Saturday, August 15, 2015

Clifton Webb, Hoosier

     Long-time Indianapolis TV Director David L. Smith -- make that Professor David L. Smith -- has written about Hoosiers In Hollywood (a highly-regarded but hard to find book) and the photographic history Indianapolis Television.  In between, he found six chapter's of an Indiana-born actor's never-finished autobiography and decided to finish it.

     Clifton Webb was no ordinary actor; he was remarkably well-liked, remarkably talented, and notably aware of both attributes.  He was a dandy, frequently described as "arrogant," of "having a hint of preciousness," as were many of the characters he played and yet people found him fascinating both on and off the stage.  David L. Smith's book is an engrossing portrait of the man but you can read it all the way through and still wonder, "Who was this fellow?"  He was a bundle of contradictory elements, not too easy to reconcile.  But you don't have to wonder.  You can't meet Clifton Webb, but you can meet the characters he played on film.  They're a varied lot but Webb was able to pick and choose and his roles. What he chose were men not very different to how he saw himself.

     The book is Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb. The title is taken from Sitting Pretty, one of his better-known films, the first to feature Mr. Belvedere, a character manifestly not the "English butler" you may remember from the eponymous 1980s sitcom. Webb's Belvedere is highly competent, confident to the point of arrogance and acerbic to the verge of acidulous.  Somehow, it is never over the top and somehow, the character is likable.  Perhaps because he never boasts; what he says he can do, he does do, again and again.  If you found "Higgins" from Magnum, P.I.* an interesting character, you'll discover his prototype in Mr. Lynn Belvedere.

     After a long stage career, Webb got his start in Hollywood in his 50s, playing noir villians including Waldo Lydecker in Laura.  Effective as a villain, his style strikes me as even better suited to comedy.
* "Thomas Magnum" himself owes a large debt to John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee.  It's not plagiarism; these are modern archetypes and no two explorations of them are ever quite the same.

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