Posted by Moira Finnie on July 8, 2009
The acerbic American writer Paul Theroux once observed that “Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” Maybe movies–that particularly compelling and seductive form of fiction–gives us that chance too, especially if we look at an actor’s many roles, rather than their best known portrayals. Some actors leave you cold, though once in a while you’re able to look at someone in a new way.
MorlockJeff‘s recent article on that ’50s movie fixture, George Nader, found here, made me question my attitudes toward certain actors. I thought that Nader was a negligible, pompadoured presence in laughable movies such as Carnival Story (1954), or the outrageously campy The Female Animal (1958). The best that I could say about the guy was that he looked good in navy blue in an unpretentious, if sometimes overly ponderous “victory at sea” story from Universal, called Away All Boats (1956), directed by Joseph Pevney. However, Jeff’s lively description of this upcoming noirish feature on TCM, Nowhere to Go (1958), with Nader acting opposite a very young, doe-like Maggie Smith, makes me want to see the movie. It also made me think about an actor whose work I’ve dismissed in the past, but have recently grown to see a bit differently. Maybe I threw Wendell Corey on my personal pile of rejects too soon.
Wendell Corey was the President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from 1961 to 1963, (as well as serving on the SAG Board of Directors). The actor, who was a regular fixture at the increasingly frantic televised ceremonies in the late ’50s and early ’60s, seemed to have the ill luck to constantly be trying to interview people arriving and leaving the Oscars. At one ceremony during which he and Robert Ryan were supposed to be interviewing attendees, the madhouse atmosphere reportedly led to the disconnection of the television cables, only allowing Ryan and Corey a brief greeting before being cut off. At the 1961 fete, Corey, accompanied by a gushing Mitzi Gaynor in the pressroom, wound up hunting for something to say live on camera. “I’m so glad Shirley Jones won, she looked so lovely”, opined Gaynor about Jones‘ Best Supporting Actress nod for Elmer Gantry (1960). Feeling fatigued by it all, Corey sighed heavily, on coast-to-coast hookup, “I’m glad they all won.” Hunting for someone–anyone–to interview in the crush, Mitzi asked her companion, “Do you see any winners?”
Wendell, perhaps wondering why he was there at all, simply replied as the credits rolled, “I don’t see any.”
In 1962, in a masterstroke of unlucky timing, (just one year before Sidney Poitier’s pioneering win as Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963), Wendell had the misfortune to preside over the Oscar night when pickets for a group called the Hollywood Race Relations Bureau, (which had been publicly disavowed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), marched outside the ceremony with signs reading “Film Equality for Negroes” and “All Negroes Want a Break.” Twelve of the protestors were taken into custody for disturbing the peace; especially after one person was said to have aggressively sought to buttonhole singer Johnny Mathis as he entered the theater. A harassed Corey, who allegedly had made the decision to call the police to remove the picketers, introduced the broadcast’s host, Bob Hope, as an “anchorman” explaining that “while we hope you’ll be entertained, this is essentially a news event.” No wonder songwriter Johnny Mercer urged “Martinis for everyone!” during the Oscar party. Not surprisingly, none of this did Corey‘s career a great deal of good since negative publicity surrounded the protesters’ arrests. Corey, who appeared in several television shows over the years as well as in increasingly smaller budgeted feature films, remained active in the movie community and continued to run for Santa Monica municipal office until his death in 1968.
Nice guy parts such as the one he played in Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1947) as Montgomery Clift‘s pragmatic sounding board gave way to blander roles, such as the nice guy cop who eventually believes Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window (1954). Still, the brass ring really eluded Corey, and I suspect that he may have been a character actor who wanted to be a leading man. That was a shame, because, as I’ve recently realized, his talent bloomed in character roles.
Some actors seem anathema to me due to visceral reactions I’d had to their bread and butter work, their physical appearance or mannerisms when first encountering them in some prominent roles. One example of this was Wendell Corey, who seemed to play an anodyne human tranquilizer more times than George Brent. His character work in Rear Window and Harriet Craig may be examples of the cipher-like kind of roles played by Corey when he was “phoning it in.”
I realize that he was often asked to offer a masculine shoulder to support a dazzling female presence (such as Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck) on screen, but sometimes it seemed more than a bit unlikely. Other times Wendell seemed to be offered to the female audience as an ersatz brand of catnip, which was really stretching it for me. I kept wondering while watching No Sad Songs For Me (1950) how likely was it that two women as attractive as Margaret Sullavan and Viveca Lindfors would both find him so appealing?
Was it his flat delivery of lines in monotone or his thousand-yard stare with those light baby blues that struck me as off, somehow? I’m not sure, but having since learned that the poor guy struggled with alcoholism for many years, (dying from complications of that disease at only 54), I’ve discovered that he tried to make a contribution to his industry behind the scenes as well as an actor. I”ve also come across several recent stories, from Christopher Plummer to Frances Sternhagen, recalling him as a warm, funny and relaxed co-worker, leading me to try to look at him a bit more generously. I even caught up with some of his lesser-known films in recent viewings. My impressions of Wendell Corey have changed a bit, the more I’ve seen the guy and learned about his off-screen activities.
As I’ve gotten a bit older, the scales have fallen from my near-sighted eyes–at least a little. I now understand that there are qualities and opportunities that never seem to come to light on screen for some talented people from the studio era. A few good roles only seem to have come along once or twice in a career.
