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With his trademark pencil mustache and attitude of thinly-veiled disdain, Clifton Webb was a blast of asexual sophistication during Hollywood's testosterone-fueled postwar epoch. A ballroom dancer and stage actor who contributed appearances to some silent and early sound films, Webb made a belated return to cinema with an Oscar-nominated performance in Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944), as acidic murder suspect Waldo Lydecker. Character and actor were so well-matched that Webb would go on to play a string of similarly supercilious supporting and principal characters in a film career as brilliant as it was brief. Effete to the extreme, he was nonetheless an imposing screen presence whose haughty mien could overshadow such manly leads as William Holden, Dana Andrews, Alan Ladd and Tyrone Power while stealing focus from the luscious likes of Gene Tierney, Ginger Rogers, Lauren Bacall and Sophia Loren. The actor's barely concealed homosexuality precluded him from playing many Hollywood husbands, but he proved a surprisingly persuasive paterfamilias, most notably in the family comedy "Cheaper by the Dozen" (1950) and in the proto disaster flick "Titanic" (1953), in which Webb and onscreen wife Barbara...
With his trademark pencil mustache and attitude of thinly-veiled disdain, Clifton Webb was a blast of asexual sophistication during Hollywood's testosterone-fueled postwar epoch. A ballroom dancer and stage actor who contributed appearances to some silent and early sound films, Webb made a belated return to cinema with an Oscar-nominated performance in Otto Preminger's "Laura" (1944), as acidic murder suspect Waldo Lydecker. Character and actor were so well-matched that Webb would go on to play a string of similarly supercilious supporting and principal characters in a film career as brilliant as it was brief. Effete to the extreme, he was nonetheless an imposing screen presence whose haughty mien could overshadow such manly leads as William Holden, Dana Andrews, Alan Ladd and Tyrone Power while stealing focus from the luscious likes of Gene Tierney, Ginger Rogers, Lauren Bacall and Sophia Loren. The actor's barely concealed homosexuality precluded him from playing many Hollywood husbands, but he proved a surprisingly persuasive paterfamilias, most notably in the family comedy "Cheaper by the Dozen" (1950) and in the proto disaster flick "Titanic" (1953), in which Webb and onscreen wife Barbara Stanwyck put aside their differences in a desperate bid to save their children from death at sea. Long devoted to his aging mother, with whom he lived and who passed away in 1960, Webb retired from acting in 1962. His death in 1966 robbed Hollywood of one of its most unforgettable characters, both on and offscreen.
Clifton Webb was born Webb Parmelee Hollenback in Indianapolis, IN on Nov. 9, 1889. Webb's mother, Maybelle Parmelee, was a Southern belle whose family had relocated from Kentucky to Indiana in 1880. Nurturing artistic ambitions since her own childhood, Maybelle performed in local plays and at public readings. Her artistic yearnings thwarted by motherhood, Maybelle (who had changed her name from the more prosaic Mabel) expressed a desire to make of her only child an actor or dancer - a notion that did not sit well with Webb's father, Jacob Hollenbeck, an employee of the Missouri Pacific Railroad Company. Though many of the details of Webb's early life remained sketchy, the records showed that his mother brought him to New York, where she enrolled him in drama and dance classes. Though Jake Hollenback disapproved, he allowed his wife and child to remain in the city. Maybelle eventually divorced Webb's father and remarried in 1897.
Ensconced with his mother and stepfather, Green Berry Raum, Jr., on Manhattan's Upper West Side, Webb began his primary education at PS 87, where he was teased by his classmates for his aristocratically upturned nose and artistic attitude. Plucked from dance class by the head of the New Amsterdam Theater to play a role in a production of Palmer Cox's "Brownies," Webb began a long association with the Children's Theatre at Carnegie Hall. Though his stepfather vehemently opposed his taking the stage, Webb made his New York acting debut in 1906 under the stage name Master Webb Raum. His performance in "Pixies" led to a string of juvenile acting assignments in children's matinees, but a downturn in the family fortunes forced Webb into work as a broker's assistant on Wall Street.
Webb's tenure in big business did not last long. At age 13, he enrolled at the Chase School of Art, where he studied with realist painter George Wesley Bellows. Measuring six feet tall well before he hit the age of consent, Webb's stature suited him well in the theatre, where his first regular jobs were as a dancer. A talented singer, he made his operatic debut in Boston in 1911. His Broadway debut followed two years later, with a role in the operetta "The Purple Road." He kept busy through World War I with jobs on Broadway, on tour, and in Vaudeville. He made his feature film debut as a dancer in Christy Cabanne's "National Red Cross Pageant" (1917), alongside John and Ethel Barrymore, and supported the husband and wife team of Richard Barthelmess and Mary Hay in "New Toys" (1924). Webb next appeared in "The Heart of a Siren" (1925), but would not act in another feature film for almost 20 years.
During the Great Depression, Webb worked extensively on Broadway, enjoying long runs in the musical "Three's a Crowd" at the Selwyn Theater and "As Thousands Cheer" at the Music Box Theater. Webb's fellow troupers during this period included Fred MacMurray, Fred Allen, Lupe Velez and a young Humphrey Bogart. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put Webb under contract for a proposed film about a dancer, but the project never came to fruition. In 1939, he starred in a revival of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest" on Broadway and in November 1941, he began a long run in Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," which lasted for over 600 performances. During World War II, Webb served the war effort by entertaining cadets at West Point and the troops at the Stage Door Canteen in the basement of the 44th Street Theater.
