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for the New Zealand politician see Thomas Clifton Webb
Clifton Webb

from the trailer for the film Laura (1945).
Born Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck
November 11, 1889(1889-11-11)
Beech Grove, Indiana, U.S.
Died October 13, 1966 (aged 76)
Beverly Hills, California, U.S.
Years active 1917–1962

Clifton Webb (November 19, 1889 – October 13, 1966) was an American actor, dancer and singer.

Contents

Early life

Webb was born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck in a rural part of Marion County, Indiana, which would, in 1906, become Beech Grove, a self-governing city entirely surrounded by Indianapolis. As a result, virtually all printed sources give the larger city as his place of birth. Webb's parents were Jacob Grant Hollenbeck (1867–May 2, 1939), the son of a grocer from a multi-generational Indiana farming family, and Mabelle A. Parmelee (most sources give "Parmalee" or "Parmallee") (March 24, 1869–October 17, 1960), the daughter of a railroad conductor.

In 1892, Webb's formidable mother, Mabelle, moved to New York City with her beloved "little Webb", as she called him for the remainder of her life. She dismissed questions about her husband Jacob, a ticket clerk who, like her father, worked for the Indianapolis-St. Louis Railroad, by saying, "We never speak of him. He didn't care for the theatre."

Privately tutored, Webb started taking dance and acting lessons at the age of five. He made his stage debut at seven in the impressive setting of Carnegie Hall by performing with the New York Children's Theatre in Palmer Cox's The Brownies. This success was followed by a vaudeville tour playing The Master of Charlton Hall, succeeded by leading roles as Oliver Twist and Tom Sawyer in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In between performances, Mabelle saw to it that he studied painting with the renowned Robert Henri and voice with the equally famous Victor Maurel. By his seventeenth birthday, he was singing one of the secondary leads in the Boston-based Aborn Opera Company's production of the operetta Mignon.

Career

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Broadway

By the age of nineteen, Webb had become a professional ballroom dancer and, taking the stage name "Clifton Webb", sang and danced in about two dozen operettas before debuting on Broadway as Bosco in The Purple Road, which opened at the Liberty Theater on April 7, 1913, and ran for 136 performances before closing in August. His mother (billed as Mabel Parmalee) was also listed in the program as a member of the opening night cast. His next musical was an Al Jolson vehicle, Sigmund Romberg's Dancing Around. It opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on October 10, 1914, and had 145 performances, closing in February, 1915. Later that year, Webb was in the all-star revue Ned Wayburn's Town Topics, which boasted 117 famous performers, including Will Rogers, listed in the Century Theatre opening night program of September 23, 1915. It closed 68 performances later on November 20, 1915. In 1916, he had another short run with Cole Porter's comic opera See America First, which opened at the Maxine Elliott Theatre on March 28, 1916, and closed after 15 performances on April 8, 1916. The World War I year of 1917 proved to be better, with a 233-performance run of Jerome Kern's Love o'Mike, which opened at the Shubert Theatre on January 15, 1917. After moving to Maxine Elliott's Theatre and Casino Theatre, it closed on September 29, 1917. Future Mama star Peggy Wood was also in the cast. Webb's final show of the 1910s, the musical Listen Lester, had the longest run, 272 performances. It opened at the Knickerbocker Theatre December 23, 1918, and closed in August 1919.

Clifton Webb, 1923

The 1920s saw Clifton Webb in no less than eight Broadway shows, numerous other stage appearances, including vaudeville, and a handful of silent films. The revue As You Were, with additional songs by Cole Porter, opened at the Central Theatre on January 29, 1920, and closed 143 performances later on May 29, 1920. Busy with films, tours and vaudeville, he did not return to Broadway until 1923, with the musical Jack and Jill (Globe Theatre) which had 92 performances between March 22, 1923, and June 9, 1923, and Lynn Starling's comic play Meet the Wife which opened on November 26, 1923, and ran into the summer of 1924, closing in August. The play's juvenile lead was 24-year old Humphrey Bogart.

In 1925, Webb appeared on stage in a dance act with vaudeville star and silent film actress Mary Hay. Later that year, when she and her husband, Tol'able David star Richard Barthelmess, decided to produce and star in their own film vehicle New Toys, they chose Webb to be second lead. The movie proved to be financially successful, but 19 more years would pass before Webb appeared in another feature film.

Webb's mainstay was the Broadway theatre. Between 1913 and 1947, the tall and slender performer who sang in a clear, gentle tenor, appeared in 23 Broadway shows, starting with major supporting roles and quickly progressing to leads. He introduced Irving Berlin's "Easter Parade" and George and Ira Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You" in Treasure Girl (1928); Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz's "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" in The Little Show (1929) and "Louisiana Hayride" in Flying Colors (1932); and Irving Berlin's "Not for All the Rice in China" in As Thousands Cheer (1933). One of his stage sketches, performed with co-star Fred Allen, was filmed by Vitaphone as a short subject titled The Still Alarm. (Allen's experiences while working with Clifton Webb appear in Allen's memoirs.)

Most of Webb's Broadway shows were musicals, but he also starred in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, and his longtime friend Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter, in parts that Coward wrote with Webb in mind.