As I’ve become more familiar with more movies, (yes, it is an addiction, but not one I plan on correcting!), my judgment in the lower court of this moviegoer has started to get a bit less harsh. I thought I’d take a midsummer-tour-once-over-lightly through the mental files I’ve compiled on some (former) public enemies of cinema. Some of these actors have done work that in retrospect seems quite a bit more interesting to me than it once did. File this one under “r” for reconsideration. Since you might have some “guilty until proven innocent” shadows from the silver screen to add to these few, I hope that you’ll chime in with some people who deserve a second look.
Btw, there may be spoilers below, so if you’re fanatically opposed to learning details about movies you may not have seen yet, you might as well move on to another entry before reading further.
Indicted for the Following Film Crimes:
Evidence of Malfeasance:
The Rainmaker (1956):
The Furies (1950):
Perhaps it is just me, but frankly, I didn’t really buy them as a romantic couple either time, especially when compared to the warmth in the scenes between Roland and Stanwyck in The Furies. We’re told several times that Corey is clever, and he puts up a good front in a few scenes, but he seems like a stick figure next to all the other robust if tortured characters here. Perhaps it’s the writing here, or a lack of sympathy between Mann and the actor, but Corey doesn’t seem to have an inner life the way that the others seem to have.
The second aspect of this movie that really made me wonder came at the ending, when Stanwyck and Corey ride forth to their ranch, where they glow with anticipation over the family life to come. Sorry, but I’m just not buying it. Wendell is just asking for it. Inside of a year, Stanwyck‘s character will be bored with him, and looking for big trouble or worse, a pair of scissors left lying around. Not to mention what any kids will go through with Stanwyck as their Mom.
The Man-Eater of Kumaon (1948):
Redemptive Acts that Changed My View of Wendell:
Holiday Affair (1949):
The File on Thelma Jordon (1950):
This being a film noir, it seems that fate has brought this pair together. Cleve’s conflicted nature and craving for a destructive passion that cannot be confined by domesticity lead his foolish but likable character to increasing involvement with the seemingly duplicitous (and equally self-destructive) Stanwyck as he attempts to help her cover up a murder of her aunt. Mid-way through his unwitting circling down the drain away from respectability, there is one brief, quiet scene between Joan Tetzel and Corey in their bedroom that seems more realistic than the heavy breathing going on between the leads. As Cleve hurries to leave the married couple’s weekend home by the water, and not eager to greet Joan‘s overbearing Dad as he arrives, Tetzel tries to confront him. She knows that there is someone else, and her uncharacteristic honesty and vulnerability, as well as her sweetly rumpled appearance in beach wear touches her wandering husband unexpectedly. For a moment, the film pauses, as Corey‘s character suddenly acknowledges aloud that he loves his wife, despite the fact that he’s entangled emotionally (and ethically) with Stanwyck from then on. Corey‘s character becomes increasingly icy toward his mistress as the plot unfurls further, though his complicity in her actions becomes increasingly obvious to all, including his wife and his boss, the perceptive DA (Paul Kelly). By the end of the film, which I won’t spoil for you, Siodmak shows Cleve walking away from the shambles of his life, uncertain about his destination, but clearly still in the thrall of the emotional upheaval that he’s just been released from—or so it seems.
My Man and I (1952):
The subtlety of Corey‘s acting in this well written movie opposite good actors went largely unnoticed in the film industry at the time of its release.
The Killer is Loose (1956):
As Leon “Foggy” Poole, Corey plays a guy who may have had one too many tours of duty in the Army and definitely finds himself unhinged by his attempt to break out of his loserdom in civilian life. Now, he’s a bespectacled bank clerk implicated as an inside man in a niftily staged heist scene gone wrong. Corey gets a life-changing conk on the head by one of his co-conspirators during the robbery attempt. The ham-fisted cops raid a house where the robbers happen to have met previously, and, in the course of securing the area, Leon Poole’s wife is slaughtered. Poor Poole winds up with a thirty year sentence and only a grudge to keep him warm, as he focuses his beady eyes on Cotten and his wife Fleming as Corey is escorted from court. (This scene was one of the few that seemed unrealistic to me. For one thing, it was photographed in a flat manner that evoked one of the minor episodes of “Dragnet”. For another, what cop in his right mind would encourage an easily identified family member to come to court with him?). Leon, whose addled brain is now only able to focus on the need to extract “an eye for an eye” by planning the demise of Cotten‘s wife, proceeds to methodically escape from an honor prison farm.
As you can see in the video attached to this excellent take by “Curt” on this movie from the Noir of the Week site, Poole seems a bit like a mechanical tin man returned to life not in Oz, but in a rigidly sterile world defined by empty suburban streets and claustrophobic, kitsch-filled, cracker-box houses. Corey‘s flat verbal delivery of his lines and his thousand yard stare have never been more ominously effective than in this role as the brain damaged but determined stalker, who even resorts to a form of cross-dressing to succeed in his quest, (well before the far better known Psycho, I might add). Sadly, prominent critic of the time, Bosley Crowther, of The New York Times wrote at the time that “the only thing remarkable about this picture is that it could be so absolutely dull with Mr. Cotten and Mr. Corey in it” when this film was first released in 1956. I wonder if Mr. Crowther ever changed his mind?
Please click here to see upcoming Wendell Corey films on TCM, which at one time or another, are likely to include most of those discussed in this article.
Dick, Bernard F., Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars, University of Kentucky Press, 2004.
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