Above: Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby in their first "Road" picture together, "The Road To Singapore" (1940).Top Left: DOROTHY LAMOUR in her traditional South Seas sarong. Top right: The poster for "Road To Utopia" (1946).
She was so much more than just a 'sarong girl'
By JIM BAWDEN
I first noticed Dorothy Lamour on TV's The Late Show. It was watching those wonderful "Road" pictures she made with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope that made me a fan.
The adjective orchidaceous seemed meant for her. She sported a dark, sultry beauty but she didnt play femme fatales but instead gave an intriguing comedy take. And then I saw her in "Swing High, Swing Low," "Manhandled" and "A Medal For Benny," giving proof positive that like most of the glamour gals of her era she could resist type casting when a part was demanding.
In 1984 I got my one chance to meet her in person in Toronto when she gave me the only interview to promote her star tour in a dinner theater presentation of "Barefoot in the Park." She filled the theater with fans her own age but there were also college students who simply adored the "Road" pictures.
She was nervous about being photographed, so I booked the best Toronto Star photographer, Boris Spremo, who spent an hour carefully composing the lights and applying her make up. The result was so astonishingly beautiful Lamour used the shot as her PR photo for the rest of her career.
Here are highlights of an afternoon of conversation:
BAWDEN: How did you get to Hollywood?
LAMOUR: Well, I was Miss New Orleans of 1931! I then headed to Chicago, determined to be a big band singer. Instead I wound up as an elevator operator at Marshall Fields department store. By 1933 I was in L.A. and my first bit was in "Footlight Parade." I did have gigs with Rudy Vallee and Eddie Duchin and in 1936 I signed with Paramount.
BAWDEN: One moment you have an un-credited bit in "College Holiday" (1936) and the next movie its first star billing in "The Jungle Princess" (1936). Explain please.
LAMOUR: It was a small budgeted thing not even in Technicolor. No big stars really. Ray Milland had just come over from Universal. He bad-mouthed it and me in his book, but who cares? It wasnt meant to be taken seriously. One of the natives was Ray Mala, who was in the movie "Eskimo." Talk about ethnic diversity! We had a pool scene in a pool constructed on the studio lot and just before a take, were already in the water and Ray Milland whispers, Dottie I just tinkled in your water. Well, I got so hot and bothered I ran out screaming and wouldnt return until all the water was taken out, disinfectant added to clean the sides, and new water added. That took several days and brass were so angry at Ray they threatened to dock his pay.
BAWDEN: But it was your first in a sarong.
LAMOUR: Well, the film really took off and made a mint. An as far as the sarong goes. Decades later I finally went to Polynesia to check for myself and found all the girls used only the bottom. They were all going around bare-breasted!
Doorhty Lamour was
gloriously beautiful in
"The Hurricane" (1937)
with Jon Hall.
My next sarong flick was "The Hurricane" (1937), which had an awfully big budget except at the last moment ol' Sam Goldwyn (the producer) decided to shoot everything inside his studio. Wed been promised a trip to Hawaii. Well, Jack Ford (the director) was as mad as a hatter. But when you look at it today you cant tell the difference. And it was another roaring hit and I had my gimmick Every gal has to have one to become a big attraction. And Ive had the sarong ever since. Heck, its better than being known as the sweater girl.
BAWDEN: You also got to work with some top female stars around that time.
LAMOUR: With Irene Dunne (in "High, Wide and Handsome") I only remember her supreme kindness. Shed say, Oh, no Dottie. Turn that way. Its your better side. With Carole Lombard ("Swing High, Swing Low") there was a lot of laughter on set but then shed settle down and do an immaculate and very sad take. And right after Carole left Paramount forever. All the big stars left that studio as soon as possible because of the lingering Depression. They could get bigger salaries freelance.
BAWDEN: You first worked with Bob Hope in "The Big Broadcast of 1938."
