Celebrity Register: Article on Clifton Webb


Clifton Webb

(actor, singer, dancer; born November 19, 1889, Indianapolis, IN; died October 13, 1966, Beverly Hills, CA)

Clifton WebbONCE CITED as the only man in Southern California who knew how to use a fish fork, he has long been regarded as Hollywood’s most elegant actor — and obviously British in origin. The dignified ex-hoofer (“I was the first dancer to be accepted in real Society — not just Cafe Society”) is not, however, British at all. He is, of all things, a Hoosier, and one who did not enter films until he was over 50, although he had spent some time in Hollywood in the Thirties waiting to do a Joan Crawford film which never materialized. His debut picture was Laura (1944) and nobody was surprised, least of all Webb, when he was nominated for an Academy Award. “The word ‘mediocrity’ has never been in my vocabulary,” he remarks.

Born 19 November 1891 in Indianapolis, Indiana, his original name was Webb Parmalee Hollenbeck. His mother, Maybelle, with whom he has always shared an extremely close relationship, was a woman of wit and perseverance, who had always desired to go on the stage herself. Failing this, she determined to guide little Webb’s career. Mr. Hollenbeck took a dim view of his wife’s plans, however and departed the scene. “We never speak of him,” says Maybelle. “He wasn’t interested in the theatre.”

By the time he was eight, Webb was an experienced performer. At 13, he quit school to study painting and music. At 17, he sang “Laertes” in the, Boston Opera Company production of Mignon, and at 19, he began his career as a dancer. He became (with his partner Bonnie Glass) the leading ballroom dancer in New York, and danced his way through musical comedies from Broadway to London in such hits as Love O’ Mike, Sunny, The Little Show and Three’s a Crowd.  In 1933, his talents as a comedian came to the fore with his brilliant clowning in As Thousands Cheer, and shortly thereafter he was summoned to the West Coast. When nothing occurred, he went on tour with such comedies as The Importance of Being Earnest, Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter, before returning to Hollywood to begin a new career at a time when many performers consider retirement.

With his role in Sitting Pretty (1948), of Mr. Belvedere, a remarkably wry baby sitter of devastating chic, Webb became a nationally popular movie star, and continued his characterization in several later pictures. Other films include The Razor’s Edge, 1946; Cheaper by the Dozen, 1950; Stars and Stripes Forever, 1952; Three Coins in the Fountain, 1954, and The Man Who Never Was, 1956. Always impeccably dressed, almost as caustic off the screen as on, Clifton Webb (“It’s never morals — it’s manners”) feels that “you can be rich and dull or poor and amusing — but you must always contribute something to the community.” On the wearing of a handkerchief in one’s coat pocket, he is adamant. “Never pointed,” he says, never square. It should always be, of course, pear-shaped!