Tuesday, December 18

Jeff Chandler

I write about all kinds of actors.  Some are those A-list actors... those gods and goddesses who either have the looks or talent or both to ignite in audiences a passion that compels us to want to see their films.  In my case I have always wanted to enhance that movie-going experience with wanting to learn more about them.  I have also written about character actors and actresses, people not as well known.  I always hope that I might remind some of you of a few folks whose work you have enjoyed countless times, although not in all cases have you remembered their names.

In that regard I have done some pieces on actors who enjoyed a glimmer of fame, but faded and are largely forgotten.  Big or small names, I have written about some whose notoriety off screen sometimes make them more of an interesting subject than their work.

I have also written about some B actors.  They are not character actors.  They are often the stars of their films if those films are less stellar.  B actors were often billed under a more famous, usually older, actress.  Often she was on a downward spiral and a virile B-actor helped spruce up the film by bringing a healthy sexual glamour and rugged good looks and the actress would appear younger and still vibrant. 

Fan mail at Universal was colossal

Jeff Chandler was such an actor.  He climbed the Hollywood ladder to the degree he did chiefly because he was major eye candy, had a voice that made women want to shed their clothes, could hit his marks, take direction, memorize lines, ride a horse well and was butch.  Hell, lots of people have appeared in movies with little more to offer than that.

Chandler and others sometimes never rise above B-picture status, much as they'd like to, because they get typed in a certain role or a certain genre.  Handsome Jeff got stuck in westerns.  Now we know I love westerns so it rather grieves me to write such things but it is what it is.  When you make one western after another, and good though you may be, don't expect the phone to ring and have your agent say you're wanted for the lead in Hamlet or African Queen or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Adding insult to injury, when he wasn't making a western, he was often in a war film.   When he was showered, shaved and dressed up he could be found holding the arms of some Hollywood glamour girl, usually toward the ends of their careers, such as Joan Crawford, Loretta Young, Lana Turner or June Allyson.  He would work with a slew of beautiful redheads including Maureen O'Hara, Susan Hayward, Rhonda Fleming and Jeanne Crain, actresses who usually were on their way up and their films with Chandler were not often mentioned after they ascended the gilded cage.

Pity.  The ultimate culprit, other than Jeff himself (God knows I am a fan of accepting personal responsibility), was Universal-International.  The studio had some beautiful people under contract but it usually wasted them in productions with inferior writing, directing and production values.  Worse yet, Universal wouldn't loan out its players for films at other studios very often.  Likely the home studio didn't want their players to discover the contrast.

I think Chandler not only wanted to have greater opportunities but he was a good actor, delivering solid performances.  Perhaps he was a bit wooden at times but one might look to some of his directors for that.  Point in case is Joseph Pevney for whom Chandler worked seven times.  Pevney was not a bad director but as a studio contract director, he pumped out the productions as fast and efficiently as his studio bosses expected.  I'll guess that not many actors asked him about their motivation. 

Chandler was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn, born Ira Grossel.  It is a name he always kept and he was proud of his heritage.  Ira discovered a love of acting while doing some summer stock and then his sexy baritone voice landed him on radio.  Then, for good or bad, Universal discovered him.  Again, that voice and handsome face, along with premature gray hair on a 6'4" frame, made him an instant heart throb with the girls and without a doubt a few of the boys.

My mama thought he was the berries!  She made room for plenty of chatter about Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, but she positively swooned over Jeff Chandler.  She always said she would leave my father for Chandler and I always said why wait.  In my avid movie magazine gazing, I noticed his pictures right off.  Chandler might, in fact, be partially responsible for my earliest uncovering of a budding gayness.  

He bummed around in a few pictures when, oddly enough, he had a rare loan-out to 20th Century Fox to make Broken Arrow, second-billed to James Stewart.  Chandler even managed to nab a supporting Oscar nomination for his manly interpretation of Cochise.  He played the Indian leader twice more in Taza, Son of Cochise and The Battle at Apache Pass.  You noting those titles?  They're not Shane and The Searchers.

With Joan Crawford on the beach

Some good fortune came to him in 1955 when he had three popular movies released.  All are among my half dozen or so favorite Chandler films.  Up first was Foxfire with Jane Russell.  Damn they were a foxy duo as mismatched marrieds who scarcely knew one another very well.  Next he was Crawford's boy toy in Female on the Beach.  He was a beach boy, accustomed to being kept by rich women, and she comes to suspect him of murder.  Last was a remake of the western (or northern since it takes place in Alaska), The Spoilers.  He battled Rory Calhoun over gold and the affections of Anne Baxter in one of her sexiest roles.  In fact, I just added this to my movie collection the other day.

Yesterday I watched 1956's Away All Boats about an imperfect Navy crew in the Pacific during WWII.  Chandler spearheaded a wonderful cast including George Nader, Lex Barker, Keith Andes,  Richard Boone and Julie Adams.  The following year he made arguably his best film, Jeanne Eagels.  Gorgeous Kim Novak starred as the 1920s booze-and-drug-addicted actress with Chandler as her manager-lover.  The same year he played a determined sheriff to bring down Orson Welles as the town bully in Man in the ShadowThe Return to Peyton Place, 1961, provided Chandler with his final romantic role as neophyte author Carol Lynley's publisher.

Shortly after completing a war film, Merrill's Marauders in 1961, strapping 42-year old Jeff Chandler sadly died after contracting blood poisoning following an operation. 

On dry land with Esther Williams

In 1999, Hollywood swimming star, Esther Williams wrote her memoirs.  She had earlier made the unsuccessful Raw Wind in Eden and had become his girlfriend as his marriage was crumbling.  Loose-lipped Williams claims she discovered him wearing a dress.  "You're too big for polka dots," she claims to have said.  I don't believe her.  And frankly, if it were true, why say it?  Chandler fans didn't need that in their memory banks. Luckily, many people have the same thinking.  It only served to diminish Williams.

I went to school with Chandler's daughter, Jamie, although I didn't know her.  One day I was walking across our large campus and spotted Chandler, dressed to the nines, that gray hair shimmering.  I raced to a phone booth and called his biggest fan, my mama, and  encouraged her to come over but she couldn't leave work.  A week later she and I were driving by a local church and witnessed Robert Taylor and Ronald Reagan coming out of a church together.  She would have to make due.


1 comment:

  1. Ah, Jeff Chandler!! I remember him. Looks to die for!! Women loved him and men were captivated by those heroic looks. I always feel nostalgic when I think of him. Great Post! Thanks!