"Allene Roberts appears to be a real find-winsome like Teresa Wright, and with an appealing loneliness," wrote Philip K. Scheuer in his review of The Red House (1947) in the Los Angeles Times. It was quite a compliment for the newcomer, being compared to the accomplished Oscar-winner Wright. Roberts was just seventeen years old at the time, and here she was making her film debut-in fact, her professional debut-alongside such veterans as Edward G. Robinson and Judith Anderson, and giving an appealing, natural performance.
Today, Allene vividly remembers how she secured her part in The Red House. "The producer of that movie was Sol Lesser. He called and gave my mother and me an invitation to come to lunch at a studio, so we went, and Lon [McCallister] was there, too. While we were eating and talking and getting to know one another, he asked me, 'Allene, I want to ask you a question. When you go to the beach, do boys whistle at you?' I said, 'No, sir, they don't.' He said, 'You've got the part.' (laugh) And that's the truth, I was tellin' the truth, because when I went to the beach, they never noticed me," she adds with a chuckle.
Allene Roberts was born on September 1, 1928, in Fairfield Highlands, a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Her father, Frank, was an electrician and he worked at a plant in Fairfield, and her mother, Velma, was a housewife and mother. She had three brothers, Frank, Arthur, and Billy. Allene recalls today "a wonderful childhood . . . Oh, yes, I did, I did have a wonderful childhood."
Sadly, though, her father died of a heart condition when he was only 47 years old, "and that just about killed me; I dearly loved him," Allene says. To support the family, her mother took in boarders, "and we had some really nice fellas who lived there, they were just like brothers to me, just treated me so nice, and were so kind to my mother, too."
Almost from the start, Allene was attracted to acting. "Well, I tell ya, when I was a little girl, we had a mirror that hung on the wall in our dining room and it kinda leaned forward, you know, just a little bit. It was just perfect for me to just act in front of it, so I would stand there, in between the living room and dining room, and I would just act out things. I would sing, I would dance, just pretend that I was an actress, and, I don't know why, but I liked it and so that's what I did."
Describing herself as "feisty," she adds with a laugh, "My brother used to say to me, 'I remember when you were little; we never knew what you were going to come back with!' I did some crazy things (laugh), I tell ya. My mother was very interested in her church group and she would go to meetings. One day, I was out playing, my brother Arthur was there to just watch out for me, and I just got to thinking about my mother. I was in a swing and I just stopped the swing. Our church was right down about two blocks, and I just took off and went down to that church. I found out which room they were in, she was in there with all of her ladies that she studied with. I was standing there by my mother and these ladies said, 'Why don't you sing us a song?' I guess my mother thought I would probably sing "Jesus Loves Me" or, you know, some song from the hymnal, but all of a sudden, I started singing: 'Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts, oh lordly how they could love. Frankie was loyal to Johnny, just as true as the stars above. He was her man, but he was doin' her wrong.' (laugh) You know what? I got a whippin' when I got home (laugh). They had applauded, but I embarrassed my mother to death. I was a nut case, I'm tellin' ya," she laughs.
When she was about 11., Allene's aunt sent in her photo (shown on page 17) to the New York Daily Mirror to compete in the "America's Most Charming Child" contest. "My aunt, who I'm named for, she lived in Tampa, Florida, and she sent my picture in to a newspaper. There were about, I think they said, 85,000 children who were in it, from Canada and Mexico and the United States. She thought, 'Well, if I send her picture in, maybe she'll win honorable mention or something and maybe she'll get just enough to buy her some school clothes, because we were poor. I mean, we were really poor after my dad passed away.
"[A little later] she called my mother and said, 'Velma, you need to bring Allene and come to Tampa because she is running very high in this contest.' We got on the train and went down and we were there for about three months. I started to school down there because we were there so long. Finally, they said I was in the last bunch of kids. As it turned out, I won, and that just floored me because I didn't even expect to be mentioned and here I won it. And it was a thousand dollars to go to New York City and a screen test with Warner Bros.
"When I called them and thanked them for the money, they wanted me to come to New York right then, and I said, 'Well, I want to do it, but I really would appreciate it if my aunt could come with my mother and me because she was the one who sent my picture in and I really wanted to do that for her.' And they said, 'Well, sure, she can come,' and so she got to go to New York City with us. Well, when we were there, she had a ruptured appendix and got sent to the hospital and I rode in the ambulance with her. And this was right downtown New York City. Don't ever do that, don't ever ride in an ambulance in New York City, I've never been so scared in all my life. But, anyway, she was in the hospital a good while and I had to pass up going to California right then because of her being sick and my mother wanted to be with her-of course, it was her sister-so we stayed there.
"When we could go to California, I went out there. The screen test really wasn't a big deal, you know, and I hadn't had any experience at all and I just flunked it. I flunked the test!" she laughs.
At Warners, however, she recalls meeting Bette Davis, one of her favorite actresses. "I liked Bette Davis very much. She was having her hair done and she was sitting underneath a hair dryer and I thought, 'That's Bette Davis,' and I walked over and I just leaned over, right in her face to talk to her, and I said, 'Miss Davis, I have loved you for a long time,' and she was very nice to talk to me (laugh), but that's a kid for you, you know, they'd do anything. It was good of her. I liked her.
"But, anyway, Mother and I decided to stay in California because she had arthritis and she was feeling a whole lot better out there because of the difference in the weather. When we decided to stay, I had no idea there would ever be a film for me or a part in anything. I just liked it because it was helping her and I was enjoying school and everything, so we stayed. That's when things began to really happen for me."
