“Like a Big Family”: The Former Child Actors of Father Goose Share Fond Memories at TCMFF

Biting one of the most famous people in the world, even if they know you have to do it for a movie, would be a daunting prospect for most people.

But that was the task facing Sharyl Locke during the making of Father Goose (1964). Playing Jenny, the youngest of the film’s gaggle of international schoolgirls, Locke had to express her traumatized character’s anger and fear silently. And occasionally with her teeth.

“I had to bite Cary Grant,” Locke remembered. “And when I bit him the first time, I was apprehensive, and I didn’t want to hurt him. So I just kind of barely bit him when he put his finger up. And he says, ‘No, hon, you need to bite. I want to be able to see those teeth marks!’”

So Locke took the hint and chomped down for the benefit of the camera’s harsh scrutiny. And Grant gave her high marks for realism.

“Once I did bite down,” she said, “[Grant] went around the whole stage showing everybody. ‘She did bite me! She did great! Isn’t that great?’”

At the TCM Classic Film Festival, three of the former child actors from Father Goose shared stories in conversation with Leonard Maltin. Locke was the only one who pursued acting, building a resume that ranged from voice-overs on Chevrolet commercials to a role in the William Castle thriller I Saw What You Did.

By contrast, Laurelle Felsette Johnson and Nicole Felsette Reynolds, who played the twins Angelique and Dominique, never set out to be actors. Their Father Goose roles found them instead. When the casting call went out, the French-born sisters lived in L.A. but spoke French at home.

“We didn’t have an agent or anything,” recalled Felsette Johnson. “One day an agent was looking for twins who spoke French, because that’s what the script asked for. This agent called the French Consulate who replied, ‘We don’t have any twins who speak French, but we have sisters that look alike.’

“So the agent called us. We went to meet with Mr. Nelson, the director, and then we went to meet with Mr. Grant. I was so shy. I brought my autograph book, thinking, ‘We probably won’t get this role, but at least I’ll get his autograph!’ But I didn’t dare ask him for it until we wrapped and finished up the movie. And then we did a screen test and we were told that we were picked.”

Thus began a nine-week odyssey that took the girls from Universal Studios to Jamaica to shoot one of the most charming family comedies ever committed to film. It must be a surreal experience to travel the world with movie stars, be immortalized in a hit movie, then return to your everyday existence.

“How do you look upon it today?” asked Leonard Maltin. “As an adventure in your young life?”

“You want the truth?” returned Felsette Reynolds.

And here a “Yes!” rose from the audience. But it was a “Yes” laced with unease.

When you love a movie as much as many of us love Father Goose, you worry about what you might learn—especially when the movie involves children. Could you ever look at a film the same way if you knew that it put a damper on someone’s childhood (or worse)? Fortunately, any such fears were quickly dispelled by the answer.

“We got out of school!” enthused Felsette Reynolds, gushing with the glee of a little girl unleashed on an island paradise. “We had five weeks in the studio with a teacher that was worthless. I still cannot do long division because of her. And then we had four weeks in Jamaica which was really being on vacation.”

Felsette Johnson picked up the story of their off-screen hijinks: “We were very well behaved when we were at Universal Studios for the first five weeks when we weren’t on set. We were in the trailer in the classroom—one classroom for all seven of us. And that’s why we never learned anything!

“But when we got to Jamaica the director had brought two children. The producer had brought two children. So there was a whole gang of us. When we got off the set from working and we were back at the hotel, we had the complete run of the place. There was not a nook or cranny that we left unexplored! In fact, we broke the elevator.”

Apart from the occasional smoke-filled room of poker players or screening of a risqué Liz Taylor movie, practically nothing was off limits to this exuberant girl gang. In fact, the Father Goose crew got in the spirit with them: “In the evenings the crew would make us up,” recalled Felsette Johnson. “Everybody was staying at the same hotel. And they would make us up like a vamp or a mustachioed man or with bleeding knees and faces and stuff. So it was a lot of fun. We had a very good time.”

