Chapter 3: Reset

Difficult changes--and a fateful decision

We pick up the story with Constance looking like just another starlet who didn’t become a star. 

And after all—the Turner Classic Movies channel is littered with films that feature pretty girls who were never heard of again. For the most part, they disappeared into domesticity, or in a few cases, self-destructed.

But Constance was not typical, by almost any measure.

Context

In 1946, the median age of first marriage for American women was 20.  In fact, Constance’s good friend Shelley Winters had married in 1942, when she was 22.  Her first husband served in the military throughout the war, and afterwards wanted Shelley to abandon her career, so the marriage ended in 1948.

Generally speaking, young women in Hollywood were just as likely to marry around 20 as their peers all over the country.  And that was true whether they were rising stars or struggling to get traction.

Maureen O’Hara and Gene Tierney—the same age as Shelley and Constance--had both married at 21, at a time when they were already becoming famous. Lana Turner and Ava Gardner had both started marrying by the time they were 20.

A bit further down the fame scale, mid-tier actresses Margaret Sheridan and Faith Domergue both married in 1946 (20 and 23 years old, respectively).  Paula Raymond and Lola Albright both married in 1944 at age 20—and everyone listed in these two paragraphs was married at least twice, some three or four times.

By contrast . . . Constance was now 26, and as far as anyone knows (or at least has revealed) her only sustained romantic relationship had been with the intermittent affair with Kazan.

Kazan insists that she wanted him to marry her—but that seems to have been more because she was in love with him (and tired of their unresolved situation) than because she just wanted to be married.

Constance was physically attractive, and as far as I can tell, she was kind, cheerful, resilient, and emotionally transparent.  Though not without her own shadows, as we’ll see later, she seemed to navigate the difficult terrain of postwar Hollywood more gracefully than many, many others.

So it’s hard to believe that she couldn’t have acquired a husband if that had been her goal.  Perhaps she didn’t fall in love easily, and refused to compromise—or perhaps she really was committed to creating a successful career.

Her friend Shelley was confronted with that choice directly, between a husband she loved and a profession she loved.  She chose acting. But her marriages to two fellow actors didn’t work any better, raising the question of whether women in midcentury America could even hope to combine career success with personal happiness.

In the case of Shelley Winters, there is ample evidence that she was serious about being an actress—and over time, she achieved success. But what about Constance?

It’s worth remembering that, as a teenager, Constance had worked at the New Theater School to pay for classes there.  And in her last two years in New York, she’d been starting to get a few acting parts.

In 1942, she was cast as one of just six characters in Only the Heart, a new play by rising talent Horton Foote.  The Off-Broadway production attracted attention, and there was interest in taking it to Broadway.  But prospective backers were reluctant to fund the production without a bankable star in the lead role.

While Foote was trying to find a lead actress who would be acceptable both to him and to the producers (and who was willing to take the part), Constance got her offer from Goldwyn and left for California.

There’s a tendency to assume that everyone in Hollywood wanted to be a star.  That’s not true, though. Some actors just wanted to perform, and the movie industry offered a lot of opportunities, concentrated in one location.  By contrast, theater productions accounted for a very small proportion of acting jobs available, and were scattered all over the country.

Quite a few actors made the trip from New York to Hollywood in those days, and for many it did not work out well.  I keep thinking the qualities that made Constance compelling in person—and perhaps on stage—simply did not translate well to the screen. 

Goldwyn had mistaken her effervescence for star quality, and given her the wrong kind of launch. The studio machinery had sent her further in the wrong direction, and bad luck had befallen the pictures she was cast in. 

But despite those setbacks, she seems to have remained determined.  So--shrewdly or just instinctively--she apparently looked for another kind of movie persona. And while Goldwyn and his studio apparatus had “created” the starlet who struggled through Up In Arms, the journey from there to noir seems to have been undertaken on her own.

Alone.

Shifting Ground

The Black Angel publicity still shown above is the most widely known photo of Dowling, whose performance as a faithless wife has the perfectly languid, icily beautiful quality we associate with noir style.  She fitted this type of movie effortlessly.

But let’s just step back for a moment and look seriously at her transition from miscast comedienne (on the left, 1944) to sophisticated vamp (on the right, 1946). 

After two failures to launch, Constance no longer had the support of a studio apparatus, dedicated to grooming actors for stardom.  There’s no record of her exact status at Goldwyn, but it’s safe to say that she was no longer considered important.

It would be difficult to overstate the power of major studios in Hollywood during the 1940s.  So-called “vertical integration” meant the same company could own (and profit from) every step of the motion picture process, from conception to distribution.  Five studios owned not only most of the production facilities where movies were made, but also most of the theaters where movies were shown.

They also controlled most of the “talent,” including writers, directors, actors, designers, and technical workers.  Under the studio system, access to work in Hollywood came almost exclusively through contract employment—and while under contract, an actor could be forced to appear in a particular film, loaned from one studio to another, prevented from working elsewhere, or not allowed to work at all. 

Although the studio system had been responsible for some great films—and hugely profited a few business interests—it had also curtailed the rights of individual actors, and stifled opportunities for independent filmmakers.

