November 19, 1889– Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck:
“In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.”
I love that euphemism for a homosexual from the early 20th century: “Confirmed Bachelor”. Clifton Webb is the very definition of the term. It shocks me, the films I missed when I was younger, even as I studied Film History in college. I caught finally caught the great noir Laura (1944) on Turner Classic Movies in 2014. What a terrific film! How did I miss it before?
A remarkable, versatile character actor, Webb was busy working on Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s, moving to Hollywood films of the 1940s and 1950s. Webb moved easily between genres, giving smart, interesting performances in Comedies, Noir, Dramas and Musicals. He was even a champion ballroom dancer.
In 1944, director Otto Preminger chose him, over the objections of 20th Century Fox studio executives, to star as the elegant but evil radio columnist Waldo Lydecker in Laura. That performance won him wide acclaim and plenty of fans. The success of Laura brought Webb a long-term contract with Fox. Webb’s deliciously eccentric, snobbish performance as a newspaper columnist and Laura’s mentor is astonishingly good. Fashioned, in a sense, after real-life NYC drama critic Alexander Woollcott, Webb’s dialogue is quotable from start to finish.
In the first Golden Era of Hollywood, the sissy role was usually a sexless fussy foil to the straight star. He would enter the story to briefly liven things up with a quip, a raised eyebrow, or a dramatic exit. In Laura, Webb’s sissy retains all those old characteristics: sophistication, brittleness, cynicism, while adding a new element of suppressed violence and sexual passion that threatens not only the other characters but also the widely held cultural assumptions about the passivity of the traditional effeminate male.
Webb played this role to perfection. As Lydecker, he is at once droll and scary, capable of pity and viciousness:
“I should be sincerely sorry to see my neighbors’ children devoured by wolves”.
In Laura, Lydecker is both held in contempt and indulged by a policeman who doesn’t realize until it is almost too late that this pansy is also a killer. Webb had the charisma and authority to rescue the sissy stereotype from minor roles. He would be either the star or a major player in all of his films that followed.
Film fans might not realize that Webb was also a Broadway star. He was tall, thin, and sang in a clear, gentle tenor. He appeared in 23 Broadway shows. He introduced many Broadway standards: Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, George and Ira Gershwin’s I’ve Got A Crush On You, Schwartz and Dietz’s I Guess I Have To Change My Plan. Webb danced with Beatrice Lillie in She’s My Baby. He appeared in Treasure Girl with Gertrude Lawrence. In As Thousands Cheer he did such impersonations a Mahatma Gandhi and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Most of Webb’s Broadway shows were musicals, but he also starred in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, and in his longtime pal Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter, in roles that Coward wrote especially for Webb.
Webb became a major Hollywood star, remarkable considering that he was not particularly handsome, or in any way a real leading man. Two years after the role in Laura, he was reunited with his co-star Gene Tierney, with whom he shares a birthday, as the elitist Elliott Templeton in The Razor’s Edge (1946). Webb received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor for both his performances in Laura and The Razor’s Edge.
Webb also received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for Sitting Pretty (1949), the first in a trio of films about the comedic Mr. Belvedere, a difficult but sage babysitter.
He’s pretty swell in Cheaper By The Dozen (1950,) well matched with Myrna Loy playing Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, real-life efficiency experts from the 1910s and 1920s, and the parents of 12 children. It resulted in Webb’s third hit in a row and led to exhibitors voting him the seventh biggest star in the USA.
In Dreamboat (1952) he starred as college professor who in his younger days was known as silent-film star Bruce “Dreamboat” Blair. Now a distinguished academic who wants no part of his past fame, he sets out to stop the showing of his old films on television. The movie ends with Webb’s character watching the actual Webb in a scene from Sitting Pretty.
For my detractors that claim that I make everyone I write about gay, Webb was most certainly queer. His was an open secret in the Hollywood and Broadway communities. But, his most important love relationship was with his mother, Maybelle, who served as his secretary, business manager, and his constant companion at parties, galas and film premiers. I can’t imagine how he possibly ever had a way to hook-up with any guys. When Maybelle left this world at 91-years-old, Noël Coward famously remarked that Webb was: “Now the world’s oldest living orphan”.
Webb was distraught after his mother was gone. So much so that Coward tried to get him to snap out of the deep depression months after her death by telling Webb: “It must be difficult to be orphaned at 70, Clifton“.
A tiny tid-bit: cartoonist Jay Ward claimed that he modeled the Mr. Peabody character from the The Adventures Of Rocky And Bullwinkle show on Webb.
Webb life lessons include:
“You can be rich and dull or poor and amusing, but you must always contribute something to the community.”
“It’s never morals, it’s manners.”
On the important subject of wearing a partially exposed handkerchief in a suit jacket pocket, Webb said:
“Never pointed, never square … it should always be, of course, pear shaped”.
Webb never really recovered from the loss of his mother and his health suffered for it. He locked her room and refused to remove her belongings, choosing instead to leave everything just as she left it. He spent the last five years of his life alone in his Beverly Hills home. He contracted dozens of clairvoyants and spirit mediums to try and contact the spirit of his beloved Maybelle. One of these mediums was Mae West, who was known to have the powerful spiritually intuitive gift of communicating with the dead.
He took his final curtain call there in 1966, taken by a heart attack at 76-years-old. Webb is interred in the lovely Abbey Of The Psalms at Hollywood Forever Cemetery… next to his mother.