Hollywood

Webb was in his mid-fifties when actor/director Otto Preminger chose him over the objections of 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck to play the classy, but evil, radio columnist Waldo Lydecker, who is obsessed with Gene Tierney's character in the 1944 film noir Laura. His performance was showered with acclaim and made him an unlikely movie star. Despite Zanuck's original objection, Webb was immediately signed to a long-term contract with Fox. Two years later he was reunited with Tierney in another highly praised role as the elitist Elliott Templeton in The Razor's Edge (1946). He received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for both.

Webb received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1949 for Sitting Pretty, the first in a three-film series of comedic "Mr. Belvedere" features with Webb portraying the snide and omniscient central character.

In the 1950 film Cheaper by the Dozen, Webb and Myrna Loy played Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, real-life efficiency experts of the 1910s and 1920s, and the parents of 12 children. The film's success led to a sequel, Belles on Their Toes, without Webb.

Webb's subsequent movie roles include that of college professor Thornton Sayre, who in his younger days was known as silent film idol Bruce "Dreamboat" Blair. Now a distinguished academic who wants no part of his past fame, he sets out to stop the showing of his old films on television in 1952's Dreamboat (which concludes with Webb's alter ego Sayre watching himself star in Sitting Pretty. Also in 1952 he starred in the Technicolor movie biography of bandmaster John Philip Sousa, Stars and Stripes Forever. In 1953, he had his most dramatic role as the doomed husband of unfaithful Barbara Stanwyck in Titanic and in 1954 played the (fictional) novelist John Frederick Shadwell in Three Coins in the Fountain. In 1957's Boy on a Dolphin, second-billed to Alan Ladd, with third-billed Sophia Loren, he portrayed a wealthy sophisticate who enjoyed collecting illegally obtained Greek antiquities. In a nod to his own identity, the character's name was "Victor Parmalee".

Webb's elegant taste kept him on Hollywood's best-dressed lists for decades. Even though he exhibited comically foppish mannerisms in portraying Mr. Belvedere and other movie characters, his scrupulous private life kept him free of scandal. The character of Lynn Belvedere is said to have been very close to his real life—he had an almost Oedipal-like extreme devotion to his mother Mabelle, who was his companion and who lived with him until her death at age ninety-one.

When Webb's mourning for his mother continued for a year with no signs of letting up, Noël Coward remarked of Webb, "It must be terrible to be orphaned at 71."[1]

But the twilight had arrived for Webb's life and career. Inconsolable in his grief, he completed a final role as an initially sarcastic, but ultimately self-sacrificing Catholic priest in Leo McCarey's Satan Never Sleeps. The film, which was set in China, showed the victory of Mao Tse-tung's armies in the Chinese civil war, which ended with his ascension to power in 1949, but was actually filmed in England during the summer of 1961, using sets from the 1958 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, which had the same milieu.

Death

Webb spent the remaining five years of his life as an ill recluse at his home in Beverly Hills, California, succumbing to a heart attack at the age of 76. He is interred in crypt 2350, corridor G-6, Abbey of the Psalms in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Clifton Webb has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6840 Hollywood Boulevard.

Filmography

Year Title Role Notes
1917 National Red Cross Pageant Dancer, The Pavane - French episode
1920 Polly with a Past Harry Richardson Uncredited
1924 Let Not Man Put Asunder Major Bertie Uncredited
1925 New Toys Tom Lawrence
The Heart of a Siren Maxim Alternative title: The Heart of a Temptress
1930 The Still Alarm
1944 Laura Waldo Lydecker
1946 The Dark Corner Hardy Cathcart
The Razor's Edge Elliott Templeton
1948 Sitting Pretty Lynn Belvedere
1949 Mr. Belvedere Goes to College Lynn Belvedere
1950 Cheaper by the Dozen Frank Bunker Gilbreth
For Heaven's Sake Charles/Slim Charles
1951 Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell Lynn Belvedere Alternative title: Mr. Belvedere Blows His Whistle
Elopement Howard Osborne
1952 Belles on Their Toes Frank Bunker Gilbreth Uncredited
Dreamboat Thornton Sayre/Dreamboat/Bruce Blair
Stars and Stripes Forever John Philip Sousa Alternative title: Marching Along
1953 Titanic Richard Ward Sturges
Mister Scoutmaster Robert Jordan
1954 Three Coins in the Fountain John Frederick Shadwell
Woman's World Ernest Gifford Alternative title: A Woman's World
1956 The Man Who Never Was Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu
1957 Boy on a Dolphin Victor Parmalee
1959 The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker Mr. Horace Pennypacker
Holiday for Lovers Robert Dean
1962 Satan Never Sleeps Father Bovard Alternative titles: The Devil Never Sleeps
Flight from Terror

Awards and nominations

Year Award Result Category Film
1945 Academy Award Nominated Best Supporting Actor Laura
1947 The Razor's Edge
1949 Best Actor in a Leading Role Sitting Pretty
1947 Golden Globe Award Won Best Supporting Actor The Razor's Edge
1953 Nominated Best Motion Picture Actor - Musical/Comedy Stars and Stripes Forever

References

  1. ^ Conner, Floyd (2002). Hollywood's Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Lucky Breaks, Prima Donnas, Box Office Bombs, and Other Oddities. Brassey's. pp. 107. ISBN 1-574-88480-8. 

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