Like her contemporary pin ups (Betty Grable and Lana Turner), she was known by one name during the 1940s. And what a surname. Paramount had re-christened Dorothy Lambour into Dorothy Lamour.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, again focussing on a major star of the Fabulous Forties.
Clint Eastwood’s 2011 film J. Edgar — in which it’s formulated that Hoover, the legendary FBI chief, thought of Lamour as possible marriage material — has inspired us to take another look at a memorable career.
Dorothy’s springboard into show business was as a beauty contest winner, Miss New Orleans of 1931. Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton (her given name) first turned big band singer, one who married her boss, bandleader Herbie Kay, at age 21 (it lasted four years).
Lamour was actually a pretty good singer as her early radio appearances proved — she performed with the likes of Rudy Vallee. Her first Hollywood movie appearance was an un-credited bit as a chorus girl in the 1933 Jimmy Cagney musical, Footlight Parade.
What converted her into a late-Thirties and Forties sensation was her role in 1936’s Jungle Princess, which introduced to the world Dorothy’s signature sarong. Say what you will, there’s no denying Lamour looked smashing in the garment. She instantly became a popular pinup.
But she dogged by the darned thing for the rest of her life. The fact is that she wore a sarong in only six of her 59 movies. In a publicity stunt with Freudian overtones, Dorothy once burned a sarong before assembled photographers.
In her autobiography, My Side of the Road, Dorothy covers her adventures with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, her costars in seven “Road To…” movies spanning a dozen years beginning in 1940. Although Dorothy was never particularly close to Crosby on a personal level, she and Hope (as well as his wife Delores) remained friends until the end.
Dorothy’s career as a leading actress ended after 1952’s The Road to Bali. Ten years later when Dorothy’s career was a fading memory to most movie fans, a final road picture (The Road To Hong Kong) was made with Hope and Crosby. But Joan Collins took the leading lady role, not Dorothy.
The by-then 48-year-old Lamour was incensed by what she regarded as a casting affront, and took her case to Hollywood columnist, Louella Parsons. To placate the public and because she was still a great friend of Hope’s, the studio carved out a cameo in Hong Kong, in which Dorothy played herself and sang a song in a nightclub setting.
The upside of all this was that Dorothy’s appearance in the movie drew the attention of none other than director John Ford, who a year later cast her in a supporting role in Donovan’s Reef, an action vehicle for John Wayne and Lee Marvin. And this movie appearance in turn led to some late-Sixties stage work.
So, the result of Dorothy’s casting beef wound up giving her career a bit of a boost.
Although she was a major Forties star, Lamour spent less time on her career after 1952 and more and more time on her marriage to William Ross Howard III, with whom she had two children and shared a step son. The couple, married in 1943, stayed together until his death.
He met Dorothy when he was in the service during WW II and she was a Hollywood star promoting war bonds with great gusto and success (the “Bond Bombshell” was personally credited for closing the sales on some $21 million – a staggering amount at the time – in war bonds. That endeared her to J. Edgar Hoover). She was with Hope entertaining the troops on his first of what would become many legendary trips.
William Howard was a dashing, aristocratic officer in uniform. Dorothy Lamour was the patriotic beauty of solid, traditional values (she was Roman Catholic).
They fell in love, got married and presumably lived happily ever after. Although Dorothy starred in the 1968 national road show of Hello, Dolly,” her family life came first and she remained largely a homemaker.
Howard’s family came from of old line Maryland lineage (he and Dorothy lived during the 60’s and 70’s in a suburb of Towson), and Howard himself was described as a businessman with interests in the frozen food operations and advertising.
The entertainment world was impressed with Lamour’s energetic re-emergence in the show biz world following her husband’s death in early 1978. All of a sudden, she was all over the place – on television (Hope specials, “The Love Boat” and “Murder, She Wrote”) and in regional theater.
The question: was Lamour’s cover-all-bases showbiz return after nearly 35 years of domesticity just another example of a merry widow kicking up her heels?
The fact was that her frenetic re-emergence on the show biz scene in the 1980’s — which astonished much of show business at the time — was primarily driven by one thing. Dorothy needed the money.
Turns out her businessman husband wasn’t much of a businessman. Lamour was urged to file for personal bankruptcy.” No,” she said.” I’ll go back to work and pay all my debts.” And that’s exactly what she did.
Lamour died in her North Hollywood home of a heart attack on Sept. 22, 1996. She was 81. Dorothy is remembered in many ways including her two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for her movies and another for her radio shows. By most accounts she had worked herself back to financial stability at the end.