This is my 2001 interview with actress Ann Gillis from the Memphis Film Festival.
I envy Ann Gillis' grandchildren. Ms. Gillis is feisty, witty, very classy and sharp as a tack. I found her to be as warm and vibrant a human being as I've ever met. I told her on the last day of the Memphis Film Festival that I hoped I was able to do her justice in this interview. I subscribe to the Oriental viewpoint on dealing with our elders. They are wise and worthy of our attention. I hope that Ms. Gillis' grandkids recognize what a gem they have and sit at the feet of the master.
Ms. Gillis went from child star to teen star before her retirement from film in 1947. She came out of retirement in 1967 for a cameo in a little film called "2001: A Space Odyssey." Probably best know as Becky Thatcher in the 1938 movie of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" Ms. Gillis also provided the voice of Bambi's wife and mother is the Disney classic. Ms. Gillis flew in from Belgium to attend the Memphis Film Festival. I enjoyed the short time that I was able to spend with her. What follows are some of the highlights.
Rusty White: Growing up, "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" was one of my favorite films. I still get a chill watching you and Tommy Kelly run from Injun Joe through the caverns. Would you share your memories from that film?
Ann Gillis: By the time it was over, I couldn't stand that movie. Of course I had to watch it hundreds of times during the promotion tour. The director (Norman Taurog) was there to make Tommy Kelly a star. The rest of the kids got no direction from the man. It was horrible. I had to do a scene in which I had hysterics. I'm 10 or 11 years old. I have no idea what hysterics are. The director won't give me any advice. He says come back after lunch ready to do the scene. My mother took me into the trailer to help me. She said 'I'll show you what hysterics are. Scared me to death. The only direction I got on that movie was from my mother.
RW: What happened on the promotion tour?
AG: We went all over the country showing the movie and making personal appearances. In New York City we had five shows a day for two weeks. I remember sneaking out and standing in the lobby. Some boy was hiding from his mother. She came after him and the boy said 'Mom, I don't want to go back inside. I hate this movie!' I turned to the boy and said 'Me Too!
RW: The Internet Movie Data Base lists "Bambi" as one of your credits. You did the voice of Falena?
AG: Yes. I was the wife and I also did the mothers voice. I sat in this big empty sound stage by myself calling out "Bambi, Bambi, Bambi" (Ms. Gillis changes her voice to suggest alarm, love and playfulness each different time she says Bambi.)
RW: You said you were alone on the sound stage. Did you do the voices before or after the animation was completed?
AG: I did it before the movie was made. They gave me a script, set me on a stool and had me do the lines. It was cold and difficult. The director was in the sound booth. He directed me over the loudspeaker.
RW: I know that Disney had already done "Snow White" by then. Did you feel like you were part of a groundbreaking film?
AG: Not really. Cartoons were common place. I just remember it being an unpleasant job.
RW: You played quite a few young girls with attitudes. Did you enjoy being able to act up on film?
AG: Yes. My mother was a bit of a snob. I really didn't get to act that way in real life, so it was a lot of fun.
RW: You also appeared in one of the great war time tear jerkers, "Since You Went Away" with all kinds of great stars. What was it like to work with the teenaged Shirley Temple?
AG: That was David O. Selznick's movie. One of the films he did for his wife, Jennifer Jones. I didn't act with Shirley. I remember watching her on the set one day. She got in place for the camera and her mother started yelling at her. "That's not your good side" and such stuff. I felt bad for her. Her mother pushed her hard, and in an unpleasant way. It made me appreciate my own mother even more.
RW: One last question, you came out of retirement after 20 years and did a bit part in "2001: A Space Odyssey." How did that come about and what was it like to work for Kubrick?"
AG: There was a casting call for American actress in London. I was living there with my husband at the time, so I said why not.
RW: You played one of the astronauts parents during the interstellar phone call scene, correct?
AG: Yes. Well, Kubrick was a real jerk. It shows you what can happen when a director is given a blank check. He hired two sets of "parents." I was the back up actress. The part wasn't scripted, so he told the two actors to go write their part over lunch and come back. They did. The actress playing the part read the lines she wrote. Kubrick fired her and said "I like the 'other one' better.
RW: The 'other one' being you?
AG: The 'other one' being me. That's how I was referred to. Well, we took the lines and started rehearsing and then filming. It was difficult because we were sitting side by side and saying lines to which no one was responding. Also, my conversation and the other actor's conversation were not related. We were saying all these disjointed lines and Kubrick keeps changing them. Then the other actor joins in by saying he had an idea for some dialogue. Kubrick lets him run with it. I was thinking, "Keep your ideas to yourself." We did 21 takes. Kubrick prints them all. In the old days a director never printed every take. Kubrick prints all 21 takes for this one little scene which lasts just a few seconds. He was set to keep going and I said, "You've got enough, I quit." I left. 21 takes, ridiculous.
Unfortunately, I was not able to spend more time talking with Ms. Gillis. While her words may seem bitter, the printed page does not capture the humor and lightheartedness with which she communicated. Ms. Gillis enjoyed her life in Hollywood and then moved onto the real world, living and traveling abroad with her husband. I enjoyed speaking with her and only wished there had been more time. She is just as saucy on screen as off. I'll never watch "Tom Sawyer" with the same eyes.
For any readers who speak Italian, you might want to check out Simone Odino's blog dedictated to "2001." You can access it at "www.2001italia.blogspot.com".