Friday, January 3

The Hunk

Victor Mature was called all kinds of names and The Hunk was simply one of them.  A few others were lush Lothario, Technicolor Tarzan, overripe Romeo, the loafer, glamour boy.  I'm sure there were more.  His distinctive, often-brooding Mediterranean good looks generally found him in films that were pure escapism.  No one would accuse him of being a great actor and that would include him.

I accepted the roles they offered, he once said, and put the money in the bank.  After all, it wasn't brain surgery and I never lost my sense of humor about what I was doing.  His sense of humor is what attracted me to him as an actor.  He always seemed to be having a good time.  I thought his smile was infectious.  Despite not being a top-drawer actor that does not mean he was a bad one.  Actually I think bad movie actors make up only a small group with great actors making up just a slightly larger collection.  Most actors are good... or good enough.  By and large, one needs an expressive countenance and an uninhibited nature, memorize those lines and stand where you're told.  The Hunk could do all of that.

Mature always reminded me of a junior Robert Mitchum.  Both were big and brawny, sleepy-eyed, laconic, non-conforming.  They both  loved to give the impression that they didn't care all that much for their profession and it wasn't true in either case.  Mature often filled roles that Mitchum easily could have or in fact turned down.  They costarred with many of the same actresses including Jean Simmons, Jane Russell, Susan Hayward, Rhonda Fleming, Linda Darnell, Rita Hayworth and Lizabeth Scott among them.  Mitchum, however, was a much better actor.

Mature was born in Kentucky on January 29, 1913, to Austrian immigrants.  He always said he was a lucky guy, the first time referring to his childhood which could have gone very wrong with pranks and general mayhem.  He was extremely attached to his mother and it may be that relationship and his good luck that kept him out of serious trouble.

His generally restless nature didn't keep him from settling down with pencil and paper and writing a play at 15 and then acting in it with his pals.  Of course it was no great shakes but it did awaken in him the acting bug.  As he told others about wanting to act, some would say that with his looks and personality he should pursue it.  In a couple of years he would find himself in Los Angeles.

One thing that Mature had over Mitchum was that he studied acting and appeared in plays at California's famed Pasadena Playhouse. He impressed the hell out of the Playhouse's director who presented the surprised Mature with a scholarship.  He appeared in a number of plays and developed a lifelong penchant for self-promotion.  Some would eventually call him shameless in this regard, but if there were anything Mature knew how to sell, it was Mature.

Hollywood came calling and before long he would make one of the most famous pictures of his career, the truly wretched One Million B.C.  Playing a caveman allowed him to be scantily clad and in many pictures in his future, he would at least appear shirtless.  His beefcake pictures would soon fill many movie magazines of the day and his popularity quickly soared.

At the Playhouse he would also marry a fellow student and she would become the first of his five wives.  He would also bed a great many of his costars, two of whom he became very close to, 1940s pinup queens, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth.  Toward the end of his life, he said that Hayworth was the only woman he ever loved.  There are no known comments from those five wives.

20th Century Fox put him under contract where some of his earliest work was in musicals.  He did not sing himself and could barely dance, but musicals he did, usually mugging for the screen, looking like a horny lap dog, as luscious Betty Grable sang to him.  She did that in three films... Song of the Islands, Footlight Serenade and Wabash Avenue.  All would be considered corny by today's standards, but Grable, Mature and the genre were what was happening in the fabulous 40s.

A super film noir, I Wake Up Screaming

If it weren't enough that he did musicals, Fox also put him in film noir.  (Gee, is there any doubt as to how this guy got my attention.) He did about 10 noirs in total, but two early ones at Fox were terrific.  The first in 1941, also with Grable in a rare dramatic role, was I Wake Up Screaming.  Mature is accused of murdering Grable's sister (Carole Landis, who also romped with him in One Million B.C.) but she doesn't think he did it and sets out with him to prove it while they avoid the cops.  

In 1947 he would make one of the great noirs, Kiss of Death, although his role as a reformed crook was overshadowed by Richard Widmark's screen debut as a very, very bad man who pushes Mildred Dunnock in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.  Taking a back seat to an actor further down the credits is something that happened a great deal to Mature in his career.  It may have made him a bit of a nice guy but let's face it, do the big-deal movie stars do that?

With his one and only love, Hayworth, he made the turn-of-the-century musical My Gal Sal, which, while still light and sugary, was super fun with some great period tunes and all the more delightful because the public knew he and Hayworth were thisclose.  Likely Mature made sure of that.

His gal Rita.... hey sailor!