Though MGM had first put Webb under contract, it was with 20th Century Fox that he returned to feature films. Otto Preminger had wanted the actor to play effete Manhattan radio host Waldo Lydecker, a suspect in the murder mystery "Laura" (1944). Despite the reservations of Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who found Webb too fey to bring persuasive menace to the role and wanted to cast hulking heavy Laird Cregar (who was, coincidentally, also homosexual), Preminger stood his ground and Webb got the part. One of several writers hired to adapt Vera Casparay's mystery novel, Samuel Hoffenstein crafted the acidic Lydecker's dialogue to suit Webb's natural cadences. Paired onscreen to memorable effect with stars Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney, Webb also held his own alongside such seasoned supporting players as Judith Anderson and Vincent Price. Among the film's many Academy Award nominations was one for Webb as Best Supporting Actor. "Laura" did win an Oscar for Best Cinematography and remained a seminal title in the suspense subgenre of film noir.
The success of "Laura" prompted Fox to push Webb into Henry Hathaway's "The Dark Corner" (1946) as an art collector who exorcises a proprietary grasp on younger woman Cathy Downs. A less personal picture than "Laura" had been, "The Dark Corner" put Webb through more conventionally villainous paces, including but not limited to the slaying of character players William Bendix and Kurt Kreuger, before being gunned down by the object of his affection. Webb received another Oscar nomination and appeared again opposite Gene Tierney for his role as a vain socialite who finds a measure of grace before dying in "The Razor's Edge" (1946). His patrician bearing was put to good use as the indefatigably wise valet Mr. Belvedere in "Sitting Pretty" (1948). Though Webb was third-billed behind stars Robert Young and Maureen O'Hara, it was his character that caught the fancy of the moviegoing public. Nominated for another Oscar, Webb reprised the character in two sequels, "Mr. Belvedere Goes to College" (1949) and "Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell" (1951).
However unpersuasive Webb may have been as a married man in contemporary fare, he fit the bill as a starchy Victorian paterfamilias at odds with his unwieldy brood in "Cheaper by the Dozen" (1950), based on the autobiographical bestseller by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth. If anyone considered Webb's portrayal of an exacting efficiency expert apt casting, it was his co-star Myrna Loy, who found the actor to be dictatorial on the set and a scene stealer in front of the camera. In George Seaton's "For Heaven's Sake" (1950), Webb played against type as an angel who masquerades as a Texas millionaire to help an unborn child achieve human life. He played the controlling father again in Henry Koster's "Elopement" (1951), raising more than objections to the quickie marriage of onscreen daughter Anne Francis, and was composer John Philip Sousa in the patriotic biopic "Stars and Stripes Forever" (1952).
Webb was cast once more as a family man in "Titanic" (1953), Jean Negulesco's account of the tragic sinking of the famed luxury liner on its maiden voyage from England to New York in April 1912. As the imperious, estranged husband of proto-feminist Barbara Stanwyck, Webb was allowed to show a heroic side in the film's third act as he shepherds women and children from the doomed vessel into lifeboats and forges a poignant rapprochement with his young son, who has chosen to die alongside him. In a considerably lighter vein, Webb was "Mr. Scoutmaster" (1953), a supercilious TV host who attempts to uplift his sagging ratings with the youth demographic by becoming a Boy Scout leader. Webb traveled to Italy for the Cinemascope romance "Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954), playing an expatriate author who finds love in later life with longtime secretary Dorothy McGuire.
An atypical role for Webb found him sporting a full beard to play a British Royal Navy Officer in "The Man Who Never Was" (1956), Ronald Neame's account of World War II's Operation Mincemeat, an ingenious plan to distract German forces ahead of the Allied invasion of Sicily. For friend Jean Negulesco, Webb played a debonair cad who brokers in stolen antiquities in "Boy on a Dolphin" (1957), which marked the American film debut of Italian actress Sophia Loren. He played the title role in Henry Levin's "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker" (1959), a Pennsylvania sausage maker who is revealed through a comic turn of events to be a bigamist. The film attracted an unexpected measure of free publicity when the Catholic Church condemned the subject matter as unfit for comedy. Again working with Levin, Webb starred in "Holiday for Lovers" (1959), as a Boston psychologist who packs up wife Jane Wyman and daughters Jill St. John and Carol Lynley for a spontaneous South American vacation.
Through the entirety of his life, Webb lived with his mother and entertained with her at their home on Rexford Drive in Beverly Hills. Maybelle Parmalee died in 1960 at the age of 91. Grief-stricken by the loss, Webb made one final film, "Satan Never Sleeps" (1962), playing as an aging priest who becomes a martyr for true love and free speech in Communist China, before retiring and living out the remainder of his days in relative seclusion. Following treatment for abdominal aneurysm in Texas, Webb suffered a fatal heart attack on Oct. 13, 1966. Though his final years had been fraught with ill health, close friends claimed that Webb took unexpected satisfaction in the fact that he had been the inspiration for the cartoon dog genius Mr. Peabody on the animated "Rocky and His Friends" (ABC, 1959-1964).
By Richard Harland Smith
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