Sunday, June 9, 2013

Dorothy Dwan: The Accidental Westerner

Dorothy Dwan

By the time Dorothy Dwan was 23, she had been married twice, played leading lady to the likes of Larry Semon and Tom Mix, and faced her own father in court. She had a complicated and interesting life, yet she’s largely forgotten today, aside from the occasional mention of her performance as Dorothy in the 1925 version of “The Wizard of Oz.” Who was she and what became of her?

Dorothy Dwan

Dorothy Belle Ilgenfritz was born April 26, 1906 to Nancy and Melvin in Sedalia, Missouri (she later adopted the last name Dwan after the director Allan Dwan because she reportedly admired his work). Unfortunately her parents’ marriage was not a match made in heaven. The two frequently fought and separated on more than one occasion, spurring Nancy to move to California with little Dorothy in tow. By 1912 the pair had divorced. Nancy later remarried a Mr. Smith (Dorothy told fan magazines he was Lt. Col. George Hugh Smith from Pennsylvania) and found work as a publicist in the heart of Hollywood. Dwan later told fan magazines that she was discovered by her mother’s childhood friend who was then working for Universal. It’s unclear how much of the story is true (after all, Nancy herself was in the PR business and Dorothy would soon become something of a staple in the fan magazines’ gossip sections). But it could be this connection that launched Dwan into her film career and her mother into her publicity career.

Dwan had made her film debut by the age of 16, and by 18 she was appearing pretty regularly in features as well as shorts. Her career got a major boost, though, when she met one of the great silent clowns of the era -- Larry Semon.

Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon
Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon

“Her Boy Friend” was released in September 1924 and was one of the first major projects the pair embarked on (it’s also notable that it featured another silent favorite Oliver Hardy, years before Hal Roach paired him up with Stan Laurel). Dwan quickly became Semon’s leading lady on-screen and off. By January 1925, the two had married and were working on their biggest project to date -- “The Wizard of Oz.”

Oliver Hardy, Dorothy Dwan, Larry Semon in "The Wizard of Oz"
Oliver Hardy, Dorothy Dwan, Larry Semon in "The Wizard of Oz"

A decade had passed since L. Frank Baum had launched and shuttered the Oz Film Manufacturing Co., and it had been several years since Baum himself had died. Although Baum’s endeavor proved to be unprofitable, fantasy films had become more accepted and recognized. In fact, just months before the release of “The Wizard of Oz,” Famous Players Lasky had released “Peter Pan” starring Betty Bronson in the titular role. “Peter Pan” had the author’s blessing and relied heavily on the original work for the storyline and dialogue. “The Wizard of Oz” did not. Although the characters were familiar, they were only used to tell a Larry Semon story in a Larry Semon movie, not the Oz stories Baum created. Fans of Baum were not exactly pleased.

Dorothy Dwan in The Wizard of Oz
Dorothy Dwan in "The Wizard of Oz"

The pair continued to put out shorts, but because Semon’s productions cost so much, he was losing money...even if the films were technically hits. While Semon struggled, Dwan consistently found roles alongside the likes of Ken Maynard and Tom Mix, transforming herself into one of the leading ladies of the western genre. At one point it was rumored that Semon would direct Harold Lloyd’s next picture, and that Dwan would play his leading lady, but neither came to fruition.

Instead, Semon soon found himself back in vaudeville and, by August of 1928, he had suffered a nervous breakdown. He would never recover. While he was in the sanitarium, Dwan went to live with her mother and closed the home they shared. Semon died on October 8, 1828, but there still seems to be some debate over his passing. Although he reportedly died from pneumonia, a newspaper article from 2010 suggests that his condition was more mysterious, saying Dwan wasn’t allowed to have contact with him and wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral service. His body was cremated, leading some conspirators to even suggest that he faked his own death to avoid his creditors.

Dorothy Dwan

Regardless of Semon’s demise, Dwan soon found herself a 22-year-old widow with the government demanding $4,000 in back taxes courtesy of her deceased husband. She was still facing hospital and funeral expenses from Semon’s illness and death, and Louella Parsons claimed that Dwan hadn’t earned more than $4,000 since Semon’s death. Of course, the couple had money trouble even before his death. Semon had owed $10,000 in back taxes and was only able to raise $6,000 towards it. And in February of 1928, Dwan sued her father for $7,500 he had promised to put toward her education more than a decade earlier. The court found in favor of Dwan, but it’s unknown whether or not her father was actually able to make good on the payments.

Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon
Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon

Dwan continued to find steady work in silent pictures, and made a name for herself in westerns accidentally. “How did I happen to be typed as a western lead? Just one of those tricks of fate,” she told The St. Petersburg Times. “Today I am a well informed western leading lady, but the greatness was thrust upon me. I was not born that way.” Although she found steady work, she only made two talkies before deciding to retire, despite having a reportedly excellent talking test. In 1930, she married Paul N. Boggs Jr. (son of a Union Oil Company exec) and in 1931, she gave birth to Paul Boggs III. Although fans showed interest, and she remained close with her Hollywood friends, she held firm, saying she was devoting her time to her child and not interested in returning to the business. Unfortunately, in just a few years, the couple called it quits. By 1936, Dwan was working as a publicist alongside her mother. She later married a Mr. Fred Buckles, but that, too, ended in divorce.

Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon
Dorothy Dwan and Larry Semon

She died in 1981 of lung cancer.

Dorothy Dwan

By the time she retired, Dorothy Dwan had appeared in 40 films. Although some have reportedly been lost, like one of the two talkies she made, others have survived -- like her work with Larry Semon and Tom Mix.

You can watch TCM’s restored version of “The Wizard of Oz” below:



Enjoy my posts? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Or, share this post across your social networks.