Fate, through an accident, handed Carole Lombard a role in what would be the only film she would make with the top child star in movie history. It also snuffed out a promising career of someone whose beauty and talent had put her on the verge of stardom.
The Lombard film? "Now And Forever." The child star? Shirley Temple. (The movie's male lead was equally legendary -- Gary Cooper.) Many are surprised to learn Temple made a film with Carole Lombard. It came before Shirley moved to 20th Century-Fox, where Darryl F. Zanuck crafted an array of films tailored to her infectious enthusiasm. But that formula hadn't yet been discovered -- at least not at Paramount -- so it's understandable that "Now And Forever," with relatively little music and not quite a Temple vehicle, isn't all that well remembered.
We think it sad that Carole Lombard only lived 33 years on this earth, or that Jean Harlow was taken from us at age 26. But the actress originally cast as the female lead in "Now And Forever" incredibly never made it out of her teens. Her name was Dorothy Dell, and despite dying at a terribly early age, she had already achieved quite a lot, both on stage and in films.
Born Dorothy Dell Goff in Hattiesburg, Miss., on Jan. 30, 1915, she won an array of beauty contests as a child. In 1925, the family moved to New Orleans, Goff went to a high school for girls, where she developed a good contralto singing voice and became friends with a classmate also named Dorothy, last name Lamour. Goff began singing on radio, was still winning beauty contests, and signed a vaudeville contract. Her sister and mother accompanied her on tour, as did Lamour.
In 1931, Goff changed her name to Dorothy Dell for professional purposes and accepted an offer to appear, at age 16, in what turned out to be the last edition of the Ziegfeld Follies. Dell sang the rather risque "Was I Drunk? Was He Handsome? And Did My Ma Give Me Hell?", and later filled in for ailing star Ruth Etting. She made three Vitaphone musical shorts in Brooklyn, and in late 1933 signed a Paramount contract and headed west.
Dell began her feature film career with "Wharf Angel" -- a film initially meant for Lombard, until she was loaned out to Columbia for "Twentieth Century" -- where she plays Toy, a lady who plies her trade on the San Francisco docks. Here's a still from the film with Victor McLaglen:
"Wharf Angel," directed by the famed William Cameron Menzies, opened in mid-March 1934, and Dell received glowing reviews, better than those for the film. As March became April, Dell was wrapping up work on her second movie, "Little Miss Marker," which featured Temple and Adolphe Menjou in an adaptation of a Damon Runyon story. Dell played Bangles, a nightclub singer, and again won strong reviews.
Dell's singing was similar to that of Alice Faye, and her slightly bawdy style invited comparisons to a young Mae West, according to Los Angeles Times critic Edwin Schallert (you know his son William Schallert, a respected veteran character actor).
Dell's third Paramount film was "Shoot The Works," a musical comedy directed by Wesley Ruggles and co-starring Jack Oakie and radio comic Ben Bernie. She sang a ballad, "With My Eyes Wide Open, I'm Dreaming," which became a hit.
The media was taking notice. In April 1934, Time magazine said of Dell: "Dorothy Dell is 5 ft. 5½ in. tall, weighs 125 lb.. has a better design than either of her prototypes (Mae West and Jean Harlow). She lives in Hollywood with her mother, a descendant of Jefferson Davis, and a pack of Mississippi coon hounds. For fun, Dorothy Dell hires a raccoon from a Hollywood animal supply company, hunts it with her friends & dogs in Griffith Park. When the Dell hounds tree the coon, the hunt is over and the coon goes back to the supply company. Such coon hunting is her only exercise: she has a weak heart. An automobile accident last year frightened her so badly that she will no longer drive her Ford."
One person who drove it for her was Carl Wagner, a 28-year-old who had recently performed surgery on her mother. (When Dell was in New York, one of her regular dates was Russ Columbo.) On June 7, 1934, the two attended a party in Altadena, Calif., northeast of Los Angeles. As he drove her home after midnight, the car skidded off the road at a curve, bounced off a tree, and smashed into a boulder in a ditch. Dell was killed instantly, and Wagner died several hours later at Pasadena Hospital.
Ironically, about a week before, Dell attended a wake for actor Lew Cody and noted Lilyan Tashman had died in March. A friend recalled her saying, "The old theater superstition says death strikes in threes. I wonder who’ll be next?"
Paramount called in Lombard to assume Dell's role in "Now And Forever," and the film premiered on Aug. 31, 1934 -- only two days before a freak gun accident would claim Columbo's life at age 26. With the sudden deaths of Columbo, Dell and Diane Ellis (a fellow Pathe contract player who contracted a rare disease on her honeymoon and died in December 1930), one can understand why Lombard often thought of herself as a jinx.
As for Dell, she was more or less forgotten -- although Lamour, who outlived her by 62 years, always credited her old school friend for helping start her own career.