What is it like to watch your parents' films?
It's like having incredibly beautiful home movies, taken by some of the world's greatest cinematographers. In addition, so much of who they were came through in their parts; in their choice of parts and the way they played them.
Watching them when I was really young was kind of strange and interesting. My brothers, Joel Dee and David are about twenty years older than I, so they saw our folks actually making films. I didn't, because Mom had me after she retired, and Pop retired when I was about five. So I just saw them on the screen, and that was a different experience. I remember, when I was maybe six, watching Colorado Territory with my dad. At the end he gets shot, and I started crying really hard. I was sitting right on his lap and he was holding me saying, "It's okay, I'm right here." But I really took it seriously and it was terribly upsetting to me.
When I was eight or so, I remember seeing Mom in a movie with John Wayne — Wheel of Fortune.1 It was very strange seeing her with another man. It was the first time I had ever seen her in a movie with another man, so it was not a pleasant viewing. I kind of got used to it, and I talked to her about it and got past it, but it was strange the first time, as I remember.
I would say that The More the Merrier and Ride the High Country are two of my favorites of my father's, and The Gay Deception and If I Were King are two of my mother's. I think my parents would pick those as well. I also admired Union Pacific and Four Faces West (known to be the only western ever made where no gun was fired throughout the entire film).
My parents didn't absorb themselves in their roles, the way some actors do. They really were more performers, in fact Pop always called himself a performer. He chose roles that he could believe himself in and films that he believed in from a message standpoint. He didn't want to take anti-hero roles or downbeat pictures. He felt he had developed an image on the screen and he didn't want to undermine that.
Mom was a little more interested in the pure acting side. If she saw a great part she would want to take it. Pop was more careful in his analysis of the overall situation: the story, the script, the director, producer, co-star.
I've heard that your mother's favorite role was "Mirabel Miller" in The Gay Deception. Why did she like that one so much?
First of all, she loved William Wyler — a terrific director — and it was a pretty wide-ranging part, she had to cover a lot of territory emotionally. I think Mom really identified with Mirabel because, like her, Mom was raised very poor. She and her family lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Chicago. She and her sister slept on the floor of the living room. Her father was in the military; they had no money. I think she kind of felt like Mirabel Miller herself, especially when she got to Hollywood and Maurice Chevalier picked her to star in Playboy of Paris.
When Mom and Pop were engaged, she was in Washington D.C. making Keep ‘Em Rolling with Walter Huston. She had some time off so she went to New York and stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria, just like Mirabel did. She called Pop and said, "I'm in a room on the twenty-ninth floor, looking out at the most exciting city in the world!" I think she really felt like Mirabel in her real life at that moment.
Pop said, "I miss you too much and I can't wait till you come back. I'll fly back east and let's get married right away." So he got on a plane. It was a big deal to fly across country in those days and Pop hated flying. He used to say, "I never like to be higher off the ground than on a horse." It was a big sign of how much he was in love her that he flew across the country.
They borrowed a car and drove up to Rye, New York. They got married at nine o'clock at night. They woke up the minister at the Methodist church. His wife was the witness. They honeymooned driving around New England and staying in inns and Bed and Breakfasts.
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1 The film was titled A Man Betrayed upon its theatrical release in 1941. It was later retitled Wheel of Fortune (most likely for its re-release on television), and the new title was retained when Republic distributed the film on VHS.