Rewatching Clifton Webb in his Belvedere film trilogy, I was struck by how he was being presented. Not as (just) an effete, middle-aged, brusque-tempered, old-maidish male aunt. But as a sex object. Meaning, a vehicle for…female lust.
Yes, wrap that around your medulla oblongata: Clifton Webb, Sex Star. Of all people. Stirring up the ladies’ hormones and leaving ‘em panting in the aisles. All the women characters in all the Belvedere films are very interested in him, clustering round like groupies battening off a rock star. In the first Belvedere film, Sitting Pretty, Robert Young actually walks out on wife Maureen O’Hara because he thinks she’s enamored of their children’s male caretaker. That’s right—he’s jealous of a babysitter.
On second thought, maybe it’s not so peculiar. Why not be jealous of a bachelor babysitter? Who’s also a whiz at tossing salads, bathing toddlers, training dogs, mending iceboxes, and cleaning house? Mr. Belvedere is the housewife’s dream. He can cook, clean, sew, wash dishes, shop for groceries, and discipline the kids. Robert Young may win the family bread, but Mr. Belvedere bakes it. In addition, he speaks 11 languages, discourses on art, expertly twirls a partner on the dance floor, writes books, composes music, plays piano, performs judo, slips out of handcuffs, and even pole-vaults. There is nothing he can’t do or hasn’t done, says this self-proclaimed genius, except to be an idler or a parasite, occupations he speaks of with chilled disdain, as if they were caterpillars to be plucked out of one of his salads. Such is the force of Belvedere’s character I could just see everyone in the audience by then nodding along in awed agreement.
Presumably the one thing Mr. Belvedere had not done nor could do was give birth (there are certain biological facts even Mr. Belvedere can’t overcome), but otherwise he’s a useful guy to have around. I wonder if that was part of Belvedere’s huge popularity in post-WW2 America. As women were returning from war work to home and hearth—with movies actively encouraging them to do so—along comes Mr. Belvedere, sailing in like a male Mary Poppins, putting everything in spit-spot order and taming the unruliest suburban spawn. Poor Maureen O’Hara, for example, can’t do a thing with her three horrible children, but Belvedere merely has to dump a bowl of oatmeal on one brat’s head, and the terrible trio falls into line, washing their grubby hands and excusing themselves from the dinner table with diplomatic aplomb. What harried housewife wouldn’t adore such a domestic wizard? Intelligent, efficient, orderly, and, though not sexy, at least—interesting. His very lack of a sexual nature attracts. It piques the curiosity. Belvedere is an anomaly, an odd duck, an outlier—the case of an Absence that Signifies.
I think it’s that ambiguous element in Webb himself that in great part accounted for Belvedere’s popularity. Tall, stern, aloof, with a waspish nature and a fastidious sense of dress, Webb seems indistinguishable from his film character. How much of Belvedere was canny acting from Webb, or how much did Webb wrap Belvedere round his own spare, elegant form like one of his tailored suits I can’t say, since I haven’t read the source novel that was the first film’s basis. I suspect the latter, though; because every role Clifton Webb performed on film became “Clifton Webb.” Always the same tetchy attitude, the same superior air verging on disdain, like some visiting god passing a gloved finger over the furniture and curling a lip at the smudge left thereon. Webb played variations on this persona throughout his film career—snobbish, snide, snooty, sneering (any other sn- expressions that apply?), composed of a perfection akin to the angels, with barely a pitying glance wasted on those who can’t appreciate his glory. Perhaps that’s accounts for his onscreen sexlessness; who on earth could attract such a faultlessly formed being?
And yet—post-Belvedere, Webb did become, on film, a sexual creature, garlanded with wives, girlfriends, even offspring, a development that may astonish fans. Film noir’s popularity today has lashed Webb to his earlier incarnation as Laura’s Waldo Lydecker, the haughty, acid-tongued, and impotently obsessed society columnist who, it’s clearly implied, tries to murder the title character because his own lack of manhood won’t allow him to possess her. We catch that implication with one Webbishly snide close-up of detective Dana Andrew’s face as he watches Lydecker rise from his bath. It’s just the tiniest smirk, like the beat of a hummingbird’s wing, but it’s there—its meaning winked at us, like a dirty joke, that Lydecker is not equipped, manhood-wise, where it matters. That smirk follows Lydecker throughout the film, it makes us complicit with Andrews’s unassuming yet potent masculinity, and it puts us on this working-class cop’s side. Lydecker may make the best wisecracks, but he’s a lightweight, an outsider, a trivial being. For all his cutting wit, he’s easily cut out.
