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CHAPLIN AND ORSON WELLES’ ONE-HIT WONDER

Few actresses have had a mentor as notable as Charlie Chaplin or a launch-pad as prominent as Citizen Kane, yet the name Dorothy Comingore is as little-known today as it was when that milestone movie was released. I was reminded of this when I stumbled across a rare, early photo of the actress with its original Warner Bros. caption intact. Like every blurb over the next few years, this one predicts great stardom ahead. The publicity prose credits Chaplin with discovering her, which is true; he saw her on stage in Carmel, California while vacationing there. She was already married to screenwriter Richard Collins, so this may have been a rare case of actual talent-spotting for the celebrated Mr. Chaplin.

The Warner Bros. entree led nowhere, however, in spite of the enthusiasm expressed in this caption. The actress did land the leading role in an independently produced B movie called Prison Train, then signed a contract with Columbia Pictures as Linda Winters and appeared in a variety of short subjects and B movies, often without billing, in 1938 and 39. She can be seen in four Three Stooges two-reelers, and appeared in two major studio features, Golden Boy and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But her screen time was insignificant and she wanted out; when she was later called “difficult,” this was the first piece of evidence.

(The experience did land her one plum column item, however. She was used repeatedly as a background extra in Mr. Smith. A smart publicist later planted this story: “Since Citizen Kane has brought her prominence, Capra has been heard to speak highly of her, usually remarking that she has been in a number of his pictures. Told about it, the actress sent him a wire: ‘You mean, Mr. Capra, that I was in one of your pictures a number of times.’ ”)

“Dorothy attended the University of California in Berkeley one year before acting in little theaters in Carmel and Taos, N.M. She speaks rather breathlessly in broken, halting senses,” reported Mary Barnsley of the Associated Press in May of 1941, when Kane’s release was still on the horizon and Comingore was playing with her three-month-old son. “There are frequent pauses. This hesitant manner contrasts sharply with her frankness… Whether Dorothy’s frankness is indiscretion or courage, Hollywood hasn’t yet made up its mind.”

Enter Orson Welles. The Hollywood newcomer was casting his first feature, Citizen Kane, and while he drew on his Mercury Theatre troupe to fill most of the key roles he found his two leading ladies in Los Angeles: Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore. (He urged her to abandon the Linda Winters moniker.) Early publicity about the newcomer was promising. Syndicated columnist Harold Heffernan wrote, “All critics who have looked at the Welles picture are enthusiastic in their praise of Miss Comingore—the ex-Miss Winters—and a certain future stardom.”

But the experience of making Citizen Kane was difficult for the actress.  According to Welles biographer Simon Callow, “Having cast her as Susan Alexander, he cultivated her socially, building up her confidence and self-esteem. The moment the film started shooting he changed his entire attitude, harassing and abusing her. Ruth Warrick, appalled at what she took to be his schizophrenic behavior, drew him aside and reproached him. ‘Oh,’ he said airily, ‘it’s good for the character.’ The terrible fact is, he may have been right. Certainly her performance in the film is outstanding; equally certainly, she never did anything to match it.”

Not unlike Jean Hagen, who was so convincing playing the shrill silent-film star Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain a decade later, Comingore wasn’t rewarded for her superlative work as the untalented Susan Alexander in Kane. (At least Hagen earned an Oscar nomination.) She did earn good reviews in newspapers outside the Hearst empire. In the Los Angeles Times, Edwin Schallert wrote, “Miss Comingore is an important acquisition for pictures. She is immensely interesting in her delineation of the woman who becomes the second wife of the man who builds empires that Welles depicts.” The paper’s coverage of the Citizen Kane premiere included a photo of John Barrymore, Dolores Del Rio, Welles, and Comingore—heady company for a complete unknown. At year’s end she was a finalist for Best Actress honors from the New York Film Critics Circle, losing to Joan Fontaine for her work in Suspicion.

She gave birth to her second child shortly after filming was completed, which might have cost her some offers. A reported loan-out to Paramount to play Ray Milland’s fiancée in Billy Wilder’s The Major and the Minor did not come to fruition. (Rita Johnson got the part.) There were also published reports of differences between her and RKO management, and even a contract suspension. By April of1942 columnist Jimmie Fidler, sounding as if he was taking dictation from RKO’s publicity department, would write, “I’m sorry Dorothy Comingore…is hindering her career by finding fault with every screen role the studio proposes.” Days later he published this correction—or clarification: “The reason Dorothy Comingore keeps turning down RKO scripts is that she doesn’t care if she continues working: her husband, Dick Collins, has clicked as a writer.” But by October of that year another columnist, Erskine Johnson, confirmed that she had been “dropped” by RKO for turning down every opportunity they offered her.

In contrast, Hollywood correspondent Brownwood Emerson wrote, “Ruth Warrick, who played the first Mrs. Citizen Kane, was overshadowed in the movie by Dorothy Comingore, but RKO gave her the build-up. New tests showed a personality, looks, and voice which her character in ‘Kane’ could not exploit to good advantage.”

She incurred the wrath of publisher William Randolph Hearst, who reportedly had his columnists condemn her as a subversive—not an enormous stretch as her husband was a former member of the Communist party. (Following their divorce she married another writer, Theodore Strauss; they split after five years.) She remained outspoken and politically active throughout the 1940s.

Yet Citizen Kane was virtually the beginning and end of her movie career. The only other film in which she appeared with prominent billing was The Hairy Ape (1944). A few other screen and television appearances rounded out her acting résumé; her last public appearance was before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1952. She remarried in 1962 and lived out her years away from show business in Connecticut, dying in 1971.

There is no way to chart or predict movie careers, today or back in the days of the studio system. Would Dorothy Comingore have become a prominent leading lady if she’d been showcased in a more flattering role than Susan Alexander Kane? Might she have fared better if she hadn’t run afoul of William Randolph Hearst? No one could have known what lay in store for this attractive redhead when she showed up for publicity photos at Warner Bros. in 1938. We can only speculate about what might have been.

In any case, her performance in Citizen Kane has earned her immortality.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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