by Weldon Melick
American Magazine, December 1949
Hollywood and play-acting are just a pain in the neck to 13-year-old Dean Stockwell. If he had his way he'd give his all for football and roller skating. Yet he's a star in spite of himself, "the best actor of the screen today".
When, 13-year old Dean Stockwell was assigned his sixteenth important film role, that of the preacher's son in Stars In My Crown, he blurted dejectedly to Producer William Wright, "I wish you'd fire me, so I wouldn't have to work." But he knew, even as he said it, that he would keep his discontent so well camouflaged from the camera's eye that there wouldn't be the remotest chance of getting his wish. He knows that when you've got a seven-year picture contract, you don't suddenly pick up your marbles and go home. He probably doesn't suspect that his work in The Boy with Green Hair, Down to the Sea in Ships, and Secret Garden may win him an "Oscar." He may not realize that his home studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, is steadily elevating him to a top position in its roster of stars by lining up for him such meaty characterizations as Owens Johnson's The Varmint and Kipling's Kim.
On the other hand, I'm sure Dean senses that the fruits of his work-filled childhood will enable him to retire to the pursuits of a full-time playboy before he can vote. But this reversed pattern of life seems cockeyed to the solemn, dark-eyed youngster. Right now he'd rather be covering a paper route or roller skating than acting in a $2,000,000 picture.
To put it more bluntly, he's a young rebel who despises acting and resents every moment it takes from his fleeting boyhood, which he believes should be dedicated to football, skating, and the neighborhood gang. But that doesn't stop him from turning in a consistent string of memorable performances. Some of Hollywood's top brass producers and executives disdain to class Stockwell with other juveniles and refer to him simply as "the best actor on the screen today".
Dean keeps his rebellion so well bottled up when he's on the job that few of his associates know he faces screen stardom with stoicism rather than elation. But I stumbled onto that incredible fact shortly after I arrived at an extremely modest bungalow on the fringe of Culver City and met Dean's mother, a diminutive, vibrant person of impulsive gestures, quick movements, and direct speech. A former dancer, Betty Stockwell has the grace and nervous energy of hummingbird.
I told her I'd like to take Dean to a revival of Anchors Aweigh, which happened to be showing at their neighborhood theater.
"You can ask him", she said, "but he hates to watch himself on the screen. When one of his pictures opens, I Take Guy, his fifteen-year-old brother, but Dean usually begs off or has us to drop him at the Hitching Post Theater in Hollywood, where there's always a Western double feature. But he might like to see how he looked seven years ago in his first part."
She called Dean in from his back-yard "gym", where he was giving himself a workout on the bars. He appeared in the doorway, tousle-haired and smudge faced. I was introduced, and asked him if he'd like to go to a show.
"Sure! That'd be great!" he beamed. "Mr. Melick is going to Anchors Aweigh", his mother put in. "It was an awfully good picture, Dean, and you haven't seen it since it was made, so I think you'd enjoy it, don't you?"
The infectious smile vanished like mist. "I guess so", he said, with a valiant effort of politeness.
As it turned out, our pilgrimage to the ancient Technicolor musical wasn't a complete fizzle. At least, the lad enjoyed his two bags of popcorn. But the popcorn gave out about the time Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra were trying to give the slip to a somewhat precious little runaway in a sailor suit after depositing him safely on his doorstep.
"What'll I do if you don't wait and talk to Aunt Susie; what'll become of me?" wailed the six-year-old in a squeaky voice from the screen, oozing his most beguiling tears.
There was a distressed groan from the plaintive boy at my side. "What'll become of me?" he mimicked in a falsetto whine. "What a nauseating character! How sickarine can you get?"
"Don't you mean saccharine?" I suggested.
Dean squirmed in his seat and shook his curly mop of hair. "I mean sickarine – it makes me sick!" he insisted. "Please, Mr. Melick, couldn't we go to another movie? I'll stay if you want me to, but I don't think I can take any more of this – and, besides, I know you'd like Champion. Everyone says it's a terrific picture."
