One of the screen’s greatest beauties, attractive blonde Myrna Dell, appeared in numerous comedies, crime dramas and westerns in her long career. “I was born March 5, 1924 in Los Angeles, so I am that rarity—a native Californian!” An Earl Carroll showgirl, she made her film debut in “A Night At Earl Carroll’s” (‘40, Paramount), followed shortly by “Ziegfield Girl” at MGM.
Her first important part was in a PRC western, “Raiders of Red Gap”. “On the first day of the picture, I was supposed to get on a horse. I went over to Bob Livingston and whispered, ‘Which side of the horse am I supposed to get up on?’ I knew enough to know there was a right and wrong side but not which was which. Bob helped me and didn’t snitch on me. I’ve always been grateful about that. In those days, you’d get a lead in a B-western and that’d be your training. They’d pay you a hundred dollars and it would take about a week to do it. Ken Maynard and Hoot Gibson were my leading men in ‘Arizona Whirlwind’, and Gawd, they were old enough to be my grandfather! I adored Bob Steele, he wasn’t as old as Ken and Hoot.”
Queried about how she landed that first plum role, Myrna retorted: “I was going with an actor whose agent (Bob Brandies) liked me. He signed me and got me tests. Then Walter Kane, who was Howard Hughes’ right-hand man and a top agent, bought my contract from Bob. I made several tests, most not very good. When Walter arranged for a test at Fox it occurred when Darryl F. Zanuck was out of town. They always wanted to test me in Joan Crawfordish roles, but this time I was asked to do the Stanwyck part from ‘Double Indemnity’. I told Walter, ‘I can’t to that—I’m a nice girl.’ How naive I was in those days (Laughs). Lee Strasberg directed the test. There was a 45-day limit, which meant Fox had the option to sign me in those 45 days. Zanuck hadn’t returned, so I called Walter and said I’d like to be at either RKO or Columbia because there were too many people at 20th. I felt I could do better at a smaller studio. RKO saw the test and I was signed! When Zanuck finally got back he ran it and told them to sign me—but it was too late. The 45 days had already lapsed!”
Asked about any roles she missed out on, one particular film comes to mind. “I tested for ‘Body and Soul’ with John Garfield—but RKO asked too much for me to be loaned out, so Hazel Brooks got the part.”
The effervescent Miss Dell is always “up,” and often cracking a joke. “I’m gregarious, I still feel like I’m 16.”
Asked about Richard Martin, her leading man in Tim Holt’s “Guns of Hate”, she laments, “It’s a damn shame, his passing. I still miss him so. I saw Dick and his wife Elaine Riley at the Gene Autry Museum and he looked great. We all had a good time. I phoned Elaine after I heard the news. ‘Guns of Hate’ was a good movie—one of the better B-westerns,” but it still congers up bad memories for the veteran. “For a western, it was good. But, that 100º in the valley, those hot clothes, horses dropping shit all around—there was dust, it was so dirty. I’m sorry, I just don’t like westerns.”
About westerns in general, Myrna laughingly blasts, “I can’t stand them! At the Cecil B. DeMille barn there was a function and I was asked how many westerns I did. I told them I made 14, and hated each one (Laughs).”
About “Roughshod”, an “A” picture: “I guess I like that. It’s not bad for a western. But ‘Bushwackers’ is my favorite. She was a strong character who rode and shot people. I just liked that part. Do you remember the scene where I run upstairs and shoot that guy—Samuel S. Hinds, or some other old gray-haired man? But then, they’re all old, gray-haired men, aren’t they?”
Lon Chaney Jr. co-starred with Myrna in “Bushwhackers”: “In the movie, he taught me to ride and shoot; personally, he was horrible. That son of a bitch wouldn’t read off camera for my close-ups. He was an alcoholic—or a recovering one. He had a mean manner, like alki’s often have. On the close-up shots, I read my lines offstage for him. When it was my turn the dialogue director started to do Chaney’s part. I told him to tell Lon to get his ass over here or I wouldn’t do any more readings for him. He was not very likable, a lush, hung over.”
Myrna continued, “Although ‘Bushwackers’ is my favorite western, many people tell me how much they enjoy ‘Roughshod’ with Bob Sterling. Originally, the picture was to star Robert Mitchum and me! In the meantime, RKO underwent some changes and Dore Schary—that phony—took over the lot. Bob Mitchum was on another project and I was told that Dore’s pet, Gloria Grahame, would now play the lead while I had to take one of the other roles. I naturally resented it and went to Santa Barbara on vacation. I received word I had to return to the studio immediately or I’d be sued. That’s how I wound up with that part. It was filmed near Sonora. Because of my numerous ‘other women’ roles, all the male cast members were warned by their wives, or girlfriends, to ‘Stay away from Myrna!’ Ann Sothern told Robert Sterling, who replaced Mitchum, to keep away from me. Because Gloria had taken my part everybody thought we’d get into a clash, but we didn’t. I liked Gloria and we got along just fine. Her mother, however, was a real witch. A stage mother to out-stage all the others. Everybody—except me—seemed to be having an affair. Every weekend, all the guys would disappear. I couldn’t figure out where they were going. That left Claude Jarman Jr. and me—so we had a lot of fun together, playing cards. He was such a talent—I like him a lot. We still speak on the phone. He now has five children and no-telling how many grandchildren. Finally, I did discover where all the guys were going; sneaking over the border to Reno and inhabiting the local chicken ranches! The next year I worked with Gloria Grahame’s then husband, Stanley Clements, in another picture. But it was a murder mystery, and I was back to the ‘other woman’ role.”
Myrna’s Western Filmography
Movies: Raiders Of Red Gap (‘43 PRC)—Bob Livingston; Arizona Whirlwind (‘43 Monogram)—Trail Blazers; War Of The Wildcats (‘43 Republic)—John Wayne; Ding Dong Williams (‘46 RKO)—James Warren; Guns Of Hate (‘48 RKO)—Tim Holt; Roughshod (‘49 RKO)—Robert Sterling; Lust For Gold (‘49 Columbia)—Glenn Ford; Gal Who Took The West (‘49 Universal Int’l)—Yvonne DeCarlo; The Furies (‘50 Paramount)—Barbara Stanwyck; Ticket To Tomahawk (‘50 20th Century Fox)—Dan Dailey; Bushwhackers (‘51 Broder)—John Ireland; Last Of The Desperadoes (‘56 Associated)—James Craig; Naked Hills (‘56 Allied Artists)—David Wayne. TV: State Trooper: No Fancy Cowboys (‘57); Jim Bowie: The Lottery (‘57); Maverick: Seventh Hand (‘58); Texan: Rough Track To Payday (‘59); US Marshal: One Of The Ten Most Wanted (‘59).