Friday, November 4

Mr. Reliable: Joseph Cotten

His longtime pal and discoverer, Orson Welles, once told Jo Cotten that he wasn't sure if he would be a very good actor but he was bound to become a big movie star.  Cotten certainly appeared in a number of important movies but I am not sure that I would include him in the ranks of the big movie stars.  To be frank, I thought he could be a bit colorless. I wish he'd played against type more. Watching a number of his films over the years, I found myself thinking of who I might have rather seen in his role.

He wasn't a bad actor at all but nothing really jumps out at me on the favorable side except to say that I think he was very reliable. I suspect he was hired for some films because he was a welcome antidote, a needed salve, for some prima donna director or a high-strung actress.  Jo (that's how he spelled it) never caused problems... it was important to him to not get caught up in the drama of making movies. He wanted to show up, hit his marks and go home to his loving wife and forget it all.

Everyone loved his level headed, gentlemanly ways.  He was born in a section of Virginia known as Tidewater that sat on the banks of the Appomattox.  His father was a well-to-do assistant postmaster who raised his three sons to believe they were part of southern aristocracy.  Not snooty at all, Cotten was raised to believe there was nothing more important than good manners. Women liked him for those manners and for the attention he showered upon them, not for any particular animal magnetism.  He had a nice enough face and a recognizable gravelly voice but was not especially bursting with sexual appeal and let's face it, those big movie stars Welles spoke of all had it.

Jo was still in knee britches when he acquired a flair for gathering attention via performing.  For family he liked to read stories and put on little performances. They had such high hopes for his future that they got him the right schooling to further fuel his ambitions. He moved to New York in hopes of landing some Broadway parts but they didn't come for some time and he engaged in a number of other endeavors until his big day came.

He moved to Miami and finally got some stage work.  He then moved to Boston and scored again.  In 1930 and back in New York, he finally found himself on a Broadway stage.  The following year he married fashion editor Lenore Kipp and they remained together until her passing in 1960.  He did a lot of radio... I guess with his distinctive voice it was a given.

In 1934 he met Welles and it felt like divine providence.  They greatly respected one another from the beginning.  Jo was aware that Welles was unpopular in some circles but there was always great loyalty, a rare thing for Hollywood.  Long after Welles became a pariah, Joseph Cotten remain steadfastly loyal to the man who made his career.

Eventually Welles formed the Mercury Theater Players because there was no question that he had to be the boss of everything.  He hired Jo, Agnes Moorehead, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick and Ray Collins (one day Lt. Tragg on TVs Perry Mason) and others.  It was a crowd that was mesmerized and excited by Orson Welles.  A lot has been written about the Mercury Theater Players. But Cotten also found work without them.  In 1938 he played C. K. Dexter Haven, ex-husband of heiress Tracy Lord, played by Katharine Hepburn, in Broadway's The Philadelphia Story.  It was a screaming success.  But when Hepburn brought it to MGM, she cut loose Cotten and Van Heflin and replaced them with Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.

The Mercury Players did its best to dazzle Broadway and they performed in a number of things but Welles wanted more.  He wanted to conquer Hollywood.  He would bring along his acting troupe and they would make what many regard as the greatest of all Hollywood movies, 
Citizen Kane (1941).

I stand bravely and I suppose nearly alone when I say I disagree.  It is not the greatest movie of all time.  I thought the story was dull and after another wife, another meal, more and more bombast and gazillions more flashbacks, I wanted no more.  What it most certainly did have was one of the best looks, in dazzling black and white and deep focus photography, that a film could ask for and was revolutionary for its time.  The use of lighting, shadows and camera angles to create a sensual experience is unforgettable and often copied. Film noir probably owes a lot to cinematographer Gregg Toland and Welles.  

Joseph Cotten likely had a whole other opinion from mine about the film's greatness. In his costarring role he was the best friend of Welles' publishing magnate, Charles Kane.  In the beginning Cotten is an idealistic reporter who turns into a corrupt old man as wealth and influence envelops him.

