Tuesday, January 26

Anne Baxter

It may be that there was never an actress who made as many inferior movies as Anne Baxter did.  She made 50 films and is primarily known for just two of them.  Frankly, even in those two, I think the films are better than she is in them.  You may disagree.

Her films are so poor that I will not even mention most of them.  Once said I realize I have two of them listed among my 50 Favorite Films and another as part of my Good 40s Films tributes.  Go figure.

One has to either be a very talented actor or actress to get my attention and/or be real easy on the eyes.  She was neither.  Her looks went from mousy to severe and her hair style in the 40s was mannish.  I found her acting to be far too mannered.  I will concede that as she approached middle age, I liked both her looks and her acting more although the films she appeared in never seemed to improve to any great degree.

Anne Baxter was under contract to 20th Century Fox who never built her career in the same way that they did contemporaries such as Gene Tierney, Linda Darnell, Jeanne Crain or even Jean Peters in the later 40s.  She didn't get nearly the choice of roles that those other ladies got but in fact she often replaced one or more of them in a film which illuminates the fact that she wasn't first choice.  With all that being said, here's a bit of irony.  Baxter is the only Oscar winner among the five and her career lasted the longest.  Go figure.

From her younger years there were those who felt she had a sense of entitlement.  It may have been because she was the granddaughter of the famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.  The truth is she didn't know him very well but the pedigree put her one up on most people she met.  She was born in 1923 in Michigan City, Indiana, the only child of a Seagram's Distillery executive and a housewife.  She caught the acting bug as early as age five when she appeared in a school play.  When she was six the Baxters moved to New York and little Annie was thrilled to the marrow that she was among the acting elite.  She knew that one day she would be among them.

She didn't live the life of a child for very long.  With no siblings she lived among adults who treated her like one.  Both parents encouraged her interest in acting and soon she was being trotted to one audition after another.  She made many adult-like decisions and apparently never missed what she never had.  She began studying with the famed and fierce Maria Ouspenskaya who found herself often locked in battle with young Annie, already a bit aloof.  She had no time or patience for niceties.  She was just there to learn.

When she became a Fox star, she would famously say... I'm an actress, not a personality... it's more successful to be a personality.  She might have meant that she didn't have much personality.  She was usually all business.  Never being particularly friendly around the studio, she never developed a strong sense of camaraderie.  Perhaps that had something to do with why they appeared to ignore her around Fox.

At 13 she appeared in her first Broadway play and at 16 she was signed to play Katharine Hepburn's young sister in the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story.  Hepburn, however, had Baxter fired because she did not like her acting style.  She was too proud and determined to give up on her dreams but she did alter them.  She turned to Hollywood.

David O. Selznick tested her for the lead in Rebecca (1940) but deemed her too young and gave the part to Joan Fontaine.  Someone at Fox saw the test and thought Baxter was what the studio was looking for and signed her to a standard seven-year contract.  It's apparent, right at that beginning, that they didn't know what to do with her because they farmed her out to other studios. 

I don't think she did anything particularly noteworthy until her big break six years later.  One exception might have been Swamp Water (1941), as a hillbilly girl whose father has run away to avoid being captured for a murder he did not commit.  It was the first of her three films with Dana Andrews, Mr. Reliable to all the ladies at Fox.  In 1943-44 she appeared, with one exception, in nothing but war films... Crash Dive, Five Graves to Cairo, The North Star, The Sullivans, The Eve of St. Mark and Sunday Dinner for a Soldier.  The last is particularly notable because it costarred John Hodiak, Baxter's future husband.

That one exception was a little film noir called Guest in the House (1944).  She played a manipulative young woman who wound up upsetting the lives of all those in her orbit.  Hmmmm, one wonders if the Fox boys saw something in this performance that might have led six years later to one of those two important Baxter roles.  Did I say hmmmm?

A comedy about Catherine the Great called A Royal Scandal (1945) was a rough one for her.  Star Tallulah Bankhead couldn't stand Baxter and director Otto Preminger said she was a phony, on screen and off.  The phony comment was not new to her and she would hear it again over the years.  People particularly didn't like how she looked down on others.

One of those two most noted Baxter roles came with 1946's The Razor's Edge.  At its center the story concerned a man trying to find the spiritual meaning of life and the public rushed to it because of that.  A secondary reason was because it would welcome Tyrone Power back from the war.  Apart from the main story was one of Sophie, a friend of the hero's who turns into an alcoholic after learning that her husband and child had been killed in an accident.  Ultimately, on her slide to hell, Sophie is murdered. 

It was one of those roles that most actresses at Fox wanted, despite the fact that it was the secondary female role to the one occupied by Gene Tierney.  Two blonde singers, Betty Grable and Alice Faye, wanted a stab at it but it went to Baxter.  For once, it looked like the studio was looking out for her, although, as always, she was not first choice.  The cast, which also included Clifton Webb and John Payne, got on well although Baxter was not crazy about Tierney.  Most felt it was a case of jealousy.  Tierney was certainly more beautiful and she got better roles than Baxter but Baxter thought Tierney was not nearly the actress she was. 

Baxter had the last laugh in this case because she was named Oscar's best supporting actress.  Later in life she would say... 
The Razor's Edge contains my only great performance.  That being said, it didn't change much for her at the studio. 

With first husband, John Hodiak

Riding the crest of a wave must have improved her disposition because, after a two-year courtship she married John Hodiak.  While the marriage would last for seven years, it was a troubled one mainly because she thought she married below her station and felt she was far superior to him in the Hollywood echelon.

