Child star Ann Gillis is best known as Becky Thatcher in David O. Selznick’s ‘38 Technicolor production, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”. Starting in films in ‘34, Ann made a string of movies through the ‘40s, often playing a nasty, spoiled little brat.
She was born Alma Mabel Conner on February 12, 1927, in Little Rock AR. “My mother was one of those ladies who kept getting married, I guess one might say she was a femme fatale, and after leaving my father, she married a fellow from Indiana, and we all went off to Santiago, Chile. After moving around a lot more, mother decided to leave yet another husband, this time using as a pretext my modest success locally in school plays in New Rochelle, NY. These were the days when talent scouts were running about the country on the lookout for another Shirley Temple. I made a couple of guest appearances with big bands, Rudy Vallee and Abe Lyman, had a couple of screen tests, and the casting directors in NY put stars in mother’s eyes by telling her I’d have a better chance in Hollywood. That was all she had to hear. After the long train ride across the country, mother landed in Los Angeles with me and my little brother in tow, armed with letters of introduction. She enrolled me in a professional school, and eventually I was spotted by a small agent who knew they were looking for a red-headed actress to play Billie Burke’s daughter in ‘The Great Ziegfeld’. To cut a long story short, this was my first film.”
“The way it went in Hollywood was that if you got a break and a part in a big ‘A’ movie, the smaller studios who made ‘B’ movies would hire you immediately. By the time I was tested for ‘Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ I had already played in 10 movies. Everybody was tested for Tom Sawyer. Little girls and boys all over the country were tested. Selznick put three girls under contract, me included, waiting for the right Tom to be chosen. Since I was the right size to play against him, I got to play Becky Thatcher. The film was made on the backlot at Selznick’s Studio. The photographer was the famous Jimmy Wong Howe, and he used a lot of special effects, quite new in those days. The cave scene was all made out of papier-mâché under a huge black tarpaulin. The roof of the cave was painted in later; I believe the special effects man was William Cameron Menzies. The bats were put in later, too.”
“We worked awfully hard in those days, 6 days a week, and for five days we had to have three solid hours of school work between takes. That is work, no time off for games or rest periods. This left little time for chit-chat with the other actors. As well, Selznick had a habit of re-writing everything as we went along. We would get the script at night for the next morning, and sometimes at noon for the afternoon. One had to make time to learn the lines, as well. To be honest, I never could figure out how anyone in the acting business had time to get into trouble.”
“Because that was a big A-movie at MGM, Republic decided I must be the best thing since sliced bread and gave me a role in my first western, ‘The Singing Cowboy’ with Gene Autry.”
Asked about the burning barn sequence in the picture Ann is quick to state, “Yep, I was sure as hell in that burning barn! My mother nearly had a fit and thought for sure I was a goner. Of course, the technical crew was, as usual, superb and I was never in one moment’s danger, but you know how Moms are. I don’t remember a whole lot more about ‘The Singing Cowboy’, but don’t forget, I was not yet 9 years old!”
When asked about the switch from Alma to Ann, she doesn’t really know. “Ann came when we got to Hollywood—perhaps Mom went to a fortune-teller and heard that it was luckier to be Ann. (Laughs) The Gillis came from one of Mom’s boyfriends!”
A 1944 auto accident resulted in Ann’s face going through the windshield of David Holt’s car (he was driving). “I worked often with David Holt. He was a friend, and a boy, but not a boyfriend. I have no haunts about that auto accident. It was not David’s fault. We were on our way to see one of my films at the Pantages Theater for audience reaction. I suppose one has to say for an ego trip. Anyway, this damn girl cut a corner and came at us from the other direction, hitting David’s car on the passenger side. Unfortunately, safety glass was not then so prevalent, so that did the most damage.”
As to her starring role as “Little Orphan Annie” (‘38), a little-seen film, she jokes, “They probably erased it because it was pretty dreadful.”
Regarding “Man From Music Mountain”, Ann recalls, “Roy Rogers and his wife were both darling people. Ruth Terry, who later played my sister in ‘The Cheaters’ was also very nice. All the folks, Pat Brady, amongst them, were kind as could be, to me.”
Ann married British actor Richard Fraser in ‘48. “Richard was my second husband, a Scot, which took us to Britain,” and essentially ended Ann’s film career. “Richard hadn’t acted for years before he moved back to Britain to work for MCA and later the BBC, buying and selling TV programs.” After marrying Fraser, Ann only returned to the screen for small roles, a few TV roles in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and finally as Gary Lockwood’s mother in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (‘68).
“I live in a far flung part of Belgium now called Limburg. It’s very old fashioned and the folk hereabouts are still polite and helpful. In films I spent most of my time, between takes, going to school in the earlier years, and being a grumpy teenager in the latter ones. Now, I’m just a grumpy old gramma!”
Ann’s Western Filmography
MOVIES: The Singing Cowboy (‘36 Republic)—Gene Autry; The Californian (‘37 20th Century Fox)—Ricardo Cortez; Man From Music Mountain (‘43 Republic)—Roy Rogers.