Friday, May 20

Claire Trevor

In her heyday she personified the tough blonde.  She was usually on the wrong side of the law and in a goodly number of her films she could throw a curveball that nobody saw coming.  In film noir, her treachery made tough guys go limp and in westerns her saloon hostesses were wanton floozies who sometimes killed. Of course she got her comeuppance in film after film.  She gazed upon men with a look that said you're too dumb to contemplate. She was a force of nature that was to be reckoned with.

I found many of her characters, while tough appearing, had an obvious softer side that was rarely held up to public scrutiny.  That first part, the hard babe, was simply Claire Trevor doing some of her best, most convincing screen acting. She may not have gone swimming in the same beauty pools as some of her contemporaries but she was dazzling. The softer side was apparently the woman herself. Rock Hudson once told me that Trevor was the real deal... no pretense... down to earth... funny as hell.  It seems to be an attitude shared by many in Old Hollywood.

Despite some screen moments that ranged from promising to gifted, she never quite had the wattage that other stars did.  At least two of her films, however, reached legendary status and her participation in both has not gone unnoticed. She even won an Oscar for one of them. She starred in some early westerns and never stopped making them. She was an ideal western woman... independent, capable, spirited.

She was a natural for film noir and made two more films that are knockouts to my way of seeing it.  Noirs needed bad girls and she simply sizzled at it.  They did something elaborate and wondrous to her hair, usually piled high on her head, gave her some big shoulder pads high atop a razzle-dazzle gown, and of course, those cfm pumps and sent her on her way to take down some lamebrain man.

She had the leading female role in her noirs but at the time the art form wasn't all that lauded at first and the studios considered it part of their B product.  Therefore, she slipped into that B status rather quickly.  By the late 40s and certainly the 50s she found herself in more supporting roles.  The truth was, however, that her life as an actress paled in comparison to her private life. She came to have a husband she adored and her three sons knew they were loved. They were a family who sailed and it became a way of life.

Born in 1910 in Brooklyn, New York, she was a first-generation American.  Her father was born in Paris and her mother was from Belfast.  Dad was a tailor who always found it difficult to make ends meet and finally lost his business during the Great Depression. Young Claire whiled away her often dreary days dreaming of being an actress.  After high school she took art classes at Columbia University and shortly thereafter enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her first stage appearances came with a repertory group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and by the time she was 22, she was on Broadway in Whistling in the Dark. Her husky voice led to radio gigs where she first worked with Edward G. Robinson, an actor with whom she would have a long and satisfying professional relationship.  Warner Bros signed her to appear in a number of shorts.

Her first film, Life in the Raw (1933), was a western.  In the 30s she made 32 films, most of which attracted little attention while serving as strong foundation for her work that was to follow.  But there were a few exceptional films that came toward the end of the decade.  She made several with Spencer Tracy, also honing his talent, with the most popular coming in 1935, Dante's Inferno, in which she played the daughter of a carnival owner.

She copped her first Oscar nomination for William Wyler's compelling Dead End (1937) about the rich and poor in close proximity on New York's East Side.  Playing a prostitute she was the ex-girlfriend of Humphrey Bogart.  The following year she joined Bogart and Robinson for The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, a popular black comedy about a society doctor who becomes a criminal.

Her star shone brightly in 1939 when she was assigned the top-billed role in John Ford's acclaimed western, Stagecoach.  Its plot surrounding the lives of those traveling by coach through hostile country set the template for scores of westerns to come. As Dallas, a woman with a questionable past, Trevor never disappointed.  Her scenes with John Wayne, in his breakthrough role, were so well received that they were immediately teamed in two more films, Allegheny Uprising (1939) and Dark Command (1940). They would become lifelong friends and for years lived near one another in Newport Beach, California.

In 1941 she was the love interest of both William Holden and Glenn Ford in the western, Texas.  An entertaining if routine oater, it came about because real-life buddies, Ford and Holden, wanted to make a film together, and Trevor was the actress they wanted alongside them.  The same year she made another western, an extremely popular one, Honky Tonk, but was relegated to supporting status as all eyes were on Lana Turner and Clark Gable.

Trevor captured the public's attention again when she played a killer in a forgotten little gem called Street of Chance (1942). She saddled up with Ford again and Randolph Scott joined them for 1943s The Desperadoes.  It was another fairly routine western but fun all the way.  Scott was the law, Ford the outlaw and Trevor the hard-edged saloon hostess, frequently outfitted in plumes. Later that year she was top-billed in a B western with a title that definitely suited her, The Woman of the Town.  She was Bat Masterson's girl.

Claire Trevor became one of the queens of noir with her scintillating performance as the duplicitous gold-digging wife of a much older man in 1944s Murder, My Sweet.  It was a remarkable performance, my favorite in her canon.  You may remember reading about it earlier here.  She became pals with her costar, Dick Powell, and with spouses tagging along, they would board Powell's boat, Santana, for a brisk sail.  When Santana was later sold to Bogart, it was almost as if Trevor was part of the sale because she was invited aboard again countless times.  

