Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Overlooked by Oscars: Dana Andrews

A biography of actor Dana Andrews comes out this September.  My birthday is in September.  If I got a copy of that book as a birthday present, I would be ever so grateful.  I've done previous blogs on actors who did years of solid work but were never blessed with an Oscar® nomination.  I'm adding Dana Andrews to that list.  Handsome, talented, overlooked by Oscars and under-appreciated -- that's how I feel about the actor who often entertained me when I was a kid and got home from school, the actor who reflected my broken heart years later in my adulthood.  He was a pro at playing the ordinary guy with extraordinary depth of emotions that he tried not to let others see.  But we saw it.
I grew up in Southern California, a child of the 1960s.  When I got home from school, there was local movie host Ben Hunter on KTTV/Channel 11 with his Movie Matinee and local CBS/Channel 2 had the Early Show movie leading into the local evening newscast.  There was the Million Dollar Movie on KHJ/Channel 9.  Classic movies aired frequently on local TV then.  Since Gene Kelly was a guy, I assumed that the man who played the detective in Laura was Gene Tierney.  My mother explained that Dana Andrews was the detective and Gene Tierney was the leading lady.  "See?  He's Dana Andrews," Mom pointed out one time when the 1944 murder mystery aired.  I loved Dana Andrews as the best friend to Danny Kaye's Up in Arms character.  It's a 1944 showcase for Danny Kaye's musical comedy talents, but Andrews doesn't get eclipsed by Kaye's fresh-from-Broadway star power.  He complements him as the best friend of hypochondriac Danny Weems, the lovable dork who gets drafted.  They're both fit enough for Uncle Sam.
Joe is a great friend, faithful and true.  Danny's in love with a sweet young lady who really has no romantic feelings for him.  He's her friend.  She does fall for his butch best buddy, Joe.  Notice how Andrews tries to conceal his mutual attraction to her so as not to jeopardize his friendship with Danny.  Friendship is as important to him as true love.  He protects his buddy in the barracks when he's bullied because of his hypochondria.  Dana Andrews was the best friend that everyone of us grade school bookworms wished he had.  Up in Arms was always fun after-school viewing.  The Ox-Bow Incident was the film that made me aware of Andrews' acting depth. We had to read the story in high school.  In the 1943 film adaptation directed by William Wellman, Henry Fonda stars in this western about lynch mob mentality and civil rights.  It's the dark side of the coin to Lumet's 1957 film starring Henry Fonda, 12 Angry Men.  Dana Andrews is the husband and father who is one of three men unjustly accused of a crime and lynched in The Ow-Bow Incident.  Like Joe in the Danny Kaye musical, he too is faithful and true.  Knowing that he'll soon be hung for a crime he didn't commit, he not only pleads his innocence but also passionately defends the other two men -- a Mexican and a feeble-minded old man.
Before his hanging, Donald Martin writes a letter to be delivered to his wife.  An older member of the mob, one who doesn't agree with the lynching, reads the letter.  He describes it as "...kind, understanding...beautiful."  We know, from Andrews' performance, that those qualities exist in Donald Martin.  We must feel that his untimely death is a tragedy and a sin.  Donald Martin is "the conscience of humanity," to quote words from his letter.  The letter is read aloud by Gil (Henry Fonda) at the end of the story.  If we don't feel those qualities about Donald Martin from the actor playing him, if we don't sense that he's a light about  to be brutally turned out, the whole film falls apart.  That letter will have no deep emotional impact now matter how brilliantly Henry Fonda reads it.  As Donald Martin, Dana Andrews is the heart of The Ow-Bow Incident.  In Laura, he's once again on the side of justice.  "I suspect nobody and everybody.  I'm merely trying to get at the truth," says tough New York detective Mark McPherson.  He is just too cool in this role.  The cop in control.  The guy who looked like he was born the wear a fedora.  Clifton Webb got an Oscar nomination for this classic.  Andrews should have too.
McPherson distinguished himself in a shoot-out newspapers called "The Siege of Babylon."  He took bullets to the leg yet still kept going in and captured a gangster.  Laura is a tale of obsession.  McPherson's inner conflict is that, the more he investigates the life of a beautiful career woman who was reported murdered in Manhattan, the more he seems to be falling in love with her.  He shows his vulnerability as he struggles with the irrationality of his feelings.  He feels like he's losing his self-control.  Is the detective becoming as obsessed with Laura as the killer was?
Andrews show us McPherson at odds with a truth about himself and McPherson in control.  Barry Fitzgerald was a double Oscar nominee for the same 1944 film performance.  He was nominated as Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor (winning over Clifton Webb) for playing the older curmudgeon Irish priest in Going My Way.  Academy nomination rules were  changed after that.  I'd have given Fitzgerald one nomination and made Dana Andrews a contender in a category for Otto Preminger's Laura.
As returning World War II veteran Fred Derry, Dana Andrews delivered one of the several memorable performances in the Oscar winner for Best Picure of 1946, William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives.  Academy Awards also went to Wyler for Best Director, veteran actor Fredric March for Best Actor and real-life disabled WWII veteran, Harold Russell, for Best Supporting Actor.  Andrews is in peak form here.
