A genuine model of sincerity, practicality and dignity in most of the roles she inhabited, actress Dorothy McGuire offered Tinseltown more talent than it probably knew what to do with. A quiet, passive beauty, she had a soothing quality to her open-faced looks and voice. She was a natural when he came to tearjerkers and she certainly had a knack for opening up her film-goer’s tear ducts with her arresting performances in sentimental drama. She preferred to rest on her acting laurels than engage in publicity-monging to win roles. As a result, Dorothy was surprisingly ill-served in the awards department during her over five-decade film career, yet left a major imprint on celluloid. Touching, complex, immaculate in poise and style, she is now and forever etched in Hollywood’s “Golden Age” annals and in the minds of film lovers everywhere.
Dorothy began inconspicuously enough in Omaha, Nebraska on Wednesday, June 14th, 1916. Her parents encouraged her early interest in acting and she made her debut as a teenager in “A Kiss for Cinderella” at the Omaha Community Playhouse which starred visiting alumni member Henry Fonda. She received her education at Omaha Junior College, Ladywood Convent in Indianapolis, and Pine Manor Junior College in Wellesley, Massachusetts before setting her sites on an acting career. Following summer stock she appeared in such 1938 stage productions as “Bachelor Born” and “Stopover” before understudying the role of Emily Gibb in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” on Broadway, which at the time showcased young Martha Scott. Dorothy eventually replaced Scott in the role.
Other experiences came her way on stage with “My Dear Children” starring John Barrymore, “Swingin’ the Dream”, “Medicine Show”, “The Time of Your Life” and “Kind Lady” before she was handed the titular role of “Claudia” in 1941. This gentle comedy became a certifiable Broadway hit and Dorothy simply incandescent as the child-like bride forced to wake up to reality after her sudden marriage. David O. Selznick subsequently signed her to a film contract. Fortunately, 20th Century-Fox, untrue to form, took a chance on the film unknown and allowed her to recreate her stage triumph opposite Robert Young. Claudia (1943) was so beautifully done and warmly received that McGuire and Young went on to recreate their roles three years later with Claudia and David (1946).
Unbelievably, Dorothy topped herself in only her second film role. After a pregnant Gene Tierney became unavailable for the role of Katie Nolan in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), the part fell to Dorothy. It’s now hard to believe anyone else in the role. As the impoverished wife of a charming Irish ne’er-do-well and inebriate, Dorothy showed amazing complexity as the detached wife and mother whose painful but necessary decision-making alienates many around her, especially her daughter who is the apple of her daddy’s eye. Directed by Elia Kazan, Dorothy was shamefully overlooked at awards time. Young Peggy Ann Garner was given a “special juvenile Oscar” and errant husband James Dunn picked up the Supporting Actor trophy for his work. Dorothy was not of the mind of tooting her own horn and it may have cost her an Oscar nomination — better yet, the Oscar — for she was hands down the better performer than eventual winner Joan Crawford, a popular choice for Mildred Pierce (1945).
Dorothy made it four film hits in a row with the success of both the sentimental fantasy The Enchanted Cottage (1945), in which she reunited with Robert Young to play two of society’s castoffs who fall in love, and the expert Hitchcockian thriller The Spiral Staircase (1946) as the mute servant who is terrorized by a serial killer. Preferring rich characterizations over glamour, audiences saw Dorothy dolled up a bit more than usual in Till the End of Time (1946) as a war widow who falls for a younger hunk (Guy Madison). Her 40s filming was capped by a Best Actress nomination in Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), an-anti-Semitic tale that boasted a topnotch ensemble cast including Gregory Peck, John Garfield and Celeste Holm, who won a supporting Oscar for this.
With nary a weak film yet on her resume, an unpretentious Dorothy still hadn’t achieved top cinematic stardom. Preferring to return to her theater roots, she abandoned films for a couple of years and performed in such vehicles as “Tonight at 8:30” (1947) and “Summer and Smoke” (1950). When she did return it was to a different Hollywood and things would not be the same. Instead forgettable fluff such as Mother Didn’t Tell Me (1950) and Callaway Went Thataway (1951) were the slim pickings offered. Although she found a popular hit with Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), the film was more notable for its title song and sumptuous settings than for the quality of acting of the three distaff stars — McGuire, Maggie McNamara and Jean Peters.
Dorothy graciously moved into pillar-of-strength mother roles as she approached her 40s, making fine impressions as a Quaker matriarch in Friendly Persuasion (1956) and as the resourceful mom in three of Disney’s endearing classics, Old Yeller (1957), Swiss Family Robinson (1960) and Summer Magic (1963). Her more flawed marital and parenting skills were displayed in the Inge film adaptation of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), and the huge, sudsy teen hit A Summer Place (1959) with Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue as young, star-crossed lovers. McGuire acted as Donahue’s mother who rekindles an old love affair with Dee’s father (Richard Egan). The 49-year-old McGuire then played the mother of all mothers, the Virgin Mary, in the misguided biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), marred by its overlong narrative and bizarre miscasting, including John Wayne as a Roman centurion. Her last film, the British-made Flight of the Doves (1971) as an Irish granny, had little impact.
In later years Dorothy found rich, rewarding work on TV and received an Emmy nomination for the well-received mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (1976). She also played Marmee in a TV revisitation of Little Women: Part I (1978), and ended her career in good company with (what else?) a sentimental tearjerker in the mini-movie The Last Best Year (1990) co-starring Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore.
Dorothy’s longtime husband was photographer John Swope who died in 1979. Her children by him are Mark Swope, an artist and photographer, and former actress Topo Swope. Dorothy’s health declined severely after she fell and broke her leg in 2001. She died of heart failure not long after in a Santa Monica hospital on Friday, September 14th at the age of 85.
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