26 April 2009

St. Dorothy of Birmingham

Today marks the 106th anniversary of the birth of Dorothy Sebastian. I let the date go by without celebration last year, and Dorothy appeared to me in a dream and scolded me for missing her birthday (actually, she was scolding me for killing a cat earlier in the dream, but I'm sure she meant to get on my case about the birthday thing, too).

Dorothy was one among the scores of young beauties who came to Hollywood in search of fame and fortune. Unfortunately, like so many other young hopefuls, Dorothy never quite broke through to the highest firmament of moving picture stardom. She never managed to land a solid leading role, and her all-too-brief career came to an abrupt end in the early 1930s. Thereafter she was largely out of the public eye, notwithstanding a few appearances in the courtroom. Dorothy is nowadays remembered for her supporting roles opposite such names stars as Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, as well as for her off-screen romance with Buster Keaton. Yet there is much more than that to the story of Dorothy Sebastian.

Dorothy was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, the third of four children. In 1924 She set out for New York in search of bigger and better things, spending time as a model and a chorus girl in George White's Scandals, a revue very much in the spirit of Ziegfeld's famous Follies. It was during this time that she landed her first picture contract, and she appeared in her first on-screen role the following year. Dorothy's prospects for stardom took a major leap forward in 1926, when she signed with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (the contract would be extended in 1928). It was during her years at MGM that Dorothy made her most memorable film appearances, and rubbed elbows and lived the high life with some of the biggest names in the industry.

The good times, of course, never do last. Dorothy lost a few roles to other actresses--including a leading role opposite John Barrymore in 1928's Tempest that she believed would have made her a star. A nervous breakdown in 1930 only added to her troubles, and in 1931 she left MGM (whether she turned down a contract or was simply not offered one is not certain, but I have my nagging suspicions that the latter is the more likely scenario). Whatever the circumstances might have been, Dorothy's chances for stardom were essentially shot; she made a few pictures on poverty row and appeared in bit parts later on, but her ship had sailed.

Why is it that Dorothy never made it big in pictures? She was well-liked by just about everyone who met her, and she was certainly pretty enough for the silver screen. Perhaps she lacked a few elements of the ever-elusive Star Quality--Dorothy was great when she had good co-stars and good material to work with (as in her MGM pictures), but she couldn't carry a weak film like a Bette Davis could. Along those same lines, Dorothy didn't seem to have the temperament for the underhanded wheeling and dealing of studio politics--she freely admitted that she had little regard for studio hierarchy, and that she "talked right up to everyone".

But that mistake, I suspect, hints at the real reason Dorothy didn't make the cut in Hollywood: she simply didn't drink the proverbial Kool-aid. Dorothy never seemed quite willing or able to buy into the self-delusional madness that was the star system. Everything I've read about her suggests that she was much too honest to thrive in an environment where so many people were just as affected off the screen as they were when the cameras were rolling. Furthermore, she didn't possess the sheer ruthlessness required to be a major star, the ability to put her career before anything and everything else. Perhaps, at the end of the day, Dorothy was simply too much of a good scout to be a true movie star.

There might have been bigger stars or maybe even a few better actors in Old Hollywood than Dorothy Sebastian, but one would indeed be hard pressed to find a better person than she was. That she should have died from cancer at the relatively young age of 54 seems the ultimate injustice. Godspeed you, Dorothy Sebastian, wherever you are, and Happy Birthday. The bastards didn't deserve you.

[Image Sauce]


  1. Amen! I enjoyed your post. Wish I could have met the lady and found out what really happend too. Oh well...

    And by the way, it's not nice to kill kitties, even in your dreams. She was right to scold you.


    Have a nice day!

  2. Well, the cat DID start it...