While in California, she went to school and continued her interest in acting. "I loved acting, I did. I went to this acting school for two years down on Sunset Blvd. This was long before The Red House. I would go there after school. I took a job answering their telephones for them and making appointments because I could do my homework while I was waiting for the phone to ring and, you know, they were very good to give me a job.
"One day, this casting director from-I don't remember if she was from MGM or who she was with-came to watch some of our acting and the director picked me to be in one of the scenes. After we finished, this lady asked if she could have pictures of me, in case there was a job that would come up that I could do. I gave her some pictures and she would call me and I would go out on interviews. She had me out there when they were interviewing for The Red House."
The Red House (1947), directed by Delmer Daves, remains one of the most atmospheric, eerie films of the '40s. Although it is considered a minor noir classic today, its pervasive pessimism and sadness might have deterred some viewers during its initial, modest February 1947 release. The film is incredibly evocative of a complex range of emotions. Bizarre, dark, moody, and haunting, with Freudian themes running rampant; those who have seen it are not likely to forget it. The story is about a girl who is warned by her adopted father not to go into the woods, the "Oxhead woods, which have the allure of a walled castle." The girl soon defies his orders when she falls for a local boy, and the secret that has tormented the family for years is finally revealed.
The movie started production in April 1946, with location shooting in Sonora, California. Being a neophyte, Allene was very nervous when she was cast and star/co-producer Edward G. Robinson sensed this right away. "I was working with one of the biggest actors [or] stars in history, Edward G. Robinson, and I remember my first scene was with him and it was on location on a farm about halfway up California, near San Francisco-somewhere up there. I thought, 'You know, he has cast approval and what if he decides that I'm not up for this part? And he just tells them to get rid of me and get somebody else.' And the next thing I knew, his stand-in was coming over to ask me to come over and sit by Mr. Robinson. I went over there and sat down beside him and he started talking to me about everything else in the world but movies. And just breaking the ice, you know, because he knew I must be nervous, and I was, I was terribly nervous. I was seventeen. So we talked and laughed. You know, it just felt like he was somebody I had known forever. Our first scene was in that barn where I asked him to hire Lon McCallister to come and help him in the afternoons. He always played the bad guy in most every picture he did, but he was anything but bad. He was the sweetest person to work with. I just really loved him."
Of the others in the cast, Allene remembers, "Judith Anderson was sweet, too. She was just kind of aloof, that was just her attitude, but she was actually very nice. She was very quiet and being herself, not really mixing very much with other people, but she was a very kind person. Julie London was very sweet; I liked her very much and she was very friendly to me."
The person she bonded with the most on The Red House set, however, was her leading man, Lon McCallister, who remained a life-long friend. He "became one of my dearest friends, one of my best friends, for years. He got out of the picture business, too, later, and went into real estate. He lived near Lake Tahoe. His dad was in the business of selling homes and buying other properties, so Lon decided he was going into that, not with his dad but by himself. He found this house that was right on the ocean and he decided he was going to buy that house, but his dad said, 'No, don't buy that house, it's not that good.' Lon bought it anyway; he only paid $14,000 for it, and two years later he sold it for two million. He was smart."
The New York Times labeled The Red House "horror for adults," going on to praise its "mounting tension" and calling the film "such an edifying offering, which should supply horror-hungry audiences with the chills of the month." The whole cast was well received, but Allene and Julie London were particularly singled out for "portrayals [that were] seasoned far beyond their records."
More of a compliment for Allene was her director's response. Delmer Daves was "wonderful, wonderful. I had a scene where I had to cry and when we were through shooting, I looked at him and tears were rolling down his face. He was touched by the scene and that really thrilled me that I made that kind of impression on him. He was very sweet to everybody."
Sol Lesser, who had coproduced The Red House with Robinson, for their Thalia Productions, promptly put Allene and Julie London under personal contract. Allene would be making $150 a week. "For a while I did, yeah, and then I got a little more than that. Back then that was pretty good money." Staying true to her roots, Allene insisted that ten percent of all her earnings would go to her church back home, the Fairfield Highlands Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama; she would continue this throughout her career.
Allene thought very highly of Sol Lesser ("Oh, I liked him very much"), and recalls the time he wanted her to go to New York City to promote The Red House. "He asked my mother, 'What kind of clothes does she wear?' and my mother said, 'Well, she dresses just like any teenager in high school,' and he said, 'Well, how about I send my daughter to take her shopping so she'll have just the right clothes for New York City?' So, I went shopping with his daughter and she bought me some lovely clothes to take to New York City, a couple of coats that were different and just nice things like that. And I just thought he was a wonderful man to do such things."
Prior to Allene getting into movies, her mother worked as a seamstress at Fox to support them. "Mother had a good job. She worked in different places. During the war she inspected shells for guns and she worked in two different places doing the same thing. Then, for awhile, she worked at a department store and then went to work at 20th Century-Fox. She went out to Fox when she was offered a job in the wardrobe department. She worked there for a good while. In fact, she sold a dress to Gracie Allen for one thousand dollars," Allene remarks. "Of course, she had to give the money to the studio. But I told her, 'Mama, I just want you to know that if anything ever comes up and I get a part in a picture, I'm gonna take care of you like you have taken care of me all these years.' I loved her dearly. She was a precious lady, and I just wanted to be her rock that she could lean on. I got that contract with Sol Lesser and I told her, 'Okay, Mom, you can quit your job because I'm going to take care of ya now.'"
