Chances are that, for most people, the name Caren Marsh Doll would elicit a one-word response: “Who?” But even if you’ve never heard of her, you’re certain to be familiar with the original Wizard of Oz movie, released in 1939, and its star Judy Garland. Marsh Doll was intimately connected with both the movie and Ms. Garland, and her little-told story is fascinating.
A perfect stand-in
When Warner Brothers was shooting The Wizard of Oz, the company decided it needed a stand-in dancer for Garland — hardly surprising, since the film includes various energetic dance routines. The woman who got the call was diminutive Caren, who stood at just 4 foot 11 inches tall, only an inch shorter than Garland. Marsh Doll had a similar body shape, and she was an accomplished dancer as well, so she was perfect for the job.
Before her Wizard of Oz job, Caren had been on the fringes of Hollywood for a time. But lack of sensational success had not deterred this determined young woman, who was 19 years old when she landed the Oz gig. Her ability to overcome adversity was a quality that would become essential later in her life. Other than being a stand-in for Garland, Caren had been in a variety of movies but remained uncredited.
Gone with the Wind
Apart from The Wizard of Oz, her most prestigious role up until the mid-1940s had been as a barbecue guest in the 1940 Gone With the Wind, but that, too, was an uncredited role. She did get a couple of credits in minor productions. But who remembers Navajo Kid or Secret of Linda Hamilton, both released in 1945? Still, it’s clear that Caren wasn’t a quitter.
Caren Morris — she acquired the Doll and the Marsh later — was born on April 6, 1919. Yep, that’s right, Caren celebrated her 104th birthday in April 2023. If that doesn’t prove the extraordinary staying power this woman has, nothing does. Caren was born in Hollywood, so her desire to get into the movies must have seemed entirely natural to her. But it wasn’t to prove an easy path to take.
Hollywood High School
In fact Caren had to face the opposition of even her own parents — who were committed Methodists — when it came to her chosen career. Once she graduated from Hollywood High School, which was also attended by Judy Garland, Morris was already set on pursuing a movie career. But her parents weren’t keen on the idea at all. They thought college was a much better idea for their daughter’s future.
Caren managed to reach an agreement with her mom and dad. If she couldn’t find work in Hollywood in short order, she would go to college as they wished. So she went for her first audition, for a role in a 1937 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film titled Rosalie and featuring two stars of the day: Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. But Caren was turned down for the part.
A career is launched
But once again demonstrating her refusal to be beat, Caren managed to get a second audition for Rosalie. This time she landed the part, and so her Hollywood career was launched. It was around this time that Caren changed her name from Morris to Marsh. In a quote published on the Western Clippings website, Caren said, “There were too many people named Morris at the time [in Hollywood].”
A foot in the door
Landing a role in Rosalie, even if it was an uncredited one, opened Hollywood doors for Caren. As she told Western Clippings, “This led to work in more and more pictures, mainly as a dancer.” She might not be anywhere near the peak of movie stardom but she’d at least got her foot in the door. And then another break came Caren’s way — a rather exciting one.
Ponies and showgirls
“Being tiny, I was a ‘pony,’” Caren remembered. “The tall girls are called ‘showgirls.’ I worked with the great choreographers — Busby Berkeley, Nick Castle — who had given me tap dance lessons.” Her dancing skills led to her winning a great opportunity. She was invited to work as Judy Garland’s stand-in in The Wizard of Oz. “Someone at Metro spotted me and asked for me to be Judy Garland’s double,” Caren told Western Clippings.
The tornado sequence
“You don’t see me at all. They light the set, do the camera setups, then I leave and Judy comes in,” Caren said in her interview. “But it lasted a long, long time. And those wind machines blew hard! They tested the tornado sequence on me — inside the house when the neighbor goes by, all that sort of thing.”
Caren also reminisced about her movie career after her role as a body double in The Wizard of Oz. “The first time I had a real acting part was in a1944 Army Signal Corps hygiene training film, Pickup Girl,” she recalled. “I played a girl who goes out on a date with a soldier.” This was hardly the most glamorous turn in Caren’s career — the film was an advisory about the health dangers of casual relationships. But there had been a more charming breakthrough the year before.
Caren told Magers, “I got my first close-up in Best Foot Forward.” For anyone who doesn’t know, this was a 1943 musical comedy starring Lucille Ball. “Lucille Ball was so nice,” Caren remembered. “I was invited to sit in her dressing room, and she told me, ‘You’re wasting time, Caren. You’re so cute and have talent. You should go to New York and then come back out here!’ I later took her advice.”
Ms. Ball’s career advice may well have been sound and was surely well-intentioned. But neither she nor Caren could predict the unpleasant outcome of the trip to New York that eventually came six years later in 1949. But before that, Caren’s career continued to progress. We mentioned Navajo Kid earlier, in which she had a speaking part. That 1946 Western was filmed in the Chatsworth Hills on the outskirts of Los Angeles.
Miss Sky Lady of 1947
A highlight came the next year when Caren won the accolade of Miss Sky Lady of 1947. What that title actually meant is lost in the mists of time, but it was apparently worth winning, since the prize was free flying lessons. Caren took advantage of this new skill to do a leaflet drop from a small plane as she flew over various major studios.