The most well-known story about the making of Father Goose centers on the tense scene where Walter Eckland’s dinghy—overloaded with seven schoolgirls and their teacher—nearly capsizes in the wake of two large ships. Filming in a large studio tank didn’t quite go as planned. And hilarity ensued.

As Locke recalled, “When were at the sound stage where they filmed all of us in the dingy and when the boats were going by, that was on the screen [rear projected]. But there was a wave machine. I don’t know if it was operated by a person or if it was automatic or whatever it was, but it malfunctioned and it kept making waves and it sank our dinghy while all of us were on it.”

When the boat began to take on water, Locke got an impromptu lesson in the value of a good behind-the-scenes story from her co-star. “I knew how to swim and I started to go,” she remembered, “Cary Grant told me, ‘Do not go! This is great.’ And I said, ‘But I know how to swim!’ And he said, ‘That’s okay! It makes a great publicity picture.’”

Locke and company continued to splash around and allowed themselves to be valiantly “rescued” by the crew, as publicity cameras snapped away.

Felsette Johnson spoke warmly of Leslie Caron, who starred as the prim school teacher Miss Freneau: “As much as she was aloof, she was also a generous person.”

Caron sprinkled moments of learning and fun throughout the shoot for Felsette Johnson and her sister: “I took a liking to her, and she took a liking to me. As soon as she knew and learned that we were studying ballet, in between takes, because, you know, they do three, four, five six, takes, she would show me how to point my toe or do an arabesque. I got the special privilege of being able to visit her in her private trailer while she got her hair done or makeup done or she was running lines. And for a nine year old kid to be next to such a star, that is just so cool!”

And Caron stepped in—literally—to coach Felsette Johnson during a tricky moment towards the end of the film. “In the scene where we have to run back into the hut because the plane’s coming in, the director Mr. Nelson said to me, ‘You have to trip.’ And as a nine year old girl, you don’t want to trip! That’s geeky. That’s embarrassing in the schoolyard. You know, it just wasn’t working. So Leslie Caron said to him, ‘Shoot this. This will work.’ And he called, ‘Action!’ And as I turned around she stuck her foot out. And I went flying.”

Caron, with her extensive dance training, no doubt knew how to trip someone for maximum visual impact—and minimum physical risk. As Felsette Johnson pointed out, the anecdote shows Caron’s dedication to helping the children give their best, most believable performances.

Beyond the cast’s headliners, the interviewees remembered how the crew went out of their way to make the girls comfortable, even as they managed a difficult shoot. “In Jamaica they were wearing shorts and they were all shirtless. And we had a lot of shots with water,” explained Felsette Reynolds. “Half of them were wading into the water up to their waists. The camera was on a raft, especially that last scene when he comes in and turns over our little dinghy.”

The little girls in the cast, however, had to deal with a special challenge in those watery scenes. “We were wearing really heavy suits. I mean, they were truly wool. They were really thick.”

So the crew stepped in with a breezy solution: “They made us these little dresses that we wore when we didn’t have to wear our wool or his outfits [clothes borrowed from Walter Eckland on the island]. And we called them our ‘pinkies.’”

The design of the dresses helped ensure continuity between the studio and location footage. “They were seersucker but with long sleeves, because everything had to match the takes we had done in the studio so we couldn’t get any sun. We couldn’t get tan.

“The only one who could get any sun was Cary Grant. He would sit there with his reflector.”

Well, there have to be some perks to being a star…

“They were all really wonderful to us,” summarized Felsette Reynolds. “It was like a big family. We called it the Father Goose Company.”

At the TCM Film Festival, actors often discover, to their humbled surprise, that audiences still cherish a film they made decades ago. As Felsette Johnson said after watching Father Goose with the TCMFF audience, “When you’re nine years old, you make a movie. You know what was filmed. You know what wasn’t filmed. And you watch it with your family and you don’t get the jokes or the laugh lines! It’s terrific to hear you guys react so positively to this movie.”

In this instance, the delight goes both ways. It warmed my heart to learn that this film brought such joy to its child stars—because it imbued my childhood with vicarious adventure. In Leonard Maltin’s words, “It’s such fun to watch this film. It’s really nice to hear that it was a nice experience for all of you. That makes it even more pleasurable.”

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