11-19-1889

Clifton Webb

CLIFTON WEBB (d: 1966) was an American actor, dancer and singer born on this date. Named Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck Webb lived in a rural part of Marion County, Indiana, which would, in 1906, become Beech Grove, a self-governing city entirely surrounded by Indianapolis.  Webb’s parents were Jacob Grant Hollenbeck, the son of a grocer from a multi-generational Indiana farming family, and Mabelle A. Parmelee, the daughter of a railroad conductor. In 1892, Webb’s formidable mother, Mabelle, moved to New York City with her beloved “little Webb,” as she called him for the remainder of her life. She dismissed questions about her husband Jacob, a ticket clerk who, like her father, worked for the Indianapolis-St. Louis Railroad, by saying, “We never speak of him. He didn’t care for the theater.”

Webb was in his mid-fifties when actor/director Otto Preminger chose him over the objections of 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck to play the classy, but evil, radio columnist Waldo Lydecker, who is obsessed with Gene Tierney’s character in the 1944 film noir, Laura. His performance was showered with acclaim and made him an unlikely movie star. Despite Zanuck’s original objection, Webb was immediately signed to a long-term contract with Fox. Two years later he was reunited with Tierney (with whom he shares this birthdate) in another highly praised role as the elitist Elliott Templeton in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge (1946). He received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for both. Webb received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 1949 for Sitting Pretty, the first in a three-film series of comedic Mr. Belvedere features with Webb portraying the snide and omniscient central character.

Webb’s elegant taste kept him on Hollywood’s best-dressed lists for decades. Even though he exhibited comically foppish mannerisms in portraying Mr. Belvedere and other movie characters, his scrupulous (read “deeply closeted, highly repressed”) private life kept him free of scandal. The character of Lynn Belvedere is said to have been very close to his real life — he had an Oedipal devotion to his mother Mabelle, who was his companion and who lived with him until her death at age ninety-one. Webb’s mourning for his mother continued for a year with no signs of letting up, prompting Noël Coward to remark of Webb, “It must be terrible to be orphaned at 71.”

Among the many stories, once, he and Tallulah Bankhead were smitten with the same handsome Austrian army officer and vied for the uniformed stud’s favors. While Tallulah did her stuff vamping him, Webb retreated for a moment, and returned with an armload of roses. To Tallulah’s amusement and the officer’s shock, Webb danced around the man and began pelting him with flowers. Tallulah won.