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Posted: Friday, February 10, 2006 12:00 am

From B Films to Sitcoms

by Michael Fitzgerald

&#8220I did 30 movies in four years - one after another.” - Gloria Henry

&#8220That [1950s TV] was a different time; everything was so FAST. One camera - we worked hard.” - Gloria Henry

She will forever be remembered as Alice Mitchell, mother of Dennis the Menace in the 1959-1963 TV series, but before Dennis, this talented actress had a long and career on film, working in various genres, including several B Westerns. Her long apprenticehsip in low budget films made her transition to series TV a natural. Working fast and working hard became the demanding regimen of her career which has continued up into the new century.

She was born Gloria McEniry in New Orleans, Louisiana, on April 2, 1923. As to the recent devastating hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, &#8220I lived on the border of the Garden District. It was a neighborhood adjacent to the Garden District, perhaps a bit less than a mile from the levee. From the maps I've seen, my old home was safe.”

In the 1940s, she relocated to Los Angeles where she worked on a variety of radio shows. &#8220I did commercials on the Al Pierce Show, which featured skits and characters such as Tizzie Lish, the program's ‘expert' on cooking and health. Bill Comstock, who created Tizzie, asked me if I was interested in pictures - ‘Of course' - so he became my agent; he signed a contract with me. We were going to go around to various studios; the first one was Columbia. I read for Max Arno. Bernard Szold was head of casting. I did an audition, screen-tested, and signed a contract, all within two weeks time! And I thought it would be so hard to get into films! (Laughs)”

For a while, there was little happening with Gloria. &#8220They kept me for six months doing nothing but reading scenes. Finally, I had my first picture, the lead in Sport of Kings (1947),” a movie about horse racing.

She was billed (and always has been) as Gloria Henry. &#8220It was changed when I was in radio. At Columbia, they had a contest pushing for a new name - Gloria Rhodes, among others. Then they decided to leave it as Gloria Henry.”

Her Sport of Kings leading man was Paul Campbell. &#8220They signed Paul at the same time as me; they had us doing lots of scenes before using us in a film. He was tall, with a nice face. He had a big basso profundo voice, which seemed odd, coming from such a tall, handsome and slender man. He was very nice, and he later went back to New York, where his wife was from.”

Gloria was top billed in her second picture, Keeper of the Bees (1947). This was the third film version of the 1925 novel by Gene Stratton-Porter. &#8220I adored Harry Davenport. He was such fun, always talking about people he'd worked with. He was a great storyteller. He and Jane Darwell - it was great working with old people and hearing about the old days!”

Her leading man was Michael Duane, another Columbia stalwart. &#8220I believe that Max Arno got something for him to do in New York, where he became a stage manager. I haven't heard of him in years.” Keeper of the Bees was &#8220the first time I worked with an ‘A' director, John Sturges. He was wonderful! He was a very nice man and flattering. I had a scene where I was getting these heavy ledger books out of a big safe. We rehearsed the scene [and] I couldn't shut the safe while holding those books, so I shut it with my heel. John Sturges said that when I did that, he knew I could play any part. I did stage business.”

Bulldog Drummond Strikes Back (1947) was her third picture. &#8220Ron Randall played Drummond at this time. Ron was an air ace from Australia, a war hero. A real cool character. My husband, Craig Ellwood, and I were married in 1949. He was an architect, and had designed a new home for Bryant Hale, a mutual friend of Ron's and ours. He had a dinner party to get us together, and incidentally, show off his house. He was disappointed that Ron never noticed the home! I had to explain, ‘But he is an ACTOR.' (Laughs). Years later, Frank Fox, who did the My Little Margie series, sent me Ron's phone number and address. He wanted to get us together. Ron and I had one nice long phone conversation, but he lived in New York, so we didn't keep up with one another.”

Of the film's director, Frank McDonald, she remarks, &#8220He was a very good director, with a great sense of humor. He unfortunately stayed in the ‘B' pictures.” McDonald would later helm Yellow Fin (1951), which contained one of Gloria's best roles.

