Tuesday, December 8

Dana Andrews

One of the most reliable of actors, Dana Andrews could certainly claim the 40s as his decade.  He owes some of his good fortune to the fact that he was exempted from the service because of family status (wife and four kids), allowing him to slide into top roles that very well may have gone to others had they been around.  He is one of the film noir icons but did just as well in family dramas, war films, women's stories, westerns, sci-fi and even a musical. I have immensely liked a number of his films and one of his best roles is in one of my 50 favorites. 

He appeared to slip into parts easily and subtly.  Restraint seemed to be his key to a good performance and he was often referred to as a minimalist actor.   He made a career out of playing decent guys who were dealing with an inner bitterness and a great vulnerability.  

He is an actor who fully learned his craft but always found that fame kept him tightly wound.  That and general work pressures apparently hobbled him to such an extent that he became an alcoholic for most of his adult life and all Hollywood knew it.  To his credit, it rarely affected his early work.  He was razor-sharp in learning his lines due to a photographic memory, was not known as a behavioral problem and he showed up. 

He worked with some of the best directors... among them William Wyler, John Ford, Howard Hawks, William Wellman, Lewis Milestone, Henry Hathaway, Elia Kazan, Fritz Lang and Otto Preminger.  The latter, with whom Andrews would work five times, laid film noir in the actor's lap and found in Andrews a natural inclination to playing disillusioned characters, sometimes morally bankrupt ones.

Life certainly didn't begin that way for him as the third of nine children of a Mississippi Baptist minister.  (A younger brother, William, would go on to an acting career himself as Steve Forrest.)  Born in 1909 as Carver Dana Andrews, the family was very poor and Andrews always claimed that poverty would provide him the impetus to become successful.  That, in turn, put him on the road to acting, which he thought would provide him with the income he sought.

The highlight of his young life seemed to be appearances in school plays, which his father thought little of.  He studied business administration in college in Texas but couldn't get show biz out of his head.  He headed for Hollywood in 1931, hoping to act or even sing (he had a good baritone voice).  He got on at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse and stayed there for years, appearing in scores of plays.

In 1932 he married and they had a son but his wife died in 1935.  In 1939 he would wed actress, Mary Todd (no, she had not been previously married to Abraham Lincoln... tsk, tsk) and they remained married the rest of his life.

In the late 30s he was discovered by a talent scout for Samuel Goldwyn Studios and was put under contract.  Shortly thereafter Goldwyn sold half of Andrews's contract to 20th Century Fox.  Both studios would treat him well.  His first important film was The Westerner (1940) starring Gary Cooper.  In 1941 he went to work for John Ford in Tobacco Road.  I never much understood why this film seems to have a favorable following.  Andrews was about the only one to come out of it unscathed.  It did provide him with the first opportunity to work with the beautiful Gene Tierney.  They would make five films together and were ideally paired.

Other films in 1941 included a lackluster western, also costarring Tierney, Belle Starr.  A better choice was Swamp Water about a man who gets lost in the swamp and runs into a fugitive hiding out.   Andrews always said it was one of his favorite films and I find it to be one of his best acting jobs.  Finally there was the superb Ball of Fire, a rare comedy for Andrews, in which he played a slick gangster.  Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck toplined the large cast.

Andrews always claimed he turned in his best performance in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), a good but talky western about lynch mob mentality.  He played one of three innocent men trying to avoid the rope. 

Though he was not actually in the military, he certainly made a cluster of war films in the 1940s.  Crash Dive (1943) had some exciting sea sequences but they had to share screen time with a love triangle involving Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter and Andrews.  The same year's The North Star was about Nazis overrunning a Ukrainian village and costarred Baxter and Goldwyn's new boy actor of the moment, Farley Granger, who would work three more times with Andrews.

