Several years of Iowa winters (I was now with WHO in Des Moines) had given me a yen for warmth and sunshine. Since baseball announcers never get summer vacations, I had talked the station into sending me along with the Chicago Cubs on their training trip to California's Catalina Island, and it evolved into an annual excursion.
One year I stopped in Hollywood first to visit singer Joy Hodges, an alumna of WHO. Joy had had a number of parts in pictures, and I told her about my own dream of acting.
She got right to the point. "Take off your glasses," she said. Her reaction made me want to get rid of glasses forever. She gave me the name of an agent, and at 10 the next morning I was sitting across from Bill Meiklejohn, who promptly got me a screen test with Warner Bros., a few days hence.
After the test, I was told it would be several days before Mr. Warner could see the film, and that I would be expected to stick around. "No," I said, "I will be on the train tomorrow -- me and the Cubs are going home."
They were unbelieving, but I was adamant. It was only on the train that suddenly the horrified feeling came over me that maybe I had blown the whole thing. Actually, through ignorance I had done the smartest thing it was possible to do. Hollywood just loves people who don't need Hollywood.
The next day in Des Moines, a wire was delivered. It said: Warner's offers contract seven years, one year's option. starting at $200 week. what SHALL I DO? It was signed by Bill Meiklejohn.
I sent a reply: SIGN BEFORE THEY CHANGE THEIR MINDS -- and then I yelled.
In 1937 there was a Spanish Civil War going on, the Japanese were again fighting in China, and Hitler repudiated the Versailles Treaty -- but I wasn't mad at anyone. My color could only be painted in a light rosy glow. I would don my shining armor and journey to Hollywood.
Four days after my arrival, I was slated to play the lead in a picture called "Love Is On the Air." Studios made two kinds of pictures: A's and B's. This was a B -- but I didn't know it. All I knew was I was starring in my first movie -- and I would do eight pictures in 11 months.
At least one familiiar experience was mine in that first picture: leadingladyist. June Travis was the love interest, and it was only natural that I should carry the plot into after-hours.
We reached the point in the script I eagerly awaited -- the scene where boy gets girl and you go into the clinch. The director said "Action" and that's just what he got. I moved in like there was no tomorrow, and the next thing I knew the studio came undone. I discovered that a kiss is only beautiful to the two people engaged in doing it. If you REALLY kiss the girl, it shoves her face out of shape. Your Lips should barely meet, and, yet you must give the impression of a fervent kiss.
And that was not my only fault. My head was casting a shadow by getting in the path of her key light; my collar was pulled out of shape by the position of my arms; all in all, I had to draw back and start over with the realization that work is work, and fun is fun, and kissing was more fun at the high school picnic.
After my first picture had been released, Bill Meiklejohn assured me it was safe to send for Nelle and Jack (parents). Fan mail had started to arrive, so I turned this assignment over to Jack. He took charge of ordering the necessary photos and stationery and, in short, set up a system for handling what would turn out to be thousands of letters.
Not all of my movies were in the "B" action epic class. Occasionally I garnered bits and smaller supporting roles in the A's. On one of these, I played a radio announcer in "Hollywood Hotel." The star was one of the top box-office figures in Hollywood, Dick Powell.
I was one of thousands drawn to this very kind man. Sometimes our paths took us in different directions and months would pass without our seeing each other. Still in these later years, when we did meet again, it would be as if no interruption had occurred. He always seemed to feel such genuine pleasure at seeing you.
Just about this time I was assigned a good part in a top comedy, "Brother Rat." The story centered around three military academy cadets always in trouble, played by Eddie Albert, Wayne Morris, and me. My part was easily good enough to provide a steppingstone to stardom, but unhappily, I learned there is room for only one discovery in a picture. Eddie Albert stole all the honors, and deservedly so.
As far as the gay, exciting life of Hollywood was concerned, I was still a Midwest movie fan. I had a feeling there must be an exotic night life going on into which I had not yet been initiated. mI would be a long time finding out that the people of Hollywood are very much like the people next door. However, the publicity department saw to it that I dabbled a bit in cafe society to secure those candid photographs needed for fan magazine publicity.
There was a big Warner premiere coming up, and one day a publicity man asked me to escort a young girl who had recently done a great deal for sweaters in a Mervyn LeRoy picture. She was very young and very beautiful and we were both very scared -- she in a gown borrowed from wardrobe, and I in a dinner jacket from the same place. And so Lana Turner and I went to the premiere in a taxi because I was afraid to drive my old convertible. I hadn't learned how easy it was to rent a limousine and play big shot.