LAMOUR: Well, we both were in the picture and I was cast as his fiancee but his leading lady was Shirley Ross. I sang my one song--You Took The Words Right Out Of My Heart-- to Leif Erickson. Bob sang "Thanks For The Memory" to Shirley Ross.Remember its singular! I still kid Bob he got fifth billing behind W.C. Fields, Martha Raye, me and Shirley! It was very definitely a Bill Fields vehicle. Hed been off for a year drying out and he left the studio after this one for Universal. Boy, was he ornery--and he stank so if one got too close. That Kirsten Flagstad number? She filmed that in New York. Ive never met her to this day. (Director) Mitch Leisen told me he wasnt so much a director as a traffic cop. Bill did exactly what he wanted and got away with it. I was still learning my way in comedy, I dont think I was particularly effective.
Lamour sings to
Leif Erickson in
"The Big Broadcast
BAWDEN: Why do you think jungle movies were so popular during the war years?
LAMOUR: Because it was the war, thats all. People had to get out of their homes or go crazy. And so many boys never came back. My popularity soared, so did Veronica Lake and Paulette Goddard. And the studio got to know how to make effective jungle pictures like "Typhoon" (1940), "Moon Over Burma" (1940), "Aloma of the South Seas" (1941) and "Beyond the Blue Horizon" (1942). But thats a relatively small quota of my entire pictures. The color was dazzling, I always felt lI ooked better in Technicolor than black and white. I really did.
BAWDEN: You say Paramount was not the happy family it was portrayed in the press.
LAMOUR: Not al all! People left all the time because of the atmosphere. One of my best buds was Lynne Overman, Im sure you know his work in pictures like "Northwest Mounted Police," "Reap the Wild Wind. " He had a certain kind of nasally delivery so effective others stole his act. A damned great friend, he could save any scene with his antics. I first met him in "Big Broadcast of 1938," then "Her Jungle Love," "Spawn of the North," "Typhoon," "Caught in yhe Draft," "loma, "Dixie." Then one day in 1943 he comes into my dressing room and crys his eyes out. As part of an economy move, Paramount was dropping him. I said, Lynne with your talents you can go anywhere. Youll have a fine freelancing career. But, no, he couldnt see it that way. He only made one freelance picture "The Desert Song" (1943) and then dropped dead of a heart attack at 55. It was really a broken heart. The bottom line got him and killed him. Paramount did that to him. I never forgot that!
BAWDEN: Why did Paramount loan you out for two movies in 1940?
LAMOUR: Said they needed the money I could command by then. I did three movies for them that year ("Moon Over Burma," "Typhoon" and "Road To Singapore") and two for Fox. I was a busy girl, I was.
I absolutely adored Tyrone Power (her co-star at Fox in "Johnny Apollo", a great male beauty, but also a poet, a philosopher. I replaced Linda Darnell on short notice, I think she quit because of (director) Henry Hathaway. He was a yeller. Yelled all over the place when he got ticked off. I shouted back Yell as loud as you want, kind sir, and then we can start making a picture. He loved that, and he made sure I was photographed to perfection it was a great part and I came to adore Henry Hathaway. In fact, when I get back to my home in L.A., Ill drive by his pad and give the old dear flowers. Ty asked for more challenging roles and he got it. When I saw the first cut I had tears in my eyes. I was actually acting!
On loanout to
Lamour got a
I had another Henry, King that is, as director of "Chad Hanna." I loved my name in that one--Albany Yates. I didnt love working with Henry Fonda, who was a worry wart. He really was a bit too old as the boy joining the circus. The color was wonderful. Fox led in the development of color. But the film didnt really work and that was that.
BAWDEN: How did you get to co-star with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in "The Road To Singapore" (1940)?
