Born in Atlanta, Virginia Dabney studied dance at the Potter-Spiker School, and during her sophomore year at Washington Seminary she moved to Beverly Hills. After attending Westlake School for Girls, she began as a ballroom dancer in orchestral shows, before attracting the attention of scouts while playing in two musical comedies at the Mayan Theater in Los Angles. Although she never desired an acting career, and only sought a way to support herself and her mother during the Depression, by 1932 she was working in movies from gangster pictures such as Scarface (1932) to musicals such as 42nd Street (1933).
Beginning in mid-1933, Virginia was placed under contract as a “stock-girl” at Warner Bros. for two years, earning $50 a week, $1,700 a year, and with a contract specifying she could not add or subtract more than five pounds from her 5’4″, 118-pound frame. During this time, Virginia worked on a number of the musicals of Busby Berkeley, including Footlight Parade (1933), ’42nd Street’, Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Dames (1934), Fashions of 1934 (1934), Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), and In Caliente (1935); Berkeley considered her an ideal model and dancer. Virginia was also a poster girl for ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’, ‘Dames’, and ‘Gold Diggers of 1935’. Virginia was a favorite of dance director Bobby Connolly, and, after leaving Warner Bros., she was asked to return for Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936) and The King and the Chorus Girl (1937).
By the beginning of 1935, Warners had singled Virginia, who also sang, for development into a feature player, one of twelve Berkeley girls chosen. Seeking to lose her accent and improve her elocution, she took speech lessons with Josephine Dillon, former wife of Clark Gable. Virginia graduated to small roles, sometimes as a featured performer, freelancing for a variety of companies, large and small, in pictures of all genres, playing opposite such stars as Alice Faye, Betty Grable, Buck Jones, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, William Powell, Barbara Stanwyck, and Anna May Wong. By then, she was earning $125 a week; during 1936 she made $2,434, including $463 at Paramount, $1,081 at Warners, $789 from Central Casting, and about $100 from independent studios; in 1937, she made $2,041.
The local newspapers in Atlanta gave the career of the homesick home-town girl considerable publicity. Virginia’s older sister Marian Dabney, after appearing in the Greenwich Village Follies in New York in 1924-35, and a number of other plays, abandoned dancing in 1934 to return to Atlanta for a career in radio, subsequently coming to Los Angeles to work in the costume department of David O. Selznick-produced pictures including Gone with the Wind (1939).
In April of 1937, Virginia was cast in the hillbilly comedy Mountain Music (1937). She became reacquainted with director Robert Florey, whom she had met briefly several years earlier while playing bit parts in some of his Warner Bros. pictures, Smarty (1934), The Payoff (1935), and The Woman in Red (1935). While directing one scene of ‘Mountain Music’, Florey was daydreaming of Virginia, and forgot to yell “cut”, leaving a crowd of men running into the distance. Both he and Virginia had recently been divorced, and neither was looking for romance, but within less than three months, friendship had turned into love. Virginia appeared in an increasing number of Florey’s films, and two of the pictures he directed with Virginia starred Gail Patrick, who complained to the front office that Miss Dabney was receiving better camera angles than she was.
At the end of 1939, Virginia was making $250 weekly, but left the screen when she and Florey were married in Palm Springs. Their love proved enduring, with the two devoted to one another for the next forty years, and she died in the home he had helped design and build for them at the time of their marriage.
During Florey and Virginia’s romance, she studied his native French language and soon became fluent, allowing her in the 1940s to assist her husband in entertaining French filmmakers and help refugees settle in Hollywood and find work in the studios. Her care helped him to maintain strenuous shooting schedules, particularly during the television years, and during his retirement as his health declined.
After the end of World War II, Virginia demonstrated her artistry in another way by taking up painting, and winning a number of awards; her paintings were also utilized as decor in some of her husband’s movies, such as The Crooked Way (1949) and Johnny One-Eye (1950). In 1950, while with Florey, who was directing Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951) in France, she received the decoration of the Order of Reconnaissance Francaise and the medal of Education Artistique. Her “Diary of an American Girl in France”, a photo essay using Florey’s snapshots of her, and tied in with the celebration of Paris’ 2,000th birthday, appeared in seven American magazines with a circulation of eight million. In the 1950s, Virginia joined in the University Religious Conference at UCLA, and was chairman of the board of the Women’s Associates, and by the 1960s she was active at All-Saints Epicopal Church, chairing various activities and serving as President of the Women of the church.
In the 21 years after Florey’s death, Virginia was able to enjoy the revival of interest in his films and books. She granted full access to Brian Taves for his biography of Florey, and she was happy when both that book and Florey’s last volume on Hollywood history happened to be published simultaneously in 1987. She was most thrilled in the early 1990s when Cinecon screened Florey’s version of The Desert Song (1943), and she was introduced as the director’s widow – but many in the audience also remembered her as actress Virginia Dabney from her 1930s pictures.
Everyone who knew Virginia was impressed with not only her personal kindness but also her gracious manner and Southern charm. Yet somehow her blond hair and soft accent had been interpreted by Hollywood casting directors as perfect for a nonchalant gangster’s moll. Perhaps her largest and most typical role was at Paramount in 1938, playing her characteristic persona opposite J. Carrol Naish’s mobster in King of Alcatraz (1938), with future husbands Robert Florey directing and Lloyd Nolan co-starring. Virginia’s favorite story, at her own expense, was having to ask the meaning of the slang “dummy up”, which was one of her lines in her last picture, Women Without Names (1940), a Paramount production in which she was cast as the tough inmate of a women’s prison.
After being widowed, Virginia married Lloyd Nolan, with whom she had appeared in ‘King of Alcatraz’, Prison Farm (1938), and The Magnificent Fraud (1939), but he died from cancer three years later. Subseqently, Virginia enjoyed seeing many of her early pictures again on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, and her beauty has been recognized by others at TCM, who have frequently chosen her visage in new advertisements and documentaries utilizing old movie clips.