Filmdom's fairest exterminator, Joan Weldon, followed an unlikely route to her career in giant-pest control. She began taking piano lessons as a child and at 15, switched to voice lessons. Two years later, without ever having made a public appearance, she auditioned for the San Francisco Opera Company and became the youngest singer ever placed under contract by that organization. While appearing with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera Company, she came to the attention of Warner Brothers who promptly offered her a contract. Though her big-screen career was relatively short, she made a lasting impression on cult-movie lovers as she battled a horde of humongous ants in the sci-fi classic Them!

TOM WEAVER: What were your hopes for your movie career when you were signed by Warner Brothers?

JOAN WELDON: I was a singer, that was my first love. And I also needed a job to support myself. I was offered $250 a week. Well, I remember everybody at Universal, including (I think) Rock Hudson, had all started at like $85 a week, and I think he worked his way up to something like a hundred and a quarter, a hundred fifty. That was big money. So I thought [gasp], "Ter-rif-ic!"

Q: What did you do to fill out your days at Warner Brothers?

JOAN: I did six pictures within a year. So I think that answers your question [laughs]! I remember I was supposed to have one or two days off, and I stopped in at Bill Orr's office to do something. He asked, "What are you doing? Aren't you working today?" I said no, I had a day off. He said, "You've got a day off? That's what you think. Go to wardrobe." They were doing a picture with Will Rogers, Jr., called The Boy from Oklahoma, and I went to costumes and got into one. I was queen of the B-girls on this porch [in a long shot]. I never saw the picture, but I think [my scene] might have been cut. That was Warner Brothers. They worked you six days a week. Working six days a week, even at my age (I think I was 20), was too much.

Q: What was your reaction when you got assigned to Them!? Be honest!

JOAN: [Laughs] Number one, I hated science fiction pictures. I just really didn't like them. And they still aren't my tastes, I still don't go to them. I loved the English movies in those days, the English mysteries, and intrigue and things like that. I didn't think much of Them! when I read the script; I just knew that [my character] was a scientist, and I was hoping that somewhere along the line there would be some romance or love interest. But [director] Gordon Douglas didn't want to refer to any kind of romance whatsoever. It was totally devoid of any interplay with anybody. The ants were supposed to be the star. Basically, it was an anti-war, anti-nuclear message [film].

Q: What are your memories of Them!'s cast and crew?

JOAN: For starters, I went to wardrobe to see Moss Mabry. He said, "I've got this idea for a beautiful wool suit. This is the material ... " And I said, "In the desert? A wool suit? And a hat? And high heels!" He said, "Well, you're coming from Washington and you're supposed to be very much a scientist." I said [sigh], "All rightee ... " [Laughs] To me that was ludicrous, but there was nothing I could do about it.

Jack Warner was unenthusiastic about Them!; so was an executive named Steve Trilling. It was not really thought of as a major picture as far as Jack Warner and Steve Trilling were concerned. It was just another picture. Even Gordon Douglas didn't take it seriously when he was first assigned to it. He said at one point that they should get Martin and Lewis to star in the thing! He wasn't quite sure what he was doing -- nobody really knew! I had no problems with Gordon Douglas, but he related better, I think, to the men. He was really a man's director. (He was always "playing" Jimmy Cagney. He loved to imitate Jimmy Cagney. And he was very good at it, too!) James Whitmore and James Arness were both very nice, very pleasant, very professional. Everybody was pleasant. Edmund Gwenn was a doll. An absolutely lovely man. Very private -- and he was in great pain. He was riddled with arthritis. But when they said, "Camera! Action!", you'd never know that there was a thing wrong with him. And the moment they said, "Cut!", he'd just crumble. His manservant Ernest would come on the set and help him off.

Q: Making the movie, did you think you were doing something new and exciting, or did you think to yourself, "What the heck have I gotten myself into here?"

JOAN: I knew that it had to be made and I knew that I was under contract and I couldn't choose the pictures I wanted. So it was a job, and I had made a commitment, and I would never try to release myself from a commitment. There was nothing I could do. At that time, it was just another picture -- though a very tough picture to make, because of the heavy wool suit that I wore. We were in the Mojave Desert, and it was 110 in the shade. Poor Teddy [Edmund] Gwenn, he had a suit and a tie and a hat, and I had the hat and the high heels and the hose. And, in those days, you wore girdles, and they were heavy!

Q: And the blowing sand?

JOAN: Oh, that was "wonderful" [laughs]! Ab-so-lute-ly wonderful. Every grain of it that was blown onto your face. When you were through at the end of the day, you'd stay under the shower as long as you could and get all that stuff out of your hair!

Q: Why did you leave Warners?

JOAN: My contract was up and they did not renew it. And I was very happy. Six days a week! It was such a workload. When I am extremely unhappy and nervous, I gain weight. I gained 20 pounds during my time at Warners.

Q: Is it true that you weren't able to scream in Them! the way they wanted?

JOAN: That's right, I couldn't scream. At the same time I was doing a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and I could hit a high C for you, but I couldn't scream. Years later, I found out I could scream. I went to visit a friend of mine about 10 years ago, and I walked in the house and I thought, "What's that little black thing down there?" {My friend said casually], "Oh! A tarantula." A tarantula! I screamed bloody murder! I went into the kitchen, and I kept screaming!

Q: Early on, there was talk of Them! being in color and maybe even 3-D, but a Warners memo says, "Them! will now definitely be black-and-white and not 3-D, and we want to cut every corner to bring down costs."

JOAN: That's saying it exactly the way it was. I remember that they talked about 3-D, but the color I don't remember. It would have been terrible in color. The ants would have been very attractive, because they had very pretty eyes and they were colorful. And their bodies were brown with brown hair. They were NOT that ghastly to look at [laughs]! But in black-and-white they are.

Q: How were the ants themselves operated?

JOAN: They were very hairy; they were very big, probably like six feet high and six feet wide. (That doesn't include the legs that dangled out here and there.) They were on wires, motivated by a panel in back.

Q: Did you think, when you saw them in operation, that they'd be effective on screen?

JOAN: Not really! But they certainly were.

Q: Where did you see it for the first time?

JOAN: They had some screenings here and there, and I remember that I had heard that Jimmy Arness and Whitmore had seen it. I think I was one of the last people to see it and, honestly, I don't remember what I thought of it. Recently I saw it again on a large screen, and both my husband and I were very impressed with it. It really is a picture that holds up today.

Tom Weaver is the author of Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Flashbacks, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers and many others available from McFarland & Co.

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