LAMOUR: It was prepared as a George Burns-Gracie Allen vehicle. With Charlie Ruggles as the third wheel. Then Burns and Allen left for MGM to make "Honolulu" and never came back. So Fred MacMurray and I were substituted. Charlie couldnt make it and Bob Hope was substituted . Then Fred left to be replaced by Bing. Bing and Bob had been in vaudeville, not together, but they knew each other. They had a history. I knew Bob from "Big Broadcast of 1938." At first it was all tentative until Bob brought in his radio writers to add gags. Then Bing brought in his writers. So I hired a few myself. My biggest memory is looking up one day after Id done a scene with Bob and our director, Victor Schertzinger, was madly thumbing through the script looking for a line, any line that was in the script. One day Bob got silly waiting for a take and threw soap suds all over me, which took the rest of the day to clean up. By the way, look closely at the credits. Im billed over Bob. That was the first and last time in any "Road" picture.
BAWDEN: What did you say about the "Road" pictures? They made you a big star.
LAMOUR: "The Road To Zanzibar" (1941) was much better than "Singapore." Victor was again director and he just stepped back this time and let the boys go at it. Bob came to my dressing room and apologized for taking second billing. I wasnt complaining. In fact, I hadnt noticed at that stage. This wasnt a sequel in any way. It was a script that was already re-written and they tweaked it to make it a "Road" picture. We played completely different characters. Victor did four movies in 41, the reason he died at 53 in October. It was overwork and Paramount said that might be the end. But then they came with ' The Road To Morocco" (1942) which is considered the best of the bunch. David Butler stepped in (as director) and he knew when to get out of the way. We were at our wackiness best and this one was a monster hit. I remember the talking camel. And I had my favorite ever song Moonlight Becomes You So. It hit a nerve with wartime audiences, Im guessing. We then went on a three year break. We were so busy touring Army camps and making films all out. And Bing always considered "Road To Utopia" (1945) the best one. My song "Personality" occasioned a brush with the censors but I love it, its right up there as a personal favorite.
BAWDEN: You did a Bob Hope comedy--"They Got Me Covered"-- at Goldwyn in 1943.
LAMOUR: Bob had a two-picture deal and got Sam Goldwyn to buy my services on a loan out. David Butler directed. Hed done another Hope comedy, "My Favorite Blonde." It could have been made at Paramount really. Otto Preminger was the nasty villain, Im not sure he was acting.
BAWDEN: Your take on the Bing-Bob relationship.
BAWDEN: It was all studio publicity stuff. They were not best friends. Never! There was a string of rivalry that made their adventures all the more fun. Bing wanted to be as funny as Bob. Bob just wanted Bings studio clout, his absolute authority, thats it. Theyd golf together on the front lawn but only to an audience. Bob was growing ever more popular during the war but Bing already was an institution. He never was carefree like his image. He was tightly coiled. His poor wife, Dixie Lee. slipped into alcoholism because of his indifference. His brother, Everett, was always around as his business manager. He had his finger in all kinds of enterprises. And Bob envied that great fame and wealth. Look, I never found Bing anything but coolly controlled. He was nice but distant whereas Bob wore his feelings on his sleeve. But Bobs wife suffered through some serious bouts of womanizing. I admire Dolores completely but she had to put up with a lot. And sometimes Bing and Bob would switch girl friends, which kept studio tongues crackling. If a girl starred with both Bing and Bob, then something was going on. But not with me, mind you. I would have cuffed either guy if they attempted anything ,so they knew to proceed with caution. We were a team --the three of us. When they made that terrible road adventure almost without me ("Road To Hong Kong"), it never worked out. I like to think I was as essential as the boys were.
BAWDEN: One of your best movies, "Dixie" (1943), is never seen on TV.
LAMOUR: For an obvious reason. It was the one time I saw Bing really enthusiastic about a picture. He really believed in this one. But it's a fictionalized saga of Daniel Decatur Emmett, who virtually invented the minstrel shows that roamed the old South and he wrote "Dixie." Bing was convinced this would do for him what "Yankee Doodle Dandy" did for Cagney. Didnt happen. They added new songs rather than the standards Emmett had written. And even in 1943 the racial element was a bit touchy. Blacks found it offensive. I found it offensive, but Bing said not to worry because we were portraying slavery as it was. He said his earlier hit "Mississippi" (1935) had fared well. Paramount was so enthusiastic they gave him Technicolor for the first time. It didnt bomb but it was one of his lesser hits.