Like Joe in Up in Arms, Fred values friendship and is faithful to that friend who may be the object of bullying.  Like Donald in The Ow-Box Incident and Det. McPherson in Laura, he has a high regard for truth and justice.  March won his second Best Actor Oscar thanks to this film.  In it, he again plays a man who undergoes a change of personality when he drinks too much of something.  We see this in 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (his first Oscar), his Norman Maine in the original A Star Is Born, The Eagle and the Hawk and Merrily We Go to Hell.  Out of uniform and back in civilian life, relationships change.  We see conflict.  Al is blunt about the imperfections of others but blind to his obvious drinking problem.  America has changed now that the worst is over.  The war has ended.
Sergeant Al Stephenson returned to a nice home and a bank executive job.  Life is tougher for Fred.  He can't find work, his short and loveless marriage is on the brink of collapse and he's met someone very dear.  Her protective dad doesn't approve.  Her name is Peggy,  Sleeping off some homecoming drinks, he's invited to spend the night at the home of Al Stephenson (Fredric March).  Fred Derry has a nightmare.  He cries out during the nightmare.  He's flying a fighter mission.  He's watching friends die in combat.  This is our most graphic introduction into the horrors the three returning veterans faced and endured in war.  The person who hears the nightmare and tenderly awakens Fred from it is Al's compassionate daughter, Peggy (beautifully played by Teresa Wright).
In this moment, Peggy has gotten to know Fred Derry better than his own wife does.  She'll come to care for him more than his wife does.  It's a gripping and touching scene.  As March did in The Eagle and the Hawk, Andrews excels in a scene where the horrors of war give one a nightmare with his eyes wide open.  I can't take my eyes off this scene.  Then there's the bomber plane graveyard scene.  A signature of William Wyler films is a sequence that has little or no dialogue yet is one of the most important sections of the film.  It sets a tone and/or reveals an element of character.  Think of the opening of The Letter with Bette Davis as the privileged married Englishwoman pumping six bullets point blank into her lover, Davis' Olympus Ball dance in Jezebel, her stillness as the greedy Southern wife whose husband crawls upstairs as he suffers a heart attack in The Little Foxes, the chariot race in Ben-Hur and the open of Funny Girl as Fanny Brice walks from the street into a Broadway theatre and then faces herself in a backstage mirror.  This too is a key scene without dialogue.  Dana Andrews understands Derry's heavy emotional weight here.  He carries it expertly.  As a viewer, I understood his feelings in that field of used goods.  Man and out-of-service flying machines were one.
In the mid-90's, I lost my partner to AIDS.  Just like so many men in World War II, he died young.  About a year after his funeral, a friend remarked to me that I'd probably have a deep connection seeing the Tom Hanks movie, Philadelphia.  It's a good film but it doesn't crystalize my feelings that way Dana Andrews' performance in The Best of Our Lives does.  Not that I ever served our country in uniform the way Fred Derry did, mind you.  But I did feel like I was serving on one side of a cultural war in America at the height of the AIDS crisis.  In being caregiver to my partner and helping others also stricken, I felt like I was doing what was just and true.  It wasn't about sex.  I was caring for someone, keeping someone from being bullied, making sure he got fair treatment.  I was important to him.  I felt vital.  I had a mission.  After he died and, thanks to new medications, the AIDS crisis slowly disappeared from the headlines, I felt like Fred Derry did in that bomber graveyard.  I helped fight someone's battle but now I was alone and there didn't seem to be any use for me in the community anymore.  The worst was over and my services were no longer needed.  Folks had moved on to new business.  When the displaced veteran sits in the nose of one plane, you feel the horrors of battle filtering through his memory again.  That catches and breaks my heart.  Dana Andrews is brilliant in this classic film.
If the under-appreciated Dana Andrews had been an Oscar nominee for just one performance in his film career, it should have been for The Best Years of Our Lives.  He's as powerful, as memorable as Fredric March was.  To me, even more so.  It's my favorite Dana Andrews film performance.  With all the humiliation and heartbreak this war hero from the wrong side of the tracks experiences when he comes home, Fred never feels sorry for himself.  He never hates life.  He remains loyal and present to his friends.  When he stands up for  the disabled Homer at his wedding, we are not surprised.  That's what Fred would do.  He want some happiness for Fred.  When he, free of his floozie wife, turns and gazes at Peggy as the marriage vows are read, I get tears in my eyes.  We know Fred will survive another battle -- and he won't be alone when he does.
What a good actor Dana Andrews was.  So versatile in musical comedies, westerns, film noir, dramas, thrillers, love stories and sci-fi movies.  I've grown up with his work.  It has entertained me.  It has enlightened me.  It has touched my heart.  It has reflected my heart.  Hard to believe he was never nominated for an Academy Award.

