As another Father’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about Clifton Webb, one of Hollywood’s more unlikely casting calls as a big-screen father figure.
There was a Clifton Webb film festival on TV the other day, and my wife taped all the movies, which is probably as good a Father’s Day gift as the neckties and other stuff I’ll get Sunday. When the stock market is low and anxiety runs high, there’s nothing like a Clifton Webb movie to cheer me up.
Webb, whose heyday in Hollywood spanned the 1940s and 1950s, was a Broadway veteran skilled at playing any number of roles, including a snippy and conniving newspaper columnist in the 1944 film noir classic, “Laura.” But Webb became most famous portraying fathers or surrogate fathers in family movies such as “Sitting Pretty,” “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Mister Scoutmaster.”
Prim and prissy, Webb never married or had children himself, living with his mother throughout his life. Suffice it to say that he wasn’t Hollywood’s stereotypical image of a leading man or a dad.
But precisely because he needed an unconventional character for the part, Darryl Zanuck cast Webb as the erudite live-in babysitter Mr. Belvedere in “Sitting Pretty,” a 1948 production starring Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara. Young and O’Hara play young parents so desperate for a nanny that they hire the know-it-all Belvedere, who professes a deep dislike for children, to take the job.
Webb’s comic presence saves what might have been a mediocre movie. O’Hara and Young turn in wooden performances as the beleaguered mom and dad, but Webb, whose stage experience made him an inveterate scene-stealer, seems all too happy to carry the movie.
He even manages to defy the conventional caution against sharing a scene with a child, more than holding his own with the pint-size cast members. In one of the most memorable scenes in Hollywood history, the no-nonsense Belvedere disciplines a food-throwing baby by dumping a bowl of oatmeal on the little tyke’s head.
Imagine Mary Poppins as portrayed by Oscar Wilde, and you’ll get a general idea of Webb’s Belvedere. As luck would have it, the wryly erudite Webb wrote exactly as he spoke, as I’ve been reminded in the pages of his autobiography.
Webb died in 1966, leaving behind only six chapters of his life story. That material, supplemented with additional chapters by author David L. Smith to complete the book, has just been released as “Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb,” by University Press of Mississippi. Here’s Webb’s opening line: “According to all accounts, which I have no reason to disbelieve, I was a disgustingly fat baby.”
If there’s a better start for an autobiography, I haven’t found it yet.
Webb didn’t seem like a father figure, but he acted as if he knew what he was doing and carried off the role.
For fathers everywhere, the lesson is simple. Even if you might not know what you’re doing, pretend that you do.
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