She is quick to point out that her mother was not a typical stage mother, neither pushy nor demanding. "She would go with me on the set sometimes, you know, if I wanted her to go . . . well, at first she had to be there because I was only 17, but later on, occasionally, she would come with me and be there, but most of the time she just wanted to be 'Mama.'"
The movie magazines played up the young Red House trio of Allene, Lon and Julie, and items were planted in the papers of supposed reunions in such projects as A Bride of Bridal Hill, Girl Shy, and Show Me the Land, the latter which Hedda Hopper considered "the perfect story" for them. Yet, they were not paired together again. "I didn't get told about any of those. That would have been nice if we could have continued working together because we got along just fine. I wonder what happened that we didn't do them."
To keep the girls' names before the public, while he looked for suitable films for them, Lesser sent out various publicity items. Hedda Hopper reported to her readers that both Allene and Julie were "taking lessons in Psychology at UCLA" in their "spare time." Allene laughed, "Well, that was a bunch of hooey. That wasn't true. I didn't go to college. In fact, I had a talk with one of my teachers when I was about to graduate from high school, Hollywood High. I asked her what she thought I ought to do about going to college. A lot of my friends were going to college. She said, 'Let me tell you something, Allene, you already know what you are doing. You like what you are doing. These girls and boys, some of 'em will go to college, and they'll come out of college and they still won't know what they want to do. But you know already. I don't think you have to go.' So, I didn't."
Another project, Harness Bull, produced by Lesser and to star Edward G. Robinson, had been announced right after The Red House was released, but, again, nothing happened, and she and Robinson never did work together again. (Robinson would make Harness Bull as Vice Squad in 1953 with K.T. Stevens in the role Allene was to have played.) But Allene recalls meeting Robinson several years later, in the '50s, when she and her good friend, Jack Larson, saw him perform on stage in Los Angeles. "During the play, Jack learned over and he said, 'After this is over, you and I are gonna go backstage and you're going to get to see Mr. Robinson and talk to him again.' I said, 'Jack, are you crazy? He's got a lot of people that will be back there; he may not even remember me.' Jack said, 'Well, we are going backstage and that's that.' So, after it was over, we started backstage. Mr. Robinson was standing outside his dressing room, 'cause his dressing room was full of people, and he was talking to someone outside the door. He was just talking and then he turned his head and looked and then he just did a double-take. He dropped talking to that man and he spread his arms out and came toward me and he put his loving arms around me and he said, 'How are you and how is your mother?' I said, 'We're fine, we're just fine,' and I said, 'You were excellent in this play tonight,' and he said, 'Well, thank you very much,' but, he said, 'I'm so glad to see you.' He wanted to get back talking to me instead of talking about himself. Afterwards, I told Jack, 'I'm really glad you insisted on doing that because he did remember me.'" Being recognized by a busy star like Robinson was all the more surprising to Allene because of the new hair style she had at the time. "Do you remember the poodle cut? Well, I had a poodle cut. And I didn't look like myself."
Meanwhile, mid-1947 saw the start of production on The Sign of the Ram (1948), an interesting psychological drama about a domineering, manipulating, wheelchair-bound woman. The movie was Susan Peters' return to screen acting after a tragic hunting accident two years before that had left her unable to walk. Previously portraying sweet nothings, Peters attacked her meaty role in The Sign of the Ram and her intense, central performance in this John Sturges-directed independent production is the main reason to watch this today.
Allene, on the other hand, was not so lucky; she was relegated to a minor supporting part, being billed below Alexander Knox, Peggy Ann Garner, Phyllis Thaxter, Ron Randell, and Dame May Whitty. As one of Knox's children, Allene had basically nothing to do and, unfortunately, is barely noticeable in her role, a pity considering her strong showing in The Red House not long before. "It was a job and I went," she concedes. She did enjoy the clothes, designed by Jean Louis. "The gown that I wear in it was made for me and I thought that was really nice." About the cast, Allene replies, "Susan Peters was excellent and she was the sweetest girl. The accident that happened to her was very sad. She didn't mention it [on the set], but I had read about what happened to her. We just talked about normal things that you talk about on the set. Not anything serious, we were nice to one another. I liked Peggy Ann Garner, she was a nice girl." Asked if Peggy, known for various pranks on sets, did so on this one, she laughs, "Well, she didn't pull a prank on us, that I know of." Alexander Knox, who played her father, was "All right. He was just different. He was serious."
Allene continues, "The worst thing that I remember about that movie was that just about everybody on that whole set smoked. At times, you just could hardly breathe 'cause they would just light a cigarette and smoke. I couldn't figure out why; nobody was smoking in the scenes, but they would smoke when they were not working, when they were takin' a break or just not in that particular scene. I thought, 'You know, in Susan's condition, she doesn't need to be breathing this stuff.'" Then, Allene interjected wryly about her small part, "I'm surprised they could even see me because of the smoke. It just wasn't a good movie for me."
