Blonde, beautiful, British Anna Lee was born January 2, 1913, in the Ightham Rectory. Ightham is a little village in Kent, England. “The nearest town of any size was Seven Oaks. In those days, you didn’t go to a hospital to have your baby. My father had the rectory; I was born in my mother’s bed.”
“I was not a star over here—I was a star in England, but in America, I am a working actress. My career here is due to Adolph Hitler! My husband, director Robert Stevenson, and our children were on holiday in the states in Sept. of 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and England jumped into it, starting World War II. I was stuck over here (Laughs). There was a rule, a woman with children could not return. I wanted to go back, because my other family and home were there—plus I was under contract to a studio and owed them some pictures. Naturally, this was voided as a result.”
Because she was in the United States, Anna Lee decided to return to work, beginning in 1940’s “Seven Sinners” with Marlene Dietrich and John Wayne. “Marlene didn’t want a blonde in the picture—other than herself. So it was the first time I had to rinse my hair. John Wayne was a lovely man, what I would call a typical American—very nice, very modest. His stature as a star never came up, although we worked together many times over the years. On our first encounter, we were engaged in conversation and he asked me if I was a Republican. Since I was new to this country, I thought he was asking if I was a publican, which is a person who keeps a publichouse for drinking beer. I told him I was not a publican, but that I did enjoy beer. (Laughs) That really confused him! When he made himself clear, I said I was a conservative Churchillian! (Laughs)”
After landing a plum role opposite Ronald Colman in “My Life With Caroline” (‘41) (“They billed me as ‘introducing Anna Lee.’ So much for all the British pictures.”), she was cast in the 1941 best picture Oscar winner, “How Green Was My Valley” directed by John Ford. “My character was called Bronwyn, and Maureen O’Hara, who has become a life-long friend, named her daughter Bronwyn. I still see Maureen on occasion.”
During the War, Miss Lee worked consistently in such pictures as “Commandoes Strike at Dawn” and “Flying Tigers”. “I tried every way I could to go home—joining the USO—but they sent me to the Persian Gulf, not to England!”
It was after the War when Anna landed her first westerns, and with the master director himself, John Ford. “I was cast in ‘Fort Apache’—again with Duke. Mr. Ford liked me from ‘....Valley,’ and I became part of his so-called stock company—Maureen was another member.”
“When I did the westerns with Ford, he put in a stipulation I could not have my normal blonde hair—it had to be dyed. So whenever you see a picture where I have dark hair, it was being shot around the time I was doing one of the Ford westerns! This first occurred in another western I did at Columbia, while we were shooting ‘Fort Apache’…‘The Best Man Wins,’ based on Mark Twain’s ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calico County.’ My memories of this were negative, until recently—when I saw it again. My house burned down in the middle of the shoot! But looking at it again, it’s quite a good little picture. My leading man was Edgar Buchanan (Laughs), who had deserted me and our little boy—Gary Gray—years before. I’m the local school marm, about to marry the town’s wealthiest citizen, when Edgar shows up. There’s a line in the film where Edgar asks about Gary, and any resemblance, and I tell him Gary has his blue eyes and red hair. (Laughs). Like me, Gary is a blond, so both he and I had to have our hair rinsed for the picture! Gary was such a good little actor and a very good-looking little boy.”
Returning to “Fort Apache”…“What I think about most in that picture is that I fainted—for the first and last time in my life! It was the scene where Irene Rich, Shirley Temple and I were on the roof, watching the troops ride out of the fort. It was so hot, and that corset was so tight—the next thing I knew, John Wayne was carrying me to my dressing room! Ford thought I was pregnant again. In every film we did together, he’d always ask at the start, in front of cast and crew, if I were expecting! (Laughs)”
This leads to a question about Ford’s reputation for always ‘picking on’ at least one cast member in each picture. “That is true! Once I happened to be the unlucky one. On ‘Horse Soldiers,’ I was told to show up at a certain time but when I arrived, Ford yelled at me about being late. I was moved to tears, so when I was crying on screen it was real tears, not acting!”
Basically, the cast and crew in Ford’s stock company generally got along. “That is true. Ford got top-notch actors. It was so very important to me—a sort of status symbol—that I was in his stock company, because he was especially fussy about women in his films! My part in ‘Horse Soldiers’ was small, but that didn’t keep Ford from ordering the rinse to cover my blonde hair! (Laughs) Actually, the role was larger than in ‘Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,’ but again, when you’re in a stock company, there is no telling what size part you’ll be getting.”
Asked about her many TV appearances in the genre, Anna has less recall. “I’ve done so many TV shows, sometimes I don’t even recall having done the program. I do recall ‘Gunsmoke’ and the great ensemble cast they had. The one I recall quite fondly was a ‘Wagon Train’ called ‘The Colter Craven Story.’ John Ford directed it, even John Wayne had a cameo appearance.”
Anna Lee was on the daytime drama “General Hospital” for some 20 years—a most impressive record. The actress also received a “star” on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. At 91, Anna Lee died May 14, 2004.
Anna’s Western Filmography
Movies: Fort Apache (‘48 RKO)—John Wayne; Best Man Wins (‘48 Columbia)—Edgar Buchanan; Horse Soldiers (‘59 U.A.)—John Wayne; Two Rode Together (‘61 Columbia)—James Stewart; Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (‘62 Paramount)—John Wayne. TV Movie: Night Rider (‘79)—David Selby. TV: Wagon Train: Colter Craven Story (‘60); Maverick: Diamond Flush (‘61); Daniel Boone: Ben Franklin Encounter (‘65); Gunsmoke: Rope Fever (‘67).