Of Port Said (1948), Gloria exclaimed, &#8220I loved doing that one - I had a dual role. A good cast, including Edgar Barrier, Steven Geray, and William Bishop, who had been an alcoholic. He died much too soon.” The director was Reginald LeBorg. &#8220A nice man, but not a good director. When we shot the love scene, William Bishop (he was my boyfriend) and I were sitting with an overhanging fan above us; it was hanging by two piano wires over a large, unscreened wind fan. One wire broke, and I was dangling over the whirling fan blades for several minutes before someone shut off the fan. Had the other wire broke, I'd have become hamburger!”

Adventures in Silverado (1948) &#8220was based on a Robert Louis Stevenson story [&#8220Silverado Squatters”]. Once again William Bishop was the leading man, and another Columbia character actor, Edgar Buchanan, was in it. I had to drive a six-up - that's having the reins on six horses - by little 5-ft. 2-in. me! They thought I looked cute in jeans and a plaid shirt - they kept giving me these type of parts! But I don't get along with horses! I rode, but English-style, and when they asked if I could ride, I said, ‘Oh, sure.' Little did I know! (Laughs). Anyway, the handlers did the pulling of the reins - it was scary - we went around a mountain road, a sharp left and downhill! . . . we stopped just in time. It was the first time I realized how dangerous making pictures could be!”

And in Air Hostess (1949), &#8220I had to ‘jump' out of an airplane - it was supposedly [required then of] stewardesses! Yes, moviemaking can be hazardous to your health! (Laughs)”

The Strawberry Roan (1948) was the star's first in color. &#8220But it wasn't Technicolor, it was Cinecolor. It was too bright to make the colors normal. It was horrible. They couldn't fix it in the lab, at least not then. We wore orange makeup, it was awful to wear, and we couldn't go out for lunch looking like we did. We spent a lot of time in Sedona, Arizona, where the scenery is beautiful. Too beautiful. In Cinecolor, it looked like a backdrop! So, we should have shot it on a soundstage, by the way it turned out!”

Gene Autry was notorious for giving his leading ladies a lot of problems. &#8220I didn't ask for parts; I took what they gave me. Gene was pleasant, at first, but he talked to the guys - the people who handled the horses. But I had a problem. We were in makeup at the same time when he made derogatory remarks about Rita Hayworth. It upset me so, that I couldn't hardly talk to him. I went on suspension rather than make a third film with this man. The first time I met him, Gene was sitting in a director's chair holding a bottle of beer. A bus full of kids arrived. Gene said, ‘Here come the little bastards.' He hid the beer under his chair, and was nice to them - to their face. He is so revered by the western people. I don't like to say something ill of the dead.”

Being on location in Sedona, &#8220there was really nothing there, nothing to do. There were busses and vehicles that belonged to the company, but only one jeep that could be taken out at night. One of the crew took me twenty miles up the road to do some western dancing. We take off to dance, have fun. We were driving on this ‘straight' highway. I asked, ‘What are those lights?' He said, ‘Jerome, an old mining town.' Later, there were lights on the other side of the road. ‘What are those lights?,' and I got the same answer, ‘Jerome.' So, it wasn't a straight road and I didn't know where I was. We got back at midnight, and it turns out Gene had hit the ceiling. He intended to take me in that jeep. He was pissed at me from then on.”

Gloria Henry was working quite a bit in the late 1940s. &#8220I did 30 movies in four years - one after another. I have a video of Port Said, but it has Portugese subtitles that run down the middle of our faces, not at the bottom where they should have been! (Laughs)”

She returned to horse racing in Racing Luck (1948). &#8220David Bruce was quite handsome, in the British leading man way - very pleasant. We shot that in two weeks; [for other pictures] we took 21 days, but we'd shoot all day!”

After a number of pictures in which she was top billed, Columbia put Gloria into Miss Grant Takes Richmond (1949), starring William Holden and Lucille Ball. &#8220I was a contract player; I was just one of the wives in it, but I got to know Lucy, who told me, ‘You're so cute. Do you dance or sing?' I wish I could. Lucy said, ‘That's a pity, you'd be perfect for musicals.' Lucy was so bubbly at this time - Desi was coming home from a tour. She was so in love with him that it was pathetic.”