I never thought I'd live to see a movie actor walk out on one of his own pictures – or a 13-year-old boy walk out on any picture. But we left the theater and got into my car. In a happier frame of mind already, Dean gave me directions to the theater that was showing Champion.
"It's been so long since you made Anchors Aweigh", I said, "I don't suppose you remember much about it."
"I remember when we shot the ending", he related. "My brother wasn't in the picture but we played together on the set. At lunchtime, we said we weren't hungry. You see, there was a bunch of Grumman Hellcats with machine guns near our location and we wanted to use our lunchtime to play war. We climbed in the planes and had so much fun we forgot about the picture entirely. Finally we got tired and remembered I had a job, so we went back and got the daylights bawled out of us for holding up production."
He was pensive a moment. "I don't believe it was fair to scold us for that," he reflected. "We were too young to know better, and anyway those planes were too much a temptation. That's what causes juvenile delinquency – getting scolded for something you don't realize is wrong."
"Did it make a hardened criminal out of you?" I bantered.
"Indubitably," he grinned, "but what I mean is if a kid gets bawled out by his parents all the time for things he doesn't do or doesn't know are wrong, it makes him sore, and he thinks he can have more fun if he's independent of parents that under rule him too much, so he says "I am leaving."
No doubt, Dean meant, "overrule", but he isn't enough of an authority on parental oppression to use the right word. His mother isn't the tyrant type, and his father hasn't been a disciplinary factor in his young life since the age of five. Before that, the family lived out of trunks wherever the vagaries of show business took Harry Stockwell, still remembered as the voice of the Prince in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Harry's ravishing brunette wife, Betty Veronica, had danced in George White's Scandals and other musicals on Broadway, but stopped working to make a home. She got tired of making it in 48 states, and when little Guy came home in tears from its first day at school because the other children called him a gypsy, she put her foot down – and didn't lift it again. Harry visited his family in New York, where they lived at the time, as frequently as he could, but they were divorced after his long Chicago run as singing lead of Oklahoma!
Betty used to spank Dean once in a blue moon for such lapses as playing with matches. But a couple of years ago he said, "Mom, whippings don't do any good. Scoldings hurt more. If I do something you don't like, just talk to me." She figured the lad was rapidly getting too big to argue such a point with, so shrugged her dainty shoulders, reined in her fiery Italian temperament, and hasn't spanked him since . . . .
Dean sat entranced through the Kirk Douglas picture, came out with a punch drunk gleam in his eye, and debated with himself all the way home as to whether the supreme achievement of motion-picture art to date was Champion or another prize-fight epic, The Set-Up, which he had seen the previous day.
Their combined impact had whetted him to a pugilistic frenzy that couldn't long be denied. The moment I turned into the Stockwell's driveway, Dean leaped out, streaked next door, came flying back with two pairs of boxing gloves, and designated an old mattress in the back yard as "the ring". What happened then shouldn't happen to a guy who hasn't punched anything but a typewriter since college.
At the end of 15 three-minute rounds, Kid Stockwell was flushed out panting, but still full of zoom. By a feat of almost superhuman will power, I summoned the strength to hold a pencil, and admitted what I really came for was an article about him – not a boxing match with him. A statement of dismay flickered for an instant on my opponent's face. "And we were having such a good time", he said regretfully as he maneuvered me into the living room and complacently informed his mother that I had some questions to ask her.
He was opening the front door while delivering this message, but Betty's eye was quicker than the hand. With a curt little command, she anchored her young son to a chair while she briefed his story for me:
Dean got his professional start at six, when brother Guy auditioned for the Broadway play, Innocent Voyage. Both boys were hired, Dean mainly for his ornamental value – he looked like a Della Robbia cherub. He had one line to speak, and when he was too absorbed counting the bulbs in the footlights or sticking his finger in the tempting curls of the little girl next to him, Guy spoke it for him. I asked Dean if he could remember the line now.
"I remember it", he conceded, "but I'd rather not say it."
