"No More Kid Stuff" by Hyatt Downing - Screenland - July 1945
"You get a little tired of the rags-to-riches legend in Hollywood. You meet it everywhere -- in the studios, in publicity releases, in the fabulous tales that are whispered up and down the Strip. 'See that character over there?' someone at Ciro's will say. 'He used to deal 'em off the arm at a quick-and-dirty in Muncie, Indiana.' Or a mail-room boy will jerk his head at a gorgeous babe strolling languidly down a studio hall and murmur under his breath, 'They pulled her out of a drive-in on Wilshire.'
And then you meet Bob Walker, and somehow the idea doesn't seem corny any more. There is an inextinguishable quality of naive youth about this twenty-six-year-old. It springs forth to meet you when you shake hands with him despite his most obvious efforts to appear poised and grave. 'Look,' he says almost at once, 'none of this Horatio Alger stuff, huh? If you only knew how tired I get of that!' Then, as he talks, the old stories of the boy struggling against adverse circumstances in New York and in Hollywood again reassert themselves and the legend persists on being an integral part of the tale. And, one suspects, when he is alone he likes to think about it, too.
It isn't so long ago that he and his young bride, Jennifer Jones, were living in a $16-a-month flat. Memories of that sort don't fade out of one's mind very quickly. Or the miles and miles of pavement traversed while looking for jobs. A youngster of Bob's age keeps remembering how thin the soles of his shoes were and the way the rough seams of the pavement hurt his tired feet. He doesn't forget hamburgers, cooked over a gas plate, or the aroma of a mug of hot coffee, inhaled while he was standing under an awning with rain dripping dismally down his neck. Those things make an impression on the mind though they may lose some of their bitterness when the softer years come along. So, in spite of everything, the rags-to-riches story remains fresh in the memory despite repeated telling.
'Sometime, ten years or so from now,' Bob says, 'maybe I won't think about the tough hills any more. Perhaps I'll be satisfied and smoothly comfortable. I ought to have a pretty good sockful of what it takes by then, and money has a way of obliterating the sharp edges so that, in retrospect, the whole picture seems a steady upward climb and the hardships are no longer hardships but adventures.'
Money has come to mean more to Bob Walker since he arrived in Hollywood. 'In New York money was something you bought a pair of shoes with,' he says. 'Out here it's an entirely different matter. In Hollywood money means superficialities, like excellent cars and a home that you like to show to people. It means security and a hedge against all the tough things that could happen to you again. Yet I was pretty happy in New York. Maybe happier than I'll ever be again.'
That's strange talk coming from a young man who was a hit in 'See Here, Private Hargrove,' 'Bataan,' 'Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,' 'Since You Went Away,' and 'The Clock,' and who is looking forward to such important MGM productions as 'Peg O' My Heart' and 'Melancholy Baby.' Yet he likes to think about the times in Tulsa when he was broadcasting with Jennifer Jones and they were able to save enough out of their $25-a-week salaries to get married.
For quite a long time radio looked like three squares a day to Bob and the limit of his horizons. 'Hollywood didn't want any part of me,' he says, grinning wryly. 'I'd come up for a test and the guy would pinch my arm and take a quick gander at my mug. 'It's all wrong,' he'd say. 'There's something out of line with your face and you're too skinny.' Then I'd go back to the dreary little room where we were holing up and take a good look at my face in the mirror. It wasn't very reassuring.'
Today Bob Walker remembers the yearning youngsters he has known all along the road he has traveled. And remembering, he stays humble. He knows that in every career there is a large element of luck. If Gordon Oliver, a fellow actor whom Bob knew in the lean days of New York, hadn't said to him one day, 'Mind if I
see what I can do in pictures for you?' he might still be doing radio shows. It just happened, at that time, that Metro was looking for a slat-bodied kid to play the lead in 'Bataan'. He tested and before you could say sensational, Al Altman, MGM representative, had him on the way back to Hollywood where he had previously failed so dismally. 'Some of those kids I'd known back in the Academy days were pretty good actors,' he says.
