Doris Davenport is not a name that is very familiar to movie fans, for she sadly did not have a very long-lasting career in Hollywood, having appeared in only a handful of films between 1934 and 1940. A beautiful actress who worked as a model to support herself in between roles, Davenport flirted with fame over the years, but never quite caught on with audiences.
Born in Illinois in 1917, Davenport moved to California at a young age and tried to break into the film industry. Her big break came with her induction into the veritable Hollywood sorority known as the Goldwyn Girls, a group of young dancers who made frequent appearances in Goldwyn films throughout the 1930s and 40s. Davenport joined their ranks in 1934, joining a group that already included future movie stars Lucille Ball and Paulette Goddard.
As a Goldwyn Girl, Davenport was set to make her film debut with the rest of the troupe in that year’s Roy Del Ruth musical Kid Millions, starring Eddie Cantor and Ethel Merman. But Samuel Goldwyn took a liking to Davenport and gave her the part of “Toots,” Eddie’s love interest in the film. Though the role of Toots was relatively small, it nonetheless took Davenport out of the chorus line and gave the new actress some valuable screen time, particularly in the famed “ice cream fantasy” Technicolor sequence at the end of the film, where she closes the movie with a smooch for Cantor.
Unfortunately, however, this opportunity did not lead to bigger and better things for the young actress. Over the next few years, Davenport appeared in the background of several other films including 1937’s Thin Ice, with Sonja Henie and Tyrone Power, and 1939’s Sorority House with Anne Shirley. In the interim, under the name Doris Jordan, she–along with practically every other actress in Hollywood at the time–auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), and was reportedly one of the finalists under consideration for the part until Vivien Leigh was cast.
The Scarlett audition did give Davenport’s career a boost, however; Goldwyn was impressed with her screen test for the role and decided to cast her opposite Gary Cooper in the 1940 film The Westerner, with the hopes that this would be the movie that would finally make her a star. Instead, the film would turn out to be the apex of her short career.
In The Westerner, Davenport plays Jane-Ellen Matthews, the love interest of Cooper’s Cole Harden. When Jane’s father is killed through the unscrupulous dealings of Judge Roy Bean (Walter Brennan), Harden decides to take action and challenge Bean’s authority, ultimately bringing the “hanging judge” to justice. Davenport was given the part despite director William Wyler’s desire to cast his own wife, Margaret Tallichet, in the role. But even though Davenport does a fine job as Jane, it was ultimately not a breakout performance for the actress. After one more film–the 1940 B-movie Behind the News, opposite Lloyd Nolan and Frank Albertson–Davenport was forced to retire from the screen in the wake of a car accident that reportedly crippled her legs to the point that she could not walk without using a cane.
Davenport spent the rest of her years out of the public eye, and passed away in 1980. Though her time in the spotlight was brief, she nonetheless was a bright spot in her two biggest films, leaving us to wonder what might have been, had circumstances been different.