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Dorothy Van Engle, 87; African American Star of 'Race Films' in '30s

May 14, 2004|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Dorothy Van Engle, an African American leading lady known for her beauty, sophistication and intelligence in "Murder In Harlem" and other so-called "race films" of the 1930s, has died. She was 87.

Van Engle, whose married name was Donessa Hollon, died Monday after being hospitalized in Ocala, Fla., for a protein deficiency, said her cousin, Edna Turner-DeGeneste.

Van Engle co-starred in the 1935 mystery-drama "Murder In Harlem" and the 1938 musical-drama "Swing!" She also played roles in "Harlem After Midnight" and other low-budget movies made by pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

Micheaux, who wrote, directed, produced and distributed about 40 movies between 1918 and 1948, is considered the most prolific and important producer and director of race movies, as the films made with black casts for black audiences were known.

"Dorothy Van Engle was one of Oscar Micheaux's two or three top female leads of the sound era," said J. Ronald Green, professor of film studies at Ohio State University and the author of two books on Micheaux.

"Dorothy is incredibly attractive, not just in the sense of beauty but in the way she carries herself and her self-confidence," he said Thursday. "There is a kind of benevolent spirit to her acting, but also a lot of intelligence: She comes across as being extremely competent -- smart, resourceful, strong-minded without being stubborn, persistent."

In "Swing!" and "Murder In Harlem," the two surviving Micheaux films co-starring Van Engle and which are available on video, she portrays strong characters.

In "Murder In Harlem," she plays the client of the leading-man attorney, but it is her character who solves the mysteries, Green said. "Swing!" is about a black producer trying to stage a revue on Broadway, and Van Engle's assistant-producer character comes up with the key idea that ensures the success of the show.

"She played extremely positive roles for women; it was a kind of proto-feminist role," Green said. "Her characters were created to be strong, intelligent, competent women and that's exactly the way she came across."

He added that the black community had a tradition of those kinds of women but they were not reflected in white cinema at the time.

Race films, Green said, "provided the only positive images of blacks available in the movies."

Born Donessa Dorothy Van Engle in Harlem, N.Y., Van Engle grew up in the same 145th Street apartment building as singer Lena Horne. Her stepfather, Arvelle "Snoopie" Harris, played saxophone with Cab Calloway's band, and through the family's show business connections, she met Micheaux.

"She was a very, very beautiful young girl," Turner-DeGeneste said.

Van Engle also worked as a model in the 1930s. But, according to Turner-DeGeneste, she was "never paid a dime" for any of her film roles.

"She did it because she enjoyed doing it and it was an adventure for her," she said. "Of course, Oscar had no money to put these movies together, so everybody -- as she described it -- did it for fun."

Green said that Micheaux, who worked on shoestring budgets of $10,000 to $20,000 per film, would pay some actors, but would tell others that he could only offer them "exposure."

A seamstress who designed her own clothes, Van Engle made the clothes she wore in her films, her cousin said.

Learning of that, Green said Van Engle may have contributed the idea for a memorable scene in "Swing!"

In her role as an assistant producer, Green said, "she hires a good friend who's just migrated from the South as the seamstress for the production and there is a scene of them sewing together and talking about things in her living room."

"Swing!" was Van Engle's last film. She made it after marrying Herbert Hollon, a building superintendent with whom she had two sons. Once she married and started a family, her cousin said, "she never looked back at the film industry."

The couple lived in New York City and Teaneck, N.J., before moving to Port Charlotte, Fla., in 1978. Van Engle, whose husband died in 1992, worked at the public library in Port Charlotte until four years ago.

She is survived by her sons, Herbert and Marc Hollon; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

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