Gloria was told that her next leading man, for Columbia's Feudin' Rhythm (1949), was a top selling recording artist. &#8220I naturally assumed Frank Sinatra, and was excited. Then they said, ‘No, it's Eddy Arnold,' and I said, ‘Who's Eddy Arnold?' (laughs). It had a nice cast: Kirby Grant, the child star Tommy Ivo. And radio's Mrs. Uppington, Isabel Randolph [who] once owned the duplex that I later bought. Small world! Carolina Cotton and I became great friends, especially in recent times when we'd see one another at festivals or autograph shows. Not only did she sing in the picture, but she was my stunt double as well. And on other films, too! She was such a darling.”

Riders in the Sky was released in late 1949. &#8220Mary Beth Hughes was quite a character. She'd been with John Barrymore in [the movie] The Great Profile (1940). She was a great knitter and beader; she'd bead tops and jackets, which were just great.”

Again, the leading man was Gene Autry. &#8220Champion tried to nudge me off the side of a hill! We were shooting a still, on the edge of a hog nose. The photographer shows up . . . Champion was obviously jealous of all Gene's leading ladies. Luckily, I didn't fall. I didn't like Champion, nor Gene, who didn't prevent any of this from happening. Another time, Champion tried to place his big hoof on my right foot, but he missed!”

Next, came the role of William Bendix and Una Merkel's daughter in Kill the Umpire (1950). &#8220Una Merkel became a very good friend of mine. We palled around; I'd pick her up since she didn't like to drive. But, after my first child was born, she sent a beautiful gift for Jeffrey, and I never heard from her again. She thought I should stay home with the kid instead of gallivanting around with her.”

It was almost a duty for any good Columbia leading lady to do a &#8220Durango Kid,” and Gloria's was Lightning Guns (1950). &#8220Charles Starrett was such a sweet man to me, but I didn't want to do it. Although I never fell off a horse in the Autry movies, I was still frightened. Starrett said, ‘You're such a petite girl, I don't blame you for being scared. You're a little thing - do the scene up on a horse, then for the close-up, you'll climb up on a wooden horse.' Which is what we did! (Laughs). Charles Starrett was a highly educated man - how he got in Westerns I'll never know. He was so charming, so intelligent, kind and quiet!”

About Lightning Guns director, Fred Sears, she says, &#8220He was Bernie Szold's assistant. Later on he became an assistant director and then a director.”

Al Jennings of Oklahoma (1951), starring Dan Duryea as the real-life outlaw, was Gloria Henry's first in Technicolor. &#8220Technicolor was fine. Normal color. It was also where I first met Gale Storm.”

In Monogram's Yellow Fin (1951), &#8220I played a Mexican Spitfire with dark hair. They dyed my hair; it wasn't a wig. My normal color is brunette, sable brunette. At Columbia everything was lightened to Rita Hayworth's color - reddish almost. But too reddish blonde.”

Wayne Morris, her co-star in The Tougher They Come (1950) and Yellow Fin, was a favorite of Gloria's. &#8220He was such a dear, so warm, a big bear, and lots of fun.”

A big credit, but a small role, was found in RKO's Rancho Notorious (1952), &#8220but I'm remembered for the rest of the movie. Arthur Kennedy is trying to get revenge for my rape and murder. Lloyd Gough (pronounced Goff) was the dastardly villain. Marlene Dietrich had to have a certain makeup and hairdresser, but RKO had no money, so she did it at home with her people; she'd arrive, fully done, on the set!”

Dietrich was another of Hollywood's crazy legends. &#8220She was trying to get together with Mel Ferrer. She had the hots for him, but he was married to Audrey Hepburn and didn't reciprocate.” (Laughs)

Fritz Lang was the director of Rancho Notorious. &#8220Fritz was the second great director I worked with. He auditioned and hired me for the part. He had a lot of business; he was very meticulous about how I looked. My dress was slightly torn - not overly sexy - it didn't show much skin. Fritz lived in the same neighborhood as my husband and I. We were all at the same restaurant one night, it was crowded, so we asked Fritz and his wife to join us. [We were all ears] listening to his stories. He was very kind to me. He could be difficult, but he liked tough guys in westerns and was courtly to women. Dietrich was more like a man!”

With so much experience in hastily shot films, switching to television was no problem for Gloria. &#8220But the Abbott and Costello show was rough - I was always changing wardrobe between takes. And they were barely speaking to one another - they'd ad lib, so I never knew what was going to happen! They did slapstick, not comedy, and I was not comfortable.”