But change was already being felt in Hollywood.  By chance, Constance had been cast in a film that marked the beginning of the end for Hollywood’s studio system.  Olivia de Havilland was the first performer to successfully sue a major studio for release from contract.  And in the midst of her suit, she defied Warner Brothers by making a movie for Paramount. That movie was The Well-Groomed Bride—third in Constance’s string of bad-luck roles.

The success of de Havilland’s suit sent tremors through the Hollywood establishment.  And by 1948, the whole edifice of “vertical integration” would collapse.  The studio system was found to be in violation of anti-trust laws, and entertainment monoliths like Warner Brothers and Paramount were forced to break up their powerful control over all phases of production and distribution in the motion picture industry.

Not only that, television was already looming on the horizon. 

The enormous consequences of these developments were not yet obvious to Constance and her friends, but for everyone who hadn’t already made it big in Hollywood, there was a sort of unease.

Unfortunately, there are no records of exactly how Constance Dowling tried to navigate these choppy waters.  But she managed to stay afloat.  And by the time she appeared what was probably her best Hollywood role, she had shed her Goldwyn persona and moved into the shadowy realm of film noir.

Perhaps she was prompted by Doris’s success in The Blue Dahlia. Or perhaps noir roles were just more plentiful.  But either way, she finally found a part for which she was well-suited:  the icy murder victim in Black Angel

At last.  A solidly made film, with a decent script, decent acting, and a sense of style. You couldn’t say that Constance’s performance was brilliant, but it was good.  And she looked exactly right for the part.

Black Angel was made as a B movie, and succeeds at that level.  Not a breakthrough for Constance, but a step in the right direction.  

So it would be nice to say that she was finding her way toward a real film career.  But that wasn’t the Hollywood ending . . .

Horizons

Constance and her sister were striking women, popular in Hollywood society. Doris got very good reviews in two successful movies.  Constance had made a small impact in Black Angel, and a second noir film, 1947’s Blind Spot.

But despite their looks, talents, and connections . . . neither sister could come up with more work in Hollywood.

Shelley Winters recalls (in Shelley. Also Known as Shirley) that her dear friend had been rather gloomy for a while, and both hoped that the move to Italy would offer a new start, personally and professionally. 

Winters herself had been working almost non-stop in Hollywood, but wanted to get back to “real” acting in New York.  One day as Constance was packing up to leave the country, Shelley stopped by, and mentioned that she would love to talk to a famous Broadway producer about a particular part.

So Constance picked up the phone, called her influential friend John Houseman, got the New York producer’s number, and presto.  Shelley has just the connection she needed.

That story offers another glimpse of Dowling’s generosity.  But at the same time, it raises the question of why she couldn’t find work for herself, given that she knew a lot of people and had had some amount of publicity.  She wasn’t the most talented actress in Hollywood, but she wasn’t less talented than some actresses who seemed to find plenty of work. 

There’s no record of what parts (or how many) she tried for but didn’t get, so this is one of those questions I can’t answer.  Perhaps she relied too much on her “beauty passport,” and didn’t do some basic things that would have made her easier to cast.  Perhaps she was too nice—not enough of a fighter.  Or perhaps she could never shake off the taint of those first two highly publicized but poorly received performances.

She might even have been penalized (purposely or otherwise) for her hardly-secret relationship with Elia Kazan.

But there were also larger factors at work. Since the end of the war, new aspirants had been pouring into Hollywood almost daily—many of them not yet twenty, and some of them getting the kind of studio backing that Constance had gotten, then lost.  There just weren’t enough parts to go around, and women like the Dowling sisters, who were familiar faces but not stars, had little chance of getting cast.

Actually, the Dowling sisters may have been a closer fit for Rome than Hollywood at a time when the film industries in both cities were adjusting to a world changed by war.

In 1947 and 1948, American movie-goers were offered melodramas and musicals for the most part; a small number of powerful studios controlled the production and distribution of movies, and a few big stars held a great deal of box-office territory.  The same could fairly be said of 1949 and 1950, although an increasing number of spectacles arrived on screen, and the collapse of the studio system was beginning.

By contrast, the Italian cinema was breaking new ground.  Some of its most important films were made during these same years—L’Amore, Bicycle Thieves, Germany Year Zero, In the Name of the Law, and Stromboli, to name a few.  It was a time of emergence for legendary directors like Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Michelangelo Antonioni. 

So it was not necessarily (or at least, not only) desperation that prompted Constance and Doris to look for work in Italy. It was a practical decision, and I think a courageous one. It may also have been farsighted, in career terms.

But the career aspect of their Italian sojourn would be completely overshadowed. In fact, everything that had happened so far in their lives was about to become the background for a bigger, deeper story. 


Which takes us to Chapter 4.  Doris will have another standout role, this time in one of the most important midcentury examples of Italian neorealist cinema.  Constance will once again become the object of a complicated passion, and once again find herself in movies that are only marginally successful.

After three years in Italy, and six films--a two-week affair will make Constance famous.  And not in a good way.