Thursday, August 24, 2006

Dorothy Comingore

As Charles Foster Kane's "singer" and somewhat simple-minded second wife "Susan Alexander," giggling, shrieking, crying and doing jigsaw puzzles in the great hall of Xanadu in Citizen Kane (1941), Dorothy Comingore gave a performance of remarkable range which, at times, is uncomfortable to watch for its nakedness. She never really had a chance to show what she could do before or afterward.

Born on this day in 1913 in Los Angeles, the daughter of a labor activist who helped to organize the printers at the Los Angeles Times and the dockworkers in San Francisco, Comingore attended Berkeley and studied religious philosophy. She inherited her father's political commitment to leftist causes, and after college, while modeling for artists in Taos, New Mexico, she married Robert Meltzer, who shortly thereafter was killed fighting the fascists in Spain. She returned to California and joined the Little Theatre in Carmel, where she was spotted by Charlie Chaplin, who invited her out for tea to talk "theater and politics."

The otherwise insignificant event got press coverage (as Chaplin's private life often did) and landed Comingore a contract at Warners, working under the name "Linda Winters." She languished there and at Columbia, in part for her precocious, feminist insubordination and in part for her tendency to try to improve working conditions for the technicians behind the camera.

When Orson Welles first arrived in Hollywood, he screened a number of older movies, and noticed Comingore in a B-feature called Prison Train (1938). Married by this time to screenwriter Richard Collins and expecting her first child, Comingore got a call that Welles wanted her for Citizen Kane. Welles told her not to worry about being pregnant, that they'd film in a hurry. After his gift of a role, Welles proceeded to treat her rather poorly on the set; later critics saw this as Welles' way of inspiring the kind of disgust you see in Comingore's eyes near the end of story, and if that is the case, the technique might have appealed to Comingore since she had studied Stanislavskian method acting. Critics who liked Kane liked Comingore very much, but her already-checkered reputation with studio execs was not helped by the backlash against Kane from much of the Hollywood inner circle.

Apart from a few minor triumphs (The Beggars are Coming to Town, on Broadway, 1945; The Big Night, 1951), Comingore's next years turned painful. She was hauled before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 (most likely on a tip from her ex-husband), where she flippantly refused to answer questions. Branded as a "red," she was blacklisted in Hollywood. Collins then used her alcohol problem and her "red" connections to gain custody of their two children later that year. In 1953, she was arrested for allegedly soliciting a pair of Los Angeles County vice cops, but the charges were dropped (after Comingore's jail photo made the papers); later that year, she was committed to the psychopathic ward of the state mental hospital.

She was convinced that she was being harassed by the government for her politics, which (true or not) led her to exhibit paranoid behavior, constantly moving to avoid detection after her release from the hospital. It was the beginning of a long, slow descent into darkness. Happenstance brought her to seek refuge from a New Year's Eve blizzard in a small country store run by a Connecticut postman, and time and relative solitude apparently helped to heal her. She eventually married the postman, living out her days with their 2 dogs and 10 cats, rarely feeling the need to acknowledge her Hollywood past. She passed away on December 30, 1971 in Stonington, Connecticut.



Blogger Holly said...

Thanks for this - she was brilliant in Kane, proving that Chaplin had a great eye, sometimes.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous T.Donahue said...

What's the moral here, Ron-- don't mix politics with art?!

2:34 PM  
Blogger susanowens611 said...

Do you have any proof that she was married to Robert Meltzer? I know there was probably a relationship, but proof of marriage?
I would appreciate knowing.

2:13 PM  
Blogger RSchuler said...

This is a good question, Susan. I am certain that the source for this piece (Connecticut, June 1980) cannot mean to refer to "Robert Meltzer" the writer who went to Brazil with Orson Welles and died at Normandy in 1944. This has to be some other Meltzer - and possibly one who was a painter rather than a writer.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Gloria said...

Can you give me any info on her two children? My name is Gloria Comingore and we believe that she was wronged by Hollywood and are looking for any and all information on her and her chidren. We are looking into having her added to Hollywood hall of fame and need any true information on her history with her husbands as well as her children.

6:00 PM  

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