Perky Noel Neill will be forever remembered to millions of television viewers as Lois Lane. But the dark haired Paramount starlet of the ‘40s had a cinema life before “Superman” (1951-1957), and westerns were a significant part of it.
Born Noel (Noël΄ as in Christmas) Neill in Minneapolis, Minnesota, November 24, 1920, the later-to-be most famous female reporter on television actually came from a journalistic background. “My father worked for three or four newspapers in the Minneapolis area. Usually he started out head of the copy desk and then went on to another position. He was with THE MINNEAPOLIS STAR JOURNAL a good many years until he retired.” Noel tried to act in high school plays to no avail, “I tried out and flopped each audition. I thought for certain I’d never act.”
A cross country road trip with her mother found them in California with relatives where, “…by chance somebody’s friend said would you like to audition for a singer? I’d sung since high school. I did, got the job and went to a thing for Bing Crosby’s orchestra down at Del Mar. It was quite a place at that time for the stars and the rich people. Of course, I met a lot of people working there. All of them were in the biz, one way or another, so I got started at Paramount. ‘Henry Aldrich For President’ (‘41) was my first. I was put under contract to Paramount after I did that Henry Aldrich picture.” The five-foot-two starlet went on to appear in over sixteen films for Paramount between ‘42-‘46 including “Standing Room Only” (‘44), “Duffy’s Tavern” (‘45) and “The Blue Dahlia” (‘46), as well as several more in the popular Jimmy Lydon as Henry Aldrich series. During this time, Paramount also loaned her out to Monogram (“Are These Our Parents” [‘44]) and MGM (“Young Ideas” [‘43]).
A regular gag in the Aldrich features was for Charles Smith (as Henry’s pal Dizzy) to wiggle his ears, which he was able to do. In “Henry Aldrich For President”, Noel wiggles her ears along with Smith, but she says, “They tricked it once, as I remember. (Laughs) Jimmy Lydon was a very nice person. I know he went on to do many good things after that, even in production.”
In 1946 when her contract expired at Paramount, she claims, “I signed up with Monogram for seven of the Teenagers pictures but I only did four of them. You work pretty fast in those cheapies.” In actuality, Noel’s memory fails her as she was in all seven of the Sam Katzman produced high school musical comedies that starred Freddie Stewart and June Pressier between ‘46 and ‘48. Admittedly, they weren’t her favorites. “I don’t care, you can say there were 20 for all I care. June Pressier was stuck up anyway. Only because she’d been in Vaudeville 50 years before that, she thought she was a star. I didn’t like her much. And vice versa I guess.” One of the seven Teenagers films, “Vacation Days”, was set on a dude ranch out west and featured Western stalwarts such as John Hart, Terry Frost, Hugh Prosser, Forrest Taylor and Spade Cooley’s band.
Noel’s first true Western was on loan-out to Hal Roach in ‘43, “Prairie Chickens” with Jimmy Rogers (Will’s son) and Noah Beery Jr. “(Laughs) I remember working on that. We shot over at the lot in Culver City. All the ‘girlies’, a couple that were fairly well-known in those days (Rosemary LaPlanche, Tommye Adams). We called Noah, Pidge.”
Another Western was “Over the Santa Fe Trail” (1947) with Ken Curtis and the Hoosier Hotshots at Columbia. “That’s where I did the singing thing. They were trying to make Ken Curtis into another Gene Autry.”
When it comes to Clayton Moore and their 13 chapter Republic serial together in ‘48, “Adventures of Frank and Jesse James” , Noel had “no recollections” other than Clayton called her years later in an attempt to get her to appear at some autograph shows. Republic produced a sequel to that serial in ‘50, “James Brothers of Missouri”, replacing Clayton (who was by now the Lone Ranger on television) with Keith Richards as Jesse James. “Somebody sent me a picture of the two of us recently. In fact, Keith and I did a thing together in Florida, ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ (‘52).”
