Dorothy Janis, who made a few film appearances at the dawn of the sound era and was the widow of bandleader Wayne King, died Wednesday morning in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley, according to musician Lew Williams, who received the news from Janis’ granddaughter. Janis, one of the last surviving performers to have played at least one major role in silent films, was either 98 or 100, depending on the source.
A pretty, petite brunette with sensuous lips — according to (possibly made-up) reports from the period, she was half-Native American — Dorothy Janis was born in Dallas on Feb. 19, 1910 or 1912. Her most notable movie role was that of the half-Pacific Islander, half-white heroine in W. S. Van Dyke’s The Pagan (1929), one of MGM star Ramon Novarro’s biggest box-office hits.
In the film, which has no dialogue but features a music score, Novarro got to sing Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown’s highly popular "Pagan Love Song," at times accompanied by Janis — who actually just mouthed the lyrics; another female voice was heard on the film’s soundtrack.
Shot on location in French Polynesia, the deceptively simple The Pagan also happens to be one of the best productions made during that difficult transition from silent to talking pictures. The paragraph below is from my Novarro biography Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro:
"Similar in theme to White Shadows in the South Seas, The Pagan presents European civilization as indisputably the villain—an uncommon approach in films of the period. On the surface, the story is about a carefree but wealthy half-caste, Henry Shoesmith, Jr., who attempts to please a ruthless white trader so he can romance the man’s ‘Christian duty,’ a pretty half-caste girl. On a deeper level, The Pagan deals with the subversion of the island’s way of life by white invaders, from their belief that the value of nature lies only in pounds and dollars to their imposition of an alien and unsuitable religion. Although both Novarro’s and Janis’s characters are part European, their behavior is all idealized Pacific Islander: playful and innocent. Renée Adorée’s Madge is the only good white character, though, significantly, she is a prostitute and an outcast in her own Euro-Christian society. Frances Marion and Novarro himself wrote the initial treatments—he expressly wanted to emphasize that the ‘pagan’ Henry Shoesmith behaved more like a Christian than the intolerant followers of Jesus—though Dorothy Farnum received the final adaptation credit. John Howard Lawson, one of the future Hollywood Ten, was responsible for the perceptive intertitles."
Before The Pagan, Janis had appeared in three minor releases: the oaters Kit Carson (1928) and The Overland Telegraph, and the drama Fleetwing (1928), playing opposite minor leading man Barry Norton. Her only talkie was Lummox (1930), starring the former wife of cowboy star William S. Hart and 1910s leading lady Winifred Westover, then attempting a motion-picture comeback. Though directed by the renowned Herbert Brenon, an Academy Award nominee in the first year of the awards, Lummox was not a success.
Janis’ only other film appearance was in Harry Garson’s The White Captive, shot on location in Southeast Asia for Universal. In the Sept. 27, 1930, issue of the Norwalk Hour, a brief note mentioned that Garson "reports some of the most remarkable jungle material ever secured and the first to be taken with sound equipment." Perhaps Garson was making that up, or perhaps his work was ruined either during the trip back to California or at some local lab, for The White Captive was deemed unreleasable. The film did, however, gain a certain degree of notoriety when the wife of technician Sidney Desmond Lund, with whom she had recently gotten married, filed a $25,000 lawsuit against Janis for stealing her husband’s affections during the months-long shoot. The lawsuit was eventually dropped.
Janis made no more films after that. At about the time of the scandal she met Wayne King, whom she married in 1932. Their marriage lasted until his death in 1985. "After I met Wayne," Janis would tell author Michael Ankerich nearly six decades later, "it was to heck with it all."
In the early ’90s, Ankerich published an account of his correspondence with the actress in Broken Silence: Conversations With 23 Silent Film Stars. With Ankerich as the middle man, about ten years ago I attempted to interview Dorothy Janis for my Novarro biography. Unfortunately, I never heard back from her.
A few months ago, Janis was able to watch a print of The Pagan that Lew Williams had given her. (Every once in a — long — while, the film is shown on Turner Classic Movies.) A family member told Williams "she enjoyed it immensely."
With Dorothy Janis’ passing, I can think of only two surviving performers who had major adult roles in silent feature films: Barbara Kent (Lonesome) and Miriam Seegar (Valley of the Ghosts).
The Pagan clips posted by Derek Taylor Shayne
Note: Warner Home Video has released an "on-demand" DVD of The Pagan, but unlike what I had posted earlier that was not the print Janis saw.