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A Bit Of All Right—Janet Munro

Two short years ago, Janet Munro was a 22-year-old actress unknown in this country, scarcely known in her native England. Before Walt Disney found her and lifted her to stardom in “Darby O’Gill And The Little People,” she was playing juvenile roles in English films and television. But of all the leading roles Janet is now destined to play for Disney Productions, none will probably have more personal meaning for her than that of the little girl she acted in a TV play called “Lace On Her Petticoat.”

“The story was about a lonely little girl who wants a best friend and lace petticoat more than anything else,” Janet recalls. “She got them but—life being what it is—she was still lonely. I thought I knew just how that little girl felt as I was playing her part. I can’t stand loneliness myself. It’s my biggest failing. If I’m alone in an apartment or a hotel room I begin to bite my fingernails and wonder what to do. I can’t stand my own company. I must have people around me. Lots of them.”

Disney, who signed her to a five-movie contract, thinks he can change Janet’s problem to one of wanting to avoid people. He thinks her performances in “Darby O’Gill” and with James MacArthur and Michael Rennie in “Third Man On The Mountain” are bound to supply Janet with more friends than she’ll use up in a life time.

At 24, Janet is still playing juvenile or teenage roles. For the best of reasons: Her height (five feet, one inch), her face, which bears a faint, Oriental, doll-like look, and her astonishing ear for children’s voices make her a casting director’s dream when there’s a young girl’s part to be played. (The little girl in “Lace On Her Petticoat” was supposed to be 12 years old. Janet was 22 when she played the part with ingenious conviction.)

Most of Hollywood’s new young female stars talk constantly of their dedication to acting. Janet tops them all with her own sense of professional dedication but she’s relaxed and good-humored about it. The fondness for entertaining people, the professional dedication and the need for people are all written plainly in Janet’s past.

Her father is Alex Munro, a comedian in—what Americans would call—the vaudeville tradition. All Janet’s childhood was lived traveling with her parents from theatre to theatre. She became used to meeting lots of new people but not making lasting friendships. Her world was one of quick hellos and good-byes. She spent no more than a week in school in any one place before her father had to move on.

She was seven when her mother died and so this, the closest friendship of any child, was broken, too. Janet was performing with her father by then, wearing her auburn hair in a straight, plastered-down fringe. Because of the color of her hair and her pint-size, her fellow-troupers called her “The Ginger Bit.”

“Daddy has always had a great capacity for enjoying himself,” Janet recalls. “He’s the one who taught me the enjoyment of laughter. He spoiled me terribly after Mother died. I guess he felt he had to give me something extra to make it up to me.”

Janet’s step-mother became her next long-term friend. The friendship is still going strong and Janet credits this woman with most of the good things that happened to her from her ninth year. She urged Janet to leave the variety shows and go into the legitimate theatre. She paid Janet’s way as a student with a repertory company. After five years of acting in repertory, Janet was assured by a talent scout that she was ready to try London. Her step-mother promptly gave up her job and took office work in London so that she could make a home for Janet.

In London, Janet worked for tips as a hat-check girl in nightclubs so that she could look for work as an actress by day. She started a charm bracelet that records her steady but slow progress, purchasing a charm with every job she landed. The jobs began to come in 1957.

On her bracelet today there’s a dice for the 16-year-old Cockney girl she played in a movie called “The Small Hotel” a treasure chest for “The Tollenberg Terror,” a science-fiction thriller about monsters from outer space in which Janet played a 15-year-old; a policeman’s helmet charm for the TV comedy called “One Of Us,” Janet playing a 16-year-old delinquent. In “Trial By Candlelight,” she played a juvenile delinquent who kills herself and bought another charm—an airplane. And so it went. Until Walt Disney came.

Disney had a suite at the Dorchester Hotel, London’s best. He was trying his glass slipper on a hundred hopeful Cinderellas sent him by agents.

“I knocked on the door of his suite,” Janet remembers, “and when a voice said to come in and I went in I was so nervous I was sure I’d made a mistake coming and I decided to say, ‘Sorry, wrong room’ and back out. There was Walt Disney with three casting directors with that look on their faces that says they’re watching everything about. you—your walk, your eye-blink, your voice. Then I took a good look at Walt Disney and I felt relief at once. ‘He looks like real people,’ I said to myself. ‘He’s got a nice kind face. He wears trousers and a jacket. Like real people.’ ”

One week later, her agent telephoned her with the good news. She was to be the first girl Walt Disney ever signed to a five-year, five-movie contract.