Trevor had found her niche.  She was rushed into Johnny Angel (1945) with wooden George Raft in the title role, then Crack-Up (1946) with Pat O'Brien and finally Born to Kill (1947).  You may recall my mentioning it in my piece on costar Lawrence Tierney and it will be the subject of its own posting before we leave the 40s. It is the epitome of noir with a savage, unforgettable performance by Tierney.  Trevor was bad, too, and her scenes with him, particularly as their romance deteriorates, I almost have to watch with my hands over my eyes... they are so tense.

The year 1948 began with another B noir, Raw Deal and then a foray into a decent murder mystery, The Velvet Touch, where Trevor supported Rosalind Russell.  The year ended with the immensely popular The Babe Ruth Story, as the great one's devoted wife.  But sandwiched in there is Key Largo, director John Huston's sordid, humid tale of gangsters holed up in a seasonally-shuttered hotel. Robinson, Bogart and Lauren Bacall are the stars and it's unlikely any of them worked off the Warner soundstages.  

Trevor's showy role as head thug Robinson's boozy girlfriend earned her an Oscar for best supporting actress and it was very deserved. She really couldn't carry a tune.  That's the good news because her character wasn't able to carry one either.  She besieged Huston with promises she would get plenty of notice for the big day where she would have to sing a song in front of the main cast. Huston knew he was going to ambush her by shooting the scene in an impromptu manner. He said he knew it would get him the effect he wanted.

Pent up as Gaye Dawn in Key Largo

The year 1948 was a good one for Trevor on the personal side as well when she married film producer, Milton Bren. They would remain happily married until his passing in 1979. She had been married twice before and had her only child, a son, with her second husband.

She and Fred MacMurray began the 1950s by sparring so nicely in the drug crime drama Borderline.  Playing mothers to adult actresses began with the Ida Lupino-directed tennis drama, Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951).  Hoodlum Empire (1955) was her final noir and final leading lady role.

With three boys to raise (her own and Bren's two), the family was now enjoying life at Newport Beach where Trevor would live for most of the rest of her life.  Bren shared her love of sailing, which they enjoyed with their neighbor, Duke Wayne, and also on boats owned by two other dear friends, Rock Hudson and Tyrone Power. One can certainly not fault Trevor for befriending a variety of male friends.  It was a lot of playtime as the Brens were filthy rich.  She didn't need to work if she didn't want to... and by and large she didn't want to.

There was some talk about her in 1953-54 when Joan Crawford went public with her request that Trevor play her nemesis in the female slugfest western Johnny Guitar. Crawford was adamant that Mercedes MacCambridge not be given the role and therefore used Trevor as leverage, but it didn't work.

Trevor's last big splash in a film was as part of the all-star cast of The High and the Mighty (1954).  Working with Wayne for the last time also secured her a final Oscar nomination.  In the 50s she returned to the screen now and then to support other actresses in films that were good but less than stellar... Shelley Winters in My Man and I (1952), and Jeanne Crain in Man Without a Star and Jane Wyman in Lucy Gallant, both 1955.  She worked more often in television as a guest star because it left her with more home time and days on the water.

She dried off to be Natalie Wood's mother in the tepid Marjorie Morningstar (1958) and Joanne Woodward's in the abysmal The Stripper (1963). There was a good role for her as Robinson's put-upon, alcoholic wife in Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) and she was better than the movie.

She only made four films in the 1960s and then didn't make another film until 1982 when she landed a small role as Sally Field's mother in Kiss Me Goodbye.  It would be Trevor's final theatrical film.  She had been in the movies since the early thirties.

The Brens became immersed in the arts and philanthropy.  At one point they gave $10 million to the School of Arts at the University of California at Irvine.  After her passing, it would be renamed The Claire Trevor School of the Arts.  She would tell anyone who listened that she was truly blessed to be living the good life.  She adored her family and friends.

Much of what she had was torn from her when in 1978, in the space of a year, her beloved Milton passed away from a brain tumor and her 34-year old son died in a plane crash.  The losses were devastating and she wasn't sure she could survive them. She ended up moving to New York. Once the sun came up again and she returned to health and vigor, she returned to her beloved Newport Beach, where she died at age 90 in 2000 of respiratory illness.

I thought she had a fine career and certainly appears to have had the one she wanted to have.  She was a wife and mom first, a movie queen second.  But boy oh boy, on that movie front... she was a terrifically good bad girl.

Next posting:
The Directors

1 comment:

  1. How horrible is getting old.I always considered C.T. one of the best actresses in Hollywood and I almost forgot her. I think the last movie I saw with her was Two Weeks In Another Town, where You can realize how good she was in her touching, small role, where you had a glimpse of how beautiful Roma was and what a bad actress Rosanna Schiaffino was.Thanks. Ciao