BAWDEN: Ive never seen "Riding High" (1943).
LAMOUR: Lucky man! You didnt miss much. George Marshall directed it and it certainly moved. It was wartime and it made a barrel of dough. It might have been Dick Powells last musical. He was bitter about having to do it. We had fun making it but nobody ever asks me about that one.
BAWDEN: Did you get along with Betty Hutton in "And The Angels Sing" (1944)?
LAMOUR: As well as anybody could. Betty was bigger than life. She sucked all the energy out of a scene she was so brash. George (Marshall) directed again, his method was to shoot a scene and maybe do a second take for insurance. Sometimes hed shoot the rehearsals. Very funny old guy who was just glad to still be working. And thats why theres never been a festival of his movies. He had no distinct style. I mean can you imagine me, Betty and Diana Lynn as sisters? Fred MacMurray was the guy and he was getting ready to leave Paramount for all that lush freelancing money. It didnt happen because movie revenues crashed after the war.
BAWDEN: Why is "The Road To Rio" (1947) your favorite Road picture?
LAMOUT: Because it was the last one of the original bunch. And we got it so right. Paramount then told us receipts were less than expected and our salaries so high that this was it. And we only did one more on the lot but that was five years later and it was lousy. Receipts in 1947 plunged across the boards and some critics suggested Bing and Bob were at 44 a bit leathery to play those good ole boys. But I got to sing one of my favorite Paramount tunes, "Experience." A lot of Bobs best lines were interpolated by his radio gag writers. And those Wiere Brothers! They made me laugh out loud ruining many takes. Gale Sondergaard told me she never had as much fun. We didnt know it at the time but Paramounts Golden Age was running out of steam.
wiht Alan Ladd
BAWDEN: But you were very busy that year. You also made one with Alan Ladd.
LAMOUR: "Wild Harvest!" We made that one with pickets on the streets outside the Paramount lot. So (director) Tay Garnett had us all bunking down at the lot so we wouldnt cross over a picket line. I had a nice dressing room but some of those extras really balked about bunking on empty soundstages in cots. A darling guy, Lloyd Nolan, also was the narrator. Very handsome, a swell actor. Why he never became a top star beats me. Gosh, he was great with me in "Disputed Passage" (1939). Laddie by this time was striving to break free of Veronica Lake, shed become quite an alcoholic.
But we were neighbors in Toluca Lake. My kids played with his kids. You know Laddie was dead serious, never fooled around, in fact he once found Bing and Grace Kelly fooling around in his pool cabana and angrily ordered them off his property. Kissing him was strange. He got red faced. After all Id have to go home and wave to his wife, Sue Carol, out on the porch. "Wild Harvest" was about harvesters who travel. This wasnt enough for a movie. I was awkward and it showed and the movie was a big bomb. Bob Preston was about to jump from Paramount after seven years. They told him hed always be a second stringer. To think that Bob wound up in "The Music Man"! Hurray!
BAWDEN: Then there was your last with Bob, "My Favorite Brunette" (1947).
LAMOUR: Alan (Ladd) has a gag cameo in it that I remember. Rights reverted to Hope Enterprises and the lug forgot to renew it, so its now in public domain. It was a spoof of private eye movies. Bob played a baby photographer who stands in for a real private eye, played by Alan Laddhis name was McCloud!. Not bad, as I recall. The preview audience really laughed. Peter Lorre was so tiny, Id pat him on the head as I walked by. Bing did his cameo in one take and walked off with a $5,000 check, which really ticked Bob off. He said for his cameos on Crosby films he had to do take after take. Elliott Nugent directed it nicely, I remember when he had Alan around that day it was the start of his idea to do a remake of "The Great Gatsby" (which starred Alan Ladd.)