Already Janet is known as a lovable character in the trade—a brave one, too. She refused a double in “Third Man On The Mountain,” climbing an Alpine peak that has given professional mountain climbers pause. In another scene, she swung from a rope above a 3,000-foot drop. Her associates were baffled. “Why?” they asked. “Why do you do these things when you don’t have to?”

“So nobody can say it was done with mirrors,” Janet replies.

It’s her own way of talking about dedication to profession.

When I last talked to her, Janet was about to leave America on a visit to England. Another friendship that had been begun amidst grand hopes, mutual admiration, and Janet’s need for people, had been lost. Tony Wright, a 33-year-old English actor, had married Janet in 1957 after she stumbled across him—literally—as he was sitting on the floor at a party in London.

“He called me a stupid mare,” Janet said, “and then felt so guilty about his rudeness he kept taking me to dinner and finally married me.”

But Janet’s career has taken her to Ireland, Spain, Hollywood, Jamaica and Switzerland. Her husband’s profession was just as nomadic. “It was the old story,” said Janet. “Like my school days of making a friend the one week I was in town and then having to move on. Our marriage eventually just didn’t make any sense.”

Janet was returning to talk about divorce proceedings.

She sat on a sofa, legs tucked under her, dressed in blouse and peasant skirt. On her jingling charm bracelet danced the latest addition—a gold chalet honoring her last film, “Third Man On the Mountain.” She looked like a precocious child playing truant from school. Her talk, however, reminded one of just what she was—an intelligent, witty and happy person, so professionally mature she seemed to be as interested in why questions were asked her as she was in the answering of them.

Janet lacks the usual caution of entertainment people who worry about the enemies honest answers often make. Unlike so many people who enjoy making others laugh, Janet can be kidded. She doesn’t mind being ribbed. “It’s a cheap price to pay for having nice people around,” she says.

Fresh from Hollywood, she was asked what she thought of the film capital.

“It isn’t a city at all,” she replied. “It’s a world of papier mache so spread out it takes forever to get from point A to point B. Only the sunshine seems genuine. I went for the motels in a big way. We have no such thing in England. I moved into one with a swimming pool. I enjoy stretching out in a chaise lounge and getting warm in the sun. My first day there, a five-year-old boy came up, looked at me and said, ‘So what are you trying to prove doing this?’ Even the kids are versed in psychiatric talk there in Hollywood.

“I’m very fond of the salads in Hollywood restaurants. They make the plates look so pretty. But they give you so much of it you lose part of your appetite thinking of all the food you’re going to havr to leave on the plate.

“In Hollywood, you’re apparently required by law to travel by car. Once I was returning from a dental appointment and decided to walk back to the motel. A cop stopped me. ‘Do you see anybody else walking?’ he asked. I said I didn’t ‘Right, he said. ‘So get off the street. There just aren’t supposed to be pedestrians in parts of Hollywood, I guess.

“It would be easy for me to—as we English say—go fruit in a place like Hollywood. You know. Go off my stick drop a bomb.

“Next to the freeways out there, the shops astound me. I tried to buy a paid of shoes in one place and the sales girl said, ‘You don’t have the right feet for these shoes.’ There was a chiropodist right on the premises, it turned out, and had to have $12 worth of foot treatment before I could buy a pair of $7 shoes.

“The clerks in the dress shops I went to paid not a bit of attention to you. They lounged on counters and said, ‘He Doll. Want something, Honey? Or just want to browse around a bit?’

“When I convinced them once I wanted to buy, they tried to sell me everything but what I’d asked for. I finally found the dress I wanted without their hell and put it on. Then what do you thing happened? ‘Gee, that dress is cute on her too, said one of the women. ‘Two of up tried it on but we didn’t think it was your type. Hey, Mary, come in here see her in this dress.’ The girl name. Mary came in and said, ‘I don’t thing my husband would like it on me.’ The one of the others said to me, ‘I’d like try it on again after you, Honey.’

“I mean, how relaxed can you go without falling apart?”

When she’s through with these on man shows, Janet proves that she can answer questions like any other film star.

She rides a bicycle in preference driving a car. She keeps a bachelorette apartment in London, shuns night life insists on eight hours of sleep a night on a soft bed. She would rather eat than cook and usually orders steak. She dabbled in dancing and acrobatics an she swims whenever she can find the time—all of which keeps her wonderfully coordinated and her hundred-pound figure an attractive one.

Her ambition?

“To find a play or a script in which I’ll be allowed to play a woman,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever played girl older than 18 in all my years the theatre. And all these dialects I have to learn! Why, I haven’t used my own voice professionally in the last two years.

As this reporter was leaving, Janet Munro apologized for having returned her hotel room late for our appointment.

“I wanted to make sure you’d be here she explained. “I can’t stand a room without people in it.”