Jean Rogers Filmfax Interview
A Conversation With Jean Rogers, The Girl Who Was Dale Arden by Jim Sulski Published in Issue #46 of Filmfax Magazine (Aug./Sept. 1994) Fans of fantastic cinema best remember the late Jean Rogers as Dale Arden, the ever-imperiled heroine who appeared in those now-classic science fiction serials "Flash Gordon" (1936) and "Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars" (1938). Much of the continuing popularity of these films can be attributed to Ms. Rogers' considerable beauty and charm. For many a young man, she was, literally, the stuff dreams are made of. Jean Rogers was born Eleanor Dorothy Lovegren on March 25, 1916 in Belmont, Massachusetts. As a teenager, she won a local beauty contest sponsored by Paramount Pictures and made the transition to Hollywood with a role in "Eight Girls in a Boat" (1933). Prompted by movie producer Charles Rogers, Jean secured the lead in Universal's "Stormy" (1935). The studio signed her to a contract and cast her in such serials as "Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery" (1935), "The Adventures of Frank Merriwell" (1936), and "Ace Drummond" (1936). But it was her portrayal of Dale Arden in the Flash Gordon serials that brought her stardom. After lead roles in features like "Conflict" (1936) with John Wayne, and "Night Key" (1937) with Boris Karloff, she left Universal for 20th Century-Fox. As a Fox contract player, Rogers was seen in "Heaven With a Barbed Wire Fence" (1939), "Charlie Chan in Panama" (1940), "Viva Cisco Kid" (1940) and other programmers. In 1941 she was signed by MGM; her Metro efforts include "Dr. Kildare's Victory" (1941), "Swing Shift Maisie" 1943) and "Whistling in Brooklyn" (1943). By the end of the decade, Rogers chose family life over her movie career; a supporting role in "The Second Woman" (1951) was her final screen credit. After retiring from films, she pursued her interest in painting (selling many of her sketches and watercolor artwork), worked as a journalist, and made occasional appearances at nostalgia conventions. Rogers died in 1991; she was 74. In this 1979 interview, Jean recalls the role that brought her screen immortality. FAX: How did Eleanor Dorothy Lovegren become Jean Rogers? ROGERS: When I first started in the business, Universal Studios gave me about five minutes to pick out a screen name. I thought, "Oh my God, what should I pick?" Well, I took the last name of Charles Rogers -- he's the one who brought me out to California. Jean was the name of a childhood friend who lived down the street from me. I liked her name better than mine. FAX: Dale Arden is considered to be one of the great movie heroines. Are you glad to have played the role? ROGERS: Oh, yes. I never thought that the popularity of it would come back like it has. It was my favorite serial and it was quite an experience, although Buster (Crabbe) and I both thought the whole thing was nuts. At the time, who could think of Mars and outer space and all that. FAX: How did you get the part? ROGERS: What happens when you're under contract--which I was--is that you have to do what they tell you to do. And they told me to do the part. Which was fine with me because I was just starting my career and I was anxious to do anything. The studio wanted to keep you working because they were paying you. Then they wanted to make me a serial queen. They also asked me to take the part because they said I needed the experience--and they were right. I played a part in "My Man Godfrey" (1936), but I suppose there was nothing else up for me just then because it was just a small part. When the studio is paying you, they don't want you to sit back for two weeks until a lead comes along. You have to do what they say. FAX: Had you ever been a fan of the "Flash Gordon" comic strip? ROGERS: Well, sort of. I can't say that I was an avid reader but I did follow it. FAX: How much of yourself did you put into the Dale Arden character? ROGERS: As much as the director told me to. FAX: Among your screen roles, was Dale Arden one of your easier assignments? ROGERS: Oh, yes. All I had to say was "Flash, where are you going?" and "Ooohh, Flash!" FAX: Buster Crabbe once said that although the atmosphere on the set was never tongue-in-cheek, everybody always had great fun. ROGERS: That's right. It was fun to show up every morning because you never really knew what was going on. You kind of went from day to day. There was never much dialogue in the films to speak of. A lot of times they'd say, "There's not much to say tomorrow," and they wouldn't give us any pages to memorize for the next day." FAX: While you were making the first "Flash Gordon" serial, did you wonder what the public's reaction would be? ROGERS: I just thought that they might say it was too incredible. I thought they were going to laugh at it and say, "Well, isn't this silly." It all seemed so hard to believe. I thought the writer of the serial had lost his mind. (laughs) Naturally, I changed my mind when the film got great response. The costumes and the sets were fantastic. There wasn't very much nudity in those days and I have to say my costume was a little brief in the first serial. I don't think the Hayes Office (censorship board) paid much attention to what went on in serials. FAX: Was it more hectic to work in a serial, as opposed to a feature? ROGERS: Yes. For a serial, they always had two units working with two directors. As I recall, sometimes you'd be working for the first unit, then you would scoot to the stage or back lot for the second unit. They didn't waste any time. But I found it interesting, and Buster was wonderful to work with. We got along just fine. FAX: What was Charles Middleton like? ROGERS: He was actually a very nice, gentle man--the exact opposite of Ming the Merciless. (laughs) FAX: What ever happened to Priscilla Lawson, who played Princess Aura (Ming's daughter)? ROGERS: We all sort of agree that she has passed away, unfortunately. There seems to be different stories. I heard she passed away quite a few years ago. Now somebody else said she was in a bad car accident. Nobody seems to have been able to find her. FAX: You appeared in the first and second "Flash Gordon" serials, but not the third. ROGERS: Yes, because Universal wanted to make me a serial queen. I did so many of them that I said to myself, "I'm not going to improve my acting career if I stay in serials." I wanted to get out of serials, to do something else, and the studio people were nice enough to let me do that. And then I played the lead with John Wayne in "Conflict." FAX: And you went on to appear in such films as "Night Key" with Boris Karloff. ROGERS: Karloff was such a nice person and a great actor. If I had trouble with a scene, I would ask him what he thought. Of the many actors I've known, Karloff was the most gentle, kind and considerate. FAX: So you enjoyed the transition from serials to features? ROGERS: It became more interesting. I knew I wouldn't get any place by staying in serials. I wanted better parts; the more experience I had, the better I felt about my acting. FAX: Do you ever watch the "Flash Gordon" serials on television? ROGERS: Yes. They played on local television, then they took the serials and made features from them. I thought it was a great editing job; they were as interesting as they could get. But it was strange-- the reaction I got from friends who saw it. They thought something was lost because they had known the films originally as serials. They missed the suspense of the movie being a cliffhanger. FAX: What do you think of the intense current interest in science fiction? ROGERS: I can't think of anybody who's not interested; you just gotta be. I'm a science fiction fan, to a certain extent, although I haven't seen "Star Wars." I just never go to movies. FAX: Looking back, are you happy to have had the role of Dale Arden? ROGERS: Yes. When I see the old serials on television, I can't believe it's me--that's a lot of years ago. But I'm glad I did it. I had a very nice career.