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From: "Peter_McCrae" <>
Subject: BOWDEN; Dorris Estelle-8/8/2005>USA/CA--obits,the telegraph.co.uk
Date: Tue, 30 Aug 2005 11:58:06 +0100
The Daily Telegraph & telegraph.co.uk
Dorris Bowdon, the actress who has died aged 90, played Rosasharn, the
sister of Tom Joad (Henry Fonda) in John Ford's epic film version of John
Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath.
The film premiered in 1940 and in the same year Dorris Bowdon married the
writer-producer Nunnally Johnson, who had adapted The Grapes of Wrath for
the big screen. By the mid-1940s, she had retired to devote herself to
Dorris Estelle Bowdon was born at Coldwater, Mississippi, on December 27
1914, one of the seven children of a doctor who died when Dorris was two.
From school, she went on to study English and Speech at Louisiana State
After winning the title of Miss Memphis 1936, she was spotted by a talent
scout from 20th Century Fox. "Reads well," he reported after meeting Dorris,
"and could be developed for type of roles somewhat similar to Bette Davis."
Despite her mother's disapproval, Dorris Bowdon went to Hollywood for a
screen test, making the journey with two other unknowns, Linda Darnell and
Mary Healy, who was to become a lifelong friend.
She was taken on by Fox, but was soon frustrated at getting only walk-on
parts, Encouraged by a friend in the publicity department, she went to see
Nunnally Johnson, who was already working on the script of The Grapes of
"I had been warned," she later recalled, "about being left alone with a man,
especially in Hollywood. However, I simply thought how calm and very at ease
I felt with this gentleman, and after 40 minutes realised I was in love."
Johnson, for his part, was equally smitten with the young starlet 18 years
Dorris Bowdon's first speaking part was in Down on the Farm (1938), which
was followed by a role as a farm girl in John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln
(1939). That same year she replaced Linda Darnell in Drums Along the Mohawk,
Ford's film about colonial pioneers.
Steinbeck's novel The Grapes of Wrath, with its raw descriptions of the
socio-economic impact of the Great Depression and of the mid-1930s' drought
on one representative family, had attracted controversy. Nevertheless, the
book had been popular and widely-read when it was published in 1939 - and
that year the head of Fox, Darryl F Zanuck, had commissioned a script
version from Johnson.
When filming began, Dorris Bowdon was cast as the desperate Rosasharn, who
has been deserted, pregnant, by her no-good husband. "I just don't feel like
nothin' at all," she tells her brother. "Without him, I just don't wanna
Ford, the director, opted for a documentary-like feel, and demanded
painstaking authenticity from both cast and crew, although several scenes
had to be cut.
"There was much fuss about the content of the original," Dorris Bowdon
recalled. "My husband had a battle on with the Hays Office censors who cut
many chunks out, including the famous Rosasharn scene in which she offers
herself sexually - although I never bared my breasts, especially not for the
Beautifully shot with some wonderful performances, which earned the film
several of its seven Academy Award nominations, The Grapes of Wrath was hard
work, not least because of the director. "Ford was a power-house," Dorris
Bowdon said recently. "He was very strict, but very fair. There was no
forgiveness if one forgot one's lines. Why, he'd show you the door."
Nunnally Johnson went on to become one of Hollywood's most successful
screenwriters. His 51 screenplays included Jesse James; Tobacco Road; How to
Marry a Millionaire; The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and The Dirty Dozen.
But Dorris Bowdon retired after making just two further films, Jennie (1940)
with Virginia Gilmore, and The Moon is Down (1943), also written by Johnson
and based on another Steinbeck novel.
The Johnsons were popular figures on the Hollywood social scene and counted
the actors Gale Sondergaard, Gene Tierney and Paul Newman as friends. Their
grandson, Jack Johnson, starred in Lost in Space (1998) when he was nine
After her husband's death in 1977, Dorris Bowdon co-edited a book of his
letters, a wonderful evocation of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. "Those
parties were the grandest, the people were the most beautiful, the clothes
were the most elegant," she said. "It was a courtly time."
Dorris Bowdon died, after a series of strokes, on August 8, at the Motion
Picture Retirement Home for actors at Woodland Hills, California. She is
survived by a son and two daughters.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.
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