Monday, March 19

Clifton Webb

The movies have never really known anyone quite like him.  Oh some others had this or that trait in common with him, but no one ever quite measured up to Clifton Webb.  If you remember him, then you know exactly what I am talking about.  He is nothing if not memorable.  He also had one of the oddest careers in Hollywood but no one can deny he wasn't the best at what he did.  If you don't know who he is, then hit "read more" and let's take it away.

He was born an astonishing 121 years ago in Indianapolis, IN.  I wonder how he felt about being born there because it would be infinitely more believable to think he was born in England.  He was not to the manor born but you would never have thought otherwise if you witnessed what an insufferable snob he could be.  There may be those who say that Clifton Webb was the same in every movie he was in (I've never really been sure exactly what that is supposed to mean) or was his persona so strong and identifiable that the roles found him?

Something important to know about Clifton Webb was that he loved his mama, Maybelle, and she adored him.  From his early life to her death, they were inseparable and lived together almost always. She was always his date at parties and when he had people over for dinner parties, Maybelle was always included. They often traveled together.  He would drop everything to tend to her needs.

Webb and his beloved mother Maybelle

He never married.  He was what they called in those days a perennial bachelor, which was mere window dressing for gay.  He was so obviously gay that it is a wonder he had any career at all.  His movie career came in two parts and his latter and more important career was entirely at 20th Century Fox.  Its leader, Darryl F. Zanuck, a bombastic and fearsome hetero, had not much use for Webb but he understood that the money came pouring in on Webb movies.  Almost every movie he made was a success.

But before any movie career happened, he appeared in countless plays, musicals and even operas.  He made a stab at Hollywood in the 1920s and made a few forgettable films and then Hollywood forgot him.  He returned to theater until 1944 when it all changed.  He was already middle-aged when he became a star.

There is certainly a fine case to be made for calling him a character actor.  He was certainly not a romantic leading man, but he did, even in his character actor status, ascend to the top ranks.  When he did star in the film, he was often without female companionship and when he did have female companionship, one would hardly call it romantic.  He would kiss his leading ladies as one would one's niece.  Again, considering all, it's amazing he had a career of the magnitude that he did.  He could have remained in the background playing servants.  But those in power at Fox obviously found the proper niche for Webb and then ran with it.

 Price, Tierney, Webb, Andrews in "Laura"

His first film in his second try in front of the cameras is arguably the one for which he is best known, as the supercilious, cunning newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger's brilliant production of Laura (1944).  In this superior film noir Webb was utterly unforgettable as the controlling would-be lover of a beautiful woman who doesn't return his attentions, to her eventual regret.  He was nominated for a supporting Oscar.  He was to follow this up with a similar role (indeed) in a Lucille Ball film noir, The Dark Corner (1946).  Both of these wonderful films sit on my bookshelves along with about 10 more of the 19 films he made for Fox.

He received another supporting Oscar nomination in 1946 for his role in The Razor's Edge where he was typecast as a brainy elitist.  This was an important film with a superb cast and helped elevate Webb's star status.  I have always thought this movie best captured the real Webb.

So far he made three dramas.  But in 1948 came Sitting Pretty where he played a fussy, brainy man who comes to be a live-in babysitter with an entire family he has little respect for.  Before the film was over, of course he whipped them all into shape.  His character, whose name was Lynn Belvedere, was so popular that Fox announced Webb would revive the character in many more such films.  Luckily only Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951) were made.  Like most sequels, they didn't hold a candle to the original.

Fox took the Webb personality-- sardonic, suave, witty, mind-numbingly full of himself-- and tailored it to the rest of the lightweight films he would make.  There was only a rare return to drama.  But because Webb's personality was so strong and a niche had been found for him, the successes continued to be counted.

Steve Martin was only five years old when Webb made the original Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), an infinitely superior film to the remake due to Webb's presence as the haughtily efficient father.  One of his best performances was as a ham actor opposite Ginger Rogers in 1952's Dreamboat, but this film wasn't as popular as most of his other work. 

That same year he made another of his memorable films, Stars and Stripes Forever, where he played the flamboyant John Philip Sousa.  It was one of his favorite roles and it is hard to imagine anyone else doing such a fine job.  A co-star was Robert Wagner, who became a lifelong friend and would star with Webb again the following year in the very fine Titanic.  This was one of those rare returns to drama and it was with wry amusement watching him spar with (the also gay) Barbara Stanwyck as an unhappily married couple aboard the doomed luxury liner. 

The year 1954 was a good one for Webb.  He made two films that were similar in some ways... both were lightweight, fluffy stuff with all-star casts and although he was top-billed in both, he really rather blended in with the ensemble.  The first was the immensely popular Three Coins in the Fountain, little more than a reworking of an old Fox chestnut of three girls looking for rich husbands, but which boasted beautiful Italian locations and a title song that every singer had on an album.  Webb was paired for the first time with Dorothy McGuire (the lust was more cerebral than physical) and the other two couples were the more colorful Jean Peters and Rossano Brazzi and Maggie McNamara and Louis Jourdan.

In the second film that year Webb joined Woman's World.  There were again three couples but he wasn't part of them.  Instead, he had a sister.  He was a car company CEO who brings three men (Van Heflin, Fred MacMurray and Cornel Wilde) and their wives (Arlene Dahl, Lauren Bacall and June Allyson) to New York to eye the men for a big promotion.  He was suave and acidulous as always.

He would only make five more films.  Three were dramas again and in two of them he did not have top billing, something he had not suffered since The Razor's Edge.  In arguably his most unusual role, he played a real-life military man in 1956's The Man Who Never Was.  I say it was unusual because of playing a real person, he put aside his usual Webbisms.  The film was not a great success.  He appeared in 1957 with Alan Ladd and Sophia Loren (what a pair they are) in Boy on a Dolphin as a collector of ancient treasures. 

His final film, which was also the final film of esteemed director Leo McCarey, was called Satan Never Sleeps (1962.)  I think I saw it a million times because it was playing in a theater where I was an usher.  (For young readers, see your grandmother for a definition.)  Webb and William Holden played priests in war-torn China to perfection.  In my opinion, had he not gotten sick and died four years later, he might have had a drama career resurgence because he showed emotions here that were more raw and less self-indulgent than what we were accustomed to seeing.

Ever the dapper one


As I am given to saying, Clifton Webb was a hoot.  He really was an insufferable snob, both onscreen and off.  Zanuck didn't originally want him because he thought Webb was too effeminate.  That should elicit a duh.  Rock Hudson, whose career was running parallel to Webb's in some ways, had to create quite the illusion to pull off the he-man, romantic image.  Webb, because he was bookish, non-sexual and non-threatening in a physical sense, was able to be just what he was and who he was, no matter if he was throwing glamorous parties with Mama on his arm or sashaying across the silver screen, air-kissing his famous female costars.

Well, I say, thanks Clifton.  When I see you on my DVDs, I always break into a smile.  You were so salty, so haughty, so smug, so stylish and erudite.  I always loved your panache.



  1. Lovely article about the fantastic Clifton Webb. I recently discovered him in Laura and am now collecting his other films.

  2. Your comments are exactly why I do this thing. Thanks so much, Georgia.

    1. You're very welcome. I enjoyed reading.