About the television series My Little Margie (1952-55), which she guested on three times in 1953, she says, &#8220[Writer] Frank Fox liked my work and he wrote a pilot for me, but the network wanted Gale Storm to star, and she got the Oh! Susanna series [The Gale Storm Show, (1956-60)] instead. He contacted me out of the blue, about 12 years ago. He wanted to know if I had copies of the My Little Margies I did. He sent me ten tapes of the same show, and none were any good! ”

As to her Margie husband, Robert Neil, &#8220He was very nice, an easy-to-get-along-with man. I enjoyed the three shows. That was a different time; everything was so FAST. One camera - we worked hard. I don't think they started using more than one camera until the 1980s, except for I Love Lucy, of course.”

As to Fox himself, &#8220He was crazy, Frank Fox. He lived in a garage apartment behind a house in the Valley. I said, ‘Let's have lunch,' but he was heavy and satisfied with a six-pack of beer and his cigarettes. He had the most profane mouth I ever heard (laughs).”

Her first regular TV series was the crime show, The Files of Jeffrey Jones in 1954. &#8220I was pregnant with my first child, so I only did the first 13. When I began showing, they wrote me out of the others. It was the first private-eye series. [Series lead] Don Haggerty was a big ‘black' Irishman. There were lots of jokes - we had fun together.”

Her last feature, before Dennis the Menace was Gang War (1958), which starred Charles Bronson. &#8220It was very difficult for me to work with him. He was a do-over kind of guy. Down and inside himself. He didn't smile easily. He played the scenes for himself - didn't give you anything - not a genuine actor. He would not read off-screen for your close up, but the dialogue director would do it. He was not a good actor for me.”

Landing a plum role as the mother in Dennis the Menace (CBS-TV, 1959-63) gave her career a big boost. &#8220It was done at Columbia, their TV division, and they knew my work. They screen-tested with various people. Jay North and I did a test together. They bleached his hair and put glue at the back, to [make] that cow lick. I see him every couple of years, when he comes out here from Florida to visit his mother. We've done the Ray Courts show, along with Margaret (Jeannie Russell). In April of 2003, it was my 80th birthday party, I was having a big luncheon, and Jay North came to the party. Of course, my two other sons, Jeffrey and Adam, plus my daughter, Erin Ellwood, were at the party. Their father was Craig Ellwood, an architect. We were divorced in 1977 or 1978 after 28 years. I have one grandchild, an adopted Vietnamese girl named Alemie Ellwood, and I call myself the world's oldest first-time grandmother!”

Tragedy hit the set of Dennis the Menace in 1962 when Mr. Wilson, Joseph Kearns, died unexpectedly of a heart attack. &#8220We were furious - they shut down the set for two weeks; we wanted them to bring in another actor to play Mr. Wilson. That way, we could keep Sylvia Field, who played Mrs. Wilson. Joseph was so perfect, an old grump with a heart of gold. Sylvia played against him so beautifully - she was so sweet. Gale Gordon brought a different kind of thing to the show.”

As for her TV husband, Herbert Anderson: &#8220Sylvia and I visited him in Palm Springs. He was in AA also, and had trouble with his legs. But was always in good spirits. He was a wonderful New York stage actor who looked exactly like the cartoon character. Hank Ketchum [creator of the comic strip] visited the set the first day - and he drew our cartoons that were placed on our dressing rooms. They didn't leave my hair alone. A Kellogg's PR man saw me in color and said, ‘I didn't know she was a redhead!' (laughs)”

Gloria had small roles in some TV movies: Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess (1983), Calamity Jane (1984), and Her Wicked Ways (1991). Gloria recently returned to the big screen in Her Minor Thing. &#8220Walter Matthau's son, Charles, had me in the first picture he ever did. This was in 2004; USC financiers pulled the plug and we didn't finish. He called one night and asked me to go up to Sacramento - ‘I need you tomorrow.' ‘Charles, I am 81 and retired,' and since it was two nights, nighttime stuff, looking out windows - I agreed. Two weeks later, I was called back to Sacramento for addition takes.” The film was released in 2005.

Miss Henry plans to attend this June's Memphis Film Festival, located in Olive Branch, Mississippi where she hopes to share more stories with fans of classic films and television.