Roddy McDowall was one of the major child stars of the early 1940s. His performance in films like How Green Was My Valley and Lassie Come Home were classics. He dressed as an English boy in short pants for his roles, but also wore shorts from day to day even after coming to America. This was at a time when most American boys, especially boys his age did not wear shorts. He said that he felt that there was a conspiracy to keep him a child. Fairly large sums of money were involved. His transition to teenage parts did not go well. He continued making films, but was no longer a star.
Born Roderick Andrew Anthony Jude McDowall on September 17, 1928 in London. He was the son of a British Merchant Marine of Scottish descent. He is one of the child actors that did make the transition to adult roles. He began school dramatics at 5. When he won an acting prize, his mother who was a frustrated actress, attempted to win him a movie role.
He continued his schooling at London's St. Joseph College and Hanover Academy. His older sister, Virginia, who had a brief acting career, joined him at Hanover where the two of them won most of the drama trophies during their 4-year stay. When the NAZIs began bombing England his father sent the family to American while he entered the military. British restrictions limited the amount of money that could be taken out of the country, so the McDowalls arrived in the states with only $42. Mrs. McDowall began taking the children to talent agents and quickly found work for Roddy.
Roddy wore short pants in many of his films. He wore smocks in another. At an early age in England that was to be expected. However he continued wearing shorts, on and off the camera even after he came to America. Roddy was 14-15 when he made the Lassie movie and still wore shorts! He once complained of "an unspoken conspiracy against my ever growing up." It'd be interesting knowing about his experiences along this line, wear shorts and smocks at 13 or 14 in America must have gotten to him a bit.
Roddy made films in both Britain And America.
Roddy was a British child actor in the late 1930s. He began on the stage and eventually moved to movies. Roddy made his first feature film at age 9 after 4 years of experience on the amateur stage. His first film was "Scruffy" (1938) and he appeared in 16 other English movies, although he rarely had more than bit parts. Among his British films was "Just William", one of several Just William films. The characyers will be familiar to British readers as it was based on the famous series of Just William books. Roddy played William's best friend, Ginger. One film which was meant to be introduced to U.S. audiences was "Hey! Hey! USA" (1938) with British comedian Will Hey. As the films were made in England, he normally wore short trousers in his movies. "Hey! Hey! USA" was an exception as oddy played an American boy. Many of his British films were made during the early years of World War II.
Darryl F. Zanuck was searching for a boy to portray the narrator in Huw Morgan's "How Green was My Valley" (1941). Zanuck came across Roddy's screen test and summoned him to Hollywood. Production was delayed, but Zanuck cast him as a ship's mate who hides Walter Pidgeon from pursuing NAZIs in "Man Hunt" (1941). He played various roles in a series of films. One of his major roles was "The Pied Piper" (1942).He did look young for his age. Also he played a boy in short pants in "On the Sunny Side" (1942) who is teased by other boys wearing longs. He played juvenile versions of Tyrone Power in "Son of Fury" (1942). This was followed by "My Friend Flicka" (1943) where he begins to get more teenage roles and now prodly sports long trousers, but in the same year wore shorts in one of his most famous films, "Lasie Come Home" (1943). He also played the juvenile Gregory Peck in the "Keys of the Kingdom" (1945), and Peter Lawford in "The White Keys of Dover" (1945), but he was by then about 16 years old. In the period thriller "Hannover Square" (1945), he was simply an off-camera voice. I'm not sure what he wore off camera. Perhaps coming from England, his mother was still keeping him in shorts.
Most remember Roddy best for the trio of animal films he made: "My Friend Flicka" (1943), "Lassie Come Home" (1943), and "Son of Flick" (1945). All three were commercial success and reached wide audiences which needed distraction from the pressures of the war. Concerning his animal co-stars, Roddy recalled in an interview, "The original Lassie was a lot smarter than a lot of people I know. He was unbelievable. He remembered me 4 years later. The horses were different. There were six Flick and nine Thunder heads. After that many, one loses rapport. I loved Lassie, but I hated the main Flick horse. She was mean, kept stepping on my feet."
Roddy's outstanding American films were:
Manhunt (1941): The director of Roddy's first American film was the demanding, Fritz Lang. Interestingly, Roddy wore longs for his brief role at 12 years old in "Man Hunt." I wonder if he objected to wearing shorts as he got older for his subsequent pictures.