His mother insisted on hearing the line, and he quoted apologetically, "I won't be damned!"
His single line to the contrary, he came close to being damned, and purged from the cast as well, when the extraordinary achievement of a veteran actress suddenly struck his notice, and he ad-libbed with open admiration, "Why, you've got a mustache!"
An astute talent scout named Al Altam figures the strikingly attractive child might have inherited talent. Dean consented to take a screen test on the promise of some colored balloons. Director Joseph Pasternak saw the test and cast him in Anchors Aweigh. In rapid succession he handled roles ranging in mood and pace from the hauntingly pathetic Robbie Shannon of The Green Years to his hilarious romp through Home Sweet Homicide as a Junior G-Man. His part as Gregory Peck's son in Gentleman's Agreement won him the Hollywood Foreign Correspondents' Gold Globe Award for the best juvenile performance of 1947. His one-boy crusade for tolerance and peace in The Boy With Green Hair was acclaimed by critics as a performance never surpassed by any child actor.
Dean talks reluctantly about anything connected with his career. I managed to loosen his tongue a bit by asking what he doesn't like about pictures. Interviews, portrait sittings, and costume fittings are agonizing ordeals for him, but he realizes in a vague way that they are necessary, and submits docilely after putting his protests on record.
Another personal vexation with him is the studio system of interlarding dramatic stints with education. School law requires that a young contract player get four hours of classroom work and recreation at the studio every day, so the kids are shuttled back and forth between set and teacher most of the time.
"I am still thinking of arithmetic while I'm playing a scene, and still thinking of the scene when I go back to school", Dean explained. "It would be easier if we could concentrate on acting for several hours and then go to school without interruptions." He'd go to public school if he had his choice, because "there's more kids and you get gym and competitive sports."
He is also annoyed no end by the obsequious kind of attention which seasoned actors thrive on, and which sometimes turns the head of an immature one. "You can't cough in a studio", he told me, "without fifty people getting excited. "Go to the doctor," they yell. "Go swab your throat! Go lay on the operating table!" He added with high scorn, "If they'd just give me a mint, I'd be all right."
But the most intolerable of all of Hollywood's foibles, in Dean's estimation, is the sacred tradition that juvenile actors must go through life looking like sheep dogs and shunning barbers like the plague. He related how mortified he was, after eating in a restaurant, when the waitress exclaimed as he got up and put on his baseball cap, "Oh, it's a boy!"
The ribbing of his neighborhood playmates is even more distressing. "The kids think I'm different because I have a job, but I'm not," Dean lamented. "A motorman is luckier than I am because he can take off his motorman's glove when he gets through work and you forget he's a motorman. But I can't make the kids forget my work as long as I have to wear this shaggy mess of hair. It would be all right if they all had long, curly hair, but being the only one places me away from other kids, just like green hair did in the picture – and I definitely don't like it. The boys yell things at me like, "Can I loan you a dollar for a haircut?" And women are always saying, "Where did you get those lovely curls? I wish I could take them right away from you." They don't wish it half as much as I do. But I know I can't have a decent haircut as long as I work in pictures. I have to stay cute!"
The phone rang. It was for Dean, much to his surprise. It seemed that Steve, a neighborhood playmate with whom he had recently had a verbal tiff, was extending the pipe of peace, filled with chocolate soda. Dean covered his pleasure with good-natured sarcasm: "You want me to go to the drugstore? Are you sure you feel all right, Steve?" Dean's mother gave him a "no dice" signal.
"Please, Mom – be a good gal. This is important."
Mrs. Stockwell was adamant. "Not tonight, Dean. Mr. Melick is here, and anyway you know you can't go to the drugstore by yourselves after dark."
Unperturbed, Dean spoke into the phone as he kept a weather eye peeled for the maternal reaction: "Come on over, Steve. I think we can work something out after you get here." He hung up and blandly proposed, "Will you go with us, Mr. Melick? Mom doesn't want us to go alone." Betty threw up her hands and rolled her eyes.