Yet, conscious as he is that fortune plays a large part in any man's career, Walker is realist enough to know that one must have what it takes in the clinches. No matter how often luck waves her wand over you, there still must be that last final residue of real ability when the chance to make good comes along. That's why he feels so sorry now for the boys and girls who, dazzled by the imagined splendors of the stage or screen, fight upsteam against a tide which in the end must inevitably flow against them. 'People born with a great yen to do something simply ought to be given the requisite ability to make their dreams come true,' he says. 'But it doesn't seem to work out that way, and in cases where it doesn't, it's always pretty sad.'
Asked what career he would have chosen had not the movies beckoned at last, Walker admits readily enough that he would have tried to be a good writer. His dad was a newspaper man back in Salt Lake and Bob still harbors the suspicion that maybe his dad would have been just as well pleased if he had been born with ink on his fingers.
He regrets that bad eyes kept him out of the army and clings to the belief that he would have been a pretty good soldier. 'G.I. cans,' he says, 'mister, I know all about 'em! I scrubbed enough of the darn things doing 'Hargrove' to last any soldier through his normal course of K.P. duty. I sure got the 'feel' of the Army in that picture. I used to imagine how it would have been if I'd really been polishing those cans in actual Army life. And I decided it wouldn't have been so bad. I'd have liked the Army okay.'
Walker has learned much since coming to Hollywood. Taking direction, for one thing. When he was a kid he used to belt out and run away from home every time parental or school discipline became too wearing. Once in Salt Lake, after one of those break-outs, he got a job selling newspapers on the streets, waiting, meanwhile, for his parents to send for him. But the summons didn't come and
after that he quit trying to escape authority. He was cured. But he still hated being told. This lasted until he came up against some tough directors in Hollywood. Now when Tay Garnett says, 'Look, you're not playing that part right. Try it this way--' Bob meekly does as he is ordered. He thinks Garnett is truly great and gives him credit for saving his role in 'Bataan'.
'I was playing the guy I was supposed to portray as if he were twenty four or five years old,' Bob says. 'So Mr. Garnett called me aside and said: 'Do you really think an eighteen-year-old would act that way? You're making Purckett too mature.' I took his advice and the part came out all right -- at least that's what the people said who were kind enough to write about it.'
So well has Walker learned to take direction, in fact, that now he thinks he'd like to have a try at it himself sometime. Oh, not just yet, but when he has outgrown that bashful, young look that he dislikes so much. No matter how much natural talent an actor possesses, he believes a good director can sharpen and focus it beyond the powers of the actor himself. Great pictures are just a lot of words on paper until a director breathes the breath of life into them. 'Directors,' Walker says, 'are the answer. I'd rather be a great director than a merely successful actor.'
There is one -- and only one -- thing that Bob Walker won't talk about. That is his present domestic life. A little more than a year after coming to Hollywood, and after he and Jennifer Jones had scored real success, he in 'Hargrove' and she in 'Bernadette,' they separated. No one in Hollywood seems to know much about it. Their two small sons, Bobby and Michael, live with their mother, while Bob has a small apartment in Beverly Hills. Once in a while he takes his two sons to the beach and helps them build sand castles. 'Swell little guys,' he says. 'Hope neither of them grows up to look like me.'
But if Walker is not captivated by his own appearance, the cash customers all over the country seem to register no complaints. His fan mail is increasing with each new picture he makes. After 'Since You Went Away,' it swelled enormously. Conscious of this and keenly aware of his responsibility to people who like his pictures, Walker is not one to turn a supercilious eye on the bobby soxers. 'Great kids, those little girls,' he says. 'What if they are enthusiastic and once in a while tear off a couple of buttons? I can spare a few buttons. I'd give 'em my shirt if they wanted it.' A very canny young man, Mr. Walker.
Recently he has finished a picture called 'Her Highness And The Bellboy.' This one has Bob worried a little. June Allyson has the female lead and Bob thinks that together they achieve an effect that is just a little too much 'sweetness and light.' He yearns for tough parts -- good gutty roles that will bring out all he knows of this trade of his. 'To Have And Have Not?' he asks. 'Gosh, yes. Who wouldn't like a part like that? Not that I think I could do anything like Bogart can -- but you know what I mean. I don't want to be tabbed as an abashed yokel any more. Pretty soon people will think of me as a kind of goofy, half-wistful guy, perennially young without much chance of ever growing up. After all, I'm twenty-six and it's time I got going in some roles that will give me a little stature.'"