By Robert Wagner
Each of the major studios was like a royal court that was in competition with the other royal courts. Each studio had a social lion who maintained a prestigious individual salon, and it wasn't necessarily the studio head. Then there were the salons that owed no special allegiance to any studio, but cherry-picked from all the elites, such as the one maintained by Bill and Edie Goetz.
At Fox, the elite circle was presided over by Clifton Webb. I worked with Clifton on Stars and Stripes Forever, a biopic about John Philip Sousa, then Titanic, and I was invited into his group. Clifton's friends included people like Noel Coward and Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder's partner, who never got much credit from anyone, especially Billy. Charlie was a kind, well-educated, very bright gay man who was fairly deep in the closet.
Clifton lived with his mother Mabelle, who was a total character, and ruled the roost. The father had left very young, and was out of the picture, if he'd ever been in it. Mabelle had opened a dance school in Indianapolis, and she and Clifton gave dancing lessons together. He teamed up with Bonnie Glass and formed a very successful duo that followed in the footsteps of Vernon and Irene Castle. I never saw Clifton dance on the stage, but people who did told me he was a magnificent talent, the equivalent of Astaire but with a fey manner that he managed to get away with. Always high style: white tie and tails. Certainly, he had a major career, starring in shows like Sunny and Irving Berlin's As Thousands Cheer.
Clifton and Mabelle were completely devoted to each other; Clifton would dance with her at parties. She was outrageous, and would order Clifton around. "We are going to sit here," she would announce, "and then we are going to move over there." Mabelle was always at the head of the table, and Clifton was very respectful of her, although he had his eccentricities as well: he had an African grey parrot he would wrap in a napkin and put in a brandy snifter at the dinner table.
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It was as if they were competing to see who could be the most like Auntie Mame. They both had a larger-than-life quality, and the bond between them was very thick. Sometimes too thick. One time Noel Coward called Clifton, and Clifton was going on and on about Mabelle, as he tended to do. And Noel said, "Dear boy, if you want to talk about her, do it on your nickel."
Clifton was gay, of course, but he never made a pass at me, not that he would have. I never saw Clifton with a man; I never knew of Clifton being with a man, or having a lover.
Clifton had a very rich deal at the studio, and his house reflected it. It was Victor Fleming's old place, and Clifton had done it in a bright, comfortable style, in the mode of Billy Haines — the go-to decorator in that era. I remember at one point Clifton did the bar in a Greek style, full of things he brought back from the location of Boy on a Dolphin. The word was that Clifton earned the same money that Darryl Zanuck earned. He didn't get the stock that Darryl got, but he earned the same money. Clifton had a string of enormous successes. There was Laura, and The Razor's Edge, then Mr. Belvedere and two sequels, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Stars and Stripes Forever, and Titanic – all big hits.
I was learning that this kind of moviemaking was typical of Darryl; he never had the money that MGM or Paramount did. He couldn't buy stars, he had to make them, and if he didn't have enough stars to make a movie, he had the extraordinary ability to make the movie itself the star. Darryl had the vision to see real possibilities in an effete stage star, and to build very effective vehicles around a personality centering on asperity and waspish intelligence – hardly the stuff of mass audience entertainment then or now, but somehow Darryl and Clifton made it work.
Clifton was very social; he gave wonderful parties, so he had a lot of leverage by dint of his position as well as his commercial cachet. It was Clifton who introduced me to Noel Coward. Noel was playing Las Vegas and Clifton threw a lunch for him. Eventually, everybody else left, and I was alone with Noel. And he said, "Come and sit over here." So I went over and sat down, and he put his hand on my leg.
"Are you by any chance homosexual?" he asked.
"No, I'm not."
And he said, "Ah, what a pity." His hand came off, and that was it. After that, he couldn't have been more of a gentleman, and I always adored him.
Living with Barbara, hanging around with a social set that was a generation older, I was very consciously styling myself after an earlier era and in a sense swimming against the tide, which in that era consisted of Marlon Brando and Monty Clift. But my interest in associating with people my age was no more than nominal. I wanted to see the great stars I had watched at the movies up close. I wanted to learn their secrets; I wanted to learn how they did what they did.
One day in New York, I walked into "21" with Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. The restaurant…stopped! It was like a freeze-frame in a movie. Diners froze in mid-bite, waiters froze in the midst of waiting. It was as potent a demonstration of the power of great stars as anything I've ever seen.
Clark Gable always liked me because I had caddied for him, and I had been shooting with Gary Cooper and knew his family quite well. I idolized Clark and watched every move he made; Gary I admired for being such a terrific actor, such a wonderful man.
In many ways, they were alike, in other ways they were different. Gable had been born poor, while Cooper was a judge's son from Montana who never dressed in anything but Brooks Brothers. But both of them had a way that suggested they came from the earth. Gable loved to hunt, loved to fish, loved automobiles and beautiful women. So did Coop, but offscreen he always gave the impression of being terribly chic.
Gable's personality was closer to what he played than Cooper's was, but they both read, were interested in what was going on and didn't hover around Hollywood. Neither of these men were sitting in their dressing rooms worrying about their next picture or who was up for what part. They got out of town. Coop would go to Sun Valley with Hemingway, while Clark liked his duck blinds and skeet shooting.