Steve arrived, the three of us adjourned to the drugstore, the boys, knitted together their raveled friendship with soda straws, and Dean picked up the checks. When we got back to the house the boys disappeared into Dean's tiny room, profusely plastered with cutouts of football stars, to watch television and play an electric toy truck.
When I expressed wonder that a real antipathy to acting could go hand in hand with such natural ability as Dean's, Betty reminded me that a lot of children want to break away from the profession of their parents, though they're apt to be gifted along the same lines. "Lionel Barrymore has hated acting all his life. John never cared much about it, either. They both wanted to be artists. Dean says he wants to retire on a ranch at twenty-one", she added, "and he accepts picture work as a means to that end. He has the foresight to realize he may change his mind by that time, but it serves as a goal, temporarily at least."
I visited The Secret Garden set a few days later, and found Dean ensconced in a period bed, wearing a frilly nightgown, rehearsing a tantrum. But the heated words he was supposed to be screaming were uttered tranquilly in a lukewarm monotone and his sensitive features were as immobile as a cigar-store Indian's. The dry run appeared all the more ludicrous because Margaret O'Brien and a gifted young English actor named Brian Roper were giving consummate performances of mingled bewilderment, agitation, protest, and fear.
Then the cameras rolled. Instantly, Dean threw off his lethargy and had a tantrum that riveted every eye in the big sound stage on him. The other children might as well have been playing tiddlywinks. The director okayed the "take" for printing, and excused the actors while he made a new camera setup.
Dean gave me a friendly greeting and took me to his portable dressing-room, where his mother was sampling some fresh cracked crabs with Gladys O'Brien.
Betty told me Dean always rehearses like a zombie. He explained, "A rehearsal doesn't seem real, like an actual scene for the camera. It makes me feel hammy and embarrassed. I don't know why I'm in this business, anyway. I can't act. When I try to be an actor I feel silly. All I can do is to be natural. There's no trick to that. Anyone could do it."
He caught sight of the ballooning effect of his nightgown in a mirror and announced wryly, "I am going on a diet."
"If you can take a career or leave it alone", I challenged, "do you care how you look on the screen?"
"I care how I look off the screen", he rejoined. "I don't want to be a slob."
After Dean had returned to the set, the mothers compared notes and discovered that both children began combing their hair without being told shortly after they started work on the picture together. Dean had bought several little trinkets for Margaret, such as a gold rabbit's foot pin "for good luck which she doesn't need", and a strand of simulated pearls for her birthday, which he clasped around her neck with a Boyer flourish. One day in a particularly expansive mood, he confided, "Mrs. O'Brien, I think you have a very talented child!"
Mrs. Stockwell mentioned that lately Dean has been going to dances with his brother's crowd – when the older boys will let him. They'll let him when there's a girl left over – and the one left over is always a formidable Amazon who, as a dancing partner for Dean, leaves something to be desired – namely, a stepladder.
He must have found one at the last party – Betty reported that he came home covered with lipstick.
Dean suddenly flung through the door of the dressing-room again, plainly agitated. "Do I have to cry?" he stage whispered. "Can't they shoot that stuff in my eyes and fake it? I can't cry. I'm happy. What am I supposed to be crying for?"
He plucked fretfully at the old-fashioned nightgown while his mother explained the scene to him. "Why did they have to put a lace on this thing?" he muttered. "A nightgown is bad enough, but fancy stuff!" He got more and more morose over the lace, and soon was able to make more tears flow freely without benefit of ammonia. Most moppets can cry at will, but it's always a struggle for Dean.
The reason he didn't know why he was supposed to cry was that he can't be coaxed into reading a script, and sometimes gets through a picture without knowing the whole story. His lines are spoon-fed to him in daily doses, usually by the director or Dramatic Coach Lillian Burns.
The company broke for lunch and we went to the studio commissary, Dean looked over the menu and ordered chocolate cream pie and milk.
"I thought you were going on a diet", his mother chided.
"I am. I'm not eating the rest of the luncheon."
