The working-class Hull girl who became the toast of Hollywood
She was the Hull girl who rose to become the biggest star in Hollywood – yet few now remember her name. IAN MIDGLEY follows Dorothy Mackaill’s journey from humble roots to becoming the talk of Tinsel Town
AT THE age of 15 Dorothy Mackaill was, to all outwards appearances, an average turn-of-the-century west Hull girl.
Born in 1903 and brought up amid the respectable working-class terraces of Newstead Street, off Chanterlands Avenue, she attended Thoresby Primary School, enjoyed dancing and theatre and, like all of her friends, her story should have ended there; her name a minor footnote in history, her picture a faded photograph in a forgotten frame.
And yet by 1920, aged just 17, the pretty Hull teenager had travelled to the other side of the world and was on the brink of becoming one of the biggest film stars in the world.
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By 1924, she had risen to Hollywood leading lady status, launching a career starring opposite matinee idols such as Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.
By 1931, when Tinsel Town’s best-selling the New Movie Magazine proclaimed her “the richest woman in Hollywood”, her ascent to mega-stardom was complete.
With her porcelain features and fashionable, 1930s flapper-girl hairstyle, she was effectively Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie rolled into one.
And then in 1937 she was gone, retired to the paradise island of Hawaii where she lived in relative anonymity in the luxurious Royal Hawaiian Hotel until her death in 1990.
Her’s is a remarkable story of – if not quite rags to riches – then at least provincial ordinariness to global acclaim.
It is an intriguing tale, says Hull historian Eddy Bewsher, and one that deserves to be celebrated by the people of Dorothy’s home city.
With the 110th anniversary of Dorothy’s birth coming up on March 4 now is the ideal time to jog a few memories, says Eddy.
Standing outside the old Mackaill home in Newstead Street, looking almost the same today as it did a century ago – the words Glen Dhoon etched into the stone above the doorway – Eddy says it is remarkable to think how far its former inhabitant travelled.
“It’s a remarkable story,” says Eddy who has spent months researching Dorothy’s early days in Hull, trawling through old records and census returns. He has even launched a Facebook fan page for the star, which has attracted 130
followers in less than a month.
“I remember seeing a documentary about Dorothy about eight years ago and being surprised to hear she was from Hull,” says Eddy.
“Then I pretty much forgot about her until my daughter Josie started going to Thoresby Primary School, probably sitting in the same classroom that Dorothy did a 100 years
“That started me thinking about Dorothy and researching her past. It’s incredible to think that she would walk down these streets on the short distance to school everyday – and then three years later she was a movie star.”
Starting out by leaving her Hull home for the bright lights of London at 15, Dorothy’s adventure then took her to Paris, where she joined the infamous Moulin Rouge as a burlesque
She next struck out west, boarding a steam liner for New York to join the Ziegfeld Follies – and then finally across land, by rail, to Los Angeles and the lure of Hollywood and the fledgling movie industry.
Her films bridged the gap between the silent era of cinema and the golden era of talkies, she married three times, attended the notorious, hedonistic parties of media magnate William Randolf Hearst – the man upon whom Citizen Kane was based – and dared to scandalise the authorities with sultry movies with names such as His Captive Woman, Ladies’ Night In A Turkish Bath and Safe In Hell.
In many of her movies, she played a wanton woman – the bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks with a heart of gold who often could not escape the sins of her past. By today’s standards movies such as 1933’s Neighbors’ Wives crrtseem endearingly innocent, but at the time they proved so risqué that they pre-empted the advent of censorship and film classification.
In all she starred in about 70 films – many of which have now been lost to history – and at her peak was earning $100,000-a-year, the equivalent of $1.4m today – a king’s ransom for the 1930s.
In the US, memorabilia featuring Dorothy’s autograph can now change hands for thousands of dollars among silent era film fans.
“It’s strange but she’s much better known in America now than she is in Hull,” says Eddy, who is calling for Dorothy’s Newstead Street home to be marked with a blue plaque.
“A lot of Americans don’t even know she’s English – let alone from Hull.
“I think it’s strange that Hull had two great women of achievement in the early 20th century, Amy Johnson and Dorothy Mackaill. They were actually born in the same year.
But while Amy has gone on to be remembered and celebrated Dorothy’s faded from view and been largely forgotten. It’s a shame considering what she achieved.
“The fact that she set out on her own and travelled to London, Paris, across the Atlantic to New York and then to Hollywood as a teenage girl is amazing enough.
“Women generally just didn’t do things like that – especially on their own. She must have been a tremendously determined character and had a massive sense of adventure.”
Dorothy returned to her hometown twice as far as we know.
The first time was marked by the British Pathé newsreel which can be watched online at the Pathé archive.
Captioned with the words: “Hull. ‘The most kissable girl in Hollywood’ – Dorothy Mackaill – England’s own film star has overwhelming reception on return to her native city after 11 years in America,” the silent footage shows the star being mobbed through the streets as she toured the city, past trollybuses and throngs of men waving flatcaps, in an open-top car.
She returned again in the 1940s when she visited local dance schools, inspiring a new generation of girls daydreaming of Hollywood, before leaving these shores for sun-kissed Waikiki Beach for good.
“It’s a lovely story and I’m sure her life story would make a great movie in its own right,” says Eddy. “Anonymity to super stardom. Hull to Hollywood. It’s a got all the ingredients of a great adventure.”