About Clifton Webb
WEBB, CLIFTON (Nov. 19, 1893-Oct. 13, 1966),
American singer, dancer, and actor, was born Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck in Indianapolis, Ind. In 1896 his family moved to New York City, and there, when he was seven, "Young Webb," as his mother liked to call him, accompanied a neighbor girl to dancing school. By chance, Malcolm Douglas of the Children's Theatre visited the school that day looking for a boy to play a role in one of his productions. He asked Webb if he would like to do some acting. Webb's mother had aspired to be an actress in her youth, and she readily gave her approval. She would become the most famous stage mother of her time, transferring her own theatrical ambitions to her young son. Webb's father apparently was not enthusiastic about the decision, and the parents soon separated. (Webb's mother once said of her husband, "We never speak of him, he didn't care for the theatre.")
Webb made his formal theatrical debut in 1900 at the Carnegie Hall Theatre in The Brownies. He next played the title role in a dramatization of Oliver Twist. The Master of Carlton Hall, in which he played a little southern boy, followed. After appearing in several more children's plays, Webb retired from acting for a while and resumed his education. An extremely bright student, he was able to graduate from grammar school in New York at the age of thirteen. He then studied painting with Robert Henri and singing with Victor Maurel. He gave his first one-man art show at the age of fourteen. He also soon acquired a love of opera and learned some fifteen operatic roles in French and Italian. This led to a contract with Boston's Aborn Opera Company in 1911, and he appeared in their production of Mignon when he was but seventeen. He later appeared in La boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Hansel and Gretel. In 1913 he played in a musical comedy entitled The Purple Road at the Liberty Theater in New York.
A dance craze was sweeping the country at this time, and Webb teamed up with Bonnie Glass and, later, Mae Murray as his dancing partner. Within a short time, the slender six-footer with the slightly upturned nose became one of the most popular ballroom dancers in New York City. In addition, Webb conducted private dancing classes, with his mother serving as secretary and manager of the Webb Dance Studio. He appeared in another musical comedy, Love o' Mike, in 19l7. This was followed by Listen, Lester (1918) and As You Were (1926). In 1921 the noted English producer Charles B. Cochran invited him to London. Webb spent two seasons in that city as well as one in Paris. He achieved great success in both places.
He then returned to the United States and appeared in the musical comedy Jack and Jill (1923). However, Webb yearned to play some straight roles and resented being known only as a hoofer. He decided to put away his dancing shoes forever. Working toward that goal, he appeared in a straight comedy, Meet the Wife (1923), and received excellent reviews. He worked in films during these years, too. He was a dapper costar of such films as Polly with a Past (1920), New Toys (1925), and The Heart of a Siren (1925). But Webb could not lay his dancing shoes aside for very long, and he had them on again when he appeared on the stage in Sunny (1925), which had a then fabulously successful run of ninety-two weeks. His nimble footwork was a highlight of other productions, including She's My Baby (1928), Treasure Girl (1928), the first Little Show (1929), Three's a Crowd (1930), Flying Colors (1932), and As Thousands Cheer (1933).
There followed an interlude in Hollywood when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put Webb on a salary of $3,000 a week. While socially it turned out to be a pleasant experience, professionally it was a disaster. For eighteen months, he swam, attended gala parties, met all the important people, but never once appeared in a motion picture. He referred to Hollywood as "a land of endowed vacations." Webb was able to get his five-year contract terminated, and returned again to New York. In 1936 he appeared in the Theatre Guild's production of And Stars Remain. Webb also played in a revival of Oscar Wilde's comedy The Importance of Being Earnest (1939) and in the summer of 1939 worked in a stock revival of Burlesque. For the next year and a half he went on tour as Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner. In 1942 he played the lead in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit.
While Webb was touring the country in Blithe Spirit, he received his second call to Hollywood. Otto Preminger at Twentieth Century-Fox wanted the actor to portray the caustic and arrogant columnist Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944). His performance was a tour de force in nastiness, and it earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor and a long run as a Fox star. His acerbic character in Laura set the pattern for many subsequent roles. In his films, Webb epitomized the sophisticated, cosmopolitan, pompous, know-it-all type, with old-maid ways and an acid tongue. For instance, in The Dark Corner (1946) he played an uncle who secretly yearned to do away with his nephew. In The Razor's Edge (1946) he played Elliott Templeton, the archsnob and social tyrant, and earned another Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. He played these roles so superbly that he faced the danger of being stereotyped.
A much-needed change of pace came in 1948 when he portrayed a haughty gentleman-genius named Lynn Belvedere, who becomes a rather atypical nurse and baby-sitter to a brood of noisy children in Sitting Pretty. The film gained him excellent reviews and an Oscar nomination for best actor. He reprised this role in Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951) and again was well received by the public and reviewers. He gave outstanding performances as Papa Gilbreth in Cheaper by the Dozen (1950) and an angel returned to earth in For Heaven's Sake (1950). In these pictures, his skill at nastiness was well mixed with sentimental comedy, and the public loved it. In 1950 he was selected by American motion-picture exhibitors as one of the year's top ten money-making stars.
Webb greatly enjoyed all this fame and fortune, which came to him in middle age. He was a bachelor and lived in Beverly Hills with his mother. Webb's taste in clothes, as well as his command of the social graces, was impeccable. He was a very sociable man and loved to entertain and go to parties. As in his Broadway years, his mother, Maybelle, was his constant companion, and they were one of the most popular "couples" in the Hollywood social set.
In the years after 1950, Webb also appeared in Elopement (1951), Dreamboat (1952), Stars and Stripes Forever (as John Philip Sousa; 1952), Titanic (1953), Mister Scoutmaster (1953), Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Woman's World (1954), The Man Who Never Was (1956), Boy on a Dolphin (1957), The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1959), Holiday for Lovers (1959), and Satan Never Sleeps (1962). Except for Dreamboat, Titanic, and Mister Scoutmaster, these films were of generally mediocre quality, and Webb's acting was not much praised by the critics. Part of the reason for so many unfavorable reviews was that he had become the exclusive property of Fox. Because he was gold at the box office, the studio put him in as many pictures as possible, but unfortunately, it had a dearth of distinguished writers and directors. Many of its pictures during this period emphasized Technicolor, Cinemascope, and spectacular location scenery over plot, dialogue, and character development. Part of the problem, too, was that Webb tended to play the familiar waspish character over and over. It worked well in several pictures, but was not well received in a number of others. He retired after Satan Never Sleeps and had serious health problems during the next several years. Webb died in Beverly Hills.
He was buried at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, California. It is claimed that Clifton Webb, however, seems to have made the cemetery his permanent home. Webb's restless spirit has been seen lurking in the foyer of the Abbey of Palms Mausoleum. Webb might prove to be an indecisive spirit, as his ghost has also been reportedly seen at his former Hollywood Hills home.