A publicity stunt
That leaflet outlined her talents and credits, a kind of job application. Caren was one driven lady — and her bombarding of Paramount, RKO, and MGM paid dividends. According to a 1999 piece in the Los Angeles Times, “The publicity stunt worked, and more roles followed, including Wild Harvest with Alan Ladd.” And in pursuit of her career, in 1949 she finally decided to take the advice Lucille Ball had given her.
To New York
It was time to go to New York, where she did find work. It was when she was returning home to California that events took a dramatic and tragic turn. She was flying on a Standard Airlines plane, a Curtiss C-46E with 48 crew and passengers aboard. Flight 897R had originally taken off from New York and it was ultimately bound for Long Beach, California. There were stops along the way at Chicago, Kansas City, and Albuquerque, before the final destination of Burbank in California.
The leg from Albuquerque to Burbank was far from comfortable. A report by the Civil Aeronautics Board noted that, “considerable turbulence and thunderstorm conditions were encountered.” Just after 7:30 a.m. the pilot of Caren’s flight acknowledged a message from the control tower at Burbank telling him that he was clear to land. That was to be the last that was heard from the plane.
An eight-foot boulder
So what happened to the Curtiss? The precisely formal language of the Civil Aeronautics Board’s accident investigation report reveals all. “The aircraft struck the side of a mountain 2,320 feet high at a point 430 feet lower than its crest.” The report continues, “This contact was a brushing movement only.” But, “Sixty feet from this first contact, the right propeller struck an eight-foot boulder.” We can only imagine the intense terror that those on board the plane must have felt.
Hauled through a window
It was all over for Flight 897R. The plane now smashed into the ground and the impact tore the aircraft to pieces and set a fierce fire. It was a miracle that, of the 48 souls aboard the plane when it came down on that hillside, 13 survived. Among the survivors, all of whom were seriously injured, was Caren. A fellow passenger had hauled her through a window, saving her life.
Very bad news
Like all of the survivors, Caren was badly hurt. In a hospital in Van Nuys, to the north of Los Angeles, a doctor now gave Caren some very bad news indeed. Her most grave injury in the crash had been to her left foot, which was crushed. The doctor told her that the only option for the damaged foot was amputation.
She wasn’t prepared to accept this
But as you might expect from this determined woman, she wasn’t prepared to just accept this. She insisted on getting a prognosis from another doctor. She found a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Hospital who agreed that the foot could be saved. But he thought the best she could hope for was that she would be able to walk again. She was just 30 years old.
A life without dance
Dancing, the surgeon told her, would be out of the question. Caren’s response to this grim news was quoted in the Los Angeles Times. “I refused to accept that. I was in a hospital for a month. And I refused to picture myself not able to dance,” Caren recalled. The idea of a life without dance was something she just wasn’t prepared to contemplate.
Hawaiian and belly dancing
And she did indeed return to dancing. She actually walked away from her acting career to get married to Bill Doll in 1950 and to raise her son. The marriage was when she added “Doll” to her name, becoming Caren Marsh Doll. But being married didn’t stop her dancing. Caren was no longer quite up to tap dancing, but she moved on to Hawaiian and belly dancing.
Thankful to just be alive
As well as a change in her dancing regime, Caren also experienced a change in her attitude to life. She told Scott Harrison of the Los Angeles Times, who caught up with her in 1999 when she was 80, about how the crash had changed her outlook. “I was so thankful to just be alive. Things that bothered me before… nothing. I have become much more peaceful and less worried about anything.”
When Harrison met Caren, who was then living in Palm Springs, she’d been volunteering for the previous decade at a stroke center. There she’d been helping patients to regain lost mobility by gentle movement to music. Later, in a 2011 article in the Syracuse.com website, Sean Kirst interviewed Caren, who was by now in her 90s. She shared some more of her memories with the reporter.
Marsh Doll told Kirst that she “had her own set of ruby slippers” when she’d been acting as a double for Judy Garland. But, at the time, she’d had no idea of the future significance that the role would have. “When you’re 19 and working on a film, you don’t really think it’s something that you’ll still be known as a part of when you’re 92,” said Caren.
Chittenango’s Oz-Stravaganza Festival
A few days before Kirst spoke to her, Caren had flown from California to Syracuse, New York, to take part in Chittenango’s Oz-Stravaganza Festival. When Kirst spoke to her, this was the fourth time she’d been part of the annual celebration — and that year she would be the Grand Marshall of the parade. Two of the original Munchkins, Karl Slover and Margaret Pellegrini, were also taking part, although they’ve sadly died since.
A great career
As Kirst put it, “The reunion is always emotional, because the veterans of Oz are keenly aware of how few of them are left.” Kirst also quoted the words of John Fricke, a historian who has written about The Wizard of Oz. “Caren’s had such a great career on her own, but I think being involved with The Wizard of Oz makes special people extra-special,” Fricke said.
Everything inside me is still dancing
“Any memories of that film are treasured by thousands and thousands,” Fricke added. And Caren Marsh Doll’s talent, determination, and sheer bravery surely qualifies her for all the adulation that comes her way. At the age of 92 when Kirst spoke to her, dancing was getting difficult for Caren. But as she said to him, “Everything inside me is still dancing.” And who’s to doubt this is still true now that she’s well past 100?