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Sitting Pretty

The Life and Times of Clifton Webb

Clifton Webb, David L. Smith, Robert Wagner

Publication Year: 2011

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 to a fertile father , 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.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. vii

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pp. ix

I made two pictures with Clifton Webb, Titanic and Stars 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 ...

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pp. xi-xii

When I started my research on Clifton Webb, I soon discovered that he had begun an autobiography. But where was it? It was mentioned in several sources, but no one quoted from it. Then one day I purchased a few Webb items from a collector. I asked him if he had more. He said he had Webb’s entire estate collection. I asked if he happened to have ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

This book is primarily a product of Clifton Webb’s marvelous unfinished autobiography. Webb wrote just as he spoke. As you read his words you can almost hear him speaking. Therefore, putting my words next to his was a daunting task. I am grateful to Helen Matthews, Webb’s secretary, for saving the Webb manuscript from oblivion. I am equally grateful to John and Betsy ...

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pp. xv-2

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 name Clifton Webb surfaces, many think only of his film career. Even then, many will think of him as a character actor, relegated ...

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Chapter 1. The Noses Have It

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pp. 1-18

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 ...

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Chapter 2. First Vision of a Name in Lights

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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 ...

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Chapter 3. Art and Opera

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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 ...

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Chapter 4. Making Progress and Moving Up

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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....

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Chapter 5. Dancing into Xanadu

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pp. 55-73

Several times during our run at the Casino, Valli Valli told me that I should take up modern dancing. Until The Purple Road closed, 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 ...

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Chapter 6. To Europe in Search of Adventure

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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” ...

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Chapter 7. In Love with Jeanne Eagels

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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 in All about Eve (1950): “Margo, as you know, I have lived in the theatre as a Trappist Monk lives in his ...

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Chapter 8. Great Plays, Then the Great War

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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 ...

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Chapter 9. The War Starts, Blithe Spirit Leads to Laura

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pp. 151-156

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 ...

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Chapter 10. More Movies, More Parties, and Garbo

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pp. 157-183

Apparently, Webb had an option with Twentieth Century Fox that depended on the outcome of Laura. 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 do The Razor’s Edge.” The studio had not yet bought ...

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Chapter 11. A Top Box-Office Draw

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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 ...

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Chapter 12. Stars and Stripes Forever

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pp. 206-222

As charming as Dreamboat was, it was not a blockbuster. Webb’s next two films were. Stars and Stripes Forever and Titanic were 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 on Stars and Stripes Forever, ...

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Chapter 13. Clifton and Mabelle, Together Forever

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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, ...

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Stage Appearances

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pp. 232

Present Laughter, Plymouth Theater, New York, Oct. 29, 1946–March 15, 1947, 158 performances; Garry Essendine. Blithe Spirits, Variety show put together by the cast of Blithe Spirit to entertain service personnel, circa 1942-1943. Blithe Spirit, Morosco Theater, New York, Sept. 6, 1943–Oct. 2, 1943, 32 performances; Charles Condomine. Blithe Spirit, Morosco and Booth Theaters, New York, Nov. 5, 1941–June 5, 1943, 657 performances; Charles Condomine...


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pp. 235-238


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pp. 239-244


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pp. 245-257

E-ISBN-13: 9781604739978
E-ISBN-10: 1604739975
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604739961
Print-ISBN-10: 1604739967

Page Count: 256
Publication Year: 2011