From this, Sol Lesser loaned Allene out to his son, Julian, who, with his partner Frank Melford, had formed Windsor Pictures Corp. in 1947 to make features for release through Monogram. Michael O'Halloran (1948) was to be their first of four different adaptations of Gene Stratton-Porter stories; it would be the only one. A third filming of the famous story, it boasted a budget between $200,000 and $250,000, but didn't exactly set the world on fire. Allene did nab the female lead, with Scotty Beckett playing the title character. "Scotty was all right, I liked him. I thought he had beautiful eyes and I told him, 'Scotty, you have very pretty eyes,' and he laughed, 'Well, thank you. Nobody else ever said that to me before.' I said, 'Well, you do.'" A well done, modest production, it was praised by reviewers. The Akron Register-Tribune wrote, "Scotty Beckett is solid as the tough newsboy with a big heart, and pretty Allene Roberts shows acting ability in her demanding role of the disheartened girl who can't walk."
Although she had a seven-year contract with Sol Lesser, even he must have realized that nothing was coming of it. He was not making any movies at this time. In August 1948, Humphrey Bogart had picked Allene to play a small but plum role in Knock on Any Door (1949), a film that would be the star's first movie with his production company Santana Pictures, Inc., a company he formed with his business manager, A. Morgan Maree, and producer Robert Lord. Lesser, who in the coming years would concentrate almost solely on Tarzan movies, liked Allene and did not want to stand in her way of getting parts. "I was up for a part in Knock on Any Door with Humphrey Bogart and John Derek. Sol wanted me to go out on that and he said, 'Now, I am going to pay you the difference between what I would get and what you would get if you get this part. That will be a lot more than what you would normally make.' And I thought that was just super good of him." Allene got the part and promptly became a freelance actress.
In Knock on Any Door, Allene plays one of her most memorable screen roles. Here, her innate innocence and sweetness works in tandem with John Derek's reckless bad boy whose motto is "Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse." She brings a poignancy to the film, as her love humanizes Derek's character. Her heartfelt, natural performance, helped immeasurably by good chemistry with Derek, is the film's emotional core. "It was a good movie, very important to me. I did have a great role," she says. Her acting technique wasn't anything that was calculated or contrived, she says, "it was just me. I was just being myself."
Allene wasn't even aware that Bogart had personally chosen her for the movie, and she says that nothing was mentioned to her regarding this fact. "He picked me. I don't know how he did, but he did. He must have seen me. He could have seen The Red House." On set, Bogart was "very, very aloof. It wasn't like he was avoiding anybody, but I remember his wife [Lauren Bacall] came on the set one day and they were just sitting there talking and other people would come around and everything, but they weren't asked to sit down or anything and be around them at all. That's just the way he was, just kind of a loner."
John Derek was much different, "a real sweet guy, real sweet." They got along well and she recalls one cute moment. "This is kinda funny. We had to rehearse a lot and he had to kiss me. So, he was kissing me and we had to do it over and over again, and he said, 'Now, when we really shoot this, I am going to really kiss you.' I said, 'Okay.' And, so, when he kissed me [while we were filming], I didn't say anything, I had to put my head down on the floor like I was losing him or something. I put my head down and I just said to myself, 'If he thinks that's a real kiss, boy, is he crazy!'" she laughs. "He was a nice guy."
Allene got excellent reviews for Knock on Any Door. Walter Winchell made note that she was a "newcomer with the stardust touch." The Winnipeg Free Press said that she "contributes a delicately appealing portrait" as the young wife. She won Photoplay's "Choose Your Star" contest, based solely on the impression she made opposite John Derek in the film. All the columnists were reporting that a fan from Chicago, Cal Stern, had sent Allene a song titled "Allene," and that Vince Palmer would record it.
It was good publicity, but unfortunately, Allene was not able to capitalize on it, although a chance did come up when an impressed Ida Lupino approached Allene to star in an independent movie she was to co-produce, co-write and, ultimately direct (uncredited), Not Wanted (1949). The story, daring for its time, dealt with a young girl who has a baby out of wedlock. "I didn't like the part she was going to have me do because I would have played an unmarried pregnant woman. I just told her, I'm sorry but I don't want to do that part and she just looked at me like she thought I was crazy! And maybe I was. And I just did not want to do that, so I didn't." She does not regret her decision, choosing to stand by her principles was more important to Allene than a mere film role.
Instead, immediately after shooting on Knock on Any Door was completed, inexplicably she went over to Monogram to portray the female lead to Johnny Sheffield in Bomba on Panther Island (1949). The second in the Bomba the Jungle Boy series, it was directed and written by Ford Beebe. "Oh, dear God," Allene says wearily of this movie, "Just leave it alone, it's not worth mentioning (laugh). I didn't know very much about anybody on [that movie]. Well, it wasn't the greatest movie in the world, but it did bring in some money and that's what I was there for. It's a way to make a living."
Reporter Frank Neill, who was on the set, was more concerned over Allene's change of hair color than anything else that was going on. "Allene portrays a demure British doll who treks to the African jungles and promptly undergoes a personality change," Neill wrote in his "In Hollywood" column. He interviewed Stephanie Garland, who did Allene's hair in Bomba. "Allene normally is a dark blonde," said Stephanie. "But to point up her personality we tinted her hair with blonde streaks. Contrasting streaks give a gal more vivacity, and that's what we want." Allene still wasn't happy with the film or the role.