Beneath their likes and dislikes, they were alike in their tremendous craft. They had a way of taking the material that was written for them, much of which was very slight, and making something out of it because of the depth of their behavior. They took the material and filtered it through their own personalities. Because they were their own men, and they weren't trying to be someone else, the strength of their own characters was bestowed on the characters they played. They didn't have neuroses, or, if they did, they didn't inflict their neuroses on the audience.
That craft didn't come easily, and the self-confidence they projected was not something they were born with. I watched Coop work in a western he did for Fox called Garden of Evil. He put himself under tremendous stress when he worked; during a take his knuckles were white. But he concealed that stress magnificently; a lot of the time it looked like he wasn't really doing any acting at all. Now, here was an actor acting, and you couldn't see him acting. That is hard to do, the highest achievement in the business, and Coop never got enough credit for his ability.
Every actor's goal is to make it look like it's the first time he's ever done that scene — to make it look fresh. These men were masters of that. You were never aware of Gary Cooper acting, but he could move you to tears. As an actor, and as a man, I admired him without reservations.
Making friends with so many older actors gave me an invaluable tutorial in how to handle the paraphanalia of the business. Take, for instance, Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the two women who invented and defined the trade of gossip columnists. They were both tricky, and you had to know how to play them. Moroever, although they had been around for years – Louella had started in the silent days! — they were still important because they were so widely syndicated: Louella through the Hearst syndicate, and Hedda through the Los Angeles Times syndicate.
You had to pay court to Hedda and Louella; if I had an interview with Hedda, for instance, I went to her house. I would go to the race track with Louella all the time, but you quickly learned that either of them could turn on you. One time, Hedda got upset at me over something, and it was thought necessary that I come back from Catalina and go directly to her house to get things straightened out.
Years later, when I went to Europe for four or five years and then came back, Louella was very pissed off and called me an expatriate, which was a dirty word in her vocabulary. It was as if by going to Europe I had been disloyal to Hollywood and, more importantly, her.
As my star continued to rise at Fox, I came to realize that the relationship between an actor and a studio was complex, and not always in the actor's best interests. After Titanic, I was making a movie for Robert D. Webb called Beneath the 12 Mile Reef, when my co-star Terry Moore suddenly realized she was pregnant. The father was Howard Hughes. She got very weepy and told me about the situation. Obviously, she told a few other people as well, because the studio blindsided both of us by releasing a story that we were engaged! They never called, they never told me they were going to do this, it just appeared in the papers.
I was livid; for one thing, I was very involved with Barbara and called her from Tarpon Springs every night, while Terry was calling Hughes every night. Terry was also a much younger woman, and Barbara was – how to put this delicately? — not pleased about that. Beyond that, the studio was trying to railroad Terry and me into a marriage for their convenience. They evidently thought I was terribly suggestible, I would succumb to the pressure, and the resulting marriage would be great for the movie, great for my career, and, not coincidentally, great for the studio.
It was at that point that I realized the true nature of the transaction between an actor and a movie studio. Fox was very interested in me in terms of generating publicity for a movie or a series of movies. They wanted to create momentum for me as an actor, as a personality, but they had a very limited interest in what was best for me as a human being. I was looking for a home, and they were looking for a saleable commodity. It was a difficult but necessary lesson, and I'm glad I learned it early.
So everybody was in the loop but Terry and me. She was not only in tears about being pregnant, she was in tears because she was being pressured to marry somebody she didn't love. And I started getting congratulatory telegrams from people about my impending marriage!
There was nothing to do but be blunt. I told Harry Brand there was no chance of my marrying Terry, not then, not ever. Fox never actually retracted the stories so much as they let them dry up.
Being part of events like this, as well as witnessing other things, made me realize that there is no more brutal, front-runner's business in the world. The pressures can be staggering. I remember being on the set of Love is a Many Splendored Thing, and watching Jennifer Jones work. I noticed the hem of her skirt vibrating. I looked down and saw that her knees were quivering like aspen leaves. She was absolutely terrified! Over on the side, behind the big lights, I could see a pair of shoes that belonged to her husband, the great producer David O. Selznick. He was hovering, making sure that his Jennifer was all right. But it was clear that Jennifer wasn't all right, and never would be. As experiences like these began to accumulate, I began to realize that it was mandatory to have some kind of meaningful life outside the movie business.
So the marriage to Terry Moore didn't happen. For that matter, neither did the baby.
Other than that, Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef was a very positive experience. I came to admire my co-star Gilbert Roland tremendously. He had come across the Mexican border when he was a boy, accompanied only by a friend named Polo. He began in the business as an extra for $2 a day and a box lunch. He told me that in the mid-20s, he and another young extra named Clark Gable used to stand outside Musso & Frank's restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, watching the swells eat great food and dreaming of the day when they'd be able to do the same thing.
