GAVIN LAMBERT: You’ve had almost as many lives as a cat. You’ve been a child actor--and an adult actor, which we all know is not the same thing at all. You’ve produced movies; you’ve directed a movie. You’re a photographer. And you’re the best walking, talking history of the movies I know, because of all the people you’ve known and that astonishing library of books and movies that you’ve collected. I suppose it all must have started at a very early age?
RODDY McDOWALL: It all started with Mother. She wanted to be a star. Actually, my mother wanted to be either Mary Pickford or Geraldine Farrar or Queen Marie of Romania.
GL: It’s amazing how many mothers there are behind a star.
RM: Did you know that Marie of Romania used to have a syndicated column in the American papers in the ‘20s? After the First World War she went on the road to save Romania; she traveled all over to get money for her country, with five thousand shoes and whatever else in her luggage. And when she came to America she wrote a column.
RM: Yes … My mother came from a very wealthy Irish family who lost all their money. She came over to Philadelphia when she was a child and met my father there. He was a British merchant seaman. They were married in Philadelphia and then went to live in England, where my sister, Virginia, was born in 1927. For many years my mother’s great ambition was to be a performing artist. She sang very well--she even sang with John Philip Sousa. But she also happened to be extremely fat, which sort of struck her out.
GL: She could have been a radio star.
RM: But she wanted to be seen. By thousands. She even wrote to Mary Pickford for advice--and got an answer, which she kept. I found it many years later and sent it to Mary, who had told her how difficult it was for young girls to survive in the motion-picture industry. You know …
GL: The standard letter.
RM: Yes. My mother was absolutely addlepated about motion pictures, one of those people who were highly affected by the new art form of the twentieth century.
GL: Did she actually get you into the movies? Did she start the whole thing?
RM: Yes. With tenacity and assurance. When I was about six, she sent my sister and me to an elocution teacher, Edith King-Hall, quite a famous woman in her time. She ran the Hanover Academy of Dramatic Art.
GL: You became a star pupil?
RM: I began winning all those medals. And then my mother heard they were looking for a child to star in a picture with Victor McLaglen. He was a big star at the time and was coming to England to make We’re Going to Be Rich, with Gracie Fields, a big star of films and the music hall. It was highly publicized. My mother went around to see Monty Banks, who was directing it--
GL: Gracie Fields’s husband.
RM: Yes. I didn’t get the part, but years later, in 1945, I got to work with Gracie Fields in Molly and Me. I worshiped and adored her, and knew her until the day she died. Anyway, thanks to my mother, although I didn’t get that part, I got an agent--two of them, in fact, two young boys called Felix de Wolfe and Derek Glynne. They began to get me work.
It was the time when the British had to make "quota pictures" to comply with a government regulation that theaters show a certain number of British films every year. They only had to be shown once, and many of them were so bad that they were shown only at nine o’clock in the morning. In the next three years I made quite a number of these, as an extra, in small parts, and in a few very good parts. The first one I made ran out of money and was never finished. Then there was Scruffy, and then Murder in the Family, directed by Albert Parker, who had directed movies for Douglas Fairbanks. This was the last one he made, and he went on to become the biggest agent in London. It starred Barry Jones, with whom I made my Broadway debut twenty years later in Shaw’s Misalliance, and Jessica Tandy, whom I’ve seen continually over the years. I have a print of Murder in the Family, so I can tell you I was eager and terribly precocious and mouthing everybody else’s lines. I just keep looking at their lips to make sure they’re saying their lines correctly.
I had a very good role in Just William, based on the famous children’s story, and in You Will Remember the star was Robert Morley, whom I met again and worked with later in America. The last British film I made was This England, in 1940, during the Blitz in World War II. It was a propaganda picture about all the invasions of England that had failed in the past.
GL: So you were movie-struck by the age of eight or so?
RM: Completely. Like my mother. And my father was fascinated by movies too. He was a terrific man, a Scotsman, deeply proud of his heritage and of having been part and parcel of the British Empire. I don’t mean that stuffily. He wasn’t a pest about it, just so knowledgeable. And I think he somehow stimulated a sense of history in me. My mother was interested in history too, but only in the effect. My father was interested in the cause, and it served him better emotionally. My mother’s interest in effect always kept her a little bit distrait. She didn’t have too strong a grasp on the balance of things.
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