It would have helped enormously at this point if she had been picked up by a studio for a contract, instead of freelancing. Freelancing, without a studio's guidance, was, in the opinion of many, detrimental to her budding career. "Well, in a way, I guess, but in another way I liked the freedom I had, too." Still, there was an unevenness to Allene's career that is bewildering for someone so obviously talented. She was not getting the parts she deserved. It seemed that for every really good movie she made, there was a Bomba that acted as a speed bump on her path. Yet, she insists, "I didn't think about that. I just thought, if there's one for me, it'll come along and it did. I remember when I really needed a job and I was kinda worried about it, it wasn't two days till I was offered a very nice part and I thought, 'Well, God answers my prayers.' And I have believed that with all my heart ever since. I took my job very seriously, every job I had in the movies I took very seriously and I loved it. I loved acting and I'm just glad I had the chance to do that for a while."
And another good part did come her way with Paramount's Union Station (1950). Set in New York, but actually shot all around California, this riveting drama was based on Thomas Walsh's novel, Manhattan Madness, which was serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. Both John Lund and Alan Ladd were sought for the male lead, but William Holden ultimately starred as a police lieutenant who goes after the kidnapper (Lyle Bettger) of the blind daughter (Allene) of a businessman (Herbert Heyes). Although Holden thought Union Station was "a retreat to the potboilers" he had done earlier in his career, the New York Times called it "a tense crime thriller," one that combined the "police procedural" and film noir genres with remarkable ease. The acting is straightforward and excellent. Reviewer Frank Morriss critiqued, "Although its backgrounds have the ring of authenticity, it is frankly a melodrama, designed to tighten up your nerves, and it succeeds admirably." About Allene, Morriss noted that she "brings a pathetic terror to the part of the blind girl." In a role that Wanda Hendrix was first announced for, Allene is, indeed, intense and very realistic as the blind girl kidnapped and roughed up by Lyle Bettger. Some of her acting, Allene reveals, was all too real.
"Lyle was someone I hoped I'd never have to work with again. I'm sure he was just kind of into his part, but he would grab me so hard that I had bruises all over my arms. Wherever he grabbed me, I would just have bruises. The lady who was in the wardrobe department was talking about those bruises on me and she said, 'You know, we need to get a therapist for you to come in and work on you because that's bad.' And they did. They got somebody to come in and she just went all over me, working on me, so I would feel better 'cause I was sore. I don't know, but I didn't like him."
Holden, on the other hand, despite his initial reluctance to do the movie, was professional. "I loved William Holden; he was a very sweet man. He was just wonderful. And the guy who played the Irishman, Barry Fitzgerald, he was nice, too. They made it fun working on that. It was a good movie. Everybody that I know who's seen it, liked it. And that's what I was always interested in: that they liked the movie. They didn't have to say, 'Oh, we loved you,' or whatever, but if they would tell me they liked the movie then that was good."
While not a major production, the 45-minute A Wonderful Life (1951), filmed inside of a month, contained "a good part for me," Allene states. The Protestant Film Commission signed Allene, James Dunn, Arthur Shields and Jack Larson to star in the short film. William Beaudine directed an Alan Shillin screenplay and filming took place at the KTTV Studio. It was produced by Paul F. Heard with the cooperation of the Congregational Christian Churches, the Presbyterian Church USA and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. "My agent called me and told me they wanted me to play a part in it, and so I did. I thought James Dunn was a very nice man. And Jack Larson is still one of my good buddies. Every once and a while we'll talk to one another and he's a real sweet guy, I like him very much." The story was inspired by a real-life incident in Sedalia, Missouri. Allene plays a neglected daughter who looks back upon the life of her late father, who gave to charity and his church all his life, and she wonders if he really did have a wonderful life.
The Washington State Apple Commission named Allene Miss Delicious of 1950, and it proved to be very good publicity for her, as she was featured in all the newspapers. "I went up there and they showed me the place where they go through the apples that are really good and separate 'em from the ones that are not so good and all that, you know, things like that. And they were just so sweet to me. They gave me a very lovely necklace for coming up there. It wasn't apples . . . well, it wasn't diamonds, either. Anyway, it was pretty," she laughs.
In Santa Fe (1951), a Columbia/ Randolph Scott Western, Allene played a supporting part as the young wife of Jerome Courtland. "No, it really didn't matter if I was playing lead or support, as long as I was working. I just took it as it came, you know. Randolph was nice as he could be. He was just always kind, and we had a nice scene together and I really enjoyed working with him."
She was less enamored with her lead role in The Hoodlum (1951). Filmed in just twelve days, it was an unsettling movie, and Allene has a role that is very disturbing to her fans. She is a sweet, innocent girl who goes from a healthy, normal relationship with a young man (Edward Tierney) to a destructive one with his brother, an ex-convict (Lawrence Tierney), whose cruelty pushes her toward suicide. Allene's realistic depiction of the distraught, confused girl infuses the atmosphere with despair. Directed by Max Nosseck and written by Sam Neuman and Nat Tanchuck, it was produced by Jack Schwarz Productions and released through Eagle-Lion.
"Oh, yes," Allene sighs resignedly. "You know, I haven't seen that one, I don't think I ever saw it because I didn't like doing it." She adds with a laugh, "It was just like I was taking a part in a very, very pitiful show." About her tense scenes with Lawrence Tierney, she says, "Well, he just kinda had that attitude . . . he wasn't mean or anything, he was . . . different, kind of aloof, kind of in love with himself a little bit. His personality and all was just different than anybody I'd ever known before."
