Writing these weekly messages has given me an excellent opportunity to revisit the challenges of writing a screenplay on a topic loaded with strings attached to my childhood memories. This emotional infusion from the past enlivened what might otherwise have been the mundane pursuit of historical data for the creation of content and my self-education in the proper formatting of a script. Passion can confer fidelity on desire.
My script chronicles a seven-year story arc following the emotional journey of Dale Evans Rogers, wife of western hero Roy Rogers, the King of the Cowboys. The Dale and Roy pairing both onscreen and off was purely platonic until the death of Roy’s wife Arlene. Roy proposed to his costar a year later and the two were married on New Year’s Eve 1947.
The joy to be anticipated from this type of celebrity romance was quickly undermined by the resentment openly expressed by Roy’s oldest daughter towards her new step mom. Then there was Dale’s career troubles with Republic Studios, which saw her replaced as Roy’s playful nemesis by younger actresses. Act One of my little drama starts with Roy’s proposal to Dale on horseback at a rodeo and ends several months later with the birth of Dale and Roy’s only child, Robin Elizabeth Rogers, in August 1950.
This second chance at bliss was also thwarted with the news that Robin was a Down syndrome baby. Conventional wisdom in the 1950s encouraged parents to commit such a child to an institution before an emotional bond between mother and child had sufficient time to form. The supporting rationale was that the child would receive “professional” care for the duration of its brief life expectancy. Dale, with Roy’s blessing, defied convention and took her daughter home to be a vibrant member of the Rogers’ household.
Act Two follows the parallel challenges of caring for Robin and attempts to maintain Roy’s career. The B-western genre, which made Roy a Hollywood star, was on the decline. William Boyd and Gene Autry made the move to television. Roy soon followed with the wildly successful Roy Rogers Show of which I was a devoted fan. A myriad of doctor visits, however, did not produce the same type of happy ending for Robin’s health issues. Her funeral service took place on her second birthday, an ominous and difficult anniversary, especially for Dale.
Act Three focuses on Dale’s grieree focuses on Dale’f. Here is where I felt I had to be extremely careful in how I portrayed her reaction to her daughter’s death. Dale, herself, bared her soul in interviews and in her own writings in later years. I chose to use her own words as often as possible, when writing dialogue or directing the action. It would have been too easy otherwise to portray her as mimicking the clichés of grief in a poorly written script.
My one significant departure from Dale’s own account was the absence of tears. Again it would have been too easy to subsume Dale’s torment beneath a non-stop cycle of weepy depression. I chose to keep her articulate through an episode in which she literally shunned her deceased child. Dale refused to look on Robin following the child’s passing. She insisted that the casket be kept closed during the funeral service. She would later rebuke herself for her cowardice and for forcing Roy to make all the funeral arrangements on his own. To keep the portrayal of Dale honest, I included these elements in the screenplay sans the torrent of tears she admits flowed too often, which – if included – could obscure the critical elements in the storyline.
Out of this grim scenario came an event, which allowed Dale to gain a sense of meaning in Robin’s short life. She wrote the book, entitled Angel Unaware, in which she described a fanciful conversation between Robin and God shortly after the completion of what Dale termed Robin’s earthly mission. Dale went even further in her representation of authorship by claiming she simply took dictation. It was Robin’s story from first to last.
The process of finding a publisher is faithfully included in the script. It borders on the miraculous and I kept the story as close to Dale’s own account as possible so as not to glamorize the sequence of events as being tantamount to Moses talking to a burning bush. Keeping it credible allows skeptics room for coincidental rationalization.
Dale’s decision to assign all the royalties from book sales over to the National Association of Retarded Children, now known as the ARC, was transformational. The NARC was in its earliest stages of development. Their promotion of Angel Unaware drove sales thereby generating revenue for the organization. Dale’s book subsequently became an international bestseller.
There’s more to Act Three, but why spoil the ending for you? I am sure you are anxiously awaiting the movie to come to a theater near you or – more likely these days – to be streamed on your device. I will say that the screenplay has a happy ending, though not of the happily ever after type. Life just doesn’t offer us that form of bliss. Life keeps it real.