Sunday, February 19, 2006

She Traded Her Sarong for an Apron


Somewhere out there, there lives a housewife, known to her friends and family for her radiant charm, who is celebrating her 94th birthday today.* I hope she forgives me for bringing to light a little tale that received some tabloid attention about 75 years ago. It has a happy ending.

Dorothy Janis was a minor silent film starlet, born Dorothy Penelope Jones on this day in 1912 in Dallas, Texas. There's an emphasis on "minor" here: Dorothy Jones was a mere 15 years old when she tagged along with her cousin, a Hollywood extra, onto the Fox Studio lot, but the 5'-0", 94-lb. high school student was immediately noticed by a casting director for her dark, exotic good looks and was cast as an Arabian girl in Fleetwing (1927).

Within a year, although she was just 16, Dorothy Janis (as she came to be known) was signed by Metro to a 5-year contract. Metro said publicly that Janis was 18 and half-Cherokee; neither fact was true, and Metro seemed to know better enough about her status as a minor to have her contract supervised by a court. After a pair of silent 'horse operas' (Kit Carson, 1928; and The Overland Telegraph, 1929, with Tim McCoy), Janis won the romantic lead opposite hunky Ramon Novarro in a part-talkie, The Pagan (1929, directed by W.S. Van Dyke), notable for the fact that Janis (without a chaperone at 16), Novarro and the entire cast and crew went to Tahiti to make the film, back in the days when location shooting was extremely rare. The film is kind of a cult-hit among aficionados today, in part for Novarro's popular recording of "The Pagan Love Song," featured in the movie.

Dorothy made one talkie (Lummox, 1930, directed by Herbert Brenon) before joining director Harry Gerson and another crew for a tour of the Malay Peninsula to make a film to be entitled The White Captive. When the company returned to Hollywood at the end of 1930, however, the studio found that Gerson's footage was virtually unusable; worse yet, poor Janis found herself at the epicenter of a tabloid scandal.

Sidney Lund, a newlywed sound technician who traveled with the White Captive company, apparently formed a crush on Janis during the 6-month trip, inspiring Mrs. Lund, a former vaudeville dancer, to file for divorce and to sue Janis for $25,000 for "alienation of affection." Mrs. Lund's claim was all the rage in Hollywood at the time: earlier that year, Clara Bow settled a "love theft" suit by the wife of a Texas physician, and Josef von Sternberg's wife had unsuccessfully sued Marlene Dietrich. Nevertheless, it was typically a difficult claim to prove (you had to first establish that there was love in the marriage, then that said love was destroyed by the defendant, and finally that the defendant destroyed said love maliciously), and probably even more so where the virginal Janis was concerned.

Mrs. Lund eventually got her divorce but dropped her suit against Janis; White Captive was never released; and the 19-year old Janis -- movie star, world traveler and enfant celebre -- perhaps understandably left behind her singular Hollywood career to visit an aunt in Chicago, where she met and married dance bandleader Wayne King.

Meanwhile, California abolished "alienation of affection" lawsuits in 1939. By 2001, all but 9 states had abolished the cause of action, citing the sense in which such lawsuits irresponsibly assume that some people (in our case, Mr. Lund) have no control over their own emotions as being a bad basis for damages. On the other hand, in states such as Hawaii, North Carolina and Utah where the claim is still recognized, family advocates argue that it provides an effective disincentive to monkey business. In 1997, a woman in North Carolina won $1 million worth of disincentive from her ex-husband's monkey business partner.

Dorothy and her husband apparently needed no such disincentives; they were together for over 50 years, until King's death in 1985. Few knew or could even have imagined that the happy housewife and mother of two once wore a sarong in the Tahitian jungles listening to Ramon Novarro croon the "Pagan Love Song."

* Some sources suggest that this is actually Dorothy's 96th birthday. Either way, she sure has lived a remarkable life -- I'll let you do the math adjustments if you'd prefer to find her to be two years older.


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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This woman is my mother's second cousin. If you have more information about her contact me at lceshleman (at) aol.com Thanks!!

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

FYI Dorothy is going to 95 on 2/19/07 she is still going stong!

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know Dorothy, and she did just celebrate her 95th birthday on 2/19/07. She is a lovely, spunky, funny lady! Looks at least 20 years younger than her age...

4:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This wonderful woman is my Great Grandmother. Today she turns 96, 2/19/08 and is just as spirited as ever! Our family appreciates that people still validate her talent and realize where Hollywood truly came from. Happy birthday Dorothy Jones.

3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I inherited a large record album collection, and in it was "Smooth as Silk - Wayne King and His Orchestra". It's a little scratched, but it's my favorite album in the collection. A woman and kitten on the cover - could this be Dorothy?

7:48 PM  

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