Guest post by Emma Winter Zeig, volunteer and former intern at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
If you’ve never heard of Dulcie Cooper, don’t worry, there’s still time to get familiar: two portraits of her are on display in Head Shots, on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through December 30. They are featured in a frame of 1920 actresses who epitomized the flapper look. To learn more about her and the role of head shots in casting in the 1920s, I tracked her career using Proquest and other electronic resources to access newspapers from the 1920s.
Her father, Ashley Cooper, brought his family from Australia to British Columbia when Cooper was only two years old, in 1905. Both her parents were actors (years later her father would originate the role of Mr. Witherspoon, one of the men “helped” by the murderous sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace), so she spent her childhood traveling through Canadian theaters. She made her own theatrical debut at age three, going on to play a variety of “little boy” roles, later saying “Cowboys and Indians were the things I used to love best.” The family moved to San Francisco where a thirteen-year-old Cooper played in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where she was chased by real bloodhounds.
Cooper’s career continued through a variety of stage and screen roles on the west coast, as she became a lead player first in several stock companies and movies. The reviews she received ranged from the grudgingly complimentary assessment of the supporting cast of Desert Blossoms who were “well enough selected for the style of work demanded of them,” to outright praise, such as her Variety review for Valley of Content, where she was “sweet, charming, and emotionally a revelation.” She was also getting quite a bit of press attention, particularly from Grace Kingsley of the Los Angeles Times, who wrote features on her in October 1924 and February 1925, each time rapturously praising Cooper, once remarking that during a performance “the audience was gasping at this adorable child’s beauty.” With a reporter in her corner, one who predicted that once Cooper went to New York, the city would “gather the rightfully named Dulcie…right to its heart and never let go again,” it is no surprise that Cooper decided to go east.
The head shots in the exhibit at the Library for the Performing Arts, also available to view on NYPL Digital Collections, are probably evidence of her efforts get cast on Broadway. They were eventually successful, however, Cooper came away from her New York experience somewhat disillusioned. “’But what have you done on Broadway?’ I was asked, and when I had to admit I’d never played there at all, there wasn’t a bit of interest in what I might have done anywhere else,” she remembered. Her frustration with the casting process may have had to do with a part she almost didn’t play on Broadway, in a play called The Little Spitfire. The Little Spitfire had a tortured casting history, but Cooper was cast fairly early into the process, after only one other actress, Winifred St. Clair, had played in an out of town try out. Cooper was replaced after a few more try out performances because “some one persuaded the producer that he should have a well-known New York actress take the role.” Cooper was replaced by Sylvia Field, who already had eight Broadway credits to Cooper’s zero. The more seasoned Broadway actress was only with Spitfire for a few weeks, then the producers hired another California actress, but one with previous Broadway credits. That actress, Sara Sothern, then left the show to get married (and later have a child, Elizabeth Taylor, who went on to be quite successful in the motion picture industry), and then the producers rehired St. Clair. Only after they deemed St. Clair wanting a second time did they return to Cooper, which meant that she got the part, but only after knowing that she was absolutely the last option. As if to add insult to injury, this entire process was written up in a newspaper article, "Dulcie Cooper is Fourth in 'Little Spitfire' Role" (New York Herald Tribune, November 21, 1926, accessed through Proquest). It ran without a byline or author listed, which can mean that it was planted by the production itself.
Cooper may have had experiences like this with other New York productions, but whatever the circumstances, by the time she returned to California, Cooper had a definite view on the casting process, saying “They have a New York brand…It means everything.” She also was frustrated with type casting, which stars know as a trap keeping them in, but Cooper felt as a wall keeping her out, compounding the problems already felt with New York experience. She spoke about this conflict, saying “New York producers very often pick youngsters fresh from dramatic school to play a particular type role… Players who have done stock…are most apt to succeed. If they fill a certain part it is because of acting ability, not because he or she is the type.” Cooper may have encountered the type problem before: at least one reporter had heard a story about her first audition for a movie studio where she was rejected at the ripe old age of 19 as looking too old, until she took down her curly hair and was able to fill a younger type.
Whatever animosity she felt towards the theater industry, Dulcie Cooper never left it behind, even though it never made her a star the way Grace Kinglsey had promised her it would. She went on to have a long career as a character actress, including appearing as Ima Kronkite in the original Broadway run of Picnic, a long run in Fanny, and tours of Annie Get Your Gun and Auntie Mame. Her marriage to stage manager Elmer Brown lasted until his death, and she was the mother of two sons. It’s hard to think that she lost hope after her setbacks in New York; the reporter who wrote down some of her comments about casting in the industry noted that even as she spoke about her frustration with the system, she seemed to “radiate enthusiasm” for theater itself. At any rate, Dulcie Cooper was not the type of woman who wanted things in life, or death, to come easy. “I always thought it would be hard to get to heaven. “ She said, not quite speaking about a play “I have a sort of idea our souls scatter, after death—become part of the universe.”