Day 16 of Noirvember: Dorothys You Should Know – Part I

Ever heard of Dorothy Hart?

She has eight film noir credits to her name – but, sadly, it’s a name that not many noir fans know these days. In today’s Noirvember post, I’m determined to remedy that.

Dorothy Hart was once described as “the most beautiful actress in Hollywood today,” and at the peak of her popularity in the 1950s, she was hailed as America’s answer to Ingrid Bergman. Born on April 3, 1923, in Cleveland, Ohio, Dorothy was interested in a performing career from an early age. After high school, she enrolled in Western Reserve University, finishing her coursework in less than three years. “I wanted to get to Broadway before I was too old,” she said. “Four years seemed a long time to spend getting a degree, so I studied twice as hard.”

In 1944, Hart entered the National Cinderella Cover Girl Contest sponsored by Columbia Studios, and out of a pool of 22,000 applicants, she emerged the winner. However, she turned down the Columbia contract that was part of her prize: “I wanted more training,” Hart said later. “The timing just wasn’t right.” Instead, she moved to New York, and started modeling, landing on several national magazine covers.

A promo shot with Howard Duff for The Naked City.

Before long, Hart began fielding offers from Hollywood, and finally decided to sign with Columbia. “I insisted on inserting a clause providing that I appear only in ‘A’ pictures,” she said. Hart made her debut in 1947 with a lead role opposite Randolph Scott in Gunfighters. Still, she wasn’t happy, and demanded a release from her contract. The following year, she signed with Universal and was seen in her first film noir, Larceny, starring John Payne as a con man who plans to cheat a widow out the money she’s received to build a memorial to her war-hero husband. This was followed by Hart’s best-known noir, The Naked City (1948). In it, she plays the unsuspecting fiancée of a man suspected of murder. In her best scene, she physically attacks her betrothed after learning that he was having an affair with the murdered girl. Again, though, Hart was less than satisfied with her role: “I’m the good girl, Kathy,” she told the press. “I’d much rather play Kates than Kathys.”

With June Havoc in The Story of Molly X.

During the next two years, Hart was seen in a series of noirs – the first, The Story of Molly X (1949), starred June Havoc; of Hart’s role, the critic for Variety wrote that she “gets her first real chance to show” (but he also said that her performance “is inclined to be a little monotonous.”). Next, in Undertow (1949), Hart got a chance to play a “Kate,” portraying a woman who frames her fiancé for murder, which was followed by Take One False Step (1949), where she had the rather thankless role as the wife of William Powell, a professor who is suspected of killing an old flame (Shelley Winters).

Hart’s role in Raton Pass was one of her favorites.

This was followed by Outside the Wall (1950), advertised as “one of the strangest stories ever told,” in which Hart was back to her good girl roles, playing a nurse who helps reform an ex-convict. Around this time, Hart terminated her agreement with Universal in favor of a Warner Bros. contract. “I was doing ingenues largely and that didn’t fit in with my plan to become a dramatic actress,” she stated. “At Warner Bros., my first role fits into my plan perfectly. I’m on the road now.” Hart was referring to Raton Pass (1951), a Western where she played a spirited girl of Spanish descent, described by the actress as “gentle yet fiery. It is the first time I have really understood a character and that’s important to me.”

Hart had one of her more interesting parts in I Was a Communist for the FBI.

Next, Hart returned to the shadows with another interesting character, a devoted school teacher who is lured and later disillusioned by the tenets of Communism in I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951). In this noir based on a true story, Frank Lovejoy stars as an undercover government agent who infiltrates the Pittsburgh branch of the Communist party. The following year, Hart was seen in a lead role in her final film noir (and my personal favorite), Loan Shark, as the girlfriend of George Raft, whose character goes undercover to expose a gang of loan sharks. Hart was praised in Variety as “attractive and able in meeting [the] demands of the role opposite Raft.”

Hart left the big screen in the early 1950s.

Although the following year Hart was awarded the Golden Key by Photoplay magazine as one as one of Hollywood’s 10 most promising actresses, the actress abruptly turned her back on her big screen career. “By this time, I was actually a pretty good actress,” she said years later. “But I noticed, in meeting older, better, and much more famous actresses, that there wasn’t any real happiness in their smiles. That, I think was what made me decide that a movie career, even the most successful one, simply wasn’t what I wanted.”

Hart turned to television, appearing on a wide variety of dramatic shows, but in the mid-1950s, she experienced an incident that led to yet another path. While a passenger in a small plane that developed landing gear trouble over Long Beach, California, Hart could see rescue vehicles racing to the edge of the flight strip. “I was frightened, sure,” she said, “but even more than that, I was heartsick about all the important things in my life that I’d left undone.” After the plane’s safe landing, Hart moved to New York and became an active speech-maker and recruiter in causes for the United Nations. She also traveled to Geneva as a U.S. observer at the meeting of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.

Meanwhile, after several years, Hart found that her “nervous system just [wasn’t] cut out” for live television and she began guesting on games shows. She then gained a new level of popularity in the late 1950s with a featured role on the CBS-TV program Pantomime Quiz. In this show based on the game Charades, Hart used what one journalist termed her “quick, creative mind and Venus-like attributes” as both an “acter-outer” and a guesser. “It’s the kind of thing I’d cheerfully do for nothing if necessary.” You can see Hart in one of these shows below.

In her private life, Hart had married an industrial research consultant, Fred Pittera, in 1954, and seven years later, gave birth to a son, Douglas. A few years later, the marriage was over, and Hart moved with her son to Asheville, North Carolina. “It was a hard choice, but I didn’t want Douglas growing up in New York,” Hart said later. “So I moved to Asheville and gave it all up – my work at the U.N., my TV work, my hostess work, everything. I decided there would be no more ‘Dorothy Hart, the star.’ I would become ‘Dorothy Hart, the mother of Douglas.’ I decided Douglas would be that star.”

Discover Dorothy Hart.

After years out of public view, Hart re-emerged in 1979 when she filed a $60 million lawsuit against the publishers and author of The Editor, claiming that the novel had libeled her by depicting a character named Dorothy Hart as a bisexual Hollywood “sex machine.” The suit, which charged libel and invasion of privacy, specifically cited the book’s cover, which stated, “Dorothy Hart was one of the most popular and notorious sex-bombs Hollywood has ever spawned.” The actress further charged that the book’s publisher’s traded on public assumptions that she was the actual model for the book’s character, and of acting with “actual malice and the designed to injure, defame and destroy [her] good name and reputation.” The lawsuit was later settled out of court and Hart returned to her private life at her home in Asheville. In 2004, she died of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 82.

Though far from a household name, even to fans of noir, Dorothy Hart had a commendable career and a fascinating life. If you’ve never seen a Dorothy Hart performance, do yourself a favor and check her out – and watch for Part II of Dorothys You Should Know.

And join me tomorrow for Day 17 of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 16, 2019.

4 Responses to “Day 16 of Noirvember: Dorothys You Should Know – Part I”

  1. I’m a fan of a couple of those titles, but I will watch them again and the others with a special note to enjoy getting to know Dorothy Hart. Thanks.

  2. I was impressed by her performance in Impact. Thanks for all the info on her later life.

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