Sitting Pretty

Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb

Clifton Webb
with David L. Smith
Foreword by Robert Wagner
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt12f514
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  • Book Info
    Sitting Pretty
    Book Description:

    More than any other male movie star, the refined Clifton Webb (1889-1966) caused the movie-going public to change its image of a leading man. In a day when leading men were supposed to be strong, virile, and brave, Clifton Webb projected an image of flip, acerbic arrogance. He was able to play everything from a decadent columnist (Laura) to a fertile father (Cheaper by the Dozen and The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker), delivering lines in an urbanely clipped, acidly dry manner with impeccable timing. Sitting Pretty is his remarkable story.Long before his film career began, Webb was a child actor and later a suavely effete song-and-dance man in numerous Broadway musicals and revues. The turning point in his career came in 1941 when his good friend Noël Coward cast him in Blithe Spirit. Director Otto Preminger saw Webb's performance and cast him in Laura in 1944.Webb began to write his autobiography but said he eventually had gotten "bogged down" in the process. However, he did complete six chapters and left a hefty collection of notes that he intended to use in the proposed book. His writing is as witty and sophisticated as his onscreen persona. Those six chapters, information and voluminous notes, and personal research by the coauthor provide an intimate view of an amazingly talented man's life and times.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-997-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    ROBERT WAGNER

    I made two pictures with Clifton Webb,TitanicandStars and Stripes Forever, but I really got to know him when he invited me into the social circle that centered around the house that he shared with his mother, Mabelle.

    Mabelle ruled the roost, and Clifton was happy that she did, but he had his own eccentricities. I remember an African gray parrot bundled carefully into a large brandy snifter at dinner parties.

    Clifton actually had several quite different careers—as a gifted dancer on Broadway during the 1920s, as a theatre star in such plays as Noel Coward’sBlithe...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
    DAVID L. SMITH
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. xv-1)

    In his eulogy for Clifton Webb, producer Samuel Engel said, “No responsible historian of the theatre and the motion picture dealing with the last three decades can do even a remotely creditable job without the name Clifton Webb appearing on many a page of his work.”

    When the nameClifton Webbsurfaces, many think only of his film career. Even then, many will think of him as a character actor, relegated to supporting roles in low-budget films. The truth is he was a top box-office draw and one of the most consistent moneymakers in the history of Twentieth Century Fox....

  7. CHAPTER 1 The Noses Have It
    (pp. 3-18)

    According to all accounts, which I have no reason to disbelieve, I was a disgustingly fat baby. I was an out-sized Hoosier with no perceptible neck and such thick rolls of fat dispersed about my person that I had to be probed clean. Other than that, I was blonde, curly haired, and hazel-eyed like my mother, and the nose budding between my fatuous cheeks began immediately to turn up towards my forehead.

    Of the facts I have set down above, only the last is of great consequence. Although time has worked upon the others, the nose has remained. If I...

  8. CHAPTER 2 First Vision of a Name in Lights
    (pp. 19-30)

    A critic once said of me: “Mr. Webb wears a top hat as if he was born in one.” Like all statements by critics, that one is somewhat exaggerated. Only my career was born in a top hat.

    Webb frequently refers to “Gran” (Mabelle’s mother) as though she were living with them in New York City. Obviously, she did spend some time there, but he never indicates how long she stayed. The 1900 census of Manhattan shows the Raums living at 101 Seventy-seventh Street with son Webb and Mabelle’s widowed mother, Grace. Ten years later they were at 214 West...

  9. CHAPTER 3 Art and Opera
    (pp. 31-41)

    My first and last gambol with the Bulls and Bears having proved a wretched failure, I began to look about for another occupation. The theatre was unfortunately impossible. Until my skinny legs showed less tendency to wobble and my voice could be trusted to remain on one pitch for the duration of a complete breath, I could not aspire to any better part than the front legs of a giraffe in a circus.

    In the meantime there was the matter of my further education. Neither Mabelle nor I entertained any serious thought of high school, for it was clear to...

  10. CHAPTER 4 Making Progress and Moving Up
    (pp. 42-54)

    Our stock of saleable objects, principally Mabelle’s jewels, was running low. It was vitally necessary that I begin earning some money.

    I was now seventeen and for a year—my second studying with Paul Savage—I had been working on a number of the great dramatic baritone roles: Scarpia, Escarmillo, etc., with even a chromatic fling at Pagliacci. If I was to be a singing actor, it appeared, I should by all means get going.

    At Paul Savage’s suggestion I went down to the office of the Aborn Brothers’ Opera Company. I asked for and was given an audition. I...

  11. CHAPTER 5 Dancing into Xanadu
    (pp. 55-73)

    Several times during our run at the Casino, Valli Valli told me that I should take up modern dancing. UntilThe Purple Roadclosed, I had taken the suggestion as only a rather nice compliment. The dance craze swept the country that summer of 1913. Cabarets were springing up everywhere, particularly on the roofs of Broadway hotels, and dance teams were drawing bigger crowds than many successful plays. Maurice and Walton, the Castles at the Cafe Martin, and Joan Sawyer and Carlo Sebastien at the New York Roof were the headliners.