Kid Monk Baroni (1952), for Jack Broder Productions, was another cheap movie, but it was one she enjoyed making very much. It contained an excellent part, her last lead in a feature film. She played a girl who tries, with the help of a priest (Richard Rober), to set straight a young hoodlum (Leonard Nimoy) to the right path in life. "I did like that. I had a very good part and I enjoyed working with Jack [Larson] and I enjoyed working with Leonard and the man who played the priest, Richard Rober. Two weeks after we were finished shooting, he was killed in a car accident. He was a beautiful man, really, very good looking and very, very sweet. He was just perfect for the part of a priest; he was good. We enjoyed working together. I liked the part I had and it turned out to be nice, I thought."
With a cast that included John Derek, Mona Freeman, Gene Evans, Eileen Christy, Ward Bond, and Barton MacLane, Republic's Thunderbirds (1952) was a wartime story that had Allene in a small supporting part as Sam McKim's pregnant wife. "The scenes that I remember were all with him," she notes. "Sam McKim played my husband in it and I dated him a few times [in real life]. He was a very nice guy." She remembers one on-set incident that amused her. "I was sitting, waiting for 'em to get ready to shoot the scene and there were some people that came on the set just to see what was going on, someone invited them, and this one man saw me sitting there. They had fixed this artificial big tummy on me because I was supposed to be pregnant, and he said, 'What is she doing here when she's about to have a baby?' The person he said this to said, 'She's not pregnant, she's just acting. That's a fake tummy.' He was like, 'Oh, okay,'" she laughs.
With movie roles not coming her way, Allene took the step to television in 1953.
"At that time, the movie industry just kinda went blah for a while because of TV. They were afraid that TV was just going to take over. So I went out for TV parts, because I wanted to keep on working and I knew that if I just waited for a movie to come around that maybe it would, and maybe it would never. So I just took up with TV whenever they could hire me for anything and I worked on that."
Allene had done her first live TV broadcast way back in January of 1949 on Your Show Time (The Sire de Maletroit's Door) with Morris Carnovsky and Dan O'Herlihy and The Silver Theatre (The First Hundred Years) in 1950 with Jimmy Lydon, Robert Armstrong, William Frawley, and Nana Bryant. "It was kinda scary in those days. I was used to working with cameras, shooting things and then redoing it if it didn't turn out right. And then when you get into something that has to be done one time, it is kinda scary. I don't remember anything bad happening other than a part that was not that great."
1953 saw Allene appearing with more regularity on episodic TV: The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse (Wait for Me Downstairs), City Detective (Midnight Auto Supply), Omnibus (Nobody's Fool), The Public Defender (Road to Nowhere and Let Justice Be Done), The Lone Wolf (The Minister Story), Four Star Playhouse (The Adolescent), and Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (Man Out of the Rain and The Ledge). The late Barbara Whiting, who appeared with Allene on TV, simply remembered Allene as "a sweet girl, just very, very nice. I liked her very much. When I was under contract to Fox [in the '40s], I remember her mother worked in the wardrobe department. Us kids used to hang around with [Velma] whenever we could. She was very, very sweet; a lovely lady."
Notable among Allene's TV appearance were her three guest shots on Adventures of Superman, The Haunted Lighthouse, The Monkey Mystery, and The Whistling Bird, which co-starred her friend Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen. "I loved working with Jack!" she enthuses. About Superman himself, George Reeves, "I just remember he was very nice . . . very friendly. Most people who worked with him liked him."
When asked if Jack Larson helped her secure her three gigs on Superman, Allene replies in the negative. "It was because I was available, and I took them because I needed a job."
But the television program she appeared on most often was Dragnet, guesting on at least six episodes between 1952 and 1955: The Big 17, The Big Barrette, The Big Betty, The Big Fake, The Big Shoplift, and The Big Note.
"I enjoyed working with Jack Webb; I thought he was good, really good. I just worked with him and got along fine. He was just so kind to me. If there was a part that was available for me that he thought I would be good in, he didn't even go through my agent or anything; he would call my home and just tell me he wanted me to work with him again. I felt that was wonderful.
"I forget now what [Dragnet] episode it was, but I had been attacked by someone and they had cut my neck, so I had this scar thing on my neck. I got a call to come for another interview with another company across town. When I got through with working that day on that particular scene I was doing, I didn't have time to go home to get that scar off my neck, the make-up and all that stuff, so I just went as I was. And people would just stop and turn around and look at my neck and, I thought, 'Oh, dear Lord, they think that I was almost killed by someone,'" she laughs. "At the audition, I just told 'em I just came from Dragnet and this was a scene I was in where I had to have a scar on my neck and they understood."
In early 1954, Allene was up for a movie role that, conceivably, could have changed the course of her career. "I was up for the lead role in Oklahoma! (1955). A man from New York City, who worked with Rodgers and Hammerstein, came to California to interview [actresses] for the part of Laurie. At that time I was working for a dentist and he was just like a father to me. I said, 'Dr. Johnson, I've got to go read for a part this afternoon, do you mind if I take off?' and he said, 'You absolutely have to go for that part in Oklahoma!, you definitely need to go.'" At this time, in between acting jobs, Allene worked as a receptionist, making appointments and answering phones.
"So I took off from work and went out there," Allene continues. "I read for the part. The man who was doing the interview said, 'Have you ever played Laurie before?' I said, 'No, sir, I haven't.' He said, 'But you ARE Laurie,' and I thought, 'Maybe I'm gonna get this part.' But they had me come on three different interviews for the role."
