Film History: Clifton Webb

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana in November of 1889, Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck, known professionally as Clifton Webb, was an American actor, dancer and singer. He is known for his roles in films, his Broadway appearances in successful musicals, and for his stage appearances in the plays of English playwright and actor Sir Noël Coward.

Clifton Webb was the only child of Jacob Hollenbeck, a ticket-clerk for the Indianapolis- St. Louis Railroad, and Mabel Parmelee, the daughter of a railroad conductor. In 1891, the couple separated and Mabel took young Webb with her to New York City in 1892. After the divorce was finalized, Mabel married Green B. Raum, Jr., a copper-foundry worker and the son of a former U.S. Commissioner of Internal Revenue; the new family settled in New York City on West 77th Street. 

Webb, at the age of five, began dancing lessons; two years later, he made his official debut in Carnegie Hall as a member of the Children’s Theater in a performance of Canadian author Palmer Cox’s children series “The Brownies”. This was followed with a vaudeville tour in which Webb appeared in “The Master of Charlton Hall” and performed as Oliver in “Oliver Twist” and as Tom Sawyer in “Huckleberry Finn”. As a young teenager, he studied painting with Realist artist Robert Henri, a pioneer of the Ashcan School, and music with French operatic baritone Victor Maurel. His studies with Maurel led to Webb’s debut in 1906 with Boston’s Aborn Opera Company’s production of Ambroise Thomas’s “Mignon”.

Returning to New York, Clifton Webb teamed with Mae Murray in a ballroom dance act; they toured a chain of vaudeville theaters known as the Keith Circuit and performed in Manhattan restaurants. Webb had his Broadway debut in April of 1913 with the premiere of “The Purple Road” at the Liberty Theater, in which he played the role of Bosco for one hundred-thirty six performances. Between 1913 and 1917, Webb was continually on the Broadway stage and appeared in such vehicles as Sigmund Romberg’s “Dancing Around”, Ned Waybum’s all-star revue “Town Topics” , and Cole Porter’s comic opera “See America First”. 

In 1917, Webb was the sensuous dancing star of “Love O’Mike”, a musical comedy produced by Lee Shubert and Elisabeth Marbury, a theatrical agent who lived in an open relationship with actress and famous interior decorator Elsie de Wolfe, also known as Lady Mendl. By the middle of the 1920s, Webb was one of Broadway’s highest-paid stars and reached his apex with the 1930 “Three’s a Crowd” and the very successful 1933 “As Thousands Cheered”, which featured the steamy torch song “Moanin’ Low” sung by Webb and actress Libby Holman. 

In 1935, Webb relocated to Hollywood where Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who hoped to make Webb a successful dancing star like RKO’s Fred Astaire, gave him an eighteen-month contract at three-thousand dollars a week. He was to star opposite Joan Crawford in a musical entitled “Elegance”; the picture was abandoned, however, Webb was paid all his money. For the next eighteen months, he was not offered any work but made many high-profile social appearances. He  often appeared wearing white gloves and a top hat, with his mother Mabel on his arm and his poodle Ernest, after Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”, trailing behind on a leash.  

In 1938, Clifton Webb returned to New York’s Broadway in “You Never Know”, written by his longtime friend Cole Porter. The stage version of “The Man Who Came to Dinner”, starring the stage and film actor Monty Woolley, premiered in the fall of 1939. Webb was cast as the acidic character Sheridan Whiteside for its touring version, a role in which he remained for eighteen months. In 1941, he played the character Charles Condomine, a successful novelist curious about seances,  in the initial performances of Noël Coward’s comic play “Blithe Spirit”. 

Webb is probably best known today for his many film appearances. In his mid-fifties, he was chosen by director Otto Preminger, despite objections from 20th Century Fox’s Darryl Zanuck who though Webb too effeminate, to play the evil radio columnist Waldo Lydecker in the 1944 film noir “Laura”. Webb’s performance won him wide acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The Fox Studio signed him to a long-term contract, which provided Webb with work for the rest of his career. His first role under contract was as a suave villain in Henry Hathaway’s 1946 film noir “Dark Corner”. This was followed with his role of elitist Elliott Templeton, playing opposite Gene Tieeney, in the 1946 “The Razor’s Edge” for which he received another Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. 

Clifton Webb achieved stardom with his role of Mr. Belvedere, a snide know-it-all babysitter with a mysterious past, in the 1948 comedy film “Sitting Pretty”, based on the 1947 novel “Belvedere” by Gwen Davenport. This role became so popular that it was followed with two sequels: the 1949 box office success “Mr. Belvedere Goes to College” and the 1951 “Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell”.  In 1950, Webb and actress Myrna Loy played the roles of efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the parents of twelve children, in the film “Cheaper by the Dozen” which made Webb one of the biggest stars in the United States. 

In addition to these comedic films, Webb played more serious character roles for 20th Century Fox. He starred in the 1952 Technicolor film biography of bandmaster John Phillip Sousa entitled “Stars and Stripes Forever”. Webb’s most dramatic role was the brave but doomed husband of Barbara Stanwyck’s Julia Sturges in the 1953 “Titanic”, the winner of the 1954 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. The following year, he appeared as the novelist John Frederick Shadwell in the romance film “Three Coins in the Fountain”. Webb appeared in the 1956 British war film “The Man Who Never Was”, based on the Allied invasion of Sicily in World War II, and as a sarcastic but self-sacrificing Catholic priest in the 1962 “Satan Never Sleeps”, his final film role. 

Clifton Webb was one of the few gay actors to appear in decidedly heterosexual character roles, most notably the devoted husband who fathered twelve children in “Cheaper by the Dozen”. Obsessively proper, correct and well-mannered, he lived his bachelor life as close to being openly gay as any leading actor in Hollywood could be. Although he lived with his mother until her death in 1960, Webb threw lavish parties and enjoyed the company of young men who gathered poolside at his pink stucco house in Beverly Hills. His friends included many member of the gay circles in the film industry: Noël Coward, Cole Porter, actor Monty Woolley, director George Cukor, stage and costume designer Oliver Messel, film director Irving Rapper, actors William Hanes and Jimmie Shields, among others.

Due to health issues, Webb spent the last five years of his life as a recluse at his home in Beverly Hills. He suffered a fatal heart attack, at the age of seventy-six, at his home on the 13th of October in 1966. He is interred in a crypt in the Abbey of the Psalms at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, alongside his mother. For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Webb was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 6850 Hollywood Boulevard. An archive of his papers, including typed manuscripts, notes, correspondences, financial records and Webb’s last will and testament, is housed at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences.

Note: Clifton Webb’s portrayal of the character Mr. Lynn Belvedere was the model for the “Mr. Peabody” character in the animated cartoon series “Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends”, which ran from November of 1959 to June of 1964.

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