I take a break from recommending movies in favor of recommending the next best thing: A book about the movies! I have always found Dana Andrews intriguing because he was such a towering star in the 1940s, anchoring films of superlative quality that were also wildly popular with audiences, including A Walk in the Sun, Laura and of course The Best Years of Our Lives. But beginning in the 1950s his career dissipated very rapidly and few people today even remember his name. What happened to this talented and toothsome actor, who seemed poised to dominate the screen for decades as did similar performers such as Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck?
That’s one of the central questions addressed by Carl Rollyson’s fine recent biography Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews. Nothing else written about Andrews over the years pulls together so many sources of information so skillfully, making this likely the definitive biography of the man for all time. Crucially, Rollyson obtained the support of Andrews’ family and with it access to home movies, letters and anecdotes that get beneath the glossy images that the Hollywood publicity machine creates for its stars.
Rollyson makes clear that Andrews’ path to Hollywood was neither certain nor easy. Dana’s domineering, colorful father was a Baptist preacher in Texas and money was at times tight in the large Andrews clan. Dana and his siblings worked at odd jobs to keep the family afloat, and even as he was later getting a foothold in Southern California theater, he was still driving trucks to make ends meet during The Great Depression. His humble origins may have accounted for why, throughout his life, he remained an unpretentious regular guy more comfortable with the average person on the street than the glitzy Hollywood types who came to surround him when he became a star. It also helped account for him later becoming an avid New Dealer who loathed the political rise of Ronald Reagan (Both Reagan and Andrews would serve as President of the Screen Actors Guild).
Through extracts from love letters Rollyson movingly conveys the central conflict of Andrews’ young adult life. He had moved to California and was excited by what he might achieve there. But he was still strongly attached to his long-time girlfriend back in Texas. A painful choice had to be made and he ultimately broke off the engagement with the girl-next-door and married a woman he had met in his new life. Yet he stayed lifelong friends with his first girlfriend, whom he probably recognized understood him and loved him in a way that the many women who later swooned over the famous star never would.
After success in theater, Andrews began to land movie parts of growing significance. He was the epitome of a certain kind of masculinity that was cherished in that era. Outwardly strong, noble and fearless on screen, he simultaneously conveyed, in a minimalistic and naturalistic way, churning emotion underneath. Clearly, he had a handsome face, but it was what was going on underneath that transfixed most movie-goers. Rollyson dissects Andrews’ most critical roles well, helping the reader understand both Andrews’ talents and how some directors (but not others) knew how to maximize them.
In the mid-to-late 1940s, Andrews was one of the most beloved, most highly-paid movie actors in the world. But how many people remember him today compared to Bogart, Peck and Fonda, or even Fred MacMurray, who attained similar heights in that era? Andrews’ steep decline fascinates Rollyson and he goes a long way towards sorting out why it happened.
First, although the sudden death of his first wife when his son was 2 years old was a personal tragedy for Andrews, it helped make him a star because his family situation prevented him from being drafted during World War II. Like other actors who might have stayed second leads (e.g., John Hodiak) if some of the biggest male stars had not been serving in the military, Andrews snagged some roles in part because he remained on the home front. After the war, there was simply more competition for the kinds of parts with which he was identified.
Second, Andrews developed a serious alcohol problem. He started showing up hungover on the set, or not showing up at all. He muffed lines, got into punch-ups off screen and was arrested multiple times, all of which generated bad publicity. Some of the actors and family members quoted in the book, and in my opinion Rollyson at times himself, try to soft-soap Andrews’ drinking problem but it was clearly highly destructive to him and to people around him. His nadir in this respect was probably the 1967 Eurotrash film The Cobra, in which as Rollyson notes, Andrews is visibly intoxicated on screen.
A third factor that Rollyson didn’t discuss explicitly but I extrapolated from his writing is that by personality Andrews was a dutiful sort of man who was less inclined than other actors to push back against producers who tried to cast him in junky movies. Although as Bette Davis discovered — to her pain — producers were simply more powerful than even big stars, many actors found some safe wiggle room with producers when choosing projects that was not the agreeable Andrews’ nature to seek.
Finally, and this is entirely my own conjecture rather than Rollyson’s, the emergence of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift et al. after the war was a reflection of the public’s (at least the younger public’s) desire to see a different type of male star than the strong, silent Greatest Generation type that Andrews usually played. Maybe Andrews could have adapted to this new style of acting in some of his films, but he never got the chance. I thus see him as a terrific star for a certain type of film, but don’t know how broad his range could have been if he had recovered from alcoholism sooner and gotten more diverse and higher quality scripts from the 1950s onward.
If you are a fan of Dana Andrews, or simply interested in Hollywood’s golden era generally, you will find much to enjoy in Rollyson’s book. It’s packed with an unusually high level of vivid details, yet at the same time is an easy read. I devoured it in just a few sittings.
I recommend five of Dana Andrews’ films on this site. Three are from the period of his greatest fame: Where the Sidewalk Ends, Canyon Passage, and Boomerang!. The other two are from the late 1950s, when he was often struggling with his drinking problem and lousy scripts, but sometimes nonetheless turned in a strong performance in a strong film: Curse of the Demon (here) and Zero Hour! (here, with a co-recommendation of its peerless parody, Airplane!).