Tuesday, January 15, 2008

VAL LEWTON BLOGATHON: THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLEThe Evening Class Interview With Ann Carter-Newton

Ann Carter is best remembered for her touching performance in Val Lewton's The Curse of the Cat People (1944). It remains an extraordinary example of a top-quality child performance in terms of sensitivity, natural talent and believability.

Carter was born in June 1936 in Syracuse and moved to California with her parents when she was three years old. Once there, a neighbor who worked for one of the film studios introduced her to producer/director
Herbert Brenon, who worked to turn her into a fine young actress. A year later, she landed a key—though uncredited—role in The Last of the Duanes (1941).

Because of her resemblance to Veronica Lake, Carter was later cast to play Lake's daughter in
I Married A Witch (1942), upon which the TV series Bewitched was loosely based (making Carter's character a parallel to Tabitha on the TV series). This led to a number of other films, including The Curse of the Cat People, And Now Tomorrow (1944), Song of Love (1947), Ruthless (1948) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1949).

Carter had another high-profile role as daughter of Humphrey Bogart in The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), for which she won the Critics Award for Top Juvenile Performance at age 10. Her last film appearance was in The Member of the Wedding (1952), a film that Val Lewton had originally been developing. It was during the filming of The Member of the Wedding that director Fred Zinnemann looked at Ann Carter and asked, "What's wrong with that child? She's leaning to port." Carter's mother took her to the doctor, who diagnosed the young actress with polio. For an entire year, she had to live in a full body cast weighing 55 pounds. It marked the end of her acting career.

Carter, now 71, is married, and a grandmother. She lives in Washington state. Shortly before Christmas last month, she consented to an interview.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Ann, I'm delighted to have a few minutes with you this morning to stroll down Memory Lane in Hollywood. For 10 years you had an incredible run as a child actress in such notable films as, of course, Val Lewton's Curse of the Cat People, but also I Married A Witch with Veronica Lake, The Virginian [1946], The Two Mrs. Carrolls, and The Boy With Green Hair [1948], just to name a few. Though polio forced you to retire, you must remain proud of this decade of work?

Ann Carter-Newton: I am. Except every time I see one of the movies, I see things I could have done better.

Guillén: As any conscientious artist would! After you retired from acting, you went into teaching?

Carter-Newton: I did. After I had polio and went through a lot of treatment for that with casts and all kinds of things, I finished college and I taught secondary school, high school.

Guillén: General education? Any particular focus?

Carter-Newton: No, but there was English and Drama. At the last of my teaching, I taught continuation high school, which I really loved; in California they called it continuation. It's Special Ed for students who choose to be there by contract and have various problems. You work with them individually and I liked that the best.

Guillén: I was so pleased that you came out of retirement to contribute to the Scorsese/Jones documentary. Your comments were so interesting. Can you speak about working on the set for Curse of the Cat People and what the conditions were like?

Carter-Newton: That was a memorable experience because the set was a very happy set for me. I was eight years old. It was 1944. [I was fascinated by] the way they dealt with the sound stage, which they changed from Summer to Fall to Winter.

Guillén: That must have been loads of fun as a child to experience.

Carter-Newton: Oh yes. It was beautiful what they did. There were people up in the catwalks throwing the snow—which was gypsum and untoasted cornflakes—out of boxes. All of this was very interesting and exciting to a child. And I am an only child like Amy was in the movie. I grew up around adults. Maybe that makes quite a difference in a child's life.

Guillén: Was Val Lewton ever on the set?

Carter-Newton: Yes, he was. I remember seeing him and knowing who he was but I don't remember any conversations with him. In my mind when I see him, he was always nicely dressed. He had on a suit and tie. He was formally dressed as opposed to some others who were working on different [aspects of the production].

Guillén: My understanding is that as a child actress you would work four-hour days, is that correct?

Carter-Newton: I think it was four hours. We had to have three hours of school.

Guillén: And that tutoring was right there on the set?

Carter-Newton: Yes, off in some quiet place. You always had a welfare worker who was a teacher and he was there to look out after your welfare and to teach you. On that set it was pretty much one-on-one. It was an opportunity to learn a lot every time I did that and I loved that part. I believe it was four hours a day and that's why we had stand-ins and support.

Guillén: Curse of the Cat People is unique in that it had two directors: originally Gunther von Fritsch who was then replaced by Robert Wise. Was that odd for you to have two different directors?

Carter-Newton: No, it really wasn't.

Guillén: Can you speak about what you recall about each of them and differentiate how they each directed you differently, if so?

Carter-Newton: Gunther von Fritsch was more intimidating. He was very nice to me—there was no one on that whole picture that was not extremely kind and nice to me as an eight-year-old—but, he was a little more rigid probably and maybe not as easy for me to communicate with as Robert Wise was. Robert Wise was extremely easy for me to understand and I knew exactly what he wanted. It was more comfortable with him.

Guillén: Your performance absolutely commands Curse of the Cat People. You're in nearly every frame. It's astounding for a child actor to have such depth to a role as you exhibited in this one. How did you work at creating the character of Amy Reed? You mentioned that you were an only child, so you had that point of reference, but how did von Fritsch and Wise work with you to develop the character?

Carter-Newton: I would say that probably the most important [influence] was my mother who worked with me. We had a routine. When I would leave the studio, we'd go home and eat dinner, have a bath and go to bed quite early, as early as possible. We would learn the lines for the next day; but, more importantly, we would talk about the whole scene and the script so that I would know exactly what was going on. Some of it was scary for me and I needed to know exactly what the story was and what was going on. After all, there were quite a lot of people [on the set].

Guillén: Curse of the Cat People is so textured and complex and I know it's been used as a textbook study in psychology courses on child development. As a child—with your mother's guidance—I'm sure you had a certain understanding about what the film was about. All these years later, do you have the same understanding, or has time leant a different understanding to the film?

Carter-Newton: I don't have a different understanding of the film. It's the same.

Guillén: So the film's message was simple and steady enough to come across then, even as it does now?

Carter-Newton: It was and is, yes. I did mention in the interview piece for the documentary about Irena's dress. She [Simone Simon] was interesting. She was very nice to me. She had that dress with all the stars. I was just fascinated by that dress and went around picking up the stars [that had fallen off]. That seemed important to me.

Guillén: You mentioned that you thought that was your job on the set?

Carter-Newton: I did. I remember that very clearly, yes.

Guillén: So you say that Simone was very sweet to you but I've read elsewhere that she didn't really want to do this film. None of that came across to you?

Carter-Newton: I didn't know that. That didn't come across to me at all.

Guillén: I've heard a rumor—and please just slap me up alongside the head if you don't want to answer this—but, I've heard a rumor that you had a missing tooth during the shooting of this film and that you were directed not to smile for fear the gap would show. Is that true?

Carter-Newton: No. I don't remember that at all. I remember having a missing tooth during
Commandos Strike At Dawn [1942]; but, that was an earlier movie and I don't remember being told not to smile. I do remember that—during the time that I did have a missing tooth—it was earlier and I had a bridge made.

Guillén: Well, then we've dispelled that rumor, which was floating around out there. [Note: On January 3, I received the following email from TCM's publicist: "Ann would like you to call Michael and tell him he was right about the missing tooth. Ann went back in her photos and it wasn't her front tooth, but the one next to it that was missing. Once Michael mentioned it, she got to thinking and with the photos, the story Michael told her did happen."]

What is it like for you—now that film culture has matured where access to these films are readily available to people through video and DVD—did you ever imagine that would happen?

Carter-Newton: No. Never. And I was very surprised when it was colorized as well. Some of those colors were definitely not right because I remember the color of the dresses I wore and they're not right in the colorized version.

Guillén: I think colorizing old black and white films was just a passing phase in American film culture; one which has fortunately seen its day.

Carter-Newton: I don't like it.

Guillén: I don't either. Have you shared your films with your own children and your grandchildren?

Carter-Newton: I have. My grandson saw Curse of the Cat People. He's 11 and he's a very imaginative boy and he appreciated it much more than my own children. My children, when they were young, I would get after them about something and—maybe there'd be one of my movies on TV—and they'd say, "Oh, you just think you're so smart because your name is in the TV Guide." There were a couple of times when my name was in the TV Guide and I remember them saying that.

Guillén: [Laughter.] I wish I could get my name in the TV Guide! Didn't they realize how glamorous that was?

Carter-Newton: [Laughter.] No, I was put down by my own children. But they're different now. They're OK now.

Guillén: Straying away a bit from Curse of the Cat People, there's also a story about how you intimidated your contemporary Margaret O'Brien at an audition by wearing white gloves?

Carter-Newton: My mother told me that story. We went on an interview—I think it might have been for The Last of the Duanes in 1940—I was four. Margaret O'Brien and I were the same age; she was four too. My mom told me that Margaret O'Brien had forgotten to say her lines because she was so fascinated with my gloves. I don't remember it but I heard it from my mother.

Guillén: Your mother sounds like she was a very smart woman.

Carter-Newton: Yes, and she was very interested in drama and anything like that. She had wanted to do that herself and be involved in some way herself; but, that didn't happen because her father wouldn't allow her to even have any lessons. She concentrated on me and I was the only one and that was it.

Guillén: In The Two Mrs. Carrolls you worked with Humphrey Bogart who nicknamed you "Tonsils." Why's that?

Carter-Newton: Because in the very beginning of the film, one of the first scenes, he comes home from his work and I'm sitting on the arm of a couch talking to him. While we were rehearsing, I yawned—evidently a very big yawn—and he looked down my throat and he said, "Oh, tonsils." And that was it from then on.

Guillén: Do you remember anything about Bogie?

Carter-Newton: I do. All good things. I remember how funny and nice he was with me. I also remember that—at that time—Lauren Bacall would visit the set often and I remember seeing her.

Guillén: Have you written down your remembrances, Ann?

Carter-Newton: I have not.

Guillén: Do you intend to?

Carter-Newton: I probably should.

Guillén: Oh yes, I strongly believe you should! You had such a wondrous opportunity as a child actress to meet and mingle with these personalities who are now the acknowledged stars of yesteryear.

Carter-Newton: I have some wonderful pictures autographed by them too and things like that. I should write down all my memories. I should. I remember on the set of The Curse of the Cat People that I used to call Sir Lancelot "Mr." Sir Lancelot.

Guillén: To wrap up then, what a delight it's been to chat with you this morning. I'm so glad that you came out of retirement to offer commentary in the Scorsese/Jones documentary. It adds such a beautiful personal touch.

Carter-Newton: I'm honored to be able to do this. Especially because I've had such a scary time with cancer a couple of years ago. I'm very happy I'm here to do it.

Guillén: So am I, Ann! Because of your recent bout with cancer, I encourage you all the more to share your memories with us by writing them down. Your memories are of value. People love films and what has gone into the making of them.

Carter-Newton: I will. I have a daughter who will help me a great deal with that. She's an organized type of person. I will.

Guillén: Great! Thank you very much, Ann.


Anonymous said...

Another enjoyable interview, thanks Michael, and thanks to Ann Carter-Newton. I wasn't even aware of the Scorsese documentary about Lewton, so i'll have to try and locate it.

P.S. I love that CURSE 3-sheet poster...it's hanging in my kitchen as we speak!

Kurt Lein

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful opportunity to hear about these remembrances from the one and only Ann Carter.

I await her book with great anticipation!

Thank-you, Michael,za for doing this and to Ann for giving us such a wonderful insight to this brilliant but all too short career.


Los Angeles

Michael Guillen said...

Kurt, Candace, I appreciate hearing from the both of you. I'm glad you enjoyed Ann as much as I did.