MGM was sort of the Tiffany of Hollywood, so I was duly impressed when a loanout was arranged for me by Warner's. The picture was a remake of the old Broadway play, "The Badman."
Wallace Beery was the "Badman," Lionel Barrymore my crotchety uncle, and the very nice Laraine Day the love interest. I was warned that Beery was and inveterate scene-stealer and would even get his face in the camera when it was a closeup on other players. But if I had any ideas about protecting myself I forgot them when I saw Wally operate. In one shot I thought I had him. He was standing beside his horse and I was at the horse's head. We were both profile to the camera, facing each other. But by the scene's end he was full face to the camera, which was virtually shooting over my shoulder.
I'd been warned about Beery but no one had said anything about Barrymore. Let me make one thing plain -- it was a great honor to work with him. Lionel was, of course, theater through and through, and you were made better by his great ability -- providing you kept from being run over. He was confined to his wheelchair at the time and he could whip that contrivance around on a dime. It's hard to smile in a scene when your foot has been run over and your shin is bleeding from a hubcap blow.
Then there were the pictures with the Dead End Kids. Having heard lurid tales from other actors, I approached my first picture with the kids in something of a sweat, but Jimmy Cagney solved my problem. He understood these kids as no one else could. "It's very simple," Jimmy said. "Just tell them you look forward to working with them but you'll slap hell out of them if they do one thing out of line." He was right.
Finally in 1941 came the picture that meant not only stardom, but still remains the finest picture I've ever been in: "King's Row."
I played Drake McHugh, the gay blade who cut a swath among the ladies. My key scene was played in a bed. This environment was the result of the plot which had me injured in an accident in the railroad yards. Taken to a sadistic doctor (who disapproved of my dating his daughter and felt it was his duty to punish me), I recovered consciousness in bed -- only to find that the doctor had amputated both my legs at the hips.
It was portraying this moment of total shock which made the scene rough to play, and it presented me with the most challenging acting problem in my career. Worst of all, I had to give my reaction in a line of no more than five words. Gradually, acting the affair began to terrify me.
There was the sharp "clack" which signaled the beginning of the scene. I opened my eyes dazedly, looked around, slowly let my gaze travel downward. I can't describe even now my feelings as I tried to reach for where my legs should have been. "Randy!" I screamed. Ann Sheridan, playing Randy, burst through the door. I asked the question, "Where's the rest of me?!"
There was no retake. It was a good scene and it came out that way in the picture. Perhaps I never did quite as well again in a single shot. The reason was that I had put myself, as best I could, in the body of another fellow. And since that time, no single line in my career has been as effective in explaining to me what an actor's life must be.
America was in the war by this time. The Air Force was creating a motion picture unit, so I was assigned to a base in Los Angeles. (I was "limited service" because of my poor eyesight.)
From a motion picture standpoint, our operation added up to about $200 million worth of talent on the hoof. We would turn out training films and documentaries, and conduct a training school for combat camera units. All of the newsreel material in the theaters, of bombings and strafings, was the product of these units.
One of our 30-minute training films cut the training period for aerial gunners by six weeks. Most of the millions of men who never experienced combat had an almost reverent feeling for the men who did face the enemy. In our post this was heightened by the millions of feet of raw film that came back to us from combat. We saw the shots that were edited out before the film could be viewed by the public: A fighter plane cracked up on landing, in flames, the pilot vainly trying to get out of the cockpit and dying before your eyes. His comrades rushing into the flames, vainly trying to save him, until they were pulled back with their own clothing on fire.
My own movie-making role, however, was not entirely confined to narrating training films. Irving Berlin wrote and produced a musical comedy called "This Is the Army." In World War II his production, following a worldwide stage run, was made into a Warner Brothers movie, with all grosses going to Army Relief. I played the lead opposite Joan Leslie.
The first week of shooting I was introduced to Irving five times, and each time he was glad to meet me. Then one day he sought me out. The night before he had seen the film we had shot those first few days. He said, "Young fellow, I just saw some of your work. You've got a few things to correct -- for example, a huskiness of the voice -- but you really should give this business some serious consideration when the war is over. It's very possible that you could have a career in show business."
I thanked him very much, and began to wonder if he just hadn't seen any movies, or if the war had been going on so long I'd been forgotten.