Dodie Smith

Active - 1951 - 1951  |   Genres - Comedy, Children's/Family

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Dodie Smith is far better remembered today for her books -- and one often-filmed book, in particular -- than for her name; but in the early '30s, she took the British theater and literary world by storm. She was born Dorothy Gladys Smith in Whitefield, near Bury in Lancashire, England. She lost her father while still in infancy, and with her mother she resided with her maternal grandparents until 1910, when she was 14, at which time her mother remarried and the new family moved to London. She had hoped for an acting career, and studied at the Academy (later Royal Academy) of Dramatic Art. In 1915, at the age of 19, she made her first attempt at professional writing with, of all things, a screenplay for a movie entitled Schoolgirl Rebels, using the pseudonym Charles Henry Percy. That was a one-off adventure, however, and she was never successful in her pursuit of acting work. In 1923, she took a job in Heals furniture store in London. Smith subsequently became the store's toy buyer and was also reportedly a mistress of the company's chairman, Ambrose Heal. At the start of the 1930s, she decided to try her hand at writing for the theater and authored the play Autumn Crocus, using the pseudonym C.L. Anthony. The play was a success on-stage, and not long after the press got on to Smith's unusual background. She became a press sensation as the shopgirl who authored a hit play, and she didn't mind playing up that side of her background. Her play Service (1932) was all about a family-owned retail establishment in crisis over the worldwide depression and was also a success. The rights to the latter were snapped up by MGM and it was filmed in early 1933 as Looking Forward, with Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, and Elizabeth Allan. Her literary fortune never led to her abandoning her work or her contact with the retail trade. Indeed, when she married in 1939, with numerous plays and several screen adaptations as well now behind her, it was another Heal's employee, Alec Beesley, whom she married. The couple were later forced to move to the United States, however, owing to Alec's status as a conscientious objector during the war. Her plays were the direct sources for two additional movies during this period, Call It a Day (1937) and Dear Octopus (aka, The Randolph Family) (1943), and during her time in the United States Smith received one major screen credit, as the co-author of the screenplay for The Uninvited (1944), perhaps the best of all Hollywood ghost stories and a huge hit at the time and in the decades since. Her homesickness for England also possessed her to write her first novel, I Capture the Castle (1948). Their stay in America put the Smiths into the company of authors such as Christopher Isherwood, Charles Brackett, and John van Druten, and she gave credit to her husband for the suggestion that van Druten adapt Isherwood's Sally Bowles story "Goodbye to Berlin" into what became the van Druten play I am a Camera, which was a success in its own right (and also filmed that way) and later musicalized as Cabaret. In 1956, she published her best-known book, The Hundred and One Dalmatians -- which reportedly grew out of an incredibly tasteless remark from a friend about her own Dalmatian dog, and how "they would make a good coat" -- Disney, of course, bought up the screen rights to the book, which has since yielded several hit adaptations. Smith passed away in 1990, at the age of 94.