A year later Cotten had the starring role in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).  Like Kane, it was a box-office disaster but unlike Kane, it never rose to shouts of greatness. Cotten plays a one-time inventor who tries to win back the love of a wealthy woman he once publicly humiliated.  Welles again directed but didn't act in.  Many of the Mercury folks were aboard and Anne Baxter, Dolores Costello and Tim Holt were great additions. 

Cotten and Welles are credited with the screenplay of Journey into Fear (1943) and although Welles didn't direct it and had only a small acting part, his flourish is felt everywhere.  How music plays a large part in this hunter v.s. hunted espionage thriller feels like the Welles stroke.  Cotten always had that normal guy persona and when bad guys pursued him in films, we could feel the heat.

After finishing Fear, Cotten, Welles and producer David O. Selznick were having dinner together when Selznick said how much he admired Jo and wished he could come to work for his small, independent studio.  Welles, never one to stand in his friend's way and knowing he wanted to try out Selznick, ripped up his contract then and there. Under that arrangement, some of Cotten's best films were to be made. 

He had a rare shot at playing the villain when Alfred Hitchcock hired him for Shadow of a Doubt (1943), which I regard as Cotten's best work in a long career.  Here again it's the nice guy thing which is actually something one sees clearly in his portrayal of Uncle Charlie, a serial killer who has come to hide out with his unsuspecting sister and her family.  It's a chilling performance and one that is aided by Teresa Wright, as his niece, whose idolization of him fades as she thinks she sees a sinister side.  This was Hitchcock's favorite of all his films.

Gaslight (1944) had Cotten supporting Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the story of a man who is trying to drive his wife insane so he may put her away and retrieve her fortune.  Cotten played an eager police detective who is smitten with Bergman and always around at the right time.

I have reviewed Since You Went Away (1944) earlier and it is a film I rather adored. For this posting, we'll let it go by saying it was Cotten's first of four pairings with Selznick's wife, Jennifer Jones. The Selznicks and the Cottens were close friends for many years.  I suspect Cotten was taken with her fragility and she was taken with the fact that he didn't judge her and his many other kindnesses.

Cotten was the perfect partner for Hollywood's top actresses.  He worked with so many of them because he was never a threat, never invaded their lipsticked and hair-sprayed space.  They were almost always top-billed and he served as the gentleman beside them. Such a case was appearing with Ginger Rogers in I'll Be Seeing You (1944).  They meet on a train. She has accidentally killed her boss and he is stressing out as a soldier and delivering a wonderfully shaded performance.  It didn't hurt that the title song was one of the most popular and haunting war songs ever recorded.

With favorite costar & good pal, Jennifer Jones

His second pairing with Jones was Love Letters (1945) and it was another smash. He's a soldier who ghost-writes his buddy's love letters to his girl.  Jones is the girl whom Cotten then falls in love with but before you get too sentimental, she's an amnesiac who may have committed a murder.

Perhaps the biggest noise in Hollywood in 1946 was all the hoopla surrounding Selznick's Duel in the Sun (or Lust in the Dust as some detractors like to call it).  He wanted it big and bold and lusty. After all, since 1939 he had been looking for a successor to his own Gone With the Wind.  It was an unusual western that called for a sexy vixen as the lead.  I would never have considered Jennifer Jones for such a role but must admit that she turned in a good performance. Also in an unusual villain part was Gregory Peck looking mighty sexy. Cotten played Peck's rather dull older brother.

Selznick bought The Farmer's Daughter (1947) for Bergman and when she demurred, Loretta Young learned some Swedish, obtained a blonde wig with a braid on top and hopped aboard as a domestic to Cotten's congressman.  Her outspokenness sees her winding up in politics.  And Young won an Oscar for her performance.  Cotten was there giving his able support.  

Another of his better performances came in his final pairing with Jones.  Portrait of Jennie (1948) was a delightful fantasy about an impoverished painter who meets a mysterious woman who ages much each time he sees her for another portrait sitting. It had dramatic underpinnings and two engaging performances.

