Many of today’s generation may think of the Super Heroes as the glitzy digitally enhanced big screen characters like X-Men, Batman, Superman and probably don’t give much thought about where these amazing characters originated or how much they have changed over the decades. Some might tell you that they were creations of 60s TV shows like Batman with Burt Ward and Adam West. You might tell them that only “the Shadow knows” and be met with a rather stony-eyed stare. Comic book lovers will be able to tell you much more because that’s where nearly all the great heroes were born. However, it wasn’t the 60s, but further back, in granddad’s day where the real story began.
During the 1930s the world was gripped in the Great Depression, jobs were scarce and families did it tough. Talking movies had just hit the big time as cheap entertainment and talk of another European war lingered on the grim horizon. In the cold hard world which gave birth to musicals, screwball comedies and gangster flicks for the adults, came a growing demand from the youth of America for their own entertainment. Comic books and newspaper comic strips started to fill the void. Radio soon picked on up the idea and the serials were quick to follow. Some of the earliest heroes were Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Dozens of these Saturday afternoon serials were lapped up kids hungry for adventure and esacpe. From these early legends rose a new class of hero: the Super Hero. It was thus that Superman and Batman entered a world awaiting salvation.
In 1923 a boy was born. He started life on a small farm and during the Great Depression his parents faced ruin as the banks threatened to foreclose just as they had done on hundreds of other small holdings. However, this boy had a gift. Johnny Duncan could dance. By the age of twelve he’d helped save his parents farm by turning over the money he’d earned while dancing in nearby towns. He was so good that he set up a tap dance school with his mate, Lou Fisher that lasted eighteen months. By 15 he was ready to hit the road and got his first break when an agent signed him up to 20th Century Fox in 1938. His first roles cames as street wise youths in Monogram movies like The Clancy Street Boys with the great Dead End Kids. In 1943 Johnny met Lana Turner for the first time and if you ever see her jitterbugging in one of her old films, then remember it’s Johnny that taught her those cool moves. During the war, Johnny served as a submariner in the Pacific Theatre although he is quick to downplay this part of his life.
In the 40s Johnny scored numerous roles in movies starring actors like Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper and Gene Autry. He became good friends with many actors like Alan Ladd, Lee Marvin and Edward G Robinson. You would often find Johnny at Jim Cagney’s great parties. Or on weekends in the late 40s and early 50s you’d find Johnny riding his Triumph 600 with his mates Lee Marvin, Larry Parks and Keenan Wynn. They rode matching black Triumphs that they’d picked up from Tom Bamford; a reknowned racer of Allard cars. Sometimes Clark Gable would join them, riding his Harley as they spent fun days cruising the canyons around Calabasas in northern LA.
It was during this time that the second Batman serial was made. The first had been made in 1943 with fourteen-year-old Douglas Croft playing a rather cherubic Robin. Like this earlier serial, fifteen episodes were made and this serial was shown as far afield as England and Australasia well into the 1950s. Although well received at the time and still available on video today, most Batman fanatics fail to give this series its due place in Batman folklore. As proof of this, Johnny Duncan’s signed photos are still highly popular even as he welcomed in his 80th birthday on December 7. In the meantime, Johnny still makes some of the great conventions and leads an active life with his lovely young wife, Susan, who between them have 5 children ranging from 11 to 57.
I enjoyed a few chats with Johnny recently as he was moving house from Georgia to Missouri back to the place where it all started. Here are some of things he had to say about his time in Hollywood from 1939. Most reference material has his last apearance as Spartacus where he is beheaded, however Johnny tells me that he made numerous TV appearances throughout the 60s, but never kept a record of his appearances during this time.
David: I mentioned earlier that your dancing helped saved your parent’s farm from the clutches of the local bank. And dancing was probably a big part of your dream to be an entertainer. Was this the time when you signed your first autograph?
Johnny: Yes, way back then in the Vaudeville days when I was about 12 and 13. The first experience I can recall was at the Elks Club in a little town north of Kansas City, MO. Some parents with children about my age asked me for my autograph and said they would like to pay me 25 cents an hour to teach their kids how to Tap Dance. I started a dancing school with my dancing partner Lou Fisher. Our first class was 5 kids at 25 cents and hour. We kept the dance school for about a year and a half.
David: So how do you feel about autograph seekers?
Johnny: All the people who ask me for my autograph are interesting to me. I am glad they still remember me. When I have time I like to find out about them as much as they like to find out about me. Over the years, I’ve had lots of girls send me their pictures with their phone numbers wanting me to call them. I really thought that was neat. I autographed a woman’s bare breast one time at the beach. I didn't have a marker pencil and all I had was a pen and it was quite painful for her. I had to hold one while I signed the other. I have attended a few of the autograph shows after the organisers contacted me. I enjoyed doing them and really enjoyed meeting the people.
David: Did you sign photos with any other actors over the years?
Johnny: I made Action in the North Atlantic with Humphrey Bogart back in 1943, and later, in 1954 came the The Caine Mutiny. During that period, I was good friends with him as well as Jimmy Cagney and Alan Ladd. We were all short people. We were all around 5'5" and 5'7". And yes, I signed photos with them. Bogart and I went to a Geisha House in Hawaii. Guys like Van Johnson, Steve Brody and Lee Marvin were also there. We enjoyed lots of Saki and all the Girls wanted our autographs. All these actors were great guys and with the exception of Bogie and Cagney we were all in a similar age group.
David: We chatted about some of your other experiences in Hollywood and you had a few interesting comments you made about different actors.
Johnny: Well, I did mention that Rita Hayworth was a great, great lady and I enjoyed working as a marine on her film, Miss Sadie Thompson in 1957. Lana Turner was beautiful and I enjoyed teaching her to dance The Lindy, while on the other hand Joan Crawford was a pretty tough broad through and through. You asked me about one of your favourite actors John Garfield and I did hear that he died of a coronary while still in the saddle, so to speak at his girlfriend’s apartment. He had the biggest funeral procession in New York; the biggest since Valentino. One of my favourite friends was Lee Marvin and we had some really great times together over the years. He was about as tough off screen as he appeared on it.
David: So who do you admire the most out of the many stars you’ve met over the years?
Johnny: I worked on Bedtime for Bonzo with Ronald Regan in early 51 and we had lunch together on the set. I think I played a paperboy. At that time I did not know I was meeting the future President of the United States. He was a very great person and I admire him the most of anyone.
David: Are there any closing comments you’d like to make to your fans out there?
Johnny: I'd like to say that I am very proud and happy to have each and every fan. I have dedicated my success to them. They are all very important to me and I wish each and every fan a very great life and thank you for all the great years.
© David Priol 2003
Photos copyright to their various owners and used here for display purposes only