Born To Be Wilde: A Consideration Of Cornel’s Career

Cornel WildeA dexterous performer with an athletic streak, comfortable in “A” and “B” productions of any genre, and sturdy in front of or behind the camera, Cornel Wilde remains a fascinating screen presence today. Because of his chameleon-like career, the Hungarian native remains hard to pigeonhole, so surprising were his career choices.  

Along with his sister, the eight-year-old Kornel Weisz came to New York in 1920 with his parents and often joined his father, a travelling salesman, on his selling excursions. The young Cornel had a penchant for athletic endeavors, and had plans to go for advanced studies in order to become a doctor. However, he caught the theater bug, and shelved his medical school plans (as well as a chance to fence in the 1936 Olympics) for a spot in a play.

After marrying fellow thespian Marjory Heinzen (who later changed her name to Patricia Knight), Wilde got some good roles on the New York stage, including an attention-getting part as Juliet’s cousin Tybalt in Laurence Olivier’s 1940 production of Romeo and Juliet.

Thanks to his impressive Shakespearean turn, the handsome actor started to get steady work in movies—such as High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart, and Life Begins at Eight-Thirty with Ida Lupino and Monty Wooley—before landing the coveted part of Polish composer Frederic Chopin in the 1945 biopic A Song to Remember. The film was nominated for six Academy Awards, with Wilde garnering a nomination for Best Actor.

Today, A Song to Remember has a campy appeal, with the tubercular Chopin coughing blood on the piano keys, and the composer’s lover George Sand (Merle Oberon) advising him to ”discontinue that so-called Polonaise jumble you’ve been playing for days.”

Film critic James Agee called the picture as ”infuriating and as funny a misrepresentation of an artist’s life and work as I have ever seen.”

A Song To Remember (1945)Still, A Song to Remember’s success helped spark interest in Chopin’s music, while vaulting Wilde into higher profiled lead roles. He was Aladdin in A Thousand and One Nights, as well as the novelist who becomes the target of obsessive, father-fixated Gene Tierney in the stellar 1946 meller Leave Her to Heaven. In Forever Amber, Otto Preminger’s 1947 version of the best-selling book about lust among 17th century nobles, Wilde is the soldier who leaves the titular character (Linda Darnell) pregnant and penniless when he deserts her to fight.   

Over the following fifteen years, Wilde—who spoke five different languages—really varied his roles. He showed off his fencing prowess in such efforts as The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), playing the Robert of Nottingham, son to Russell Hicks’ Robin Hood; At Sword’s Point (1952) in which he swashed and buckled his way as the son of D’Artagnan of the Three Musketeers (he would later play an aged D’Artagnan in 1979’s The Fifth Musketeer); and as Sir Lancelot in 1963’s Sword of Lancelot (which he also helmed).    

Wilde had also snagged key parts in big Hollywood productions. In the never-on-video Centennial Summer (1946), Otto Preminger’s musical ode to the 1876 Centennial in Philadelphia, he was the Frenchman preparing his pavilion for exposition while having affections for sisters Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell. For The Greatest Show on Earth, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Wilde affected a French accent as “The Great Sebastian,” a debonair trapeze artist trying to gain the romantic attentions of rival aerialist Betty Hutton, even though she was previously with circus manager Charlton Heston. Then there was 1953’s Treasure of the Golden Condor, a remake of the Tyrone Power-starrer Son of Fury: The Story of Benjamin Blake, in which the strapping Wilde heads to Guatemala in hopes of finding ancient riches after his uncle unscrupulously obtains his rightful estate.   

Wilde proved adept with edgier roles as well, excelling in film noir staples like Road House (1946), playing the bar manager in a tussle with boss Richard Widmark for the love of torch singing hottie Ida Lupino; and Shockproof (1949), co-written by Samuel Fuller and directed by Douglas Sirk, as a parole officer trying to straighten out murderous parolee Patricia Knight (his wife at the time). There was also Joseph H. Lewis’s brutal and subversive The Big Combo (1955), where Wilde delivered as the detective trying to save a society girl (played by his second wife, Jean Wallace) with romantic interest in a hood (Richard Conte). In Don Siegel’s scenic crime survey Edge of Eternity (1959), Wilde is a sheriff tracking down killers out to nab gold from a Grand Canyon locale.      

The Big Combo also marked Wilde’s first credit as a producer. After cutting his teeth on an episode of G.E. True Theater for TV, he began working both sides of the camera, jumping head-first into directing feature films. Wilde’s career output as a filmmaker was eclectic, and, in most cases, he gave lead roles to himself and his spouse, blonde bombshell Wallace.

The Naked PreyWallace was absent, however, from Wilde’s most praiseworthy directing turn. It was 1966’s The Naked Prey, a rugged and sometimes brutal adventure riff on The Most Dangerous Game, in which Wilde plays a South African safari guide who finds himself on the run from a group of tribesmen that have slain the members of an elephant hunting party who disrespected them.  Wilde, 53 years old when The Naked Prey was in production, proved himself in tip-top physical shape, as he was forced to run breathlessly through the wilderness, clad only in a loincloth, as his life was threatened by the oncoming natives. While the riveting and exotic film received mixed reviews on its opening, it is recognized as a cult classic today, and has received an extensive Criterion treatment on DVD.