Robert Krasker's imaginative photography is at the heart of why I liked The Third Man (1949) and of course it being a European film noir didn't hurt nor did the brilliant casting of Cotten, Welles, Alida Valli and Trevor Howard.  Directed by Carol Reed, with special interference from Welles, of course, it concerned a pulp writer (that sounds noir-y) who travels to Vienna to find a friend after being offered a job.  When he arrives, the friend is nowhere to be found. As was often the case, Cotten's wide-eyed innocence was the perfect contrast to the evil doings he encountered.

He started the 40s with a bang and ended them with one as well. The truth is he would never again make a single film that was as good as those he made in the 40s.  His film choices started to suffer in the 1950s and with each decade just got worse and worse. Many actors would stop working if the pickings were this slim, but Cotten trudged on.

He made nine films in between The Third Man and The Steel Trap (1952) and most were silly programmers, Universal westerns, one of Hitchcock's worst and one of Bette Davis' worst.  In Trap, a nifty little noir where he was reunited with Teresa Wright, he plays a bank employee who steals some money.  It was tense from start to finish and Cotten was the perfect pick.

As MM's moody husband in Niagara

I'm not so sure I think that I'm entirely in his corner as Marilyn Monroe's cuckolded, brooding husband in Niagara (1953).  It is the first film I ever saw him in and since he's a bad guy (although so nice at times one feels sorry for him), I thought that villainy was probably what he usually did and it certainly wasn't the case. James Mason was originally wanted for the part and I think I would have preferred him.  I could not see someone as sexless as Cotten being the pick of a Monroe. We'll discuss this film in more detail one day so you just hold on, ok?

In late 1953 he returned to Broadway for the last time (he'd criss-crossed the country a number of  times in the 40s, alternating between Broadway and movies) to star as Linus Larrabee in Sabrina Fair.  When it was made as a film, Sabrina, Humphrey Bogart played Linus.

Two decent murder stories followed, A Blueprint for Murder (1953) as Jean Peters's brother-in-law who suspects her of murder, and The Killer Is Loose (1956) as the worried husband of Rhonda Fleming who is being stalked.  Then it was time to team up with Welles again for a cameo as an alcoholic coroner in Touch of Evil (1958). It was one more Welles movie that was poorly received on its initial release but later garnered lavish praise.  It is also often considered to be the general end of film noir period which began in 1941 with The Maltese Falcon.

In early 1960 Cotten's beloved Lenore died in Rome of leukemia and by the end of the year he was married to British actress Patricia Medina.  She was beautiful and elegant and perfectly complemented the dapper Cotten.  She had once been married to British actor Richard Greene and had made a number of Hollywood movies but never captured that top spot she was likely seeking. The Cottens traveled a great deal and he worked very little in the years immediately following their marriage which would last until Cotten's death.

With second spouse, Patricia Medina

He had small roles in the Ava Gardner-Dirk Bogarde, Spanish civil war drama, The Angel Wore Red (1960), and as Dorothy Malone's husband in a good western, The Last Sunset (1961).  The 1960s also saw Cotten doing a great deal of television which meant his movie career would never recover its previous glory.

He had the leading male role in the troubled production of Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) with Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and his longtime pal, Agnes Moorehead.  He and de Havilland were deliciously evil in their plot to drive Davis mad.

His film roles kept getting smaller and smaller and the movies cheesier and cheesier although I was impressed with A Delicate Balance (1973), which is a filmed play based on an Edward Albee work.  It's not for everyone and is uneven to be sure, but to see Cotten, his old Philadelphia Story costar, Hepburn, along with Paul Scofield, Kate Reid and Lee Remick, was pure magic for me.

He worked through 1981 but the less said the better.  It seemed an inglorious way for a sparkling career to end.  In 1987 he wrote his autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere.  Thankfully he didn't mention most of trashy later films.

Joseph Cotten, who lived life as a perfect gentleman, died in Los Angeles of pneumonia in 1994.  He was 88 years old.

Next posting:
Character Actors

1 comment:

  1. Loved this article! Joseph Cotten has always held a special spot in my move fans mind, and for exactly the reasons you listed! A journeyman actor, able to hold his own in some amazing films. Never seemed like there was a great ego, just a talented, likable gentleman. I always thought that he was probably one of the most well liked and respected (by his peers) actors of that era.
    A fun read! Thanks for posting!