ClassicMovieMan.blogspot.com is sponsoring a Dana Andrews Blogathon ...
...and I'm honored to have been asked to contribute to it.







12 comments:

  1. Wow. Wonderful post, Bobby. A keeper!

    Aurora

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    1. You are just too cool. Thanks for reading it.

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  2. A marvelous reprise of Dana's career. I like the way you highlight the variety in his roles since some critics quite wrongly calls his style "wooden." What?! Just look at Daisy Kenyon, State Fair, and Up in Arms to see what a wonderful leading man he was. And he is a real heart breaker in My Foolish Heart. The Susan Hayward character never gets over him.

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    1. Thank you so very, very much. That means a lot coming from you. Can't wait to read your book on the life and career of Dana Andrews. His acting was far from "wooden," as we both agree.

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  3. Ditto Carl's comments, Bobby. As usual, a marvelous piece of writing. So glad you took part and so glad we hooked up on Twitter. This couldn't have happened without the new social media. Amazing!

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  4. Thank you all for taking time to read my piece and leave comments. I appreciate that so very much.

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  5. read somewhere how Dana would get fan mail to "miss" Andrews. wonder now after reading your initial confusion about "Gene" if Tierney got some mail for a "mr"? Enjoyed reading: when you put Andrews' career in a post like this, where you hit all the big roles and focus on those scenes and what he brought (ie.a whole heckuva LOT) to each of these movies, instead of talking about just one...and then tying a sentiment he conveyed to its value to you regarding a personal battle, memory and inspiration, it really proves how powerful his acting was, and how neglected he has been by the award-givers, but not by his fans. I've followed you for a long time on twitter on a list, but saw this week I wasn't actually "following" you though! Really, you should have said something! :) So I well know you are a big classic movie fan with tons of knowledge, and shouldn't be surprised this is such a nice post. Thanks & best

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  6. Thank you. I love that you took time to comment.

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  7. A powerful and moving post. I can understand how you could relate to Fred Derry's story, and that is truly the magic of a well-made film, that we can identify with a character or situation that is otherwise removed from us. "Best Years" is one of my favorite films, and what amazes me most is that though I've seen it numerous times, it remains fresh and emotionally stirring. Thanks for a great post.

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  8. I totally agree. I too have seen Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES numerous times. It never fails to feel fresh and relevant. I'd submit Wilma helping disabled Homer get ready for bed as one of the greatest, most touching love scenes in a classic Hollywood film. Wow. I can't hold back the tears during that one.

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  9. A truly under-appreciated actor. One of my favorites of the era.

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