Wilde’s other films as a director include Storm Fear (1955), an intense, noirish drama; the car racing drama Hairpin (1957); Maracaibo (1958), in which he played a  fire investigator who gets involved with a novelist (Wallace) while looking into an incident in Venezuela;  the well-regarded medieval epic swashbuckler Sword of Lancelot (aka Lancelot and Guinevere) (1963) ; the bold, overlooked anti-war film Beach Red (1967); the cautionary British-made science-fiction saga No Blade of Grass (1970); and Shark’s Treasure (1975), an underwater adventure tale.     

In a 1986 interview, Wilde summed up his interests, particularly when it came to the subjects of the films he directed:   ”I am very concerned about the environment and psychological health of this beautiful planet. Throughout my work is the idea, over and over, that we must all learn to respect one another.”

In addition to appearing and helming his own big screen projects, Wilde regularly acted in other films from the mid-1950s and on.  He was the businessman hubby of scatter-brained June Allyson in the all-star Woman’s World (1954); the title role in the biopic of the philosopher/poet/mathematician Omar Khayyam (1957); the gypsy in an arranged marriage to sexy Jane Russell in the oddball Nicholas Ray drama Hot Blood (1956); and the Roman emperor who converts to Christianity—then allows his subjects to do the same–in the European production Constantine and the Cross (1961).     

Meanwhile, Wilde found a second home on television.  On the small screen, he played himself in episodes of both I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best, hosted NBC’s Kraft Mystery Theater, and, in the latter part of his career, took the route of many other fading thespians by making appearances on such shows as Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote and The Love Boat.

TV offered Wilde some of his most memorable late-in-life performing turns. In a 1972 episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery called Deliveries in the Rear, Wilde memorably portrayed an unscrupulous surgeon who enlists body snatchers to procure cadavers for him. In the popular 1972 TV movie Gargoyles, he’s an anthropologist who encounters flying demons in the Nevada desert.  

In 1989, eight years after he and Wallace divorced, Wilde passed away from leukemia at age 77. Although he had a Best Actor Oscar nomination to his credit, Wilde tends to be recognized more for his charismatic screen presence, his way with a sword or a bow and arrow, and his unusual directorial subjects than his acting abilities.

But Wilde was a man’s man with unexpected depth, and an enthusiasm for life and his profession that translated to both the big and small screens. And for that we say…en garde!    

  • BernardS

    Cornel Wilde must be the MOST underrated movie actor of the century. He can direct, he can act,

    he can sing, he looks good in period costume, he looks good without clothes, he can fence,he

    speaks several languages, he was memorable in noir, in romances, in adventures, in musicals(!),
    so Ben Affleck, Daniel Day Lewis, work harder…you newbies have a long way to go before
    you get to the level of a Cornel Wilde !!!

  • KenR

    Enjoyed this article Irv, Wild didn’t need to be a great actor, he got by on his apparent humanity.
    Was diverse enough to appear in a cross section of films, and certainly created an exceptional ‘one-off experience’ with my favorite of all his works: “The Naked Prey”

  • watthyer

    Thanks for bringing attention to one of my favorites. The Naked Prey belongs in everybody’s library.

  • Patricia Lehman

    I had a major crush on Cornel Wilde when I was a child. He was so handsome. Have my own copies of The Greatest Show On Earth and Road House. Also have a copy of Constanine and The Cross – now THAT’s a real turkey.

  • Stan

    The Naked Prey was one of those films in my early years that left quite an impression on me and to me that is great film making. Mr. Wilde was always great and yet he ofter goes unnoticed when you talk about the great ones from this era. Glad to see he is being noticed now.

  • JoAnne McMaster

    I absolutely LOVED him in Centennial Summer. He was wonderful. I don’t think we have movie stars today, we just have actors. It will be a long time before we see the likes of Bogart, Cagney, Robert Montgomery or any of the others who not only were great actors; they knew how to dress and act. Give me the classics any day…..

  • nicolas

    The height of his career was most certainly for me The Naked Prey. When I look at him in that film, at 53, and look at myself now approaching 56, I just have to shake my head at myself. He reminds me a lot in that film of Charles Bronson, but I don’t know for sure if Bronson at 53 looked that athletic, though he was good in Hard Times. I think Naked Prey might have hurt Wilde’s career a little bit, as I don’t think back then the film was considered politically correct. Read Roger Ebert’s review at the time. Who can also forget how some of the people before the hunt of Wilde were killed. Quite grisly, and could be looked almost as one of the most horrifying scenes in a movie ever.

  • BCooper

    It’s nice to see this under-rated actor being remembered! However, Mr. Slifkin gets a couple of dates wrong: “Leave Her to Heaven” was released in 1945 (unless he was referring to the Swedish premiere), “Road House” came out in 1948 not 1946. In addition, “Shockproof” was released on DVD in The Samuel Fuller Collection and very much deserves a look (but there was no link to this box set provided). Considering this is a home video website, I would think these details would be important to the author as well as his readers.

  • Rufnek43

    Wilde starred in one of the best and one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. The Naked Prey was a great story, well acted, and gutsy in that it had no romantic interest for the still handsome Wilde (studio wisdom was that a sub-plot love story was necessary to attract women), little dialogue since Wilde was alone through much of the picture, and used native Africans to play African natives, speaking in their own languages with no English captions to translate what they were saying. Viewers could tell what was going on from their acting. Also there was no off-screen narrator telling us what we were seeing on the screen.

    No Blade of Grass, on the other hand, is one of the worst films ever to escape (surely it wasn’t released!). Silly, amateurish, and not a single character worth caring about. I saw it at a free preview and thought the theater should have to reimburse me for the time wasted.