    When, as it must to all plays, closing night...

  12. CHAPTER 6 To Europe in Search of Adventure
    (pp. 74-82)

    “I like house-broken people,” said Elsie de Wolfe the first time I met her. Whether the remark is of any particular profundity or not, nobody can doubt that it is striking.

    Elsie and her great friend Anne Morgan, urged by Baron de Meyer, had turned up at one of Delmonico’s matinees early in the season for the express purpose of examining my doubtful talents. The “Triumvirate” had recently returned from a lengthy sojourn at the Villa Trianon outside Paris and had discovered, to Elsie’s intense dismay, that they were frightfully out of step with the times. The other two were...

  13. CHAPTER 7 In Love with Jeanne Eagels
    (pp. 83-102)

    Noel Coward said, “Of all the actresses I have ever seen, there was never one quite like Jeanne Eagels.” Her fame as an actress inspired people like director-writer Joe Mankiewicz to reference her in this famous bit of dialogue voiced by George Sanders inAll about Eve(1950): “Margo, as you know, I have lived in the theatre as a Trappist Monk lives in his faith. I have no other world, no other life … and once in a great while I experience that moment of revelation for which all true believers wait and pray. You were one. Jeanne Eagels...

  14. CHAPTER 8 Great Plays, Then the Great War
    (pp. 103-129)

    In the late 1920s, Clifton Webb had a chance to meet some of his relatives. He also had a meeting with his father, seeing him for the first time since he left Indianapolis as a child.

    “When I was in Chicago a cousin of mine that was living there came to see me. I had not seen her since I was a kid in Indiana, but she told me my father was there and asked if I’d like to see him. So a meeting was arranged, and he, and my mother, who was there with me, all went out to...

  15. CHAPTER 9 The War Starts, Blithe Spirit Leads to Laura
    (pp. 130-156)

    In late November 1942, Clifton Webb and Mabelle were living in Greenwich on weekends and in New York during the week at the Gotham Hotel. As was the case for most Americans who remember the start of World War II, Webb never forgot where he was when he heard the news. He said, “Like millions of others on December 7, 1941, we were sitting in my studio listening to the symphony when the news was flashed of Pearl Harbor. Naturally, we were all quite stunned. The following Friday a committee met in the American Theatre Wing. In the basement of...

  16. CHAPTER 10 More Movies, More Parties, and Garbo
    (pp. 157-183)

    Apparently, Webb had an option with Twentieth Century Fox that depended on the outcome ofLaura. Obviously, they liked what they saw. However, Webb’s initial contract with Fox was for only one picture,Laura, at $4,000 a week. Webb said, “The studio had taken up my option and I was to come out to doThe Razor’s Edge.” The studio had not yet bought the rights to Somerset Maugham’s novel, but it didn’t take a genius to see that Webb was the perfect choice for the role of Elliott Templeton. Maugham was an old friend of Webb’s, and both Webb...

  17. CHAPTER 11 A Top Box-Office Draw
    (pp. 184-205)

    Clifton Webb knew that someday Darryl Zanuck would bring a script to him that would require him to put his dancing shoes back on. He had made the mistake of exhibiting his dancing ability at a few parties. These impromptu exhibitions seemed to prove that “there was still life in the old legs.” In November 1946 Webb received a letter from Zanuck with a script for a musical he wanted Webb to do.

    “It was calledDancing in the Dark. Zanuck had purchased the music by Arthur Schwartz from the revueThe Bandwagon, in which Fred Astaire and his sister,...

  18. CHAPTER 12 Stars and Stripes Forever
    (pp. 206-222)

    As charming asDreamboatwas, it was not a blockbuster. Webb’s next two films were.Stars and Stripes ForeverandTitanicwere big box office hits. By this time Webb was a huge moneymaker for Fox. In his memoir, Robert Wagner spoke of Webb’s status: “At Fox, the elite circle was presided over by Clifton Webb. I worked with Clifton onStarsandStripes Forever, thenTitanic, and I was invited into his group. Clifton’s friends included people like Noel Coward, and Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder’s partner, who never got much credit from anyone, especially Billy. Charlie was a kind,...

  19. CHAPTER 13 Clifton and Mabelle, Together Forever
    (pp. 223-231)

    On October 17, 1960, Mabelle died of a heart attack at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. She was ninety-one. Needless to say, Webb was devastated. In his diary Noel Coward said: “Mabelle Webb died a couple of days ago. I had a cable from Clifton. Poor dear, I’m afraid he will feel dreadfully lonely without her. The late sixties is rather late to be orphaned [actually, Webb was seventy-one at this time]. I hope he will rise above it and not collapse into aimless melancholia.”

    Coward’s hope that Webb would not spend a lot of time grieving was not realized. He...

  20. Stage Appearances
    (pp. 232-235)
  21. Filmography
    (pp. 236-238)
  22. Bibliography
    (pp. 239-244)
  23. Index
    (pp. 245-257)