Myrna Dell is not that obscure today. While far from the league of all time legends like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, she was still a solid, working actress who played leading roles and changed several studios. It is her infectious sense of humor and inherent simplicity that first got me interested in her, and I think she deserves a post!
Marilyn Adele Dunlap was born on March 5, 1924, in Los Angeles, California, to Wayne Dunlap and Carol Price. Carol, born in Nevada, was from a showbiz family – her father (Myrna’s grandfather) performer for the Florenz Ziegfeld.
Her older sister Patricia was born in 1922. her younger brother Warren was born in 1926. Her parents divorced in 1928, and Carol remarried to the Italian born Donald Milan in 1929. In 1930, the family – Carol, her new husband Donald, and the Dunlap children, lived in Los Angeles along with a lodger.
Myrna attended grade and high school in Los Angeles, but chose showbiz as her career – the wish was only cemented after she was a marquee on Hollywood Boulevard, and dreamed her name was on it someday. She started her career as a Earl Carroll chorus girl, where she danced fro two years. In 1940, she was signed by MGM at the tender age of 16.
Myrna career can be divided into 3 stages: 1) The uncredited roster 2) The creidted roster and 3) TV shows.
For the first part of her career, lasting from 1941 up until roughly 1946, Myrna was a typical stalet that were a dime a dozen in Hollywood- nice looking, with a dancing background and no real schooling the dramatic arts. Yet, the list of movies she appeared in are wonderfuly diverse, and she was not consonantly cast in . Absolute highlights and of that period and movie sthat are famous even today are Up in Arms, an entertaining if slightly nutty Danny Kaye showcase, and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, a serious, hard hitting WW2 with top notch acting cast (Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum and Robert Walker among others.) There are some other very good movies that alas never made it to become classics: The Spiral Staircase , a surprisingly chilling mudrer case mystery, and Deadline at Dawn, a suspense tight noir.
For the rest of her Hollywood career, until the mid 1950s, Myrna was firmly stuck in B movies, and often not even in the lead. Yet, her spirited, strong and compelling performances constantly got her rave reviews, as much as back then as they do now. She was,by all accounts, the girl who never gave a bad role. Few of bigger budget movies she was in were The Girl from Jones Beach, and a solid western Lust for Gold.
One of her first credited performances was in Step by Step, a run of the mill anti Nazi propaganda that were made by tons in Hollywood during the war. While not a bad movie, it won no awards and gave to real recognition to any involved in it. Nocturne, a George Raft commodity, drew mixed reviews with the critics either whipping the floor with raft or praising him – but there is no doubt that Myrna shines in her role, and only starts to show her true potential (that sadly never reached it’s peak). Vacation in Reno, a comedy with a weak mumo-jumbo script The Falcon’s Adventure was just one of the many movies in the Falcon series. The Locket is one of the best movies Myrna has appeared in, but sadly she is very low billed in this one. A great study of consequences of childhood traumas with an outstanding cast, it stands the test of time and is still relevant today. Fighting Father Dunne is a story about a priest who raised three children on his own, was later to be remade as Boystown and earn the status of a classic.
Myrna was seen several times in B westerns: Guns of Hate, Rose of the Yukon The Gal Who Took the West. One of her few lead roles was opposite Johnny Weissmuller in another Tarzan pastiche, The Lost Tribe. On a low note, she appeared in a awfully bad and senseless movie, Radar Secret Service (No comment). The rest of her body of work consists mostly of B level crime movies with shades of film noir (Destination Murder, Never Trust a Gambler, The Strip) and comedies (Here Come the Marines, Reunion in Reno).
In the last stage of her career, Myrna was exclusively a TV actress, appearing in episodic roles. Some of the series she graced with her presence are still considered classics today: The Donna Reed Show, Maverick and Dragnet to name a few.
Her last role was a minor one in Buddy Buddy from 1981.
Myrna was well known as a Myrna Loy lookalike in Hollywood, and indeed, the two share both a name and a similar visage. Myrna nabbed quite a few eligible bachelors the year she entered movies, 1940 – John Carroll, Buddy Rich (Tommy Dorsey’s drummer and also a well known ladies man), Rudee Vallee and Jackie Coogan.
Myrna had her first big role in the Great Ziegfeld, and was pushed into the publicity spotlight along with her fellow chorus girls. She and Virginia Curzon undertook a cross country junket for promotion purposes. The papers painted both girls as inexperienced young gals who never left California before – this was far from the truth, as Myrna was often in New York and Virginia was not even from California originally!
1941 bough Myrna more stable relationship instead of zigg zagging the dating field. The first beau was Edward Norris, who was linked to some pretty desirable ladies int he past (Ann Sheridan, Lona Andre, Margaret Lindsay), and that lasted for a few months. Then she took up with Dis Slate, a Pittsburgh impresario. Myrna traveled to the city often to visit him, but the broke up in June 1942.