Noel’s Westerns in the next few years with Whip Wilson, Lash LaRue, Jimmy Wakely and Johnny Mack Brown are a faded blur in her memory. “I’ll tell you one thing about Westerns. I never really met any of the guys. Outside of working with them, I just didn’t know them. You come in and you get hairdressing, wardrobe, pages of script maybe, and sit and wait to do your thing and that’s it. Sometimes you only work a day. I mean, you didn’t even get a script actually, because the gals didn’t have much to say, you know, get on that horse and ride and fall off or whatever you’re supposed to do and then…(Laughs) I did see Lash LaRue somewhere a few years ago. He got into religion or whatever…and we had a nice little conversation.”
It’s the unreleased “Osage” made in 1949 on the Gene Mullendore ranch in Oklahoma that stirs a vivid memory for Noel, and for good reason. “What I remember about making that is trying to get my money. That was a problem. I wonder if (stuntman) Whitey Hughes ever got his? That was really made on a shoestring budget. Makes you wonder what you’re doing down there.” The unreleased, and now lost, “Osage” was directed by veteran Oliver Drake and also starred Edward Norris, former Oklahoman Bob Gilbert, singer and one-time B-western star Smith Ballew and Johnnie Lee Wills, Bob Wills’ brother. The film was produced through Sooner Pictures Inc. of Tulsa with much of the money coming from Bob Gilbert who had appeared in B-westerns with Jimmy Wakely and Spade Cooley.
Noel’s last Western before turning to television was Johnny Carpenter’s “The Lawless Rider” (‘54) directed by Yakima Canutt. “Yak was a great stuntman. That was his original thing before he got into directing.”
The role for which she’ll always be remembered—ace girl reporter Lois Lane—originally began with the first “Superman” serial for Sam Katzman at Columbia in ‘48. “I saw it like Jesse James—something for the Saturday afternoon kids. For me, a month’s work.” Noel’s a bit harsh of her Superman of the serials, Kirk Alyn. “We didn’t get along too well. He was a little conceited. I saw him not too many years ago on a ‘CBS This Morning’ interview (February ‘88). He’d matured a little. He made a good Superman visually and doing stunts, I’ll say that for him. But on interviews and at conventions, he’d dream up things, so to speak, to make it interesting. Many things weren’t true, but that’s what he had to do to make it interesting.”
As for producer Katzman, Noel says, “I’d done the Teenagers and the ‘Brick Bradford’ (‘47) serial for him before that. His wife was quite a horse player. I had a lot of friends that would go to the track and we’d always see Hortense…with her red hair, usually a fuchsia, or a lime dress and a silver mink (Laughs), so we could all spot Hortense. She loved the horses.”
Having played Lois Lane in the two Katzman produced Columbia Superman serials, “Superman” (‘48) and “Atom Man Vs. Superman” (‘50), one wonders why she wasn’t immediately called upon when the TV series was being cast in ‘51. Instead the role went to Phyllis Coates. “There were probably a lot of reasons. One side of town didn’t know what the other side was doing. (Producer) Bob Maxwell talked National Comics into making 26 and then he did a very naughty (Noel did not explain this remark) and he was canned. So was what’s her name, Phyllis Coates. Whitney Ellsworth was sent out from New York (as producer) to retrieve everything. He called and said, ‘You were the original Lois Lane, so if you’d like to reprise the role?’ and I said, well, why not? (Laughs) Thirteen weeks work…yeah…”
According to SUPERMAN: SERIAL TO CEREAL, “…the complexities of Robert Maxwell’s nature soured many of the associations he maintained in ‘51. He was appreciated better from a distance.” Whitney Ellworth, a pulp fiction writer in the ‘30s, was hired as National/DC Comics editorial director in ‘40. He had already been involved in other DC Comics to film projects—“Congo Bill”, “The Vigilante” and the “Superman” serials. It was he that tranquilized the violence of the Maxwell produced episodes and brought a more comedic approach to the villains, and finally color to the series.
