From How Green Was My Valley to Funny Lady, with a long stopover on the Planet of the Apes.
      That, in brief, is the celebrated path trod by Roddy McDowall during the past 35 years. Along the way he has become a movie star – and a movie authority, whose knowledge and experience have earned him a spot on the board of trustees of the world’s largest filmfest.
      McDowall does not grant interviews as readily as some more talkative performers, so it took a while to track him down at this year’s Los Angeles International Film Exhibition (Filmex).
      Eventually McDowall consented to sit in one spot for a couple of hours, and talk about the main subject of his life – the movies.
      He began by praising Filmex for its refusal to give out awards to new films. "We’re free of that rampage of winning this, winning that, winning the other." And he lauded "inventive, informative" festivals in general for spurring interest in films, "especially among the young and even the very young.
      "Film is 75 to 80 years old. And it is a great art form, certainly the great art form of the 20th century, and the major American art form. It’s only now that you can begin to draw upon the past ... Moreover, all our childhoods are wrapped up in some decade of being impressed and deeply, deeply influenced by a certain handful of people ... They have had a tremendous influence, good and bad, on our lives. And we have to delve into that …"
      McDowall sees the movies as a unique phenomenon. "We are absolutely assaulted, inundated with entertainment, especially with TV … Children fall asleep to TV … But it’s very difficult seeing films on TV … At retrospectives in theaters, younger people are overwhelmed at seeing (bygone stars) 30 times the size of life …" Despite his love of film, McDowall insists that he is not a "fan." He explains, "The word ‘fan’ disturbs me … It’s a wrong word … maybe because it’s been misused – it comes from the word ‘fanatic.’"
      What word does he prefer? "Let’s just say I’m deeply interested in the world I live in. I have an educated knowledge of the world in which I’ve grown up, that’s all …
      "It’s because of my mother, who was – a fan," McDowall laughs. "She was always absolutely fascinated by films and the great artists of the silent films … I used to go and see a lot of silent films as a kid. And I got to know, as a child, a lot of the people who were in silent films. This was absolutely wonderful – people like Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy and Mae Marsh."
      Silents are "misunderstood" today, says McDowall, because they are often shown at the wrong projector speeds or without their original color tints or without orchestral accompaniment.
      "It’s like listening to music. Your mind is making up so much of the dialogue …" Curiously, though, most moviegoers have paid little attention to silents since the 1930s.
      McDowall feels that today’s television artists should save their products carefully "because the same thing will happen." TV programs will come and go, "then, 20 years from now, everyone will be rushing around looking for I Love Lucy shows, which are fantastic. Those early Lucy shows were really quite remarkable.

Roddy McDowall: As Caesar (above), suspected leader of the ape revolt in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes;

in his real life role of top amateur photographer (below) in a photo session with Barbara Carrera, who is modeling a costume from Embryo; McDowall is shooting for a fashion magazine.

And McDowall in 1967 (right) as a hippie band manager in The Cool Ones.

- - - - -

      "But they’re shown over and over again, and cut down. In a sense, it’s understandable – in the moment when it’s going on, a group of people don’t realize that they are creating something more than just doing the work at hand. And if they did realize this, it would carry a pomposity that would make it something else again ..
      "Take John Ford" – one of the great American filmmakers – "with whom I worked happily and whom I knew all my life. People would ask him questions about his work and he couldn’t answer, because all he was doing was following his eyes and his mind, and it didn’t have the same connotations as it flowed from him as it has for the viewer.

      "Then a lot of people begin making their own evaluation of what his films mean. But if you talked to him about it, he’d say he’s just making a film …"
      In short, the movies are an eternal mystery. "Because of tastes, or economic problems going on at certain times, certain things are done that seem in their time to be totally unimportant. But some of these are actually very important later on … And vice versa. It’s fascinating to see certain hits 20 years later. One wonders why they ever were big hit films. Well, it’s just a public need at that time …"
      Still, some films are apparently timeless – such as How Green Was My Valley, the John Ford classic that McDowall still calls "probably the best film I was ever in," though he was just a beginning child star when it happened.
      "Many times you see a film, and you’ve seen it before, and you know what is coming, and you have a certain level of sophistication. But with the accumulation of it, you are suddenly wrapped up and you’re crying …"
      Then there are the "deeply sentimental" pictures. "You say, ‘It’s not going (sob) to get me (sob) this time (sob).’ Because it’s so well made that it gets you where you don’t mean to be gotten."
      The old movie styles are still being carried on, says McDowall, but "in a different way. We certainly have a lot of very sentimental films, only it’s expressed differently … What could be more sentimental and more successful than Love Story? …"
      After a little hemming and hawing, the actor agrees that the same thing goes for Funny Lady, his latest hit. "It’s a glorification of a huge star, and those people who adore Barbra Streisand – and there are very many of them – just have a bath in it … But I wonder what time will do to it." And, speaking of la Streisand, "What’s more sentimental, in a way, than The Way We Were? But it’s expressed in ‘70s terms."
      McDowall balks at outlining the next steps during the current phase of his career, which has included Funny Lady, several Planet of the Apes movies, and an Apes TV series.
      "I really don’t know," says the star. "It’s a very hard profession to be in, and I think you have to be sort of like a cork … The economics of the profession are always disastrous. One never knows where one is going …
      "I don’t really project (plans for the future) because you really can’t … I never really have. I just hope to keep working, and in interesting things.
      "But so many things that you think are interesting end up not being … It’s a heart-breaking profession I know of where the accumulation of one’s work ultimately counts for very little, as far as continuance is concerned. People are discarded right, left and center, continually, without validity …"
      How does one escape this syndrome? "I don’t know, because it’s a profession that’s trying to guess what the public wants. The performer is constantly a possible victim of that game. Who knows what’s going to be successful? … So much of it depends on the social needs of a nation. That’s what makes stars – being there at the right time, being able to perform that which is subconsciously needed …"
      To McDowall’s veteran eyes, the biggest change in moviedom has been the decline – for better or worse – of the old "studio mechanism."
      Recalling his first childhood success in How Green Was My Valley, he says he made five films in that one year, "because I was part of a studio. Well, Tatum O’Neal would have made six films by now," he says, referring to the young heroine of the popular Paper Moon movie.

        – David Sterritt

Los Angeles Herald-Examiner CALIFORNIA LIVING, Week of September 28, 1975

RM Tribute: Frames | RM Tribute: No Frames | Contact Us | Musgrave Foundation