Friday, August 28

Cornel Wilde

I'll guess that you have not been thinking of Cornel Wilde this month but I have.  I just finished my piece on Betty Hutton, who, of course, was his leading lady in The Greatest Show on Earth.  But my Wilde thoughts started with the piece on Tyrone Power because both were known for those costume dramas where they dash about in tights (doncha hate that?) and brandish a sword.  Wilde was more or less a successor to Power or at least a backup and since they both worked at Fox, I'll further guess Wilde inherited some of those roles Power nixed.

Like any number of actors who play those parts, they long to do something meatier, something that allows them to show their mettle as an actor.  In those films actors almost take a backseat to their clothes which is why they call them costume dramas.  And c'mon, writers who dabbled at such things were often the newbies on the lot or on their way out.  Who couldn't cut his teeth on a costume drama?  Of course after polishing off a few they wanted to cut their throats rather than write more.  Actors pretty much felt the same.  Enough already. 

But ah, there was that public who clamored to see Wilde do more of the same.  They didn't care about one polishing one's craft, taking on the bard now and then.   Just give 'em dare devilry in tights, shirts with big, puffy sleeves and plumes in hats... oh, and some popcorn.  And if that all meant more coins in the Fox tills, then the contracted player will do as he is told.  There would come a day when Wilde would say enough already, and he would indeed do it with some dash.  But hey, first things first.

He got creative with his earliest biographical facts.  He was not born in 1915 in New York City.  One can read that most anywhere.  He was actually born in 1912 in Hungary.  It is true that the family moved to New York when Kornel Lajos Weisz was still a young kid.  Even after the family moved stateside, Wilde still traveled extensively to various European locales, often in the company of his father who worked for a cosmetics firm.  The young Wilde logged in quite a bit of time learning languages as well, becoming fluent in French, Italian, German, Russian, Hungarian and English.  Even as a teenager he considered himself quite the young, cultured gentleman.

He enrolled in pre-med courses, finding a career as a doctor in step with how he saw himself in years to come.  He completed a four-year medical study program at a city college in three years and then won a scholarship to medical school at Columbia University.  The fates, however, had something else in store... the theater.  He was so charmed by it that virtually everything else fell by the wayside so he could devote his energies to it full time.

He was a natural athlete who worked out regularly and thought healthfully his entire life.  He took up fencing with a passion but his desire to tread the boards was so strong that he gave up a spot on the fencing team in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.    Nonetheless, fencing would return to his life and stay put for years to come.

He studied acting while working in stock.  Soon Laurence Olivier hired him in two capacities for his Broadway production of Romeo and Juliet.  Wilde was given the role of Tybalt and at the same time served as Olivier's fencing instructor.  The young actor was thrilled that Warner Bros offered him a contract.  He left for California with his wife of a couple of years.  She, too, wanted to be an actress and along with becoming a young mother she would change her name to Patricia Knight for the movies. 

His rather exotic good looks secured him roles as a villain in some early films.  Most were unmemorable with the exception of 1941s High Sierra where he played Bogie's apprentice hoodlum buddy.  Warners and the young actor soon parted ways, however.  Hired on at 20th Century Fox, in no time at all he would costar with nearly all of that studio's beautiful actresses.  He knew that as a contract actor he would have to do as he was told.  What he didn't know at the time was how difficult it would be for him to pull that off.  His resolve was quite likely something like... I do these silly costume pictures for them but I don't have to lie down and die as well.

First up was the very fine Life Begins at 8:30 (1942) about a crusty old actor father and his lame daughter living in a NY apartment and the man who enters their lives and reorganizes things.  Wilde was the young man and brilliant character actor Monty Woolley and Ida Lupino were the father and daughter.  He begged to be loaned to Columbia to play Chopin in A Song to Remember (1945) but most thought he looked far too healthy to play a tubercular musician.  Still he campaigned vigorously and snagged the role and an Oscar nomination for his efforts.  He was pleased and thought he was on the right side of fate when Columbia asked him to stay on for two more films.

Ah, so Columbia's really to blame.  It would have been difficult to ignore his physical qualities and his natural athleticism.  Did I mention he was also good with a bow and arrow?  Oh, don't you see this coming?   He was soon playing Aladdin in A Thousand and One Nights (1945) and then the son of Robin Hood in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946) and he strapped on that sword for years to come. 

In between these two mounds of fluff was arguably the best film Wilde ever appeared in, Leave Her to Heaven (1945).  That is not to be confused with it being his best work.  The one most memorable here is Gene Tierney as a treacherous young woman consumed with jealousy over anything or anyone who takes her novelist husband from her side.  It was a rare film noir in color (glorious color, I might add) with a story as compelling as being in a room alone with a wild panther and a chair.

Centennial Summer (1946) was a turn-of-the-century musical starring Wilde as a Frenchman who's in Philadelphia to work on the French Pavilion for the centennial.  It should have been better but audiences were rewarded with two of Fox's most popular actresses playing sisters, Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell, both vying for Wilde's attentions.  Crain had worked with him and won him at the end of Leave Her to Heaven and Darnell would become his most frequent costar during his time at the studio.

In 1947 he made The Homestretch, a so-so horse-racing story, memorable, in my opinion, for his pairing with Maureen O'Hara.  They would again appear together in the better At Sword's Point (1952) about the children of the three musketeers.  They were an ideal pairing... swashbuckling actor meets swashbuckling actress.  She thought he was a very good actor.

So did Ginger Rogers who teamed up with Wilde in the romantic comedy It Had to Be You (1947) about a woman who keeps breaking off engagements to be married.  I had never seen this movie until a couple of years ago and I, too, thought he brought his A-game to a genre most unfamiliar to him.