Laura brought Webb national success and set his screen persona—remote and imperious, eyes frosting with scorn as he cuts opponents down with a condescending quip. Yet that image had a touch of undignified pathos, the effect of a perceived but unmentioned deficiency: he might be a high-falutin’ guy, but he just can’t get a girl. Webb’s next film, The Dark Corner, again cast him in Lydeckerish mode, down to the effete-sounding name—Hardy Cathcart—as a rich, supercilious art collector whose gorgeous and much younger wife finds his husbandly attentions…unsatisfactory. Cathcart, complains the lady, “gives me everything a man can give a woman…but still it isn’t enough.” Rather than “listening to his paintings crack with age,” she’s making out with a more-than-enough male friend whom Cathcart plots to kill. Webb then played yet another white-tied, social-butterfly type, cursed with the less-than-burly moniker of Elliott Templeton, in The Razor’s Edge. Though the film was a hit (and brought Webb his second Oscar nomination), Templeton could be considered a comedown. He’s even less virile than Lydecker or Cathcart, not aspiring to heterosexual romance but devoting himself to cadging invitations to the best parties; at film’s end he expires for want of a summons to a princess’s soiree—a butterfly broken upon the wispiest of wheels.
I suppose Webb could have continued playing effete villains or sponging socialites, becoming the noir version of Franklin Pangborn, mixing mince with menace. But his follow-up film to The Razor’s Edge did something else. Sitting Pretty (and its sequels, 1949’s Mr. Belvedere Goes to College and 1951’s Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell) not only elevated Webb to housewife-hero status, it made him a bona-fide star. Never again would he play murderous lightweights or frustrated party-seekers (a parasitical hobby Mr. Belvedere would have despised). He now played doers and thinkers, entrepreneurs and artists, leaders, teachers, spymasters, and, once, even an angel, a role that no doubt accorded with his own lordly self-view. He was hot box office, an above-the-title name, a Hollywood icon.
He was one thing more. He was sexy.
I’ll be damned if I can figure out how that happened. On first encounter, Mr. Belvedere is still part of the worldwide Webb gallery: dignified, distant, superior to the point of patronizing, in agreement with anyone who thinks highly of him. He’s even got the girly name, Lynn Belvedere; people assume he’s female until they meet him. And Belvedere persists in girly pursuits. He knits, does yoga, eats thinly sliced luten bread (toasted), and confabs with the ladies. He’s clearly, if understatedly, gay; it’s a matter of debate as to which character in the film is gayer, Belvedere or mother-ridden gossip hag Mr. Appleton, who likes to pollinate irises and who’s played by Richard Haydn at his most nasally effeminate. (Only Richard Haydn’s presence could have made Webb look butch by contrast.)
Maybe it was because Sitting Pretty was a straight (so to speak) suburban comedy, softening the caustic Webb effect while embedding him among the middle classes. Or maybe it was his upending a cereal bowl on a misbehaving tot’s head, an action I suspect spoke to many householders’ depths. But I would point to two other moments in the film that may have cemented Webb’s sex symbol status. One is when Robert Young walks into the kitchen and is greeted by a radiant O’Hara with a rib-crushing hug and a big wet smooch. The dame’s positively post-coital in her glow, though her warmth is due not to her husband but to Mr. Belevdere. “He’s wonderful, terrific,” she gushes, as though she’s just risen from a more-than-satisfactory roll in the hay. What has Mr. Belvedere done to earn such an encomium? Well, he’s fixed the fridge, mixed a combined salad, and gotten the kids and canine to behave. In one afternoon. And O’Hara is delirious in her bliss. Something’s been rolling here, and it seems Mr. Belvedere touched that sweet spot to start it going.
The other moment is Webb and O’Hara’s dance routine, a bit played for comedy but which I think made another impression, outside the film’s context. (The sequence is notable also because Webb, who began as ballroom dancer and had a long musical-comedy stage career, rarely danced on film.) The two obviously parody Astaire-Rogers, their eyes rolling upwards in mock ecstasy as they press cheek to cheek, but something more subtle is going on. It’s not that Webb does anything spectacular. It’s how he partners O’Hara, guiding her into the dance’s rhythm, dipping her down and then raising her, supporting her weight so that her body seems to flow into his. He treats her gently, with respect (note how gracefully he’ll step away and then incline towards her), but he doesn’t overshadow. It’s the essence of good partnering: the man makes the woman look beautiful. And everyone watching should sigh.