"You're eating some vegetables", she said firmly.
"You see," Dean countered, "you won't let me stay on my diet!" His food quirks include an inordinate appetite for spinach and for fowl cooked "crispy".
He has a bottomless pit when it comes to chocolate desserts. "One day I left him playing with a gang of boys", his mother related, and he took it into his head to make them some chocolate pudding. You should have seen the kitchen when I got back."
Dean reviewed his culinary triumph. "The secret is you keep stirring. That way you don't get any lumps. Your arms get tired but it's worth it because it's so good."
Betty told me, when Dean was out of earshot, that he and Guy insist on serving breakfast to her in bed every Sunday. "I brought it on myself", she sighed. "The boys get their own breakfasts every day and clear the table. But when Dean was sick once and wanted breakfast in bed, I was rash enough to say, "I hope you'll show me a little consideration when I don't feel so well." I've been eating my words for a year now – along with cold coffee, burned toast, and clammy eggs. When they show me a little consideration, I don't feel so well. But I haven't the heart to tell them."
On other days of the week, Mother's little helper becomes Mother's little helpless. Dean has never been able to figure out what coat hangers are for, would rather wear odd socks than hunt for matching ones, and laundered clothes completely baffle him. He'll insist, "These aren't my jeans – mine are dirty!"
Dean gives $3 of his $5 allowance right back to his mother to put away for him, spends maybe a quarter on comic books and cokes, and for a time put the rest in a big crockery pig to which the whole family contributed small change toward a nebulous "vacation fund".
Vacation plans went awry when Betty had an emergency appendectomy, so Dean broke open the pig and split the loot as equitably as he could without the brother of counting it. He gave Guy the quarters, took the half-dollars and nickels himself to spend for firecrackers – and dutifully saved the pennies for Mother. Arithmetic, as you might surmise, is one of his weaker subjects, but he skipped half a grade and started high school this year.
Dean had been led to believe his motion-picture salary was $50 a week. When he read in the paper that his contract had been approved for $750, scaling up to $1,500, he asked in amazement if he made that much. Betty kept her fingers crossed and told him that figures quoted in motion-picture publicity are unreliable – they're usually exaggerated to look good in print.
Young Stockwell's career has been helped immeasurably by having a mother who never gets in a director's hair. The average screen mother is overzealous in guarding her wonder child's interests, and the average juvenile actor is too dependent on mother's reactions to his performance. Dean, on the other hand, is entirely self-sufficient. His mother stays in his dressing-room or goes shopping. She stated her viewpoint tersely: "My function is to get Dean to the studio on time and take him home. If the director can't get what he wants from him and Dean can't give it without my butting in, then we'd better get out of the business." She seldom watches him do a scene.
Director Fred Wilcox said that Dean is always letter-perfect in his lines, so that rigorous rehearsing isn't necessary for him, and might, in fact, dull the sincerity of his performance.
"I left the crucial scene of The Secret Garden till the last day of shooting," Wilcox told me, "and intended to take all day to do it. It was a close-up of the boy as the stress of deep emotion destroys a crippling mental block and enables him to walk for the first time. Dean said he'd try to give me what I wanted on the first take if I'd shoot it without a rehearsal. If I hadn't known from experience it was worth trying, I might have said, "You tend to the acting, Bud, and I'll do the directing," instead, I yelled, "Roll'em, and the first take was not merely perfect – it was absolutely inspired.
"Does it matter if it inspired by Trojan-Notre Dame football game, which Dean would have missed if we'd horsed around with rehearsals? We wrapped up the picture before noon and I took him to the game myself."
Dean made small bets with Wilcox on the outcome of the season's remaining games. Mamma didn't wholeheartedly approve. "Can't you think of anything better to do with your allowance than pay gambling debts?" she admonished.
"But, honey, you don't understand! I won't have to pay him anything," he reassured her. "I'm going to win!"
Such a fatalistic attitude may explain why Dean finds his career somewhat tedious. There's no gratification in the knowledge that you can't lose – even if you want to.