Friday, May 23

Van Heflin

He was a most reliable actor, mainly a character actor as I see it, although he did have a number of romantic leads while under contract to MGM in the 40s and would later play leads in a slew of decent B flicks.  No matter what he played one could always count on Van Heflin to deliver the goods.

He was born in 1910 Oklahoma to the wife of a dentist.  After his parents separated when he was around seven, Heflin went to live with his grandmother in Long Beach, Calif.  There he acquired two lifelong traits... a restlessness and a love for the sea.  Fortunately he was able to combine them into a lifestyle that he found most suitable.  Immediately after graduating from high school, he set off on a tramp steamer for a year.  He would settle on land (back in Oklahoma) for two years while he attempted a law degree and then upped and quit and spent another two years at sea.

How the acting bug bit him in the middle of the Pacific is beyond me but he began attending the Yale School of Drama.  Soon he landed parts on Broadway, the most prestigious of which was playing the reporter in The Philadelphia Story opposite Katharine Hepburn, Joseph Cotten and Shirley Booth.  Hepburn was impressed with him enough to speak to her RKO bosses about a part for him in her film A Woman Rebels (1936) and he signed a contract with the studio.  Woman and the few other films he did at RKO were dogs and the young actor thought he'd be drummed out of Hollywood.

He did manage a decent role at Warner Bros. in 1940 opposite Errol Flynn, Olivia deHavilland and Ronald Reagan in Santa Fe Trail.  Critics wrote favorable notices of his work which, in turn, caught the attention of the always-watchful MGM.  They brought him aboard in 1941 and immediately assigned him to the Robert Taylor-Lana Turner gangster flick, Johnny Eager, and Heflin promptly won a best supporting Oscar for his role as a drunken hanger-on.  I always very much liked Heflin's work but never understood this Oscar win.  It must have been slim pickings in 1941.  Nonetheless, the actor always claimed it was a favorite role.

He was impressive the following year in the biopic Tennessee Johnson, the story of America's 17th President.  He would play straight man to songstresses Kathryn Grayson and Judy Garland in Seven Sweethearts and Presenting Lily Mars, respectively, although neither film was a hot ticket. 

Like all good dramatic actors of the time, he would lend his talents to film noir.  It was no accident that he would wind up costarring three times with one of the queens of the genre, Barbara Stanwyck.  First up was 1946's The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.  He was a former love of hers who returns to their hometown where she reins supreme and involves him in an unsolved murder.  If you like the great old movies, this is a must-see.

Not as good but still worth seeing for these two actors is B.F.'s Daughter (1948) about a poor but happy man who marries a rich woman and soon regrets the lifestyle he's had foisted on him.  Lastly is the 1949 yummy film noir souffle, East Side, West Side, where Stanwyck is married to cheater James Mason (with Ava Gardner... he can hardly be blamed) and Heflin is a family friend who helps her through rough times, which includes a murder.  In real life, Gardner would become a family friend and Heflin would help the actress through many of her own rough times.

The cast of "East Side, West Side"

The same year Heflin and Mason were reunited for the florid Madame Bovary, costarring Louis Jourdan and Jennifer Jones in the title role.  Heflin perhaps had the least interesting role as the cuckolded husband.  The year before he was loaned to Universal to help make its stab for a Gone With the Wind-type tale called Tap Roots.  He costarred with the fiery Susan Hayward whom he fought with and loved on screen and barely got to know off screen.  It is one of my favorite Heflin roles.  In 1948 he was fourth-billed as one of The Three Musketeers (Athos) in a lavish, lusty, athletic romp that only MGM could have done.  The same year he was most effective in Act of Violence, in which he is stalked by a psychotic, former army acquaintance (Robert Ryan.)

In 1951, no longer at MGM, he made a wonderful B-noir with Evelyn Keyes called The Prowler.  He played a cop with a screw loose.  He began somewhat reluctantly appearing on television, which he regarded as little more than selling a product.  He also began a spate of B films.

Director George Stevens effectively used Heflin in 1953 to play the resolute rancher in Shane, and it became the actor's best performance and the film for which he is most remembered.  It is also one of the finest westerns ever made, a giant in the western orbit.  Heflin and his neighbors are fighting some wicked townspeople when retired gunslinger Alan Ladd arrives at his farm and becomes involved in the rift.  Ladd and Heflin would also become lifelong buddies. 

With Arlene Dahl in "Woman's World"

At 20th Century Fox he joined the all-star cast of 1954's Woman's World as one of three car execs summoned to Manhattan to be looked over for a big promotion.  With a cast that included Clifton Webb, June Allyson, Fred MacMurray, Lauren Bacall, Cornel Wilde and Arlene Dahl (as Heflin's ambitious wife), it was a rousing success with the public.  The next year he starred opposite Gene Tierney and Ginger Rogers in Black Widow, a murder mystery with Heflin as a suspect.  In 1955 he was top-billed in one of his best-ever roles as a marine major in the immensely popular Warner Bros. romance-war film, Battle Cry.

Three westerns he made in the mid-late 50s raised his stock in that genre.  Joanne Woodward made her film debut in the comedy oater, Count Three and Pray, as a tempestuous tomboy who brings chaos to the life of a country preacher, played by Heflin.  He was excellent as a rancher holding an outlaw (Glenn Ford) in a hotel room while they await the 3:10 to Yuma.  And he was a formidable rancher and irresponsible father to sons Tab Hunter and James Darren in Gunman's Walk.  For you western fans, these films are on the tube all the time and all are warranted for superb Heflin portrayals.

He lent some testosterone to the 1960 war drama Five Branded Women supporting Silvana Mangano, Jeanne Moreau and Vera Miles.  He had left romantic and lead roles behind by the time he made the 1966 remake of Stagecoach and he was the best thing about it in his role as the craggy-faced marshal.

Like another Van (Johnson), he turned down the TV role of Elliot Ness in The Untouchables (later played by Robert Stack).  Heflin did not want to be tied to a series and still disdained working on the little box.  He later admitted that he was surprised the series was so successful and bemoaned that it could have set him up financially for the rest of his life.

He was among glittering casts in many of his movies but none more notable than his final big-screen film offering, 1970's mega-hit Airport.  Playing the bomber, a man determined to blow himself up in a plane so that his wife could collect life insurance, he looked way older than his years and he didn't look well.

A little over a year after the movie's release, Heflin died of a heart attack in his swimming pool.  He was only 60 years old. 

One of MGM's most popular

1 comment:

  1. Van Heflin was excellent as Jeff in Johnny Eager. the pickins were little, huh? IT WAS A WELL EARNED OSCAR. Who are you, anyway?