Noel quickly became identified with the Lois Lane role in 78 episodes of the series—and still is to this day. Oddly, about halfway through the series, Noel’s hair color changed and then changed back a season later. Her only explanation is, “I didn’t have a hairdresser on the series. I had to get my hair done on weekends. Trying to find a hairdresser that did your hair on the weekends was a bit of a stretch in those days. Of course, the last 52 were made in color and printed in black and white (because most early TVs were not equipped for color broadcast) so everything was a lot different. Wardrobe would come out red or blue or pink or whatever when they printed up black and white. That’s probably what the problem was. And wardrobe—the hats were not my choice! Neither were the suits. That all came from wardrobe. Lot of strange costumes—the big hat I wore in the serials with Kirk Alyn, people remember that big white hat. (Laughs)”
“We made a few bucks but we had the world’s worst union. After playing Lois Lane off and on for nearly 10 years, the most I ever pulled in was $225 per episode. The only thing we walked away with after that were the fond memories of our relationships. Back then we were doing two a week, 13 shows a year. Then basically a year off. It was impossible for me to bank more than a few thousand dollars. People think we’re still getting money on residuals. No way.”
As for her favorite directors, “We had three or four on the ‘Superman’ series. Tommy Carr, nice. George Blair was really nice. Somebody else that was a real bear, but (Laughs) Mr. Reeves spoke to him and simmered him down a little bit.”
As to Noel’s thoughts on the often disputed suicide of George “Superman” Reeves, “I don’t know. Nobody knows what happened to him. They always say, you must really know. But I don’t know what happened to him. I’d seen him just a couple of days before and he was happy and we were going to work again, had scripts out from New York already for another 26. He loved everybody. He was too nice for his own good. That may have been part of the problem. It was a shocker, I’ll tell you.”
Noel was married in 1953 “shortly after I started ‘Superman’ to a gentleman named Bill Baron, from Santa Barbara. He’s not in the business.” They were married “about nine, ten years. I’m still in touch with him” but they had no children, “no rug rats. (Laughs)” Yet it wasn’t marriage that stifled her career. It was, “type casting. The marriage didn’t make any difference in those days. Then the big studios folded and the casting directors all got laid off when the young turks from New York came out and screwed up the motion picture business. The oldies didn’t have a chance. They wanted all young people, young people, young people. Jack Larson (who was cub reporter Jimmy Olsen on the “Superman” series) was into his writing, and he didn’t care and I didn’t care much. I’d done enough work for a few years. So it didn’t make any difference to me.” I did PR work for a gentleman in the motion picture business. He did ‘Magnum P. I.’ and is doing a lot of things now.”
“Superman” made Noel Neill a household word but she sighs, “I haven’t gotten a thing out of the series since ‘65. I don’t care if it’s on or not. I don’t have an ego. And the damn internet—my name, address! God, I’m not going to have photos made. Stuff is piling up…goes back to 1988.” In talking with Noel and discussing the amount of work she’s done—and forgotten—she laughs, “It’s just terrible, going so far back and realizing the movies I made over the years and thinking, gosh, what did I do that for? I don’t live in the past. Some people do that, but I don’t. Basically I’m just a homebody. I was probably a couch potato before the term was invented. I do enjoy loafing around. It’s nice at my age.”
Noel’s Western Filmography
Movies: Prairie Chickens (1943 United Artists)—Jimmy Rogers/Noah Beery Jr.; Vacation Days (1947 Monogram)—Teenagers; Over the Santa Fe Trail (1947 Columbia)—Ken Curtis; Gun Runner (1949 Monogram)—Jimmy Wakely; Cactus Cut-Up (1949 RKO short) Leon Errol; Son of a Badman (1949 Western Adventure)—Lash LaRue; Abilene Trail (1951 Monogram)—Whip Wilson; Whistling Hills (1951 Monogram)—Johnny Mack Brown; Montana Incident (1952 Monogram)—Whip Wilson; The Lawless Rider (1954 United Artists)—Johnny Carpenter. Serials: Adventures of Frank and Jesse James (1948 Republic)—Clayton Moore; James Brothers of Missouri (1950 Republic)—Keith Richards. Television: The Lone Ranger: Letter of the Law (1951); The Cisco Kid: Chain Lightening (1951).