To make a long story short, Myrna lost her contract, went to New York for work, and then returned to Los Angeles. There she dated an actor who helped her get a gig with the famous agent, Bob Brandeis. This led her to Walter Kane, and via him, Howard Hughes, who bought her contract. Myrna in all probability had some sort of a relationship with Hughes, but in the 1940s he was begging to show the signs of madness that would make him a recluse in his later years, and it’s hard to say what exactly did go on between them.
Myrna once again entered the Hollywood dating pool. She had several beaus – Jerry Adler, a young actor, was one of them. When her special favorite got married in July 1944, none other than the great George Raft confronted her. This started a romance lasting for almost a year, ending in June 1945.
Myrna got her own little passage in the local papers in 1945, in an article that reveals much about her personality and habits:
Miss Dell believes that a girl’s career and marriage do not mix successfully, at least not until a player has climbed a long way up the success ladder. If she ever had to make second choices in careers she would like to write a gossip column for a newspaper.
She’s not domestically inclined, doesn’t like housekeeping or cooking. To keep physically fit, she goes regularly to gym and never overeats. She likes to shop in New York rather than in Hollywood. She believes there is more variety in clothes in New York and that they are less expensive. MYrna plays golf and tennis, likes to watch ice hockey and horse races. She plays a good game of blackjack and gin rummy. She buys men’s shirts to wear with slacks and suits in preference to those designed for women. As a child, she was a tomboy and played baseball and football wit boys’ team.
Myrna was a fun loving, active woman with a simple, healthy (and slightly tomboy-sh) living philosophy. Accordingly, she drew like minded men like honey draws the bees. A famous Hollywood honcho who liked his woman nice and proper but rough when you need it was Clark Gable. While Myrna lacked the fine, ladylike quality Gable’s former wives had (she was a sunny California beach blonde, not a New York debutante), they hooked up and dated for a time before he married Sylvia Ashley.
Then in late 1946, Myrna caught the big one, somebody whose name still elevates her status in Hollywood even today – James Stewart. Stewart was not the man who usually dated starlets, and, contrary to his usual good guy persona, was quite picky with his women and did not always treat them well (just ask Marlene Dietrich).
They started dating her during the production of “The Stratton Story“. After two months, rumors begin to appear that hey intend to marry, and the paper were abuzz with the possible dates and time for the nuptials. They broke up in 1948. Both were hush hush over the affair, and not much was known about it then. Only later, after Jimmy’s death, she confessed to a reporter that Stewart never talked about marriage, and that at one time he told her that he was still in love with his former flame, Margaret Sullavan, who was then married to theatrical producer Leland Hayward. She also said this of the relationship:
I wasn’t in love with him; looking back I know that now, but oh, I liked him, I really did! He was the most gentlemanly and courteous man I ever went out with – he was charmingly old fashioned that way. He could be quite the Lothario, was with me he was adorable, always.
As a simple, likable personality, Myrna made friends with many of the Hollywood personalities she acted opposite, most notably Gloria Grahame and Claude Jarman Jr.. The one man she disliked was Lon Chaney Jr., who had a major alcohol problem back then.
In 1949, after breaking up with James, she dated the still married but separated director Otto Preminger, but by the end of the year she became the number one girl in the life of Stanely Cramer, noted producer. The rhapsody lasted until April 1950,and she even persuaded him to give up cigar smoking. After Stanley she snagged none other than Ronald Reagan, then the president of the Actor’s Guild.
At some point in early 1951 she started dating John Gilligan Butchel who became her first husband on June 14, 1951. Butched was born on January 23, 1913 in Nebraska. Sadly, the marriage was a trainwreck from the start, and they divorced in 1952. Butchel wasted no time in remarrying, doing so in 1953 to Diana Ralsea Greene, and in 1961 toAlice Hooker. He died in 1992 in California.
1953 was reserved for John Lidnsay, a famous and wealthy architect, former husband of Diana Lynn. Lindsay would later marry June Lockhart. In 1954 her beaus were Don Taylor, the actor, and Jack Huber. In 1955, she was seen with Hugh O’Brien. Later that year, she started dating the man she would marry, Herbert W. Patterson, a western actor.
They were married in Fall 1956. Patterson was born in 1919 in Carbondale, Illinois. They had a daughter, Laura J.
Myrna gave up Hollywood to become is a public relations director at the International Hotel near the LAX airport, and write her own column in the newspapers. She never regret it: she told a reporter later in life:
After a time….a girl gets bored with the glamour, the atmosphere, the drinking, the cigarettes to smoke, the wolves.
Her daughter became a successful producer, producing, among other things, the reality show “Designing for the Sexes” and “House Hunters“. She even directed her mother in in a segment of Unsolved Mysteries TV show.
Herbert and Myrna lived in 12958 Valeyheart Drive, #4, Studio City, CA 91604 in their later years.
Herbert Patterson died in 2002. Myrna Dell Patterson died on February 11, 2011, in Studio City, California.