The Andrews Enigma
Welcome to 2017. The year just passed would likely not earn glowing reviews for its performance, and during his lifetime of sturdy and compelling characterizations, the quietly great Dana Andrews (1909-1992), born on New Year’s Day 108 years ago, likewise didn’t command much individualized attention himself over the years from critics (with the occasional exception of Laura, A Walk in the Sun or The Best Years of Our Lives). But maintaining a 45-year career as a reliable and occasionally surprising presence is a benchmark of pride in any field, and Andrews biographer Carl Rollyson nailed it in his 2012 study Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, marking his subject as “a master of the minimalist style” who embodied on screen the “masculine ideal of steely impassivity.” So saluting to an actor who was a “master” and a “masculine ideal” on one hand, and “could suggest unease, shiftiness, and rancor barely concealed by good looks” on the other hand, according to cinema historian David Thomson, is as good a way as any to kick off the clean slate of a promising new year. Though he battled alcoholism for most of his life and never pursued or enjoyed the blandishments of movie stardom, the Pasadena Playhouse alumnus “forged ahead and maintained his dignity,” Andrews’ daughter Susan told Rollyson, serving as vice-president (1957-1963) and president (1963-1965) of the Screen Actors Guild while returning to the stage regularly in his later years, “scoring significant successes,” Rollyson recounts, “in Two for the Seesaw and The Glass Menagerie.” On screen, he worked with formidable directors who brought out his best work: Lewis Milestone, John Ford, William Wyler, Fritz Lang, William A. Wellman, Mervyn LeRoy, Elia Kazan and the master filmmakers behind his two projects on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray: Jean Renoir and Otto Preminger. Marking Renoir’s first American movie and one of Andrews’ early top-billed roles, Swamp Water (1941, available here: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/16941/SWAMP-WATER-1941/) takes Andrews, playing a young man who rebels from his authoritarian father (Walter Huston) and ventures out into Georgia’s Okefenokee swamps, back to his Southern roots. His voyage of self-discovery and wilderness survival brings him into contact with an unjustly accused fugitive from justice (Walter Brennan) and the man’s spirited daughter (Anne Baxter); the Georgia location shoot captures Andrews in hauntingly beautiful environs of primeval nature (shot by Peverell Marley and Lucien Ballard), and his character will be a key player in a mystical tale of retribution and family reconciliation. Nine years later, and with several great 1940s noir performances under his belt, Andrews would reteam for the fourth time with director Preminger and for the fifth time with scintillating leading lady Gene Tierney on the hard-hitting New York City police thriller Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), sharply scripted by the legendary Ben Hecht and, in the words of TCM.com essayist David Kalat, “a memorable film rife with angry energy” that channels the darker aspects of Andrews’ screen persona with acute precision. Andrews plays a hot-tempered NYPD detective with violent tendencies (the legacy of a criminal father triggers an intense passion for justice) who accidentally kills a murder suspect, and then tries to frame the crime on an oily, urbane underworld kingpin (Gary Merrill) even as he is romantically attracted to the victim’s widow (Tierney). The role is an ideal and revelatory fit for Andrews, and as Kalat concludes, “in such paradoxical misfits lies the film's power. The cop who becomes his own worst enemy, the honest detective whose thoughtfulness leads him to prosecute the wrong man, the gentle and unthreatening gangster, the wounded woman who remains paradoxically supportive of the many men in her life who spectacularly fail her. Where the Sidewalk Ends is a study in opposites, whose ambiguity is a strength.” In birthday honoree Andrews, a man who wrestled with personal demons and yet forged a career of honest and subtle screen work, there is no ambiguity about his place in the Hollywood pantheon. TT’s Swamp Water and Where the Sidewalk Ends are good places to start an exploration.