Wilde most definitely took a back seat and second billing to Linda Darnell in Forever Amber (1947).  Her title role as a lusty-busty, 17th-century wench overshadowed everyone else in a film that suffered from numerous production problems and had censorship issues.  It was expected that the film based on Kathleen Winsor's racy novel would do well at the box office rather than with the critics and that was the case.

Reunited with Darnell for the third time in The Walls of Jericho (1948), it concerned an attorney's messed up life in a small Kansas town.  Darnell had the town vamp role, married to Kirk Douglas, while pursuing Wilde who is in love with Anne Baxter despite his being married to Ann Dvorak.  Oh, you have to see it to believe it.

Then came Road House (1948), containing one of Wilde's best performances.  We shall discuss in greater detail one day, but the film noir about four lives at a roadside juke joint provided rich performances from Wilde, Lupino, Richard Widmark and Celeste Holm.  This was the third film for Wilde and Lupino but they became good buddies on this one, running off to corners of the studio when not filming to discuss liberal politics.

The following year he continued his noir ways with Shockproof, directed by the great Douglas Sirk and costarring Mrs. Wilde.  Knight is the bad girl, just out of prison, and he's a parole officer who doesn't envision the changes his life will take.  Wilde had one of his snits over the hiring of his wife for this role.  The two of them had fights over the different paths their careers had taken them and she needed a film like this one.  He needed her to have it to help save their long-troubled marriage.  Sirk thought she was not so good.  She would only make five films.

Probably about a foot off the ground

In all the years and all the searching I've done into gathering tidbits on The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), I never read much about Cornel Wilde's participation.  His costars who either wrote bios or were the subjects of one never mentioned Wilde in the remembrances of making the film.  One exception to the press on him was that he was afraid of heights.  To play The Great Sebastian, king of the flying trapeze, there would have to be some fancy camera angles and great cutting for his derring-do to be believable.  Director Cecil B. DeMille instructed his cast they would have to perform most of their own stunts, so it's a wonder Wilde was hired.  But my sense is ol' DeMille knew his leading man would look good shirtless and that sells tickets to his circus. 

Around the time of making TGSOE, Wilde divorced Patricia Knight and five days later married blonde actress, Jean Wallace. She was a Knight look-alike and more known for being in a stormy marriage with actor Franchot Tone and losing custody of her children than for her acting resum√©.  Wilde and Wallace would go on to make eight films together.

The 2nd & last Mrs. Wilde, Jean Wallace

I was always quite partial to Operation Secret (1952), a WWII caper about a French army unit under attack by the Germans.  The plot thickens when they discover a traitor in their midst.  Costars Steve Cochran, Karl Malden and Phyllis Thaxter raised the bar a bit for sure.

Toward the end of his stay at Fox, Wilde appeared in another comedy, the all-star Woman's World (1954).  It concerned New York auto owner Clifton Webb calling in his three best execs (Wilde, Van Heflin, Fred MacMurray) to look over for one promotion but especially finding a need to look over their respective wives (June Allyson, Arlene Dahl, Lauren Bacall).  Wilde would have had the most boring role of the bunch had it not been for MacMurray.

In the 1950s Wilde became more disenchanted with his roles and with Hollywood film-making in general.  He said acting is not just another day, another dollar.  If I hate a script or think it's foolish or in bad taste, I am miserable.   Perhaps he was not regarded as a difficult star but he could be full of himself and clearly was disillusioned with the movers and shakers and he thought he'd like a go at doing things his way.  He liked being the boss.  No more studio contracts for him.  He formed his own production company, Theodora Productions, and began directing, producing and starring in modestly budgeted movies that were shot overseas.

It was a good year, 1955.  The Wildes costarred in two yummy film noirs, both a bit B but wonderful nonetheless.  With the first, Storm Fear, he made his directorial debut.  Wilde and his two bank-robbing accomplices invade his brother's snowed-in mountain home with disastrous results.  Wallace, as his sister-in-law, probably had her best role.  Next was The Big Combo about a cop (Wilde) out to bring down a crime lord (Richard Conte) but whose life gets complicated when he becomes involved with the gangster's moll (Wallace).

Wilde would do the occasional studio film, but likely because he needed the dough to finance his pet films.  With Wallace in tow, they made The Devil's Hairpin (1957), about a cocky race car driver who causes his brother's death; the adventure drama, Maracaibo (1958); a very lusty and well done Sword of Lancelot (1963), and the war film, Beach Red (1967).  He directed her in 1970s No Blade of Grass, about a viral epidemic, but he did not appear in it.

In 1965, he made The Naked Prey, an unusual drama where virtually the only performers are Wilde as a man on safari and the few African natives who chase him across great stretches of land after they kill all the others in his hunting party.  It has become one of the first movies he seems to be remembered for.  The last of his working years were filled with a couple of more swashbucklers and some television. 

The hunter is hunted in "The Naked Prey"

One never heard a lot about the Wilde-Wallace marriage.  They did have a son together and she had two sons with Tone.  The couple seemed to stay out of the limelight although I recall the occasional gossip item that purportedly shed light on their arguments or separations.  He could be controlling and she drank too much.  After 30 years of marriage, they called it quits in 1981.  It's been said she always wanted him back but he resisted mainly because she had become a hopeless alcoholic.  It seemed a sad ending to me... I liked them both.

Wilde had a number of liberal causes that excited him but projects that involved the environment or the health of our planet were mainstays.  They earned his passion, his money and his time.  Good for him.

Cornel Wilde died of leukemia at age 77 in Los Angeles in 1989.  He had been writing his autobiography at the time of his death.  What a shame no one finished it for him.  Jean Wallace died in 1990 at age 66.   Patricia Knight died in 2004 at age 84.   

Next posting:
He said no actor really knew his craft until
he was 40.  And he died at 39.

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