Mention Dana Andrews today and you might get asked, “Who’s she?” Which is an ironic fate for an actor whose square-jawed masculinity made him a Hollywood leading man in two of the most memorable films of the 1940s: the mystery thriller “Laura” and the Oscar-winning “The Best Years of Our Lives.”
Andrews was one of 13 children born to a Baptist preacher and his wife in a Mississippi hamlet improbably named Don’t, which his parents may have taken as a hint: They moved to Texas when Dana was 5. Then, in 1929, when he was 20, his father answered the call to a church in Van Nuys, Calif. But when the family decided to return to Texas in 1931, Dana stayed behind.
He had become fascinated with acting while working in a movie theater, and he got good notices when he acted on stage as a student at Sam Houston State Teachers College. Handsome and gifted with a strong baritone voice, he started appearing in community theater and joined the company at the Pasadena Playhouse. An agent saw him perform and arranged for a screen test that led to a contract with producer Samuel Goldwyn.
Andrews made his film debut in 1940 with a bit part in William Wyler’s “The Westerner,” but bigger roles were to come the following year: a gangster in Howard Hawks’s “Ball of Fire,” a landlord in John Ford’s “Tobacco Road,” and the lead in Jean Renoir’s first American film, “Swamp Water.” Over a 46-year career, he made more than 70 films, working with some of the best directors in Hollywood and such leading ladies as Gene Tierney, Joan Crawford, Susan Hayward and Elizabeth Taylor.
Journalism professor and prolific biographer Carl Rollyson in “Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews,” wants to present Andrews’s story as an “enigma,” though he led a well-documented life: Andrews not only kept the letters he received but also, for a while, maintained a journal, and his surviving children have apparently been forthright with their memories. So the central enigma of Andrews’s career is why he didn’t become a bigger star.
One reason becomes apparent from Rollyson’s account: Andrews was an alcoholic, which may have made producers wary of him. For a while, he had a reputation for being able to handle it, showing up to work badly hung over but appearing fresh and well-prepared by the time the cameras started to roll. But when the binges grew worse and he began getting into headline-making fights, his wife threatened to leave him. Andrews got treatment and later made public service TV spots urging others to do the same. Dana and Mary Andrews stayed married for more than 50 years.
Another problem may have been that Andrews was the kind of actor who never drew attention to himself. Rollyson gives us almost frame-by-frame accounts of some of his performances, demonstrating what a good and generous actor he could be. As the detective in “Laura” who falls in love with the portrait of a woman he thinks is a murder victim, Andrews subtly conveys both obsession and repression. But the first thing one remembers about the film isn’t how effectively Andrews underplays his part, it’s the deliciously camp performances of Clifton Webb and Vincent Price. Andrews is the solid center of this and other movies, but he never received a Oscar nomination.
It may be that Andrews became a star at the wrong time. Even though he didn’t serve in World War II — as a father of three in his 30s, he was insulated from the draft — on the screen, especially as the returning serviceman in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” he was the embodiment of what has become known as the “Greatest Generation,” long before that phrase was a twinkle in Tom Brokaw’s word-processing software. When he came along, audiences were already tired of the war and eager for the next new thing: emotionally vulnerable method actors like Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift, or pretty boys like Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Tab Hunter. They were the ones who attracted teenagers to the movies, while the Greatest Generation stayed home with its new TV sets.
Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.
By Carl Rollyson
Univ. Press of Mississippi. 314 pp. $35