BAWDEN: It seems you were treated badly after 1947.
LAMOUR: So what? Who wasnt? The studio system crashed first at Paramount, which was one of the first studios to be required to sell off its theater chain. Then TV came along and, well, profits went thataway. So as soon as a stars contract was up out they went! Veronica Lake left first in 48. Macdonald Carey left in 50. Diana Lynn, Mona Freeman, John Lund, Ray Milland--all disappeared around the same time. Nobody new was being hired. And even Bing and Bob were complaining about how they were being treated. And in 1948 Paramount sold me to Benedict Bogeaus for three consecutive pictures, all stinkers.
BAWDEN: What happened with "On Our Merry Way" (1948)?
LAMOUR: Benedict Bogeaus made it for UA and it was quite a mess. It was an idea of Burgess Meredith, who was then married to Paulette Goddard. Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda had a (storyline), so did Fred MacMurray and Bill Demarest years before they were on TVs "My Three Sons." I was a gal who had to don a sarong in a musical revueVictor Moore was my sidekick. After I did my scenes, Charles Laughtons scenes as a minister were cut completely. I really felt bad about it! King Vidor and Leslie Fenton were the directors but John Huston and George Stevens were also around.
BAWDEN: Then came "Lulu Belle" (1948).
LAMOUR: Ouch! Another Bogeaus stinker. It was sort of a period musical. George Montgomery was the male lead. Nice guy, couldnt act. It did absolutely no business. Then I did another with George called "The Girl From Manhattan" and Laughton was in that one, too .It was my third and last for Mr. B., who really knew how to churn them out. So I limped back to Paramount with my career in tatters.
BAWDEN: But back at Paramount you finally made a film noir, "Manhandled"(1949) which I quite like.
LAMOUR: No, I made it for Pine-Thomas, which was situated across the street and only released through Paramount. It was shot very quickly by Lew Foster and Dan Duryea was a sleazy private eye investigating a murder and Sterling Hayden was an insurance investigator. I didnt like playing it so hard but I got good notices. Dan, such a family man in private, could really play nasty. I remember Irene Hervey saying Ive got the best part. I get murdered and I dont have to come back to this rat trap. The same year I did "Slightly French" (1949) at Columbia with Don Ameche,which surprised everybody with its strong box office. So these two reminded Paramount I still had loyal fans out there.
BAWDEN: But you were inactive for the next few years?
LAMOUR: Inactive? Is that how you describe giving birth to two great sons? I re-married in 1943 and stayed married to the greatest guy in the world, Bill Howard, until his death in 1978. And we had Ridge Howard in 1946 and Tommy Howard in 1949. So what you call inactivity, I call maternity.
Lamour in one of her
exotic costumes for
"The Greatest Show
On Earth," the
Picture of 1952.
But, seriously folks,I remained under Paramount contract and in late 1950 I started training for "The Greatest Show On Earth"(1952). Cecil B. DeMille had always eluded me and I got the part of Phyllis only because he was out of sorts with Paulette Goddard. Id actually talked to him about the Metis gal in "North West Mounted Police" (1940) but even though Im part French he chose Paulette and used her again in "Reap the Wild Wind" (1942) and "Unconquered" (1947). Thats where she fell afoul of him by refusing to be tossed into a cold, fast running mountain stream. A stunt double was used and C.B. thereafter refused to even talk to her.
For "Greatest Show" she bombarded him with presents. No response. Paulette had made one of the greatest ever bombs at Paramount in 1949, "Bride of Vengeance." Paramount was paying her not to make movies there! And C.B. commanded me to appear at his office and told me Id be Phyllis. Now her circus trick is to twirl in the air (hangin gby her teeth) and for a civilian to try this would break anybodys neck. So it took almost a year of training to get my jaw and neck into that shape. Plus I had to be extra skinny so the weight wouldnt be an issue. I sang Lovely Luawanna Lady," which was a great hit for me. I reluctantly did it in a sarong and that made ole C.B. beam.
