Hollywood Starlet Comes To Campus
Sixty years after starring in the cult movie ‘I Walked with a Zombie,’ actress Frances Dee made a rare public appearance for a film screening at Tufts. Medford/Somerville, Mass.
Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.17.03] Last Friday, the cult film "I Walked with a Zombie" was shown in a special screening at Tufts - attended by the star Frances Dee. Joined by her biographer, Andrew Wentink, and Tufts associate professor of anthropology David Guss, the 1930s Hollywood star charmed audiences with a discussion of the film and her career.
"Now in her 90s, Frances Dee starred in one of Hollywood's creepiest and most evocative horror films, the great Jacques Tourneur's 1943 ‘I Walked with a Zombie,' playing a bewildered but determined nurse who tries to cure a woman stricken by a mysterious paralysis on a West Indies plantation," reported the Boston Phoenix.
The event was part of a year-long "Lost Theatres of Somerville" exhibit at the Somerville Museum exploring the history of Somerville's fourteen movie theatres - of which only one survives.
The following of "Zombie," however, has lasted longer than many of the theaters which originally showed it, becoming a cult classic for its mastery of psychological horror.
"'I Walked With a Zombie' transports ‘Jane Eyre' to Haiti and derives much of its suspense from shadows and the play of sound," reported The Boston Globe. "Dee makes a lovely and common-sense audience surrogate who is slowly pulled into acknowledging the power of the unknown over her comatose, sleepwalking charge."
Dee - who also worked alongside Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gary Cooper, and Ronald Coleman and was married to actor Joel McCrea for 57 years - had a successful career, often playing strong supporting roles to her top notch co-stars.
"Wholesomely gorgeous and possessed of wit and aplomb, the actress had her greatest fame as a contract player for Paramount and Samuel Goldwyn during the 1930s," reported the Globe, "anchoring the occasional screwball comedy, like 1935's ‘The Gay Deception,' but more often playing good-girl parts opposite Bette Davis in ‘Of Human Bondage' and Katharine Hepburn in ‘Little Women.'
The veteran actress was once considered for one of the most memorable roles in film history - but was deemed too beautiful for the part.
"Dee is the last surviving actress to have auditioned for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in 1939's ‘Gone With the Wind,' reported the Globe. "She was a finalist for the part of Melanie, but the story is that producer David O. Selznick was afraid her beauty might upstage Vivien Leigh in the lead and gave the role to Olivia de Havilland."
As for the role she did get in "Zombie," Dee said that she only took the part so she could buy a present for her mother. The Tufts screening of the film was the first time the veteran actress had seen the movie since its release.
"I just thought it was a terrible name," Dee told the Globe. "I would turn away every time I said it. The reason I did the movie was that they offered me a sum that could buy my mother a new car. We got her the car - and it turned out to be a cult kind of picture."