Our third foray into Yuletides past, Hollywood-style, takes us back to the early ’30s when a twenty-something girl from Brooklyn had recently begun climbing the Hollywood tree. That’s Claire Trevor (1909-2000) brandishing a mischievous grin and what appears to be a plushly upholstered heart–all while showing the expected bit of leg. This sort of still was de rigueur for the studio period, especially when a young contract player was an unknown quantity. It’s a good thing that the actress kept her own appraisal of her assets to herself back then. “The only thing I knew how to do was act,” Trevor later said bluntly, “and at that point, I didn’t even know much about that.”
At the time, Claire Wemlinger, aka Claire Trevor, needed the work. During the Depression, her father’s Fifth Avenue clothing store went under, and a regular paycheck was most appealing, even though her proper family was somewhat taken aback by her decision to pursue the stage and screen. After training at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, the neophyte actress appeared in some Broadway plays, earning some critical praise, catching the eye of Fox Studios, but learning that a brief run in a few plays rarely paid the rent for long.
Eventually the beautiful, possibly talented girl with satin and smoke in her voice evolved into a clear-eyed realist. An ability to project haughtiness and toughness as well as a gift for versatility enabled Trevor to build a film career that spanned six decades. ”I always thought of the movies as a temporary arrangement,” she reflected in the late ’40s. “I had always thought of myself as a stage actress. But I had a few flings at the stage and I decided I like pictures better.” During five years at 20th Century Fox, studio head Darryl Zanuck seemed unenthusiastic about her potential, only loaning her out for some decent parts while relegating Claire to a flurry of programmers at her home studio. On the up-side of this situation, the actress did have a chance to play opposite and learn from a vast number of actors, including Spencer Tracy, from whom she said she “stole” his naturalistic way of “throwing away a line” after appearing with him in The Mad Game (1933) and Dante’s Inferno (1935).
The majority of pictures were most often flicks that “nobody knows about,” according to the actress. “I don’t even know how many pictures I made. It must have been 150! I played every kind of girl you could name: newspaper reporter, nurse, a Navy wife.” [For the record, IMDb credits Claire Trevor with 87 acting appearances in movies and on television]. In her own succinct take on this early phase of her career: ”I either played the dashing girl reporter who cleaned up the town or the leader of a pack of gangsters.” After that experience, she became one of those rare screen actors in the studio era who generally kept her independence, playing occasional leads but more often nailing juicy supporting parts in a seamlessly skilled manner.
This shift came after she “played fallen women in Dead End (1937) and Stagecoach (1939). That did it,” Trevor claimed in an interview in the 1980s. Working with fine directors such as William Wyler and John Ford and being part of a skilled ensemble cast, Claire Trevor had discovered that she could “get more dimension into the role when you’re not playing the lead. The censors don’t care so much about character parts, but they’re strict about the hero and heroine.”
These roles enabled her to move to a higher branch on the path to success in the film colony, bringing her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her brief, searing moments as a diseased prostitute, “Francey,” on screen in Dead End. [Trevor would be nominated twice more, for Key Largo (1948) and The High and the Mighty (1954). She won an Oscar for her turn as the painfully anguished alcoholic in Key Largo].
Despite this insight into this aspect of a career, the status of “featured actress” was not always entirely comfortable for her. While she never brooded openly about “the parts that got away,” Claire acknowledged that she lost out many parts to more high profile actresses, particularly Barbara Stanwyck, whose roles in Double Indemnity (1944) and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) were both ones thatTrevor ached to play.
Trevor felt particularly awkward in a supporting role at MGM in 1941, when she appeared in Honky Tonk opposite Clark Gable. “I was his old girl,” Claire explained, ” then Lana [Turner] came along and that was the end of me. I remember I went to the preview and I started to cry. Lana and I looked a lot alike then, and they made me put brown powder in my hair so I wouldn’t be as blonde as she. I thought my hair looked awful, and I thought that was the end of my career. I really felt stepped on in that.” Seeing the film on television years later, the veteran actress then wondered why she had been bothered since she found her role considerably more interesting than the leading lady’s innocent role.
