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Journeywoman – Claire Trevor: The Life and Films of the Queen of Noir by Derek Sculthorpe

Dead End (1937)

Dead End (1937)

A Book Review by Tony Williams.

Yorkshire resident Derek Sculthorpe is an archivist who has also written plays, short stories, and articles as well as other books on Hollywood stars, such as Brian Donlevy and Van Heflin. This well-researched book reveals how important the contributions of independent critics are as various books published by Bear Manor Media and McFarland reveal. Modest in conception but breathtaking in archival research that also includes a citation from The Southern Illinoisan September 2, 1955, documenting the West Coast visit of a local resident who also saw Claire Trevor perform on stage, Sculthorpe’s Claire Trevor: The Life and Films of the Queen of Noir (McFarland, 2018) is another welcome contribution to a movement documenting the life and career of stars who might otherwise remain neglected. Comprising 190 pages including 18 chapters, epilogue, appearances in film, radio, state and television, chapter notes, bibliography and index, this is a valuable reference source documenting the actress’s long and varied career.

Noted for her roles in Dead End (1937), Murder My Sweet (1944), Deadlier than the Male/Born to Kill (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Key Largo (for which she won an Academy award as Best Actress in 1948), and Hoodlum Empire (1952), whose title more appropriately applies to Board of Trustees and university higher administrators today, the subtitle of this book appears justified in the light of the fact that these are the roles she is most remembered for today – including her appearance as Ma Barker in an episode of The Untouchables on October 22, 1959. Yet her range was diverse, and she had the potential for playing many roles on screen in the star category had she chosen to aim at this goal and not decided to becoming a versatile character actress.

Trevor 02Also well-known for her performance as Dallas in Stagecoach (1939), a role offered to her by producer Walter Wanger familiar with her work on radio, Claire Trevor (1910-2000) was “content to be the best actress she could be and less intent on being a star” (1). Sculthorpe also notes that “she appeared in a lot of material that was not worthy of her time. However, she made them worthy by her presence and lifted otherwise forgettable ventures, making them seem so much better than they really were, the mark of a real actress” (1). Her apprenticeship years in Fox during the 1930s illustrated this, but Trevor also combined stage with radio and later television honing her performances to the most professional levels to make her performances often overshadow her more prestigious male leads, such as John Wayne in The Dark Command (1941) and Humphrey Bogart in Dead End.

Naturally, her role in Stagecoach often led to stereotyping in westerns, but one of her most notable achievements in this genre was playing the title role in The Woman of the Town (1943) that allowed her to bring some subtle variations into a stock character by portraying the positive influence on Bat Masterson (played by Albert Dekker in a rare, heroic role) as she persuaded him to renounce violence and move into his later journalist career.

Several interesting items occur in this book. In 1937 Trevor appeared alongside African-American actress Fredi Washington, who contributed a memorable performance in the first version of Imitation of Life (1934), in the Fox production One Mile from Heaven. This was to be Washington’s last screen role since she preferred stage work as opposed to the stereotyped roles on screen she rejected. During the 1930s, Trevor projected an independence that matched the growing demands of women in society by having a “warmth and naturalness that made her seem real to audiences” (42) unlike the remote Garbo, Dietrich, and Hepburn. She was also the well-dressed woman of her era, whether on or off-screen, often contributing to costume design on her various films (43-45) and endorsing many products in magazines. Although not an official costume designer, such as Elizabeth Haffenden (1906-1976) in the 1940s Gainsborough Melodramas or Sandy Powell (1960-  ) today, Trevor realized the importance of appropriate clothing for whatever role she would play and how it would function cinematically. Thus, in addition to her acting, she had a conscious sense of clothing style (see 89 for her contribution to Murder My Sweet).

Chapter Seven contains a fascinating exploration of Trevor’s work in radio that began in 1936, something that “raised her profile, doubled her salary, and directly led to her appearance in Stagecoach” (59). During 1937-38, she was a regular on the radio series Big Town opposite Edward G. Robinson who played crusading editor Steve Wilson. Also, in 1941, she appeared as a school teacher accused of being un-American for attempting to teach history from a realistic perspective in Marc Connolly’s “The Mole on Lincoln’s Cheek,” an episode of The Free Company series that anticipated post-war McCarthyism (62). Could this be the reason that she later turned down a role in The Woman on Pier 13 (1949), originally titled I Married a Communist? (111). It is impossible to be certain on this point. Although she later supported the Republican Party, there is no evidence that she was a Red baiter like Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor, so it is highly likely that the actress may have been keeping her beliefs private at this time. Although she gave many interviews during her lifetime, these were all public displays never deep private revelations, whether personal or political. Sculthorpe mentions that her withdrawal caused a delay in filming and she gravitated instead to her producer-husband’s project, the neo-noir comedy Borderline (1950). At any rate, she does not seem to have encountered problems in the post-war era due to her rousing speech in Boston supporting Russian War relief in the early period of World War Two (78). Significantly, Ida Lupino, who would later direct Trevor in Hard, Fast, and Beautiful (1951), like Orson Welles, often used radio actors in her films, noting in 1951 that “Next to the legitimate stage, radio still offers the best training for dramatic performances” (63, see also 114).

Key Largo

Key Largo

She later attempted to interest radio and television producers to support her idea about making a series about a female detective in the early 1950s (63). Had she succeeded then she would have anticipated the later work of writers such as Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. Her stage work was consistent throughout her long career, and in the mid- 1950s she was involved with Anthony Quinn, Robert Ryan, and Jack Palance to produce plays for the Las Palmas Theatre, including Shakespeare. But due to busy film schedules, the plans came to nothing (129). However, television came prominently into focus following the decline of her screen career in the late 50s, and she appeared in several productions constantly until 1962, even winning an Emmy for her role in the 1956 production of Dodsworth.

One amazing feature of this book is its carefully documented source references that not only support content in the main text but also supply the opportunity for readers to investigate these sources themselves in searching out further information. As Sculthorpe states in his concluding sentence, “There was no artifice in her art. Claire acted with her heart, and as a consequence her work still speaks to us today and maybe always will” (151).

One typo exists. Should not “Bromberg” be the correct surname of the actor in the still on p.35? Also Brissenden does commit suicide in Jack London’s original novel Martin Eden (76), so this is not a screenplay change to save the hero in the film version. Woman of the Town is absent from the film listings.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is also a contributing Editor to Film international.

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