Despite one's take on his acting abilities, no one could fault him for a brooding performance as Doc Holliday in John Ford's terrific western, My Darling Clementine (1946).  It was the story of the O.K. Corral, highly-fictionalized, and mean ol' Ford probably pistol-whipped a performance out of Mature who also knew he shared many scenes with Henry Fonda and needed to step it up.  I just watched this film a few days ago and had to say.... you go, Loverboy.

I am not sure that Easy Living (1949) or The Las Vegas Story (1952) are true noirs, but they border on them.  Mature came alive again in the former as a fading football player married to a social-climbing Lizabeth Scott with Lucille Ball as the team secretary who loves him.  It's one of my favorite Mature roles.  The Las Vegas Story is noteworthy because he may never have been as perfectly matched with an actress as he was with Jane Russell.  In many ways she was the female version of him and they sparkled on the silver screen.

My Darling Clementine may have been his first western but it was certainly not his last.  He would, like all good movie stars of the day, be in a number of them.  And the truth is he looked good in the Technicolored outdoors, filling out buckskins way better than a tuxedo.  I needed to feel confidence in my western heroes and Mature more than accomplished that.

I think, however, what he will be most remembered for is-- gasp!-- those religious epics, so popular in the late 40s to mid-50s.  They are one of my least favorite genres and it could be said that I have usually avoided them like the plague. 

In 1949 he was signed for the role he was born to play and the one for which he is most well-known... that of a strongman who resists the charms of a beautiful but treacherous woman in Samson and Delilah.  It came with all the pageantry and excess that is known to come from a Cecil B. DeMille production.  It was a huge hit with the public but it has always been the subject of a little drubbing from Hollywood.  Groucho Marx's famous line was that he would never go see a film where the man's tits are bigger than the woman's.  Hedy Lamarr, certainly one of the great glamourpusses of the silver screen, was a notch or two down the acting ladder than Mature, and their pairing often got the wags to hootin' and hollerin'.  But listen to this... DeMille originally wanted Cary Grant and Betty Hutton for Samson and Delilah.  Can you even imagine?  He must have been absolutely mad.

Samson and Delilah

Hollywood loves to repeat itself so Mature would turn up in Androcles and the Lion, The Robe, its sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators, Veils of Bagdad and The Egyptian, all in the early and mid 50s.  His partially-clad body became well-known to those who are into such things and his soft-spoken voice radiated a sincerity that the public embraced.  He would forever put himself down.  One time he publicly said that he wanted to join a country club but they said they didn't take actors.  I'm no actor, Old Vic says, and I have 28 films to prove it.  Interestingly, his Robe costar, Richard Burton, would claim Mature was a very good actor but it's not known whether The Great Voice was sober or not.

He had a very good year in 1955.  He was, believe it or not, quite convincing as Chief Crazy Horse and the film itself was pretty well-received.  It painted a more thoughtful portrait of Indians than one is accustomed to in westerns.  A second oater, The Last Frontier, was steered by one of the best western directors of them all, Anthony Mann (he famously turned James Stewart into a hardass cowboy in five films).  Most of the action took place in and around a fort and Mann tapped into the Mature easy-going persona among a glittering cast that included Robert Preston and Anne Bancroft.

His third 1955 film was a yummy little thriller called Violent Saturday.  Three thugs come to a small town to rob a bank and terrorize the town while doing so.  It had a noir quality to it with Mature in a lowkey role as a tormented hero who becomes a captive of the baddies.  Richard Egan, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin and Stephen McNally headed a large and impressive cast.

He would still make 18 more movies before he called it a day in 1979.  Most were fairly forgettable and he likely did the majority of them simply for the money.  There was a lot of alimony to pay, lots of rounds of drinks to buy at the Mocambo or Ciro's and golf ain't cheap.  He did star in my second favorite circus movie in 1959 called, simply enough, The Big Circus.  It was a rousing good time.  And in 1966 he not only parodied himself in After the Fox, but stole the damned thing from one of the champion scene-stealers, Peter Sellers. 

Poking fun at his image in After the Fox

One day in the late 50s a friend and I were at the Picwood Theater on Pico Blvd. at Westwood Blvd. in West Los Angeles.  (It has since been torn down.)  As we were leaving, my friend focused my attention on an appliance store across the street that had Vic Mature highlighted all over the front of the building.  Let's go see if he's there, my friend said, and we busted across the street. 

We walked in, looked around, saw no one and left.  As we were pushing open the front door, we pushed it into the man himself.  We noticed that great big familiar smile as we humbly apologized.  He made some joke about us (teenagers) not buying anything and I think he said to tell our parents about a sale he was having.  He flashed that kilowatt smile again and gave us a wink.

I've run into some snooty movie stars in my day and Victor Mature was not one of them.

Jane Russell

No comments:

Post a Comment