I bet the ladies watching did; I bet theaters resounded with a mass feminine exhalation. Webb did a remarkable thing here, no, several remarkable things. He embodied a collective fantasy, of a man can who first dispatch with domestic drudgery and then make you feel like a million bucks to music. And he fused Mr. Belvedere with himself, or at least with his onscreen persona, melding mask with man. Belvedere as magical efficiency expert is partly a scripted character, partly a product of Webb’s persuasive performance; but Belvedere on the dance floor is wholly Webb. That’s his body gliding to the rhythms of “Brazil”; those are his arms and hands that touch, guide, and clasp O’Hara. I think that’s when Hearthrob Webb was born. Any guy who can handle a woman in that sexy way really is superior; everything he says about himself is true. Onscreen Webb became the perfect man, possessing all a woman could desire. Or, as Belvedere himself put it, “You might even say—I have everything.”
After Sitting Pretty, Webb got sex, in spades. In his two Belvedere sequels, he’s an erotic cynosure, with co-eds ogling him and Joanne Dru pawing him; you couldn’t have beaten those gals off with whole buckets of wet cereal. The movies were such hits that, had Webb not lost interest, Fox planned to produce three more Belvedere films, no doubt with scores more adoring women lining up to grapple and gaze. Meanwhile, post-Belvedere, the pawing continued, with Joan Blondell in For Heaven’s Sake and Arlene Dahl in Woman’s World carrying out mauling duties, while Dorothy McGuire in Three Coins in the Fountain merely yearned (too demure to paw or ogle). All this touchy-feely stuff was reciprocated; indeed, Webb became practically randy. In Dreamboat he’s a college professor with a secret past as a silent-film matinee idol; in Woman’s World he’s a businessman with a not-so-secret past as a Lothario and a trophy-room wall of ladies’ portraits to prove it. Just so there’s no doubt.
And then there were the kids. Hordes of them, non-stop. Webb produced bevies of daughters in Elopement, Dreamboat, Titanic, and Holiday for Lovers, all of marriageable age and in need of paternal oversight. That was piffling, however, compared to the broods he spawned in Cheaper By the Dozen, as the improbable sire of 12 (count ‘em, 12) offspring, and The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker, as the bigamously inclined head of two families, with seventeen children between them. All his. Remarkable, indeed. Such fecund priapism was weirdly summed up by Dolores Gray in It’s Always Fair Weather, when she belts out a song about how her ideal man happens to be “Clifton Webb and Marlon Brando combined.” Go ahead, picture it: Stanley Kowalski and Waldo Lydecker—merged. It dislocates the mind. But there it is, stated in Technicolor and Cinemascope, with the delectable Gray, in scarlet glitter and plush, slamming it across with orgasmic relish. Like she means it.
Throughout this cinematic rake’s progress, however, Webb onscreen never changed. He remained haughty, disdainful, above it all. Nattily clad in tweeds, tuxes, and white and bow ties, he was a creature made of finer substance, beyond our common clay. And nowhere within that uncommon mould was there ever the slightest quiver of desire. Those panting ladies latching onto him like limpets on Spanish Fly were functions of the script; Webb in his films gave off no heat, he was as cold and smooth as a glass pillar. Like glass, you could see through him, but see nothing in him. His sex objectification seemed a matter of willed audience projection. It was a remarkable act of ambiguity Webb managed through the 1950s (and maybe only the 1950s could have sustained it). If he kept audiences guessing, though, he didn’t keep them away from the box office; he was a top star for most of the decade. He played on a knife edge but didn’t fall on it.
I wonder how much of Webb’s film persona really was Webb, and how much was consciously going along with a good thing. His movie career was basically one role: Clifton Webb, Lofty Being. Within its confines he could find nuances, slight strokes of varying shades, but he kept it essentially the same, until he and the act were so blended in the public mind it became self-referential. (Movies advertised Webb as “that Belvedere man,” and Dreamboat has the protagonist playing the Belvedere character within the movie.) As with his sexuality, Webb did a great Belvederean balancing act. You enjoy his arrogance and contempt, which he was clever enough not to take to the point of unpleasantness; he amuses but doesn’t annoy you with his patronizing demeanor. Instead, he gives pleasure. He’s like the taste of olives, sharp, with a tang, but subtle enough so that you always crave more.
Which, for a sexless old codger, was a more-than-satisfactory achievement.
Bonus Clip: Clifton Webb wows as he makes like Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks, and Ronald Colman in this compilation of his silent-film opi from Dreamboat. Ginger Rogers is the lady whose hands he can’t stop bussing: