Ann Gillis (1927–2018)
aka: Alma Mabel Conner
Ann Gillis was a child actress and ingénue in thirty-nine Hollywood movies from 1934 to 1947. She played small parts in two perennially famous films—Walt Disney’s Bambi (1942) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Ann Gillis was born Alma Mabel Conner in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on February 12, 1927, to Mabel Brandon Conner. She later recalled: “My mother was one of those ladies who kept getting married. I guess one might say she was a femme fatale.” Mabel Conner left two husbands, including Alma’s father. The family often consisted only of Mabel, Alma, and Alma’s brother Brandon.
Alma’s first show business experiences were in school plays in New Rochelle, New York, and her mother was eager to explore her cute, red-haired daughter’s potential as a professional entertainer. Little Alma Conner sang on Rudy Vallee’s radio show and with big bands led by Vallee and Abe Lyman. In 1934, the Conners arrived in Hollywood. Mabel put Alma into a talent school, got her an agent, and changed her name to Ann Gillis. Gillis was the name of Mabel’s boyfriend at the time.
The novice actress was in only one film in 1934 and none in 1935, but in 1936 she was clearly in demand and worked in seven movies. Gillis was one of many little girls groomed by studios to replace Shirley Temple. No one ever replaced Temple, but Gillis had a longer career than most of the candidates. Unlike the adorable Temple, Gillis often played unpleasant spoiled brats.
As was the case for many other young actors, her career consisted of supporting parts in big pictures and big parts in small movies. Her A-pictures included The Great Ziegfeld (1936), in which she played Myrna Loy’s daughter; The Garden of Allah (1936), with Marlene Dietrich; Beau Geste (1939), with Gary Cooper; Edison the Man (1940), with Spencer Tracy; All This and Heaven Too (1940), with Bette Davis; Little Men (1940), with Kay Francis; Nice Girl? (1941), in which Gillis played one of Deanna Durbin’s sisters; and In Society (1944) and The Time of Their Lives (1946), both with Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. Among her most notable B-movies were two Western musicals: The Singing Cowboy (1936), an early hit for Gene Autry, and The Man from Music Mountain (1943), with Roy Rogers. In addition to dramas, comedies, and musicals, Gillis made one noir film, Big Town After Dark (1947), her final movie before her marriage and retirement from films.
Gillis’s only starring role came when she played Annie in Little Orphan Annie (1938), one of two films made in the 1930s based on the comic strip by Harold Gray. The film, which was only fifty-seven minutes long, told a story of Annie’s friendship with a prizefighter and is now little remembered. Variety (November 30, 1938) called the movie “stupid and thoroughly boresome [sic]” and wrote, “With some resemblance of logical story and proper direction, Ann Gillis would be satisfactory…but in this one she fails to register.” Gillis later joked about the film, “They probably erased it because it was pretty dreadful.”
Her best-known part was playing Becky Thatcher in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1938), a major color production, and her most famous scene was set in a cave where Tom and Becky are lost and are hunted by murderous Injun Joe. Gillis’s Becky screams hysterically in this scary scene. Gillis remembered that director Norman Taurog concentrated so much on novice actor Tommy Kelly, who played Tom Sawyer, that he neglected the other actors. She said, “The only direction I got on that movie was from my mother.” Variety (February 16, 1938) was enthusiastic about the film and called Gillis “quite capable.”
In 1944, Gillis was injured in a collision when she was a passenger in a car driven by actor David Holt. Her face flew through the windshield, but she recovered completely. She blamed the other driver, not Holt.
Gillis’s two most famous films were made twenty-six years apart. In Bambi, she provided the voice of the adult Faline, the doe who becomes Bambi’s mate. Gillis recalled, “It was cold and difficult. The director was in the sound booth. He directed me over the loudspeaker.…I just remember it being an unpleasant job.” She added disdainfully, “Cartoons were commonplace.”
In 1967, Gillis came out of retirement in London to spend one day working on 2001: A Space Odyssey as the mother of astronaut Poole. She makes a one-way telephone-television call from Earth to Poole on his spaceship. Gillis was only forty when she did this short scene, while Gary Lockwood, who played her character’s son, was thirty. A veteran of the thrifty days of old Hollywood, when budgets were sacred, Gillis had no patience with Kubrick’s perfectionism. “In the old days, a director never printed every take. Kubrick prints all 21 takes for this one little scene that lasts only a few seconds. He was set to keep going and I said, ‘You’ve got enough. I quit.’ I left. 21 takes. Ridiculous.” She added, “Kubrick was a real jerk. It shows you what can happen when a director is given a blank check.”
In interviews, Gillis often spoke warmly of people she worked with in the film industry, but she also revealed her dissatisfaction with many aspects of life in Hollywood. She had to keep up with schoolwork while working in several films a year. When she worked with Shirley Temple in Since You Went Away (1944), she compared her mother favorably with Temple’s demanding, bullying mother. Of her retirement, she said, “I called a halt to a life I hadn’t chosen and didn’t enjoy.”
After she quit Hollywood at age twenty, she married and divorced an American, then an Englishman. Her third marriage, to a Belgian, lasted until his death. After her early retirement, Gillis did a few guest performances on American and British television. She lived mostly in Britain and Belgium and enjoyed painting and playing the piano and the harp. She died in England on January 31, 2018.
For additional information:
“Ann Gillis.” Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0319268/?ref_=nv_sr_1 (accessed July 10, 2019).
“Ann Gillis” (Obituary). Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/ann-gillis-dead-young-leading-lady-adventures-tom-sawyer-dies-at-90-1081203 (accessed July 10, 2019).
Best, Marc. Those Endearing Young Charms: Child Performers of the Screen. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1971.
Fitzgerald, Mike. “An Interview with Ann Gillis.” Western Clippings. http://www.westernclippings.com/interview/anngillis_interview.shtml (accessed July 10, 2019).
Hobbs, Harlan. “Ann Gilles [sic]—Child Star to Glamour Girl.” Arkansas Democrat Sunday Magazine, November 2, 1941, p. 1.
“Little Rock Starlet Joins Arkansas Constellation.” Arkansas Gazette Sunday Magazine, April 11, 1937, pp. 9, 13.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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