Born in Indianapolis, IN, 129 years ago today, Webb Parmelee Hollenback developed a flinty intelligence and an artistic sensibility throughout his early years and by age 19, under his new professional name of Clifton Webb (1889-1966), took to the ballroom dancing floor and musical comedy/operetta stage with flair and dedication. In the introduction to the 2011 Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb, author David L. Smith (who builds on six initial chapters of a work-in-progress autobiography that Webb penned and fleshes out the rest of the actor’s colorful life) writes: “Long before his film career began, Webb was a child actor and later a suavely effete song-and-dance man who introduced such songs as Easter Parade, How’s Chances?, I’ve Got a Crush on You, At Long Last Love, Alone Together and Something to Remember You By. None of these are identified with him today. He became so popular in Broadway musicals and revues that in 1933 critic Brooks Atkinson said, ‘It’s almost impossible to produce a smart revue without putting Clifton Webb in it somewhere.’” He actually played in a few several silent films in the 1920s, but when he emerged on the sound screen in 1944 with his unmistakably fluent voice accompanying his patrician manner, the adjectives suave, urbane, witty and acerbic – as well as the designation of Hollywood star – became attached to him forever. “His screen character represented Hollywood’s normal distrust of intelligence,” film historian David Shipman remarked in The Great Movie Stars: The International Years. “Webb, in the three films [Laura, The Dark Corner and The Razor’s Edge] he made before he became Mr. Belvedere [in Sitting Pretty], was like nothing so much as an animated ad from The New Yorker – sardonic, suave, dandyish, immensely pleased with himself, witty (at the expense of others), celibate and selfish.”
Stretching beyond that specialized niche (which, not inconsiderably, garnered him three Academy Award® nominations), he graduated to several roles in the Cinemascope 1950s that brought him more down to earth, vulnerable and flawed, and more consistently a treasured ensemble player, often making light of his self-satisfied self. Brought low in his later years by health infirmities, and crushed by the 1960 death of his mother Mabelle, to whom he had a life-long devotion, Webb gave a moving and uncharacteristically humble performance in what would be his final film, Satan Never Sleeps (1962), teaming with William Holden to play a pair of missionary priests in 1949 China under siege by Chinese Communist forces. In a return to the men-of the cloth domain that marked his popular Academy Award®-winning hits Going My Way (1944) and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1945), it would be the last movie of venerable director/producer/co-writer Leo McCarey. This venture was based on a novel by Pearl S. Buck, who had spent half her life in China and infused her work with her love of that culture and, later, with her heartache at the toll of cruelty and repression inflicted on its populace by the 1937 Sino-Japanese War and subsequent Chinese Communist Revolution led by Mao Zedong. McCarey and Buck were on the same page as staunch anti-Communists, and the screenplay by McCarey and Claude Binyon (who had a hand in writing the earlier Webb pictures, 1952’s Dreamboat and 1954’s Woman’s World) portrayed the story’s moments of scenic beauty and harsh brutality with equal force, crafted with a determination to inject elements of the power of Christian faith bringing out the better natures of flawed individuals in desperate circumstances. Webb told entertainment columnist Vernon Scott: “For the first time I will be seen in a picture without my customary elegance. It is indeed a far cry, but a challenge. The part was written especially for me. He is a caustic man of the cloth, but with a warm heart.”
Filmed by stellar cinematographer Oswald Morris in England and Wales (on Oriental mission sets earlier utilized for 1958’s The Inn of the Sixth Happiness) and powerfully scored by Richard Rodney Bennett, Satan Never Sleeps proved not to be an easygoing shoot, with McCarey and Holden often at odds over aspects of script and characterization, and McCarey under fire with censors because of a dramatically charged scene involving the rape (suggested/off-screen) of a young woman (France Nuyen) by a one-time Catholic convert-turned-Communist soldier (Weaver Lee). The ending was changed against the director’s wishes, and the picture’s critical and audience reception was adversely colored by memories of McCarey’s past “heartwarming” excellence, with the elder/junior priest relationship unfairly compared to the more lighthearted Barry Fitzgerald/Bing Crosby Going My Way duo, and the whiff of a forbidden priestly romance (involving William Holden’s Father O’Banion and Nuyen’s Siu Lan) evoking The Bells of St. Mary’s’ emotionally friendly bond between Crosby’s Father O’Malley and Ingrid Bergman’s Sister Mary. Reliably, Webb offered a magnificent mixture of crust and compassion as the ultimately self-sacrificing Father Bovard and escaped the overall negative reaction to the film; Shipman thought his work “rather moving, suggesting his range had never been exploited.” Offered in a brand-new 4K restoration transfer, Satan Never Sleeps offers a razor-sharp look at the cinematic swan song of both its revered maker and its prized older star/birthday honoree, wandering from their well-trod paths into territory well worth exploring December 18 on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open December 5.