The last interview, however, proved her undoing. "For the last one they had this guy [who] was up for the part of Curly, the role that [ultimately went to] Gordon MacRae. This guy was trying out for the part and we had to sing together. He just drowned me out with his voice. I mean, he just . . . he should have kept it down where we both could sing together and be heard and all, but he didn't do that. He just took over. Naturally, I didn't get the part because I couldn't sing well enough to sing with him. Now, if I had gotten the part, I can assure you that Gordon MacRae would have done what he could to make me heard, he would have."
Although she did not get the lead, Allene stayed around to help the production, and that ultimately lead to a job when it began filming in mid-1954. "They needed somebody to play the part of Laurie in interviewing these girls that were up for [the role of] Ado Annie. So, because I had done that, and didn't charge them anything, they gave me a part, not a real acting thing, but just being part of the crowd. I was in several scenes. You wouldn't even recognize me. I had a bonnet on in one scene, I was in the peach orchard and then in another scene I was on one of the wagons and I had on this old dress like they wore back in those days."
Allene remembers fondly Gordon MacRae, who was "just a sweetheart, oh, he was so kind." As for newcomer Shirley Jones, who nabbed the plum lead of Laurie, Allene says, she "was so sweet. I was glad she got the part because she sang very well and she was so nice."
Allene fondly recalls the whole Oklahoma! moviemaking experience, save for the actor who was playing the villain, Jud. "The one that I could not stand in the scenes that I was in was Rod Steiger," she states empathically. "He was awful. We were all just takin' a break, sitting there waiting for them to set the film and cameras and all that for the next scene and I was having a cup of coffee. Rod Steiger came walking by and he looked down and saw me drinking that cup of coffee and he said, 'Where did THAT come from?!' And I just looked at him and said, 'Coffee beans.' And he didn't speak to me another time, he just kept on going.
"[Later] the man from New York was talking to me [on the set]. We were just standing there talking and Rod Steiger came up and he pointed to me and said, 'What is SHE doing here?' And that man from New York looked at him and said, 'She is here because she has a mother to support.' And Rod Steiger just stormed away from both of us."
It was not long after Oklahoma! that Allene met the man who would change her life. She had dated a little in Hollywood, but there were no serious relationships. "There was one guy who asked me to go out to dinner with him, so I went out with him [and] he brought me back to my apartment. We were living on Beechwood Drive then, that's right under the Hollywood sign, and he said, 'Now, I'm gonna walk you to your door. Would it be all right with you if I kiss you?' And I said, 'No, you can't.' He said, 'Why not? We kiss in the movies.' We were doing a movie where we had to kiss 'cause we were sweethearts. But I said, 'Yeah, but we get paid for that.'" With a laugh, she added, "And he never asked me out again."
But, in 1954, it would be a hometown boy, from Alabama, who captured the 26-year-old Allene Roberts' heart. She had met Ralph Cochran years before, when Allene was ten and Ralph was twelve. "He and I were from the same community in Fairfield Highlands. My mother and I went out to see my brother; [she] drove us out there. When we left his house, it was getting dark and as we were going back the headlights went out in the car. And she said, 'Oh, my goodness, we're gonna have to get somebody to fix this because we can't drive at night in the dark.' And we walked back to the first house on the left, which just happened to be Ralph Cochran's house. His mother came to the door, she knew my mother and my mother knew her, so she asked us to come in. She told Mother to go in and use the phone and call whoever she needed. I was standing there in the living room door and I looked and Ralph was sitting on the couch. He was leaning over on his arm on the back of the couch. He was just leaning there and he didn't look away from me one minute. He just leaned there and looked at me the whole time we were there. Mother got someone to come and they fixed the lights and we were ready to go."
Fast forward some sixteen years. "I didn't see him again until he was in the Navy-and guess where he was stationed? In Southern California. One day, he called his mother and he said, 'Do you have Allene Roberts' phone number? I want to call her.' She gave him the telephone number and he called and I answered the phone. He said, 'This is Ralph Cochran, I just wondered if I could come up and see you and your mother the next time I have some time off from the Navy.' I said, 'Well, yes, you can.'
"He had a sister that lived out in North Hollywood. She's like a sister to me now 'cause we've been so close. She was from a family of three boys and her and I was from a family with three boys and me, so we're the only sisters we have, you know (laugh)? He would come to Hollywood, where we were living then, and he would stay with his sister, but he and I would go out the whole time he was there, we would go out every night.
"One night, he took me to a play, Mister Roberts. On the way to the play, he said, 'Now, I wanna tell ya, that this is a play about the Navy and they'll be a lot of probably bad language in it because that's the way guys talk." So I said, well, "I understand, it's a play and that's the way it's written,' but I thought, 'How nice of him to apologize to me for something I might hear.' That was very nice to me. I never forgot that. So we went to the play and then we went out to eat after it was over and then every time he came up to Hollywood in that area, he would come to see us.
"Then, he asked us to ride back to Birmingham with him when he was getting out of the Navy. He asked my mother if she would go and she said yes 'cause we hadn't seen my brother for quite a while then. So we went back with him and that's when it all started, him and me."
Leaving Hollywood at that time was not an issue for Allene. "Nothing really ruined my movie career. I personally walked away from the whole thing when I fell in love with Ralph.
