When I watched the film noir classic Laura a while ago, I had never heard of Clifton Webb, but was intrigued by his performance an effete but manipulating radio show host and wanted to see him in other roles. My thoughts echoed the reactions of the movie-going public in 1944. At the time, Webb had not appeared in a film since the silent era and was largely unknown to film audiences. Born in rural Indian, Webb somehow cultivated a trans-Atlantic accent a very English aura of elegance and started his career on the stage, appearing in early productions of Cole Porter and Noël Coward plays. When Laura was in pre-production, Otto Preminger clashed with Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck, who punished Preminger by allowing him to produce but not direction, with Rouben Mamoulian being given directorial duties. Preminger then began battling Mamoulian over the casting of the role of Waldo Lydecker, a character very loosely based on the real-life journalist Alexander Woolcott, who is obsessed with the title character. Mamoulian wanted to cast oversize actor Laird Cregar, who played villains in films like This Gun for Hire, a move that Preminger felt would make the character suspicious to audiences too early. Preminger rallied for Webb, who was appearing in a stage production of Noël Coward’s Blythe Spirits at the time, a choice that Zannuck was against as he found the actor too effeminate. Mamoulian virtually ignored Webb, but eventually Preminger took over as director and cast Webb, who was in his mid-50s at the time, but started a new career for himself with his Oscar-nominated performance.
The skill of Webb as an actor in his roles in Laura and after is he made it seem as if each role was written especially for him. This is especially true in Sitting Pretty, despite the fact that it was based on a popular novel and was not tailored to the actor. Webb plays an amateur philosophy named Lynn Belvedere who responds to a classified ad placed by a typical suburban family seeking a live-in babysitter. Because of his first name, they mistakenly believe they are hiring a young woman and are naturally shocked when a middle-aged man arrives. He insists that he is suitable for the position, and moves in. Mr. Belvedere is snide but remarkably knowledgeable and good with the kids. When the small community begins gossiping that something is up between the babysitter and the lady of the house, the mysterious man has an ace up his sleeve. The script is not spectacular, but this film is really about reveling in Webb’s performance, which is easy to do.
On a side note, photography Loomis Dean came to the set one day to take photo for Life magazine. A series of snaps show Clifton Webb sitting on the sofa of the living room set with a huge box of chocolate on his lap and a pretty girl on either side. One of the young actresses was Laurette Luez, who would go are to appear in D.O.A. and the other was a still unknown starlet named Marilyn Monroe.