The year 1944 brought two war films... The Purple Heart and Wing and a Prayer.  Both stand among the best war movies of the decade.  The former was a gripping story of a gun-downed bomber crew and their lives in captivity.  The latter concerns an aircraft carrier on a decoy mission with orders to avoid combat and the men who have a problem with that lack of action.  A Walk in the Sun (1945) was not so successful in 1945, perhaps because the war ended.  But the story of a platoon trudging through the Italian countryside on the way to blow up a bridge that is near a farmhouse where the enemy is holed-up is held in higher esteem today.

The Best cast: Loy, March, Andrews, Wright

If Andrews ever got down and thanked whoever he thanked for a movie role, it surely happened in 1946 and the Academy Award-winning picture, The Best Years of Our Lives.  All of them-- Andrews, Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Harold Russell, Cathy O'Donnell, Steve Cochran, Hoagy Carmichael-- are so fortunate to have been in this valentine to returning servicemen and director William Wyler is so fortunate to have had all of them.  The actor did acknowledge it was the best film he ever made.

Hold on there, Dana, I'm writing this piece and I like one better, although Best Years was sensational.  In 1944 he went to work for Preminger for the first time in one of the top two or three film noirs ever made, Laura.  I maintain it is the film for which Dana Andrews is most-remembered.  His portrayal of the tough-talking, obsessed detective who has somehow fallen in love with the woman whose murder he's investigating was a smashing success.  I can't imagine anyone being better.  It was the third and best pairing of Andrews and Tierney. 

"Laura" and the men in her film noir life

He worked next for Preminger in Fallen Angel (1945).  Another noir, he played a down-on-his-luck charmer who marries a woman he doesn't love with the intention of stealing her life savings.  It didn't do well although I liked it.  The participation of Alice Faye and Linda Darnell helped sway my opinion.

His only musical came that same year with State Fair.  It was a dab of cornball, cotton candy fluff but audiences were treated to the wonderful voices of popular crooner Dick Haymes and colorful Vivian Blaine.  Top-billed Jeanne Crain and Andrews had their voices dubbed.  Friends asked Andrews why his voice was dubbed considering he had a great singing voice and he replied that he didn't know and didn't care because he felt singers had very short screen careers.  Uh-huh, ask Haymes and Blaine.

Boomerang (1947) was about a prosecutor with integrity and who better to play such a role than Andrews?  It is a well-written, well-directed (by Kazan), well-acted courtroom drama of one man falsely accused of a notorious murder and the man out to free him.  Nice touches of noir were noticed and appreciated.

It was back to Preminger with 1947's Daisy Kenyon, a film Andrews tried to back out of as he wasn't keen to work with Joan Crawford.  This one was all about the title character's romantic involvements with two men (Henry Fonda was the other one).  Curiously, Andrews was billed over Fonda, who had been billed over Andrews in The Ox-Bow Incident, showing what clout Andrews had in 1947.

The Iron Curtain (1948) was one of the first post-war anti-Communist films and reunited the actor with Tierney for the fourth time.  I'm not sure I can be fair about Deep Waters (1948) because the tale of a Maine fisherman's love for the sea over his girl co-starred newcomer Jean Peters and I was kinda nutty about her.  My Foolish Heart, the 1949 film, was almost as popular as the title song.  Andrews was the long-ago dead lover of Susan Hayward who tells the story in a romantic flashback.  It was, oddly, based on a J. D. Salinger short story, the only film version of his work he ever authorized.

The 1950s began well-enough with Where the Sidewalk Ends, a return to noir and Preminger and Tierney.  He was again a cop but this time not on the right side of the law.  Also in 1950 was Edge of Doom, an offbeat little noir in which Andrews played a priest in search of a killer (Granger) of a fellow priest.  The following year Granger and Andrews were brothers in I Want You, about smalltown American life just prior to the Korean War.  I loved it, thanks mainly to an exceptional cast which included Peggy Dow, Mildred Dunnock, Robert Keith and an unusually tough performance from Dorothy McGuire.

