Tribute to Noel Neill: A Celebration of Her Life

Metropolis, Illinois

November 5, 2016

She wasn’t always Lois Lane.

Noel arrived in Los Angeles from Minneapolis with her mother in 1938 and earned her living as a nightclub singer. She was 17 years old. Bing Crosby heard her and hired her for his club in Del Mar. It was a great time to be a singer. The legends of Tin Pan Alley were writing the music we’ve all come to know so well. The popular tunes of the day were written by Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern. Her favorite song, though, had been written in 1930, an early collaboration between Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields: “Exactly Like You.” She put it on her song list whenever possible. Ironically, it wasn’t her singing that led to the movies. It was a fluke encounter with a horse.

She was in Tucson, working nights singing at a club, when she came across a film shoot one afternoon. The movie was “Arizona” starring a very young William Holden. During a break in filming, someone suggested she mount the horse and someone else took her picture. The photo found its way to a desk at Paramount Pictures among several other studios but nobody took the bait – at least, not yet. She kept singing in clubs and found herself an agent. He got her work in small parts in small pictures, some of them at a small studio named Monogram.

Let me give you some context here.

Hollywood had just survived the Great Depression, the studios had consolidated their power but were struggling to respond to the demands and opportunities presented by World War II. Radio and movies were the dominant form of entertainment. People needed the escape from the often grim realities all around them. Families went to movies together in those days, enjoyed a double bill, a cartoon, a news reel, maybe a short and coming attractions – all for about a quarter. During the intermission, dishes were given away to lucky ticket-holders. On a per capita basis, theater attendance has never been higher than it was during the 1930s and early ‘40s. Almost 70% of the population of the United States went to the movies every single week. Seventy percent. Demand for product was high, of course, but even the huge motion picture factories could only crank out so many a year.

Enter the B picture. Studios like Monogram and Republic served as informal farm teams for the majors, allowing its contract players to get experience in the minors first. As you know, the B movie occupied the bottom half of the bill, making the customer feel he had gotten his money’s worth.

Thanks to her agent and her own persistence, Noel was cast in a multitude of films, the parts often so small her character didn’t even have a name. Her tenth as the versatile actor she had become seemed to be the turning point. “Lady of Burlesque” was directed by Hollywood legend William Wellman and starred Barbara Stanwyck. It was based on a novel by – wait for it – Gypsy Rose Lee. Noel was still uncredited but she was briefly featured in a group dance number in the film’s opening scene – not as a singer, mind you. Her natural wholesome personality and sparkling smile stood out among those jaded chorus girls. Suddenly, Paramount was interested.

It was a time when it was still possible to be “discovered.” Hollywood mythology held that people were plucked right off the streets or off soda fountain stools and made into stars. That did sometimes happen – to Lana Turner, to Janet Leigh, among others. But the reality was that it was much tougher than that to get noticed, much less get into the business. It took a lot of hard work and patience and more than a photo on a horse. The studio system was flourishing, dominated by the five majors and the tyrannical moguls who ruled over them. Paramount was the oldest of all of them, having been the most profitable studio of the silent era. Noel was signed to a seven-year contract and she began earning her whopping salary of $75 a week, Paramount’s newest starlet. She was 23 years old.

Let’s be clear. Noel was not a passive person in this process and that contract wasn’t just serendipity. Remember, this is a woman who had spent almost her whole life performing somewhere – in vaudeville, on her own radio program and in local productions in Minneapolis, and in nightclubs. She actively sought out opportunities. She had decided wanted to be in movies and she went for it. She put in her time as an apprentice. In show biz, as with any competitive enterprise, the one who is prepared and determined and has the talent to back it up is often the one most likely to capture the brass ring. When she signed the contract with one of the top studios in Hollywood, she figured she had it made.

But climbing that career ladder must have felt more like a treadmill. During the next five years, Noel was loaned out almost as often as she appeared in Paramount films. After all, the goal of the studio was first and foremost to make money. The profit margin by loaning out its contract players was hefty. Low-budget themes in these movies were typically damsels in distress rescued by a manly hero, a triumph of good over evil, simple plots. Noel was in a dozen or so films and shorts over the next few years, many of them westerns. Later in life, she would be honored with the Golden Boot award by the Motion Picture and Television Fund for those many appearances.

