March 8, 1910 – Claire Trevor
She had top billing for Stagecoach (1939); her popularity was higher than John Wayne at the time. Stagecoach is my favorite Western. It was the first of the many Westerns John Ford shot in Monument Valley, on the Arizona–Utah border, many of which also starred Wayne. Scenes from Stagecoach, including a sequence introducing Wayne’s character the Ringo Kid, blended shots of Monument Valley with shots filmed on the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, close to the Spahn Ranch, the base of Charles Manson.
1939 was one of the very best years in Film History when it comes to the high quality and big box-office. Films released that year include Dark Victory, Gone With The Wind, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice And Men, The Wizard Of Oz, The Women, and Wuthering Heights.
Stagecoach is an important film that transcends the Western genre, a mythic representation of the American aspiration toward political equality. In 1995, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and selected for preservation in their National Film Registry. But, like most Westerns, its depiction of Native Americans is just plain racist.
It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning two, Best Supporting Actor for Thomas Mitchell and Best Music. Stagecoach has been lauded as one of the most influential films ever made. Orson Welles found it to be a perfect textbook of filmmaking and claimed he watched it more than 40 times before the making of Citizen Kane. Stagecoach raised the Western genre to artistic status.
In Stagecoach, Claire Trevor plays “saloon girl” Dallas, who has been forced out of town by puritanical women. When the Ringo Kid (Wayne) proposes to her, she says: “But, you don’t know me, you don’t know who I am.” He says: “I know all I want to know“. Seeing a glimmer of hope, she asks the drunken doctor (Mitchell):
“Is that wrong for a girl like me? If a man and woman love each other? It’s all right, ain’t it Doc?”
Stagecoach is one of the few films where a Trevor character finds happiness.
She was born Claire Wemlinger in New York City. Her father was French, and she had Northern Irish mother. When her father lost his clothing business during the Great Depression, she went to work to help the family. She still managed to attend Columbia University and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, before starting her acting career doing summer stock in 1929. By 1932, she had starred on Broadway in The Party’s Over, where she was seen by a talent scout for 20th Century Fox, who gave her a five-year contract in 1933.
At Fox, she played Shirley Temple’s mother in Baby Takes A Bow (1934), and opposite Spencer Tracy in Dante’s Inferno (1935), She made six more films before she left Fox hoping for better roles and landed one from Samuel Goldwyn, William Wyler‘s brutal Dead End (1937) as gangster Humphrey Bogart‘s ex-girlfriend, reduced to streetwalking and ravaged by illness. Although she is only on screen for five minutes, in a memorable series of closeups, she makes such an impact, she was nominated for an Oscar. In the movie, she tells Bogart:
“I’m tired. I’m sick. Can you see it? Look at me good. You’ve been looking at me like I used to be.”
Dead End brought her more roles as wanton women: gangsters’ molls in Thrillers and saloon girls in Westerns. In The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), she plays Bogart’s moll who betrays him, and in I Stole A Million (1939), she helps her mobster husband played by George Raft.
Trevor had to wait for the rise of 1940s Film Noir to become one of the leading female actors of the genre. With her long, blonde hair up above the broad-shouldered gowns and a seen-it-all look in her eyes, she was all that.
In Street Of Chance (1942), she misleads amnesiac Burgess Meredith by telling him he is wanted for murder, though she is the real killer. She plays the sexy, two-faced Mrs. Grayle in Edward Dmytryk‘s classic noir Murder My Sweet (1944), she has a great line spoken to Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell), written for her by John Paxton:
“You shouldn’t kiss a girl when you’re wearing a gun. It leaves a bruise.”
In Born To Kill (1947), she is a mercenary divorcee with a fatal attraction for a man who has already killed two people, where she is told: “You are strength, excitement and depravity“.
In Anthony Mann‘s sordid Raw Deal (1948), Trevor is one of the rare noir films in which the narration is done by a woman, as the betrayed girlfriend of a mobster.
In the great Key Largo (1948), for which she won an Oscar, Trevor playz Gaye Dawn, the fading alcoholic girlfriend of sadistic gangster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). Robinson’s fat henchman (Thomas Gomez) says of her:
“She’s a lush. After she bends the elbow a few times, she begins to see things – rats, roaches, bats, you know. A sock in the kisser is the only thing that will bring her out of it.”
Who can forget the scene where when Robinson, makes her sing for the drink she craves and she pathetically croaks out Moanin’ Low, only to be refused the booze?
Trevor’s image continued to be “strength, excitement and depravity”, especially in two films from 1951: Best Of The Badmen as Robert Preston‘s angry and disillusioned wife, and Hard, Fast And Beautiful as the greedy ambitious mother determined to live off her daughter’s tennis earnings. In 1954, she was Oscar nominated again for The High And The Mighty (1954) with Wayne, this time as a loose jaded former actor among the imperiled airline passengers on a fateful airplane flight. Ironically, Charles, her only child by the second of her three marriages died in the crash of PSA Flight 182 in 1978.
In Vincente Minnelli‘s melodrama about movies Two Weeks In Another Town (1962) as Robinson’s “worn out, dry, old hag” of a wife, she rants and raves, drinks and smokes. Robinson tells her: “Don’t take an overdose. You know how ill it makes me.” Like most of her later roles, such as the man-hating harridan in How To Murder Your Wife (1965), it references her many of the roles she played in her black-and-white noir movie past.
Trevor not only had a Hollywood career spanning five decades, but performed in hundreds of radio and television shows, including an Emmy Award-winning role in Dodsworth.
After the devastating death of her son in 1978 and of her husband from a brain tumor in 1979, she returned to Manhattan, living in a Fifth Avenue apartment and taking a few acting roles. She eventually returned to California, where she remained for the rest of her life. She played Natalie Wood‘s vigilant mother in Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Richard Beymer‘s in The Stripper (1963) and Sally Field‘s in Kiss Me Goodbye (1982). Her final role was for the television film, Norman Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties (1987). Trevor made a guest appearance at the 70th Academy Awards in 1998.
Trevor’s final credits rolled in April 2000, gone at 90 years old. She was a talented painter and generous donor to arts organizations. The Claire Trevor School of the Arts at the University of California, Irvine, was named in Trevor’s honor.
“I learned my craft. I worked hard—like a demon, actually, because I worked so much. I was paid nicely. But let’s face it, the parts I would have given my soul for—real women, real parts—Bette Davis got.”