Perhaps that gradual realization on her part is one reason why the actress was increasingly drawn to steely characters whose beauty and sharp-eyed perceptions seemed to make them ideal for her noir-tinged gifts. Murder, My Sweet (1944), Born to Kill (1947), and Raw Deal (1948) gave her a chance to play women coping with power, sex, money, and men in frank ways that suggested a ferocious id and a lively if amoral mind in one well-dressed package. These unapologetic women she portrayed never seemed particularly hemmed in by Production Code strictures either. As her character in Murder, My Sweet sighed wearily when grilled by someone with the hubris to think he could truly understand her POV, “It’s a long story, and not very pretty.”
As she matured, Trevor created a series of characters who blended poignancy with a self-revelation that was without vanity. She was particularly adept at portraying vividly individuals whose bitter sense of life’s injustices ran just beneath the surface–until events caused emotions to boil over. In the melodramatic tale of the theater, The Velvet Touch (1948), Trevor played a rival/victim of Rosalind Russell’s narcissistic leading lady in a nuanced manner. Creating a believable woman hopelessly in love with a man that Russell has dallied with in the past, Claire reveals her character’s vulnerability and strength in a series of confrontations with the star (and steals every scene in my book). Another complex portrayal enlivened by Trevor’s talent was the lonely, bitter wife of a farmer she played in William Wellman’s My Man and I (1952). Fancying herself attracted to a hired migrant laborer played by Ricardo Montalban, the actress could have drawn a caricature of lust and frustration with a few broad strokes. Instead, Trevor’s loneliness, racism, self-loathing and caustic manner jockey uneasily to create something readily true-to-life.
Despite her memorable way with these dark dames, the roles that first garnered this movie lover’s attention were more conventional, yet forceful women. Claire Trevor’s mothers, are really unusual for the period: in Ida Lupino’s Hard, Fast, and Beautiful (1951) she is antsy with roiling ambition for her daughter, a tennis star played by Sally Forrest. In Marjorie Morningstar (1958), the actress’s ‘Rose Morgenstern’ at first seems to be a nagging, interfering Jewish mother, fretting endlessly over her daughter’s choices in life. Gradually, the fear and love the mother feels for her daughter emerges. At a dinner with the girl and her glamorous ne’er do well, Noel Airman (Gene Kelly), Mrs. Morgenstern’s sometimes blunt ambition and protectiveness of her daughter clearly comes out of a lifetime of concern and past experience.
The way that Trevor plays this scene, it becomes clear that this controlling woman has seen the world’s harshness, absorbing some of it into her own personality and made even more astringent because on some level, ‘Rose Morgenstern’ knows that it will not deter her daughter for even a moment. Perhaps the honesty of these portrayals came out of her own experiences. Married twice for a few years before settling down happily with real estate man and producer Milton H. Bren from 1948 until his death in 1979, the actress, who was the mother of one boy and stepmother of two boys, learned that life didn’t begin or end on a movie set. ”I have always been careless about my career,” she later claimed. “I never worked hard with the publicity department which, I realized later, I should have. I loved working, loved that part of it. All the other thing, I sort of let slide.”
In his memoirs, her friend, actor Robert Wagner recalled fondly how Claire Trevor helped him learn to live outside of the Hollywood bubble. At one time, he believed that if “I lost a gig it was the end of the world.” After getting to know people like Trevor and her husband, he realized that “I could always stand in a river with a fishing rod or play golf. My life now is not show business; it was when I was young, but the deeper I got into it, the more time I spent with people like David Niven, Claire Trevor, and Sterling Hayden, the more I realized how important it is to have something else in your life, something that can fuel your acting.”
When Trevor died in 2000 at the age of ninety, she left several friends a gift of money in her will. Robert Wagner was one of those friends who received such a legacy, ”what she called ‘a hug and a kiss’ that she was unable to deliver in person. Since Claire was partially responsible for my appreciation of art,” Wagner wrote, “I used some of the money to buy two sculptures from nature: a bear, which I have in my bedroom, and a pair of owls. With what was left over, the next time I was in Paris I went to a caviar bar that she had introduced me to, ordered some fine caviar and a bottle of champagne, and drank a toast to a great, great lady.”
For the rest of us, who only knew her from her movies, Claire Trevor left a lifetime of highly entertaining, no-nonsense, portrayals laced with an honest intelligence and considerable insight into human behavior.
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