Born in Amarillo, Texas, Doran began acting at the age of four. She appeared in hundreds of silent films under assumed names to keep her father's family from finding out about her work. Rarely in a featured role (with the exceptions of Jean Andrews in Rio Grande (1938) and James Dean's dominating mother in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)), Doran appeared in more than five hundred motion pictures and one thousand episodes of television shows, such as the American Civil War drama Gray Ghost.
Doran worked as a stand-in, then bit player, then incidental supporting player. By 1938 she was under contract to Columbia Pictures, where the company policy was to use the members of its stock company as often as possible. Thus, Doran appears in Columbia's serials (such as The Spider's Web and Flying G-Men), short subjects (including those of The Three Stooges, Charley Chase, Andy Clyde, and Harry Langdon), B features (including the Blondie, Five Little Peppers, and Ellery Queen series), and major feature films. She became a favorite of Columbia director Frank Capra and appears in many of his productions. Most of these appearances were supporting roles, although she did play leads in Columbia's Charley Chasecomedies of 1938-40.
When Columbia launched the boy-and-his-dog Rusty series in 1945, Doran was cast and prominently featured. Although the actor playing the boy's father changed several times, Doran continued constant as the boy's mother. Her steady, sensible maternal roles led to her being cast as James Dean's mother in Rebel Without a Cause.
Doran guest starred on many television programs, including three appearances in the role of Bonnie Landis in the CBS legal drama, The Public Defender, starring with fellow Texan Reed Hadley. She appeared in the religion anthology series, Crossroads in the 1956 episode "The White Carnation", along with Elinor Donahue, James Best, and J. Carrol Naish.
Doran was cast in the CBS children's western My Friend Flicka, the story of a boy and his horse on a Wyoming ranch. She also appeared in episodes of Ray Milland's CBS sitcom Meet Mr. McNutley and Kenneth Tobey's syndicated aviation adventure series, Whirlybirds. Doran guest starred on CBS's Perry Mason in "The Case of the Prodigal Parent" and "The Case of the Lurid Letter."
Doran was cast twice in 1959-1960 in episodes of the ABC/Warner Brothers western series, Colt .45, starring Wayde Preston.
In 1960, she was cast as Martha Brown, the mother of horse rider Velvet Brown (Lori Martin) in the NBC family drama National Velvet. Arthur Space played her husband, Herbert Brown. She made one appearance on ABC's McHale's Navy as Mrs. Martha "Pumpkin" Binghampton, wife of Captain Binghampton (Joe Flynn).
Three years later, she appeared in the 1965-1966 season of the 34-episode ABC western series, The Legend of Jesse James as Zerelda James Samuel, the mother of Jesse and Frank James.
Doran continued to work in movies and television until shortly before her death of natural causes at the age of eighty-nine. She bequeathed $400,000 to the Motion Picture Country House, the retirement home for the movie industry.