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From the Archives: Dorothy Lamour, Sultry Movie Star, Dies

From the Archives: Dorothy Lamour, Sultry Movie Star, Dies
Arturo de Cordoba and Dorothy Lamour in "A Medal for Benny" (1945). (Paramount Pictures)

Dorothy Lamour, the Hollywood star primarily known in the 1930s and 1940s for her portrayals of exotic South Sea heroines wrapped in a silk sarong that became her trademark, died Sunday at a Los Angeles hospital. She was 81.

A sultry, dark-haired Louisiana beauty who didn't see the South Seas until she was nearly 70, Lamour was a veteran of about 60 films. In addition to her early "sarong" pictures, she was the love interest and straight-faced foil to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their seven "road" comedies—among them the "Road to Morocco," to "Zanzibar" and to "Singapore."

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The swift-quipping "road" movies were, Hope once said, "like a tennis game with Dottie in the middle watching."

Lamour, who lived her last years in North Hollywood, told People magazine in 1982, "Mostly they would ad lib, playing with the lines I'd worked so hard to memorize.

"The night before 'Road to Singapore' I naively studied my script like crazy. When it came time, the ad-libs started flying every which way. I kept waiting for a cue which never came. In exasperation I said, 'Please, guys, when can I get my line in?' They stopped dead and laughed for 10 minutes."

She once said of those films, "I was the happiest and highest paid straight woman in the business."

In a statement released by his publicist Sunday night, Hope said, "Dolores and I are deeply saddened by Dottie's passing. She was a grand lady on screen as in life.

"She was a lady of quality, beauty and class, which always made me look good. She was a wonderful actress, a great performer and a dear friend."

The exact cause of death was not immediately known.

The fabled sarong, the creation of Oscar-winning designer Edith Head, wound up in the Smithsonian Institution's costume collection, even though, as Lamour remarked, "I made 60 motion pictures and only wore the sarong in about six pictures, but it did become a kind of trademark.

"And it did hinder me. They expect you to always be the young girl leaning against the palm tree. Why should you want to act?"

A classic product of Hollywood's star system and studio publicity buildup, she spent years under contract to Paramount Pictures, which promised in ads to show "as much of Lamour as the censors will permit--with or without the sarong."

While popular at the box office, she was considered a limited performer. "The one thing of which nobody ever accused Dorothy Lamour in the '30s was acting," one critic wrote.

As Lamour herself would good-humoredly say:

"I thank God for that little strip of cloth."

In later years she toured in "Hello, Dolly!" and did in occasional dinner theater and singing engagements. In 1980, she wrote a largely unrevealing autobiography, "My Side of the Road," which she herself described as "too clean to keep going very long."

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Her life story was a true rags-to-riches tale, beginning with her birth in the charity ward of a New Orleans hospital in 1914. Born Mary Leta Dorothy Slaton, her marquee name, Lamour, was taken from her stepfather's last name, Lambour, and sounded enticingly like the French word for "love."

Poverty forced her from school in her teens. She sold real estate junkets, then started to learn secretarial skills, but when a friend won a Miss Universe contest and toured with a vaudeville unit in 1930, Lamour went along as part of the entourage.

After that, Lamour no longer wanted to be a secretary, and in 1931, she won the Miss New Orleans title. She competed for Miss Universe—but was disqualified for breaking a contest rule by wearing lipstick.

Hoping to become a singer, she moved to Chicago, where she labored as a store clerk, a waitress, and even as an elevator operator at the Marshall Field's department store. A friend working for a radio show made her a last-minute replacement for a no-show guest, and her singing won her an audition with bandleader Herbie Kay.

She toured with Kay, who became her first husband in 1935, and headed for New York City, singing at nightspots like the Stork Club. She also sang for an NBC radio show, "Dreamer of Songs," which brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Paramount signed her for $200 a week in 1936.

That same year, her first film role—and first sarong—was the title role in "The Jungle Princess," a yarn about a pilot, played by Ray Milland, who crashes his plane in a jungle and finds Ullah, a native girl in a sarong.

The movie, and the sarong, made a hit. Yet of the many films Lamour made, the sarong appeared in only five others. These included "The Hurricane" in 1937, directed by John Ford, and "Her Jungle Love" (1938), again with Ray Milland. Not surprisingly, the costumes she wore in her other films tended to resemble the sarong as much as possible.

Despite her pinup image, Lamour was embarrassed by her body, worrying that her rear end was too large, her hips were too wide. She was so sure her feet were ugly that she tried wearing rubber feet in "The Jungle Princess" to hide the originals from the camera.

The first "road" comedy, "Road to Singapore," appeared in 1940. They were primarily vehicles for Hope-Crosby antics, with Lamour providing glamour and a deadpan gaze.

She remained the butt of many Crosby-Hope jokes and pranks, some of which were unkind. On the set of the 1946 "Road to Utopia" one morning, she was on her leaning board—a kind of recliner for actresses when tight costumes prevent their sitting down—waiting for her co-stars.

At 4:30 p.m. Lamour was still "leaning;" Hope and Crosby had gone to play golf and "forgot."

In 1941, Life Magazine declared her to be the No. 1 pinup of the U.S. Army, and when she joined other stars in selling bonds for the war effort, she sold $300 million worth. During the war, she worked at the fabled Hollywood Canteen, and often visited wounded soldiers in hospitals.

Lamour also starred in "St. Louis Blues" (1939), "Johnny Apollo" (1940), "Typhoon" (1940), "And the Angels Sing" (1944) and "My Favorite Brunette" (1947).

"I actually had only one possible shot at an Academy Award," she said in a 1968 interview, "in 'Johnny Apollo'. . . . But I just didn't understand what I was doing. Now, I wish I had done summer stock for acting experience. Or didn't they have it in those days?"

With the exception of "Road to Bali" in 1952, she no longer had starring roles after 1950. In the last "road" picture, 1962's "The Road to Hong Kong," Joan Collins had the co-star slot with Hope and Crosby, and Lamour only a cameo role; that hurt and offended her deeply.

In the 1987 film "Creepshow 2," she played a slovenly housewife who is murdered. "Well, at my age," she declared, "you can't lean against a palm tree and sing 'Moon of Monakoora.' "

She appeared on several Bob Hope television specials and was a guest on such 1980s series as "Murder, She Wrote" and "The Love Boat."

She also developed a love for Hawaii, and went to Congress in the 1950s to lobby for its statehood.

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In her autobiography, she was honest about the down side of stardom, when the number of parts plummeted and studio doors start to close. "Sometimes show business associates can be very cruel," she wrote. "It was suddenly difficult for me to reach certain Hollywood people by phone—the same people for whom I had done so many favors when I was 'box office magic.' "

She divorced band leader Kay in 1939 and in 1943 married William Ross Howard III, an Air Force lieutenant she met during World War II. The first marriage was apparently disabled by career demands, but her second marriage was very happy and lasted until his death 35 years later. After the war, her husband went into advertising, and the couple had two sons, John Ridgely and Richard Thomson.

Asked in 1937 to describe how she saw herself as the "sarong queen," Lamour replied, "I never lead white men astray improperly. Never wreck their lives or anything like that. I'm always a nice native girl. They can remember their warm tropical romances with me with refined wistful sighs."

Memorial services are set for 1 p.m. Thursday at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood, said her longtime friend and former publicist Frank Liberman. The family asked that instead of flowers, donations be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.

Times staff writer Peter Hong contributed to this story.

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