How Green Was My Valley (1941): When production of "How Green Was My Valley" finally got underway, Roddy worked for the equally formidable John Ford. The picture was a well-heralded production and a box office hit. I believe it was his best performance. One film observer writes, "Little Roddy McDonald gives a performance so nakedly heartfelt that it made the remainder of his career anticlimactic." In the film he plays a Welsh boy who is teased by the English boys when he goes to a National School and is thrashed by a brutal school master. He suffers a debilitating accident. In one charming scene, his sister lifts up the towel covering him during his therapeutic masages and smacks his bottom. He was most put out with the indignity. Roddy's sanative portrayal of the young Welsh lad who leaves school to work in a coal mine symbolized the sacrifice that America was being called on to make in the World War.
On the Sunny Side (1942): This film was released after America entered World War II, although it was begun while Britain fought the Germans alone. The German Blitz of London engendered great sympathy for the British while America was still officially neutral. English boy refugee Hugh Aylesworth--a very polite English boy who has been evacuated to America during the German bombing ("the Blitz") of London. Hugh is welcomed by Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, a typical small town American family. They of course are charmed by their young guest's impeccable English manners. Less impressed is the Andrew's own son Don.
Pied Piper (1942): The Pied Piper is about an English boy in France fleeing the Nazis. The film was made in 1942 during World War II, not long after the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) escaped at Dunkirk (May 1940). It was based on a novel by Neville Shut. The film starred Monty Woolley as the main character, Roddy Mc Dowall as the boy, and Peggy Ann Garner as the girl. The film was set in France in June 1940, just as the French surrendered to the Germans and the Germans close the channel ports. A British man, Mr. Howard, on a fishing trip to France. World War II breaks out and he is forced to return to England. Mr. Howard is an elderly germunchon who hates children, but finds himself stuck with a pack of them. He reluctantly agrees to take with him two children of diplomats who are working at the League of Nations. He journeys to the nearest French port to get a boat to England. Along the way he collects an assortment of refugee children. He could get back to England easier by himself, but his conscious won't let him leave them. He starts out with two English children and along the way they are joined by a number of young refugees. He attracts more and more children as he travels through France. Mounty Woolley is taking him back to England. They are crossing NAZI infested France. They argue over American States. Mounty Woolley claims Rochester is a state and Roddy points out that it is only a city. Mounty Woolly will not have it but concedes to Roddy's arguement on a cross channel fishing boat at the end of the film. This is after Roddy has lost the pride and joy Mounty Woolley's belongings - His fishing Rod. It is clear that by this time man and boy are friends. Roddy dons French clothes, a smock and beret, to blend in with the others. As Roddy was 13 or 14, you wonder if he didn't object to the juvenile costumes. This film is similar in many ways to Happy Road (US, 1957).
Lassie Come Home (1943): Lassie Come Home is one of the classic films of the 1940s. It starred of course Lassie and a young Roddy McDowell. While an American movie it dealt will as poor Yorkshire (English) boy and his beloved dog. It wass one of a series of sentimental films shot in America and England which were thought to help support morale during the war. The film was set during the World War I era, but Roddy's costume seems more in keeping with what English boys were wearing during World War II. Roddy continued wearing short pants suits even after coming to America.
After these films, Roddy could no longer be cast as a little boy. His brief appearance as the boy in Gregory Peck's "Key's of the Kingdom" (1944) was rather a mild mannered boy who didn't like girls even though he was about 16 years old. His teenage roles were not commercial successes. Fox chose not to renew his contract in 1945. He thoroughly enjoyed his childhood experiences. He says, "I enjoyed being in the movies when I was a boy. As a child you are not acting--you believe."
Roddy became an instant attraction with his appearance in How Green Was My Valley. Within a few years, actress Ruth Gordon quipped, "I don't know anyone who has such a following, except maybe Queen Elizabeth." Twentieth Century Fox offered Roddy a studio contact, adding him to their star and began promoting him.
Unlike many child stars, Roddy had a successful Hollywood career as an adult. He was, however, never a star like his 1941-43 Hollywood child star career. Perhaps his most famous aduklt role was Cornelius in "The Planet of the Apes". He also played the Bookworm - one of the many villains in the 1960's Batman TV series starring Adam West.
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