|Alabama Alumni Magazine
|You Ought to Be in Pictures
By Caroline Gwaltney
Some might think of the 1920s as the lull between the end of the Great War and the Stock Market Crash. But on the University of Alabama campus, these were years of
excitement that saw the football program rise to national power under head coach Wallace Wade, with its first Rose Bowl victory and undefeated season.Worlds away, in
California, the film industry was blossoming as moving pictures became big business. Silent features were the predominant product early in the decade, having evolved from
vaudevillian roots. But productions were becoming bigger, longer, costlier and more polished. By 1929, there were 20 Hollywood studios, and the demand for movies was
growing by leaps and bounds.
It was during this time that two small-town students experienced both the growth of the Capstone and the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown--Johnny Mack Brown and Dorothy
Sebastian--contemporaries who made it big on the silver screen. And unlike many actors of their day, both successfully made the transition from silent films to "talkies."
Sackcloth and Scarlet
During a time when women were being given their first legal rights, Dorothy Sebastian still wanted more. The lights and glamour of the silver screen shined brighter than
anything she had seen growing up in Birmingham, Ala. But making it to stardom is never an easy goal to reach, so she needed just a little luck.
For Sebastian, that meant taking chances in order to find opportunities. Getting to Hollywood meant going to New York City first, where she tried to make it as a
dancer--something she always wanted to do as a young girl. It also meant leaving her studies at The University of Alabama. Her parents disapproved of her desire to be a dancer
or actress, so when she ran away from home, she was quickly forced to return. In order to convince her parents she could support herself in preparation for a second move to
New York, she made and sold portrait sketches, parchment lampshades and cushion covers, even going as far as opening a little shop in Birmingham.
The second time she went, she told her family, "I'm going to New York to study art," and said she would be staying with a maiden aunt, neither of which actually occurred.
What did happen was continual rejection by theatrical agents--but her ambition was not stifled. One of her first jobs in the city was with the Ned Wayburn fashion show. That
held her interest for a short time, and then Sebastian decided it was time to try the theater again. She went to a casting call for Scandals, a string of Broadway musical revues
produced by George White, modeled after the Ziegfeld Follies. Even though the casting was closed, a chance meeting with White, sheer determination and her thick Southern
accent got her a place in the chorus. She also got a nickname from the producer that stuck with her throughout her career--Little Alabam.
Most accounts indicate that she was born Stella Dorothy Sabiston (she changed the spelling of her last name after leaving home) on April 26, 1903, in the Woodlawn area of
Birmingham. Her parents were Lycurgus (Lawrence) Robert and Stella Armstrong Sabiston. A recurring theme throughout her life was confusion about her exact age, since like
many Hollywood A-listers of the era, she wanted to seem younger, and therefore gave inconsistent answers about the year of her birth. She once told a magazine reporter she was
15 when she moved to New York, although census reports attest that she was 20, and details from her first marriage license indicate she would have been 22 at the time.
Sebastian married three times, the first time in 1920 to Al Stafford in Birmingham. That union ended in divorce in 1924, before she left for the Northeast.
Following her stint with Scandals, she earned roles on the big screen after befriending a movie producer at the Ritz Carleton. She began a whirlwind film career with her first role
in Sackcloth and Scarlet, released in 1925.
Her second marriage was to fellow actor William Boyd, who had gained fame in the immensely popular Hopalong Cassidy movies, playing the cowboy-hero created by author
Clarence E. Mulford in a series of stories and novels. They met while filming His First Command in 1929 and then worked together again in Officer O'Brien. The second of these
turned out to be somewhat of a flop, and as the story goes, they fell in love while consoling each other. The last movie they worked together in was The Big Gamble, and by that
time they were man and wife. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1936.
In 1946, she became Dorothy Sebastian Shapiro after marrying Herman Shapiro. They remained together until her death from colon cancer in 1957.
Another well-known aspect of Sebastian's personal life was her affair with Buster Keaton, the comic actor and filmmaker, which lasted from two to 10 years, depending on which
biography you read. The relationship was an open secret in Hollywood, as Keaton was in an unhappy marriage to Natalie Talmadge, and supposedly fell for Sebastian because
she was the polar opposite of his wife--fun, full of life, liked practical jokes and enjoyed playing bridge.
It was common knowledge that Sebastian enjoyed the excesses that went along with being a star--the all-night parties, club hopping and extravagant dinners. Apparently she
liked alcohol, too, which earned her the additional nicknames of Slam Bang Sebastian, Slambastian or sometimes just Slam.
Rita Maenner, the creator of the Web site DorothySebastian.com, has devoted much of the past two years to researching the star. A longtime Hopalong Cassidy fan, Maenner
was intrigued as she discovered details of Sebastian's life. "My hope was that she wouldn't be remembered as just Hopalong Cassidy's fourth wife, Buster Keaton's mistress or for
whom she slept with, but as her own person with her own great acting abilities," she said. "She had the drive, the talent and played with the big ones."
Her dreams hadn't come true easily, but with hard work and perseverance, Sebastian created her own luck. Tom Mix, a fellow film star, once said of her: "Don't get the mistaken
idea that Dorothy is a dare-devil, for she is not. But her success on the screen means more to her than anything else, so she does what she is told without whimpering. That's why
she'll get somewhere before she's through."
Sebastian finished her career with nearly 65 movies, a lot to show for a little girl from Alabama who had wanted nothing more than to be a success on the silver screen.
"Someday," she had said in the early years, "I shall be a great star. That's all that matters in life to me."
(Background collected from DorothySebastian.com, 1926 Rose Bowl archives and clippings, imbd.com, b-westerns.com, rosebowllegends.org and alabamatv.org.)
|Spring 2008, Volume 08, No. 2
From their roots in the Southeast, two actors from the early film industry moved to
Hollywood, and reached the stars.