory 2, his book on screenwriters, he asked which of her films she preferred. After singling out Pal Joey and Angels in the Outfield, she said, "The others, I always think, `Gee, why didn't we do this?' or `it should have been better . . .' "
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