The dream came true for Gil, just as it was coming true for me, which explains why I felt such an affinity with him. The dream came true for his brother, too, who went by the name of Chico Day. Chico followed his brother to Hollywood and became probably the most respected unit manager and assistant director in the movies. He even worked for DeMille on the 1956 version of The Ten Commandments, one of the most demanding jobs ever for one of the most demanding directors ever.
Gil began his rise out of the extra ranks when he became the co-star and lover of Norma Talmadge and broke up her marriage to Joe Schenck. A few years after that, he married Constance Bennett. Gil was good in silent pictures as a dashing lover – he played Armand opposite Talmadge's Camille — but his accent limited him in talkies, although his performances in The Bullfighter and the Lady and The Bad and the Beautiful were quite good.
I admired the fact that he maintained, and for nearly 60 years – his last movie was Barbarosa, in 1982! As a man, he had immense dignity, and sustained great loyalty to his friends. He was close with Antonio Moreno practically all their lives. If Gilbert Roland was your friend, you had a man you could count on, in any situation.
Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef grossed $4 million — a very big hit. Harry Brand's publicity department claimed that I was getting more fan mail than Marilyn Monroe, although I'm not sure I believe that. I do know that during one month in 1953, I was on seven different magazine covers. My agent negotiated a new contract that bumped my salary from $350 a week to $1,250 a week.
I'm not going to pretend that there were an awful lot of negatives attached to being a young star in Hollywood. The perks are just what you might imagine them to be: every reporter wants to talk to you, and every girl wants you, not that I could indulge. Because of Barbara, I was off-limits to the girls. During the four years we were together, I had a couple of one-night stands on location, but was otherwise loyal.
When you're hot, the good times never really stop coming. Because of my friendship with Leo Durocher, I even got to work out with the New York Giants. Sal "The Barber" Maglie offered to pitch to me. Durocher took me aside and said, "Don't move; whatever you do, just don't move." It was a good thing he told me that, because Maglie's pitches were something else. Initially, the ball came right at your head, so the instinct was to duck down. The problem was that at the last second the pitch would dive down and away and catch the corner for a strike. If you ducked, the ball would nail you on the skull. I can assure you, standing in the box against him took courage, because he was authentically scary – the equivalent of Bob Gibson or Roger Clemens in a later era.
One of the negatives that occurs to every actor is miscasting, which finally came to roost on my doorstep when Darryl cast me in the title role of Prince Valiant, an adaptation of Hal Foster's beautifully drawn comic strip that I had loved as a child. During the production, I was happy to be working for Henry Hathaway; I thought the picture was good, and I loved the romance of the subject matter. I was working with James Mason, another one of my favorite actors, and I thought I was sensational. I had no idea it would become for me what "Yonda lies the castle of my fadduh" was for Tony Curtis.
If I'd been paying a little more attention, I would have known something was wrong. Mainly, it was the wig. One day Dean Martin visited the set and spent ten minutes talking to me before he realized I wasn't Jane Wyman. Then I sat in the screening with the guys in the studio doing impersonations of the Singing Sword, not to mention me as Prince Valiant. And then I had to listen to jokes about the wig, which I now think made me look more like Louise Brooks than Jane Wyman. And I got upset about the ridicule, so much so that I still have a block about that movie.
But life teaches you many things, and one of them is that something good can come out of the worst experiences. I got a couple of life-long friends out of Prince Valiant ( Janet Leigh and the great cameraman Lucien Ballard) and I also got to know Sterling Hayden, who was so much more interesting as a man than, with a couple of exceptions (The Asphalt Jungle, The Killing, Dr. Strangelove) he was on screen. Sterling was a purist about life, with an interesting political point of view that was very much on the left. He had originally wanted to be a carpenter, and he was one of those rare guys in the movie business who genuinely didn't give a shit about the movie business.
Sterling was exceedingly well-read — his tortured autobiography called Wanderer should be required reading — and he was without question one of the most accomplished sailors I've ever seen in my life. I saw him take his twin-masted schooner and land it single-handedly at a dock in Santa Monica. He had a feather-light touch at the helm. On a boat, he was the artist he always wanted to be.
Another person I got to know well and admire about this time was Claire Trevor. I had gone to school with her sons Peter and Donald, but I really got to know Claire and her husband Milton Bren through our mutual regard for boats. Milton had begun as an agent and become very successful in real estate and home building. Because of the fortune Milton made, Claire was able to back out of the movie business, and only worked when she wanted to.
Claire was very much her own woman, and I came to admire her honesty and directness. She was a straightforward, creative human being who became a very good painter. She was also terribly underrated as an actress, as anybody who has seen her in Ford's Stagecoach or Huston's Key Largo can attest. Neither part was original – a whore with a heart of gold and a well-meaning but weak alcoholic chanteuse — but she gave each of those women a soul. No actress alive, not even Barbara Stanwyck, could have played those parts any better than Claire did. And she was able to tend her career while having a very happy marriage to Milton, and also had the complete respect of everybody in show business.
My realization about what Fox actually wanted from me, as well as getting to know well-rounded people like Sterling and Claire showed me by example how important it was to have a life outside of show business. It was a concept that would take another decade or so to ripen in my head, but I was beginning to realize that the most important parts of life didn't take place on a sound stage.