Andrews had a rare fit of temperament over The Frogmen (1951) because he was billed under relative newcomer Richard Widmark.  He and Fox (and Goldwyn) parted ways.  This would spell the end of Andrews's career in prestigious productions, although for the 1950s, he would maintain his leading man status.  He seems like a fine example of numerous actors who didn't have as great a career once they struck out on their own.

Adding to his long list of impressive leading ladies was a young Elizabeth Taylor in the jungle drama Elephant Walk (1954), most famous for its ending when a pouty pack of provoked pachyderms destroys a mansion from the inside out.  Andrews looked bored with it all.  While the City Sleeps (1956) was Fritz Lang's inside look at newspaper reporters trying to unearth a serial killer.  It was one of Andrews's better films of the decade.

His alcoholism was out of control by the mid-50s.  His marriage was in trouble, he'd been cited for drunk driving and his looks were starting to look like those of a drinker.  He was party to ending the movie careers of two singers, Betty Hutton and Jane Powell, when he appeared as their final leading man in Spring Reunion and Enchanted Island, respectively.

He had roles as an airline pilot in three films.  The first, again opposite Darnell, was in Zero Hour (1957).  The second and third have a fun bit of trivia attached to them.  In 1960s The Crowded Sky, Efrem Zimbalist's jet crashes into Andrew's airliner and in Airport 75, Andrews has a heart attack piloting his small plane and crashes into Zimbalist's 747.  None did anything to enhance his career.

In the early 60s he was president of the Screen Actors Guild and from all accounts I can find, a good one.

He returned to Fox for Madison Avenue (1961).  It was the story of two ad people out to promote a dangerous and unqualified man into the White House (hmmm!) should have been a been grittier and less glossy.  For me it certainly helped that Jeanne Crain and Eleanor Parker were part of the cast.  It was his last significant role as a romantic leading man.

Andrews loathed television but he still liked money so he did mostly TV in the early 60s.  In 1965 he suffered greatly when his eldest son died of a brain hemorrhage.  His drinking got even more out of control.  His old pal, Preminger, gave him a job way down in the all-star cast of In Harm's Way (1965).  He continued with smaller roles in big films like The Loved One, Battle of the Bulge and The Devil's Brigade or lead roles in such clunkers as Spy in Your Eye, The Frozen Dead, Hot Rods to Hell, The Cobra, No Diamonds for Ursula and Born Again.  Ouch.  He made Town Tamer and Johnny Reno, two westerns for producer A.C. Lyles, a sure sign that the party is not only over but long ago.

He did some plays and even a soap opera (Bright Promise) and then virtually disappeared for a spell to work in real estate.  There were likely some interventions from his loving family because after a lifetime of serious drinking, he quit.  He even did a televised public service announcement in 1971 about the evils of being an alcoholic.

He worked occasionally (his final film was in 1985... culminating 45 years in the business) but mainly pursued the hobbies he was most passionate about... reading, photography and the symphony.  In 1990 he had a series of strokes and was diagnosed with early stages of Alzheimer's.  He lived his final years in a treatment center for Alzheimer's in Orange County, California, and died of congestive heart failure and pneumonia in 1992 at age 83.

I admit that if I were asked to name the really great actors of all time, I am not likely to think of him, but so what?  What's more important than being on such a list is being a completely natural actor.  He was one and I have great respect for that.  He never received an Oscar nomination.  Perhaps that was because it was near impossible to catch him acting.  Most importantly he was a part of some very fine 1940s films... not just Laura and The Best Years of Our Lives but a host of them.  But if you made it to the end of this, you know that.

Next posting:
Movie review

1 comment:

  1. You are right:if I had to mention some actors I consider - for different reasons- my favorite ones, I wouldn't mention him.
    Yet he was in two of my favorite movies, LAURA and THE BEST YEARS..., in which he gave excellent performances. I liked also I WANT YOU, but I have to confess that I went to see that movie ( I think I was fifteen or so)only because of Peggy Dow, whom I already appreciated in HARVEY.
    Anyway, once again, I consider this post a jewel of precision. As usual. Thanks a lot.