The Remarkable Mr. Clifton Webb

Clifton Webb: Appeared in the 1944 film Laura

Clifton Webb 1889-1966

Truth be told, Clifton Webb was not his real name, but with a birth monicker like Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck, this much-loved Hollywood favorite was mindful that a more creative stage name was in order. Born in Indianapolis in 1889, he started his professional career as a dancer at age 19, and just six years later he was performing on Broadway and eventually worked his way into a handful of silent pictures. Although he was under contract to MGM in the early 1930s, collecting a salary without doing much acting, he stuck mostly to stage work and did not get a shot at screen stardom until he was 55, when director Otto Preminger chose him to appear as Waldo Lydecker in 1944′s Laura, over the objections of 20th Century-Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck. The film was a great success and garnered Webb an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Two years later, he received his second Oscar nod for his role of Elliott Templeton opposite Tyrone Power in The Razor’s Edge.

So, imagine Webb in his fifties and finding himself a huge Hollywood star! After playing the cantankerous and generally snide babysitter Lynn Belverdere in Fox’s gigantic 1948 hit Sitting Pretty–which rewarded the actor with another Academy Award nomination, this time for Best Actor–it was full speed ahead for Clifton. Fans screamed for more and Webb agreed to two sequels as Mr. Belvedere, a role that was supposedly not far off from his personal life.

Webb never married or had children, and although his homosexual lifestyle did not make newspaper headlines, he enjoyed his position as one of the clandestine “Queen Bees” of the Hollywood colony. Actor Robert Wagner, who made two major films with Webb–Stars and Stripes Forever and Titanic–mentioned in his book “Pieces of My Heart: A Life” that he considered Webb a mentor, saying “Clifton Webb was gay, of course, but he never made a pass at me, not that he would have.”

Clifton’s public social life, on the other hand, was legendary, as the star and his omnipresent mother Maybelle threw lavish Hollywood parties. He was inseparable from Maybelle, with whom he lived until she died at age 91 in 1960. When she passed, Webb withdrew into relative seclusion, causing his good friend, noted playwright Noel Coward to remark as only he could, “It must be difficult to be orphaned at seventy.” Clifton was not able to recover from his mother’s death but did come out of his solitude to make one movie for veteran director Leo McCarey, 1962′s Satan Never Sleeps. Ill health, however, became the “norm,” and Webb followed his mother to the beyond in 1966. His grave is a popular destination at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, where the two are buried next to one another.

Choice roles continued coming his way during Webb’s illustrious career and even though he only appeared in 20 motion pictures after his success in Laura, his film characters are legendary. Take a look at his impressive body of work, many of which are available to collectors on DVD:

Laura (1944)

One of the greatest Hollywood whodunits ever made, Otto Preminger’s noir-flavored thriller stars Dana Andrews as police detective Mark McPherson, who investigates the apparent murder of New York socialite Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) and becomes infatuated with her image and memory. Memorable support is given by Webb as sardonic newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker and Vincent Price as Laura’s callous playboy fiance.

The Dark Corner (1946)

Private eye Mark Stevens is a man backed into a corner, framed for the murder of his ex-partner, in this intriguing film noir thriller that also features Lucille Ball as Stevens’ lovestruck secretary, Webb as a well-to-do art dealer, and William Bendix in his patented “Neanderthal gunman” role.

The Razor’s Edge (1946)

The first film version of W. Somerset Maugham’s novel features Tyrone Power as WWI veteran Larry Darrell, who turns his back on his materialistic, upper-class friends and embarks on a global search for the meaning of life. Webb memorably plays Power’s colleague, pleasure-seeking ex-patriate Elliott Templeton. Gene Tierney, Best Supporting Actress Oscar-winner Anne Baxter, and Herbert Marshall as Maugham co-star.

Sitting Pretty (1948)

Webb first brought the character of haughty know-it-all Lynn Belvedere–Mr. Belvedere, to you–to the screen with this popular comedy, whose success led to the sequels Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). For cover and first-hand perspective while he researches a book on suburbia, the insouciant intellectual signs on as the new babysitter/nursemaid for Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara’s three rambunctious sons. Richard Haydn, Ed Begley, Louise Albritton co-star.

Cheaper By The Dozen (1950)

Years before “The Brady Bunch” or “Eight Is Enough,” audiences delighted to this endearing film starring Webb and Myrna Loy as Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the proud parents of 12 in early 1900s New England. The ever-fastidious Webb’s attempts to keep the household running efficiently drive this nostalgic comedy/drama, based on a true story. With Jeanne Crain, Betty Lynn, Edgar Buchanan. The film was popular enough to warrant a Webb-less follow-up, Belles on Their Toes, two years later.

For Heaven’s Sake (1950)

It’s the job of angel Webb to make sure babies get born, and when a theatrical couple (Joan Bennett, Robert Cummings) proves more focused on career than family, he comes to Earth in the guise of a rich Texas production backer in order to “move things along.” Webb starts enjoying this mortal coil a little too much in this charming fantasy, which also features Edmund Gwenn and Joan Blondell.