Then she landed a part in a Monogram film series starring The Teen Agers. From 1945 to 1948 there were eight films with pretty much the same cast. Each film took two to three weeks to shoot and featured not the finely honed vocal chops of Noel Neill but the soaring contra-tenor of the star, Freddie Stewart. Each musical had lots of wonderful big band music and some Busby-Berkeley-like dancing, including one elaborately choreographed number with a football team in “High School Hero.” The quickie series was sold off to television along with most of Monogram’s vault of films in the late 40s.

And here is where it gets personal for me. Noel’s face was among the first I saw on our brand new black and white Philco TV set and I was transfixed. I was seven years old, watching TV while sitting in the box it came in. I even remember the film. It was “Sarge Goes To College,” the fifth in the series, a wartime story about the housing shortage. The Teen Agers had a core cast of five very seasoned performers who played high school kids, even though all of them were well beyond college age. When Noel started the series, she was among the youngest at 25 years old. Theirs was a world I could not yet imagine, carefree teenagers singing and dancing their way through high school and high adventure.

Noel played Betty Rogers, a reporter for the school newspaper. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. But as the series moved on, she was promoted to Editor in Chief. Now in 1947, a female Editor was pretty revolutionary. Like the rest of the teens, Betty Rogers wanted to be wanted by someone of the opposite sex. But she never sold herself out. Her “career” came first. She was a serious journalist. She wore glasses, spouted First Amendment rights and fearlessly exposed school scandals – even while worrying about getting a date for the prom. Betty was no giggly white bread cutie, either. Her boyfriend in most of those films was professional bad boy Frankie Darro.

As a kid, when I read in the TV Guide that one of the Teen Agers movies would be on TV, I pretended to be sick so I could stay home and watch. I didn’t know who these actors were or how many films there were. All I knew was that they grabbed me emotionally, transported me to the mysterious world of adolescence. They were captivating, the music addictive and the kids funny and engaging. I know it’s a cliché, but they just don’t make them like that anymore.

As I grew up and learned about the history of film, I wanted to find out more about that series that had provoked me to become such an educational outlaw. After a lot of digging, I wrote an article about Freddie Stewart and the series for Classic Images magazine. Then after some persuasion from Larry Ward, a book began to emerge. Noel was the last cast member still living and she was kind enough to meet with me. We met many times and I came to know her as a warm and generous person. She was very present in any conversation, looked you in the eyes. She remembered those years with surprising clarity and told me some great stories, many of which I could not print. And I have to tell you, that woman could dish with the best of them. I found her endearing and very funny.

After The Teen Agers series ended, Noel persevered with her marathon roles. She was cast in several serials, one of which had to do with some guy named Superman. I’m pretty sure you’ll hear more about that enduring relationship later on.

Her secondary stardom continued to roll along. One year she appeared in 13 films in 12 months. She has the distinction of being an uncredited player in two Academy Award winning films in the early 1950s, “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “An American in Paris.” But soon, television came knocking and we all know what happened then.

Looking back over Noel’s movie career, I confess to being disappointed that Noel’s singing talents never made it into many films. Of course, in the ‘40s, the musical competition was extraordinary. There was Crosby, Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland and by the end of the 1940s, Doris Day. Even though Paramount produced all those musical Road pictures with Hope and Crosby, it was MGM across town that was better known for its high budget musical films. Twentieth Century Fox ground out a bunch of them, too, with Betty Grable and Alice Faye. I wonder. What might have happened if she had signed with Louis B. Mayer or even Darryl F. Zanuck instead?

Noel’s final film appearance came in a small, independent film “Surge of Power: Revenge of the Sequel,” which is scheduled for release later this year. She worked almost to the end. Few film actors of any era had a career that spanned more than 75 years, a list of credits that included more than 90 films and featured such a diversity of roles. It would seem there was little she could not do. No, she never became a big movie star but, having been privileged to spend time with Noel, I think that was just fine with her. She lived in interesting times and she knew who she was. I think if you were to ask her, she would tell you she was proud to have been even a small part of motion picture history. She did everything she had wanted to do and so much more – certainly more than could be imagined by that 17-year-old arriving in California in 1938. She wore her ambition lightly and well. And aren’t we lucky to be able to witness not only the span of her movie career but to watch the blossoming talent of the iconic legend we’re here today to celebrate.