She replaced Tierney in The Walls of Jericho (1948) as an attorney defending her married lover Cornel Wilde.  That same year she starred alongside Gregory Peck and Richard Widmark in a good, testosterone-laden western, Yellow Sky (1948), about bank robbers who hide out in a desert ghost town whose only residents are an old man and his tomboyish daughter.  It deserves mention and containing some of her best work.

Her most famous film, of course, was All About Eve (1950) in which she played the title character, an ambitious young woman out to make a name for herself in the theater, no matter the cost.  I regard it as one of the finest films ever made with one of the best casts.  While that comment certainly includes Baxter, she was my least favorite of the six leads and I could think of any number of people (right there on the Fox lot) who would have been better suited.  Baxter was, as was often the case, the second choice for the role.  Eve was first offered to Jeanne Crain who had to turn it down due to pregnancy.

There's that ugly hairstyle

I never found Baxter pretty enough for the role and my chief complaint was her ugly hairstyle.  Furthermore, it was a style she pretty much had throughout the 40s.  I feel someone else must have agreed with me because starting just three years later that hairstyle changed.  She was nominated for a best actress Oscar as was her costar, Bette Davis.  Baxter, who clearly had as much screen time as Davis and, after all, had the title role, was asked to submit her name in the supporting category so that both actresses had a chance to win.  She refused to do it and neither won.

Fox took no advantage of her notices for the role and put her back into poor films and when her contract was up for renewal in 1952, she declined to continue with Fox.  By 1953 several changes occurred.  She had a baby, divorced Hodiak and signed on with Warner Bros to do just two films.  Her agent was the one who suggested she become a blonde.  (He did the same for Jeanne Crain at the same time when he changed her image by making her a redhead.)  It should have happened a long time before and should have lasted beyond the 1950s.  Clearly Baxter was a good-looking blonde and also a better-looking older woman.

Blonde Baxter

Her first project at WB was Hitchcock's I Confess (1953) about a priest who hears a murderer's confession but must remain silent about it.  Baxter plays a former flame of the priest who still has a thing for him.  Hitchcock didn't want her for the part but was overruled by the studio.  Montgomery Clift is the reason I liked the film which isn't one of the director's high marks.  Her other film for the studio, also 1953, was the decent film noir, The Blue Gardenia.  She plays a woman who goes out on a date with a man she barely knows (Raymond Burr), get smashed, passes out and wakes up to find him dead.  Most of the film's attention went to costar Ann Sothern.

The following year she went to Germany to make Carnival Story, one of my favorite Baxter films.  It was a routine love triangle story involving our blonde star with Steve Cochran and Lyle Bettger.  In 1955 she signed up with Universal for several films.  My favorite was The Spoilers as a sassy saloon owner fighting and loving with Jeff Chandler.  In 1956 she made another decent western, the oddly-titled Three Violent People (exactly who were they?) playing Charlton Heston's bride with a past.

That same year she and Heston re-teamed, with Yul Brynner and a large, big-name supporting cast joining in, for Cecil B. DeMille's mannered spectacle, The Ten Commandments.  In a long dark wig Baxter sparkled as the Egyptian princess Nefretiri.  In 1958 she and Richard Todd were excellent in the thriller, Chase a Crooked Shadow.  It concerns a man who appears at a rich woman's home claiming to be her brother who reportedly had been killed in a car accident. 

Steamy with Yul in 10 Commandments

In 1959 she went to Australia for the poorly-received Season of Passion about sugar cane workers and their mistresses.  The highlight was that she met an American living in Australia, Randolph Galt, whom she married.  They had two daughters and she lived in the outback with him for four years.  Her life there was detailed in a fine memoir called Intermission.

She left Australia for two films... both costarring roles.  The remake of Cimarron (1960) has always been unfairly compared to its 1930s predecessor but I enjoyed this version starring Glenn Ford and Maria Schell.  The story of the Oklahoma land rush featured Baxter as a lady of questionable virtue, a decided contrast to the angelic, quiet demeanor of Schell.  In one of my favorite films of all time, Walk on the Wild Side (1962), the story of a drifter and his quest to find his lost love, I was and am gaga about her four costars, Laurence Harvey, Capucine, Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Fonda.  In that company, Baxter got lost for me.

Now out from under any studio dictates, her career didn't go so well.  Maybe never being the friendliest person on the lot did her in.  As most would do in her situation, she turned to television, a medium she would spend most of her time in for the rest of her life.

In the 1970s, after a long absence, she returned to Broadway... and what a kick it was.  She garnered a great deal of press because she was replacing Lauren Bacall in Applause.  That, of course, was the musical remake of All About Eve but this time Baxter was playing the role of Margo Channing. 

I don't usually make much mention of specific television work, but Baxter was sensational in a Colombo episode in 1973 called Requiem for a Fallen StarIn 1977 she married for the third time. She and stockbroker David Klee moved to Connecticut where they began building a house in the tradition of her grandfather.  Before it could be completed Klee died.  They had been married 10 months.

In early December, 1985, Anne Baxter was hailing a cab in New York City when she had a brain aneurysm.  She died eight days later.  She is buried on the grounds of her grandfather's estate in Wisconsin.

Next posting:
Movie Review


  1. It's unbelieveable to read how many movies with Baxter I saw. And I never liked her. Needless to say that my favorite one was All About Eve. I cannot say that The Ten Commandments was her worst, but it contains one of the funniest scenes never seen in a movie: her leaning over the terrace saluting Moses who's coming back from one victorious battle. According to History Nefertari was supposed to be around eighteen-twenty years old: I'll never forget her falling breast. But John Derek was in the movie so I did not regret the price of the ticket.Ciao!

  2. i love anne baxter