Elopement (1951)

Industrial designer  Webb, primed to see daughter Anne Francis join the firm upon her college graduation, blows his stack when she runs off with psychology professor William Lundigan. It seems that Lundigan’s father (Charles Bickford) is no more happy about the union and the dads’ angry alliance to track the couple down makes for many laughs. Reginald Gardiner, Tommy Rettig co-star.

Dreamboat (1952)

Respected college professor Webb was only too happy to let his days as a silent movie idol be buried in the past. His anonymity goes out the window, though, when former leading lady Ginger Rogers starts hosting TV revivals, and Webb’s only too willing to go to court to get his privacy back! This comic gem co-stars Anne Francis, Elsa Lanchester, and Jeffrey Hunter.

Clifton Webb starring in Stars And Strips ForeverStars and Stripes Forever (1952)

This lively, tuneful biography of “March King” John Philip Sousa stars Webb as the 19th-century Marine Corps band leader who started his own concert band and wrote some of America’s most beloved patriotic songs. While entertaining audiences across the country, his “no wives” restriction placed upon his group causes more than a little trouble for young lovers Robert Wagner and Debra Paget.

Mister Scoutmaster (1953)

Wacky comedy stars Webb as a stodgy television star who becomes convinced that his show is failing because he’s lost touch with younger viewers. In an effort to reconnect with America’s youth–and boost ratings–Webb signs up as a Boy Scout leader and soon finds himself unexpectedly bonding with his charges as he joins them on a series of hilarious adventures. Edmund Gwenn, George Winslow, Frances Dee also star.

Titanic (1953)

The fateful maiden voyage of the luxury liner Titanic is stirringly re-created in this Oscar-winning saga that follows the personal dramas of several passengers–among them troubled marrieds Webb and Barbara Stanwyck–amid the ship’s deadly encounter with an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, Thelma Ritter, and Richard Basehart co-star.

Three Coins in the Fountain (1954)

Fine performances, gorgeous location shots of Rome and Venice, and the Oscar-winning title tune (sung by an unbilled Frank Sinatra) mark this romantic favorite that follows three American women (Dorothy McGuire, Maggie McNamara, Jean Peters) living in Italy on their search for true love. Webb co-stars as secretary McGuire’s employer, an ex-pat author who is unaware of her long-standing infatuation with him.

Woman’s World (1954)

Corporate politics, as seen through the eyes of the wives of three auto executives brought to New York to vie for a top managerial position, is the theme of this glossy melodrama. Along with Webb as the auto company mogul searching for a new manager among the trio, the all-star cast includes Lauren Bacall, Fred MacMurray, June Allyson, Cornel Wilde, Arlene Dahl and Van Heflin.

The Man Who Never Was (1956)

This amazing, true-life WWII thriller stars Webb as a British intelligence officer who conceives an elaborate hoax to dupe the Nazis, planting plans for a false Allied invasion of Greece on a British corpse recovered by the enemy. Stephen Boyd is the German spy trying to verify the dead man’s fabricated identity; with Robert Flemyng, Gloria Grahame.

The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959)

Apparently, early 20th-century Harrisburg sausage magnate Horace Pennypacker (Webb) maintained much more than a branch office in Philadelphia…he also took on a second wife, and began siring another large family! Will he end up in the frying pan when fate conspires to bring his broods–17 kids in all–together? Surprisingly disarming farce co-stars Dorothy McGuire, Charles Coburn, Jill St. John, Ron Ely.

Holiday for Lovers (1959)

Stressed-out Boston psychiatrist Webb believes the best thing for his nerves would be to pack up spouse Jane Wyman and teenage daughters Jill St. John and Carol Lynley for a South American vacation. The overprotective Webb, however, doesn’t allow himself a lot of rest, as he has to fend off a raft of males interested in his girls. Engaging farce co-stars Paul Henreid, Gary Crosby.

Satan Never Sleeps (1962)

Leo McCarey helmed this memorable Cold War drama starring William Holden as a Catholic priest sent to relieve veteran priest Webb at a remote mission outpost in 1949 China. As the pair witness the devastating terrors of the Communist uprising, they attempt to flee the country, along with a former Maoist soldier and his family, but face capture until Webb makes the ultimate sacrifice. With France Nuyen, Athene Seyler.

If you routinely equate Clifton Webb with his role as Mr. Belvedere, treat yourself to a couple of minutes reminiscing while watching the theatrical trailer for 1948′s Sitting Pretty: 

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  • frankiedc

    This was an interesting article about a fine actor who often seems overlooked today. One minor correction, the love interest for Mr. Webb in “Three Coins in the Fountain” is Dorothy McGuire, not Jean Peters.

  • J Mecca

    Favorite Clifton Webb movie for me was “The Man Who Never Was”. This underated movie told a true story using perfect casting, editing and photography throughout.

  • Howard Lucas

    In his Broadway years, he introduced Berlin’s Easter Parade: there’s a recording…..