I thought it terrible hokum when I watched the first assembled print. Boy, was I wrong! It cost $4 million, made $14 million and certainly showed C.B. was the master showman of the movies. (The film won the 1952 Best Picture Oscar, too.)
BAWDEN: Then you made your last Paramount, "Road To Bali" (1952).
LAMOUR: It was a co-production between Bing Crosby Productions and Hope Enterprises. I thought it the worst one so far. Wed stopped making them five years earlier. They stuck a shot of Bogey from "The African Queen" in there. Now that was funny. It was the only one made in Technicolor and we all looked our age. I real life I was a contented matron with kids and walking around in a sarong now embarrassed me. After my last shot I went out the side entrance. I couldnt face driving through those famous gates one last time.
Both Bing and Bob looked downcast. Time had passed them by. Martin and Lewis were the top attraction, followed by Bill Holden. Bing decamped in 1956, but he did get to make that great film "The Country Girl" before he left. Bob left in 1957. Management was very nasty in commenting how many of his later films bombed. But, hey, everything changes, right?
BAWDEN: What about "Road To Hong Kong" (1962)?
LAMOUR: What about it? Another decade had lapsed. Bing and Bob were about to hit 60. And they were competing with their younger selves on the Late Show. I didnt know anything about it until I read the announcement in the trades. And it hurt to have Bing infer I was too old to be the leading lady, although he was more than 10 years my senior. I just put it out of my mind until Bob phoned from London all a-tizzy. Hed been getting a lot of unpleasant publicity and the film was not going well. Joan Collins was almost 30 years younger than these boys and it showed. So after some dickering I got a hefty salary for showing up in a cameo as myself and singing one song. I remember I said, Thats the plot so far? Guess Ill better hide youfrom the critics.
BAWDEN: Wasnt there going to be another Road picture in 1977?
LAMOUR: Bob was talking about it when Bing died suddenly on a golf course in Spain. I suggested one title: "The Road Downhill. "And later Bob revived the idea, first with George Burns and then would you believe John Wayne.?
BAWDEN: But after "Bali" you soldiered on in TV appearances?
LAMOUR: We moved to Baltimore, I became a housewife first. And I did live TV when I could fit it in. I did Ed Sullivan, "Colgate Comedy Hour," "Four Star Revue," Red Skelton, Jimmy Durante.
BAWDEN: I saw you a lot on "Hollywood Squares."
LAMOUR: And Bob always had me on his specials. Bing? Never! I did Mike Douglas, Tim Conway, Joey Bishop, Durante, "Damon Runyon Theatre," "Burkes Law." And in the summer Id go out in shows with my little boys in tow. When Bobs health got bad, we moved back to Toluca Lake and we took the home next to Bobs.
BAWDEN: There were a few more movies?
LAMOUR: Ole Jack Ford phoned me and said Dottie, youre finally getting to Hawaii with me. The movie was "Donovans Reef" (1963), not much but a lot of fun to make. One thing about ole Jack: He likes to surround himself with vets like yours truly, Duke Wayne, Mike Mazurki, Cesar Romero, Dick Foran, Edgar Buchanan, Mae Marsh. It was old home week. Then I had a guest bit in "Pyjama Party" (1964) which was fun. And Ive lasted ever since on TV parts"Marcus Welby," "Love Boat," you name it and for the seasons I went out on summer stock in Mame. I insisted Mitch Leisen do up all my costumes at his atelier.
BAWDEN: This year (1984) youve been busy
LAMOUR: I did "Remington Steele" and had as co-star Virginia Mayo, who was at Warners all those years. Shes a real scream and we both have similar reminiscences about surviving the studio system. Then I did "Hart To Hart." Im still kicking.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: In fact Lamour worked continuouslyin 1987 she phoned to talk up her big role opposite George Kennedy in the horror flick "Creepshow 2." She died of a heart ailment in 1996, aged 81
©2012 by Jim Bawden. This column first posted July 30, 2012.
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