Looking at Dee Turnell’s filmography, it’s almost like seeing a list of the best musicals made in the 1940s and 1950s. As a trained ballet dancer with an extensive background in chorus work, she worked exclusively in the musical genre, dancing endless hours and giving it her best years. This devotion also constitutes the main tragedy of her career – today, she remains totally obscure to all except the most devoted of musical fans.
Edythe Helen Turnell was born on November 27, 1925, in Westmont, DuPage, Illinois to Charles Allen Turnell and his 20 years younger wife, Edith H. Turnell. She had an older brother, Warren, and two half siblings from her mother’s prior marriage, Junior Hilling and Geneoave Hilling.
It was clear from her earliest childhood that Edythe was a natural at dancing, and her mother enrolled her into ballet classes. By the age of 10, she was appearing on the stage, by the age of 16 making her living as a dancer, and by the age of 18 was a veteran of the stage, a part time model to make ends meet (her sister Geneoave was the first to start that fad in the family), and a triple winner of titles in the Chicago’s Artists and Models Contest (for glamour, smile and figure). Dee gave up her high school education to dance in cities like Pittsburgh and Detroit during the war (in 1942 and 1943).
In 1944, she went to New York for better job opportunities, became a Conover Model and danced on the side. She struck gold when she got the role in Dream with Music as an understudy of Vera Zorina. The play was a miss and closed after just two weeks, but the famous impresario Monte Prosser noticed Dee and got her a spot at the world famous Copacabana chorus line. She also scored a Collier magazine cover November 20, 1944. It was this that caught the attention of a talent scout from Hollywood, who persuaded Dee to try her luck on the West Coast.
Dee was a part of the golden age of MGM musical, one of the times in movie history that pure magic and escapism actually made good viewing. This is a great achievement for anyone in the showbiz industry, and it’s clear that she worked hard at her craft and was an elegant, accomplished dancer.
Dee started her acting career in Copacabana, a movie that desperately tries to revive the magic and allure of it’s stars, Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda, both waaay past their prime by the late 1940s. As in real life, she played one of the Copa girls. Needless to say, as all movies that try too hard, it fails. Not a starry start,but it gets better. Cass Timberlane, originally a sharp and biting book by Sinclair Lewis, became a drama that was sugarcoated to meet the typical demands of Hollywood. It was one of the very few non musicals Dee made, and today is still worth watching, if for nothing but to see Spencer Tracy and the ever sexy Lana Turner together.
Now, Dee took a leap upwards, and had a names character role in The Pirate, a charming, fluffy and totally lightweight Gene Kelly vehicle. Her next appearance was an absolute hit and one of the best 1940s musicals, Easter Parade, one of the few movies that gave Judy Garland a true chance to shine and show her diverse talents. Words and Music followed, less in quality than Easter Parade, but still a decent example of the genre. The Barkleys of Broadway, the last movie Astaire/Rogers movie, made with both of them in middle age and not the young and vivacious couple they were for their 1930s RKO output, is accordingly a more mature musical than most Dee made. Not to say that the plot is a shining example of complex storytelling, but the sole act of moving away from the idealized stage of falling in love and tackling the issues of long standing couples that have slipped into a routine (like the desire for change after years of repetition) touched a slightly different cord, and proved to be the very thing Astaire and Rogers needed.
Dee was pushed into a new type of musical: aquatic extravaganza, with who else but the queen of the genre, Esther Williams. Neptune’s Daughter is one of the better showcases for the athletic star, bringing nothing new nor especially exciting, but Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalban are charming leading men, and Esther always stuns with her swimming numbers. Tea for Two was a No, no Nanette remake with Doris Day and her best singing partner, Gordon MacRae. With this, Dee entered the golden part of her career, having small roles in a classic musical after classical musical.
It started with Royal Wedding, a Astaire/Jane Powell gem, moved to Show Boat, a very good version of the Edna Ferber classic, with Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner and Howard Keel, got little off track with the average Mickey Rooney potboiler, The Strip, and then hit high notes again with An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.
Her musical output slowed down after this, and Dee found herself cast in a minor role in a great dramatic movie, The Bad and the Beautiful.The Girl Who Had Everything was an early showcase for Elizabeth Taylor, not a particularly good movie, but the gorgeous fashion and beautiful actors (Liz at her physical best and the dashing Fernando Lamas) make for a pleasant viewing. It was back to musicals once again with the dapper, elegant The Band Wagon. Brigadoon gave Dee her one credited role – in one of the most nonsensical musicals (in terms of plot) ever made, and that’s saying a lot. Yet, seeing Gene Kelly dance somehow melts all the other doubts away. Deep in My Heart was a direct, verbatim translation of a Broadway hit to the screen, but once again, Dee was uncredited. It seemed by now that her chances of getting somewhere high in the strata of Hollywood were zero.
The string continued with Kismet – a musical that suffers from a serious illness of having an uninteresting story, but possess a lively high quality score, never managed to become a top tier movie. Dee’s last role was an small one The Opposite Sex, a promising remake of The Women that never reached it’s full potential and ends up as a forgettable female romp. And there were actually tons of men in the movie, in total contract to the original where there was not a single man present on screen.
Already a married woman by this time, she gave up Hollywood in late 1955.
Dee was a strong, independent woman who was very loyal to her friends and family. To illustrate the point, when Dee first came to Hollywood, during the wartime shortage of housing when anybody was lucky to get any kind of accommodation, she insisted that her Collie, Cleopatra who was with her from his puppyhood, lived wherever she lived. In the 1940s, it was usually frowned upon when a lodger had a dog, and most people who rented flats did not have any pets for this reason. Combine this with the housing shortage, and you have a woman who risked her job prospects for her canine friend. Luckily, RKO did find her a suitable apartment where she could live with Cleopatra.
Dee was often featured in newspaper columns in the late 1940s, pictured with a very young Elizabeth Taylor on several occasions- Dee was painted as a passionate swimmer who spent a chunk of her free time on the beach. Dee’s legs, toned from years of dancing, were also frequently on display, and won her several prizes.
As an interesting tidbit, Dee had an highly unusual role in a movie, playing none other than Dean Stockwell’s deceased mother! How, you ask? Simple, her photograph poses for Dean’s late mother’s photograph. She was slightly airbrushed, so that the artist gave her a vague resemblance to the young Stockwell, by lowering her eyebrows, raising her lower eyelids a trifle, and making her mouth a bit wider.
Information about her love life are slim at best. She dated Curley Harris, one of the Three Stooges, for more than a year, staring in 1945 and ending early in 1947. They were even engaged at some point of the relationship, but it obviously did not yell.
Dee married, very low key, Richard Jerome Thorpe on March 4, 1951. Thorpe was born on August 29, 1926, making him several months younger than Dee. His father was the actor and director Richard Thorpe, whose filmography lists such prestigious pictures like Jailhouse Rock, Fun in Acapulco The Prisoner of Zenda, Ivanhoe and so on.
Her son, Tracy Thorpe, was born on August 27, 1957. Her first daughter, Tricia A. Thorpe, was born on August 21, 1959. Her second daughter, Tiana H. Thorpe, was born on August 1, 1964.
Dee divorced her husband in 1971. dee moved to West Palm Beach, Floria and became an active participant in the local social life under the name of Dee Turnell Thorpe. Among others, she was a chairman at a charity gala for a local hospital in 1991.
Dee Turnell died in 2007 from cancer.