The Dorothy Burgess Film Festival: "Playgirl" and "From Headquarters"

Of all the actors and actresses who appeared in 1930s films, Dorothy Burgess (1907-61) was certainly one of them.

Here she is in the 1932 film "Play-Girl," opposite Winnie Lightner.

And who could forget her in "Hold Your Man," with Clark Gable and Jean Harlow?

Or "From Headquarters," with Kenneth Thomson?

And "Ladies They Talk About," with Barbara Stanwyck.

"Put up your dukes! I mean your duchesses!"
So, as you can see, the traditional Burgess role was the woman who was always picking herself up off the floor.

She was the troublemaker, the spiteful gossip, the jealous other woman. If you happen to be watching an old movie where one of the characters is always standing around with her hands on her hips, giving the stinkeye to the heroine, it's probably Burgess.

The niece of actress Fay Bainter, Burgess was born into a well-to-do Los Angeles family (dad was the first president of Western Airlines) and after a stint in a tony boarding school she made her Broadway debut while still a teenager in a play that starred Aunt Fay.

Like Myrna Loy, Burgess found fame in fiery temptress roles -- she played a gypsy girl in "The Squall" (a role Loy played in the film version) and an African-American woman in "Lulu Belle." She played a Mexican girl in her film debut, 1928's "In Old Arizona."

In late 1931, Burgess signed a contract with Warner Bros.-First National and began playing a string of mean girls.

In the 1932 film "Play-Girl," for instance, she is Edna, the bitter, negative counterpart to our heroine Buster, played by Loretta Young. Buster and Edna are sales clerks at the Mayfield Department Store, along with Buster's bosom buddy, Georgine (Winnie Lightner). Edna is a mean girl, always snidely criticizing the others:

Buster is swept off her feet by the brash Wallie, played by the hardly-ever-charming Norman Foster. They get married, and Buster thinks Wallie is a successful businessman who's always closing on big deals. Then he makes a confession -- the "deals" he's out making involve playing cards and poker chips! Then Buster makes a confession -- she's pregnant! They argue, and Wallie takes a powder. Buster is forced to return to the department store, and Edna is waiting to pounce:

In the 1933 films "Hold Your Man" and "Ladies They Talk About," Burgess crossed paths with Jean Harlow and Barbara Stanwyck, respectively. In "Hold Your Man" Burgess plays Gypsy, the old flame of Eddie (Clark Gable), who's now hooked up with Ruby (Harlow). In "Ladies They Talk About," Burgess is Susie, a religious fanatic and bonafide nutcase who has eyes for political reformer Dave Slade (Preston Foster). Unfortunately, Slade is all about Nan (Barbara Stanwyck), a convict in the same cell block as Susie, which leads to Burgess picking herself up off the floor.

In the 1933 crime drama "From Headquarters," Burgess is Dolly, the drug-addicted former girlfriend of a millionaire who's been murdered. At first she is a suspect, but under questioning her mental foundation shows signs of cracking like dried oatmeal:

By late 1933, Burgess's career began to sputter. She was in the headlines due to her involvement in an auto accident where a young woman was killed, and in July she was injured while filming -- of course -- a fight scene at Universal Studios. She appeared in only a handful of films after that, concluding with 1943's "The West Side Kid."

Here is a complete filmography.


  1. Dorothy, Dorothy, Dorothy. Why ya' gotta be so mean?

    This post was so much fun, and taught me a thing or three about Ms. Burgess.

  2. Really enjoyed this post, David. I remember this actress well, from all of these films, but never knew anything about her, including her name. I'd love to know more about the car accident and the story about her getting injured during a fight scene.