"We were at a dinner party, this was just before Christmas, and Ralph and I walked over to the window. We were up on a mountain there in Birmingham and they had windows that went to the ceiling to the floor and it was just gorgeous with all the lights on and everything and it was snowing and it was so beautiful. And that's when he started talking about our future together. I didn't know what he was going to say when we got back to the table with the other guests there, but he said, 'Allene and I have something to tell ya, it's that we're going to get married.' And I looked at him like 'WHAT?!' (laugh) 'cause he hadn't mentioned it.
"Ralph was a Methodist and I was a Baptist and he had a very nice Methodist preacher that he knew. He said, 'Honey, would you mind if I got him to marry us?' and I said, 'No, I wouldn't mind at all, but I want to be married in the Baptist church.' And he said, 'Certainly, that's perfectly all right,' and so there's where we were married. I went to the first service of my life on a pillow when I was six weeks old in that church. That was my place to grow up. I was very, very attached to that church, I still am, and I just loved being in that church.
"We did not have a formal wedding; we had a very casual wedding. I bought a new suit and he bought a new suit and we were married in those clothes, instead of formal wedding dresses and wedding tuxedos. I want you to know that the church was filled the night of our wedding. My brother Arthur had called a florist and had some beautiful flowers and candles and all that at the altar, so it was a pretty wedding, but it was not formal.
"Ralph worked for a pharmaceutical company and he had to travel a lot, he traveled a lot of the south, selling pharmaceuticals or calling on people who used them, like doctors, so he had a very good job.
"Ralph and I led a very happy, beautiful life for 34 wonderful years and then he passed away. I would not have changed what I did for anything because I had a beautiful, nice home and just a wonderful life with him for as long as we had. And I am very, very grateful for that. He was a dear, loving man, I'll tell ya, he was wonderful."
After she married, she pretty much stopped acting, except, "When we were living in New Orleans, they called me from California and said I was up for a part in one of the TV things and to come out to California and I did, I went out there and did one episode of The Christophers, called A Link in the Chain.
One can see why she came back for this show, a moving story starring James Cagney in a rare television role. In it, he reflects, via flashbacks, on three students whose lives he changed. Allene portrays a student involved with misguided revolutionary tactics to help the needy. Cagney shows her the proper route to her goal, thus changing her life. It was a project that Cagney truly believed in. "I really liked that little movie," he said years later. "I kept thinking of my mother all through the shooting. I know she would have loved it. She would have put it high on the list of things I ever did because of its theme, her favorite subject: education."
Cagney might have enjoyed the episode, but, personally, Allene didn't see that at all. "Oh, ha, ha, ha," she laughs. "I didn't like him at all. No, I didn't. Oh, dear. He just . . . I don't know, he was kind of arrogant. You know, kind of like he was the best of all of anybody. He just had that arrogant way of walking and talking and loving himself, you know." They had very little contact as it was. "Oh, [he talked to me] just when he had to. Just kind of full of himself. I don't know, I was just not crazy about him at all."
Now totally out of the limelight, Allene happily spent the ensuing decades devoted to her family and church in Alabama, raising four children, John, Leslie, Julie and Laurie. She was devastated when her husband Ralph died suddenly of a heart attack in 1989, but she pulled through with the help of her family and friends like Lon McCallister. "After my husband died, [Lon] would call me just to see how I was getting along and everything and he said, 'Why don't you come out and see me? We'll just talk over old times and go out to dinner.' And so I flew out there to see him and so it got to be a yearly thing where I would go out there and visit with him for two or three days and then come home. He passed away a couple of years ago. I really miss him. He was just a good friend, he was a wonderful man."
Bringing us up to date on her family, she says, "I had three brothers, Frank, Arthur and Billy. My brother Frank died at 53, and Billy died at 82. Arthur is now in an assisted-living home down in Birmingham, he has Alzheimer's. I call him every three or four days and talk to him; sometimes he knows who I am, sometimes he doesn't. But he is the sweetest, most loving man, other than my husband and my dad, I've ever known. Arthur is so much like my dad, his personality and all, and is just a precious man."
She is still actively involved with her church, sings in the choir and helps occasionally with church plays.
Allene Roberts embodied the shy, typical teenager in The Red House, a performance that, like all her others, hit all the right notes. The honestly and intensity of her acting still strike a chord with film fans today. There was nothing artificial about her. She is much the same in real life, living her life with simplicity and dignity. Never a cutthroat actress, she was merely there to act, nothing more; no stepping on toes, no mad rush to get that next job at the expense of others. Maybe that's why she never became a star. But that doesn't matter to the film fans who fondly recall her today, and still enjoy the plain honesty of her screen personality. It also mattered not to Allene herself, who couldn't have been happier with her decision to chuck it all.
Admitting to not being a typical actress, she has no regrets as to how her career played out, and forcefully states, "I would say it was a very fortunate career for me. It was very fulfilling, I got to work with some wonderful people and I got to know good directors and I really enjoyed what I was doing. I would not go back and do it again, even if I was young enough to do it now, because everything has changed so much. I wouldn't want anything to do with that anymore. I don't regret leaving, no. In a way I feel like I wish I could have been there a little longer, yet I think, 'My Lord, you worked all the time, just about, you know, and you did fine in what you did.' And so, I'm happy about that. Ralph used to say, 'You know, you could still have been maybe a big star if I hadn't taken you away from there,' and I said, 'Ralph, YOU were what I wanted. I wanted a Christian man who dearly loved me and I wanted to have children and a lovely home and you've given me those things. I wouldn't trade that for anything in this world.'"