Dana Andrews was born on January 1, 1909, which means he’d be 112 today if he’d lived. More’s the pity. We could use more actors with subtlety and strength like Andrews, and in this incisive profile, Imogen Sara Smith tells us why.
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“It’s not difficult for me to hide emotion, since I’ve always hidden it in my personal life.”
The first actors wore masks. In Greek drama they were used to project emotion, but a mask-like face of flesh and blood, not linen and clay, has other uses in acting. Style is a matter of what you leave out. Actors, like the rest of us, can have many reasons for not wanting to give too much away. Some movie stars who appreciated how much the camera magnifies facial expressions developed a minimalism that went beyond naturalism; everything happened behind their eyes. But the mask was more than a cinematic strategy; it expressed a particular mode of being: a mode of reticence, stoicism, secrecy. An immobile face was as necessary to the movie tough guy as his fedora and his gun.
Dana Andrews was one of Hollywood’s masked men, and even more than bigger stars like Bogart, he was the quintessential nineteen-forties man. He got his start playing heroic “average” G.I.’s in war movies, and enacted the plight of the returning vet in The Best Years of Our Lives. Meanwhile Laura, his first film noir, revealed the neuroses, the strains of violence and corrupted romantic yearning under the shell of the tough guy. Whether playing flawed heroes or redeemable villains, he found his niche as noir’s troubled conscience. His suits seemed welded to him like armor. With that boxy mid-century silhouette, further fortified by the fedora, the glass of bourbon, the cigarette that stayed jammed in his mouth when he talked, he looked imprisoned by the masculine ideal of steely impassivity.
An actor’s limitations can be as interesting as his talents, and as crucial to his presence on screen. Dana Andrews had this limitation: he was incapable of appearing unintelligent. Even when he played an Average Joe, as he usually did, he comes across as unusually sensitive and perceptive. More than that, his air of being too thoughtful for his own comfort gives him that haunted air that was his trademark. He played ordinary guys, cops and soldiers, but always with a tragic undercurrent of seeing and knowing too much. His conscientious heroes are marked by exhaustion, guilt, an inability ever to lighten up, and his charming heels are tinged with a bitter taste of self-loathing. It is the uneasy ambivalence beneath his handsome, square-jawed image that endures; if he were more reassuring, he would be less memorable.
One of the things Andrews’ mask concealed was his origins; nothing in his manner suggested an upbringing of grinding Southern poverty.1 Born Carver Dana Andrews in Collins, Mississippi in 1909, he grew up in Texas as the third of nine children, teased at school for wearing ill-fitting hand-me-downs and forbidden to go to the movies by his father, a Baptist minister. As a young man, his romance with a well-to-do girl was broken off by her father, who disapproved of Dana’s humble background — one wonders how father and daughter reacted when he became a movie star. That they didn’t foresee this development is understandable; he started out studying business administration at Sam Houston State Teachers College, where he played a lot of football but did not graduate, leaving to spend two years as a bookkeeper for Gulf Oil. It was only while working as publicity man for a movie theater that he started to think about acting. Forced to watch films over and over, he studied the performers and got the idea that he could do what they were doing.
In 1931 he hitch-hiked to California, where he worked an array of menial jobs from bus-driving to ditch-digging, picking oranges to pumping gas. The owner of the gas station was so impressed by his employee’s charm and ambition that he offered to pay for his acting and singing lessons, stipulating that Andrews should pay him back if he “made it.” His fine trained singing voice was never put to use, though his daughter remembered him singing opera around the house. Acting was another matter, and he was soon starring in plays at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he caught the attention of talent scouts and was offered a contract by Samuel Goldwyn.2
He made a modest entry into the movies in 1940, playing small roles in big pictures like The Westerner with Gary Cooper.3 In 1941 he played Barbara Stanwyck’s less-than-menacing gangster boyfriend Joe Lilac in Ball of Fire, delivering the Brackett & Wilder dialogue with plenty of snap but failing to convince as the fearsome head of a murder-for-hire ring. He was, however, plausibly urban. There is no trace of the South in his unplaceable accent, but there’s no taint of the elocution class either. His voice is not as unique as Bogart’s or Cagney’s, but it is the kind of deep, warm, modulated, grown-up voice that has largely gone the way of radio drama.
His breakthrough role came in 1943 in The Ox-Bow Incident, William Wellman’s harsh anti-lynching Western, which was hailed by critics and shunned by audiences. Andrews appears halfway through the film, when he is woken by the lynch mob that will murder him for a crime he didn’t commit. It is a far showier part than that of the star, Henry Fonda, and Andrews commands attention both with his raw yet dignified emotion and with his rugged good looks. He is one of three victims; Anthony Quinn is striking as a defiant Mexican who pretends not to understand English, and Francis Ford is pitiful as a senile old man who knows that he is going to die but can’t understand why. But it is Dana’s solid presence, his simplicity and his contained anguish that sharpen the horror of the climactic hanging.
As the sole support of his family Andrews was exempt from the draft,4 so he fought the war in Hollywood, playing a pilot (A Wing and a Prayer), a prisoner of war (The Purple Heart), and an infantry sergeant (A Walk in the Sun). This last film is a quiet and detailed portrait of an infantry unit in Italy that loses its commanding officers, and as soon as you see Andrews’ unassuming Sgt. Tyne you know he’s the one who should be in charge. He’s obviously the smartest and most decent man around, always the one to linger with the wounded men who are left behind, offering cigarettes and unspoken sympathy. With his quiet authority and dependable competence he might have been a dull hero, but instead he conveys the terrible burden of responsibility. He becomes increasingly troubled as he takes charge of the outfit, but he can’t take refuge in a nervous breakdown like the man he replaces; he can’t whine or joke like the wisecracking slacker Pvt. Rivera (Richard Conte). He is doomed to hold himself together and do the right thing, doomed to see clearly every danger and difficulty of his position.
In The Best Years of Our Lives, Andrews delineates one of the key elements of film noir: the way the war was internalized by those who fought. As written, Captain Fred Derry is an everyman; all he wants is a decent job and a home in the suburbs and a girl-next-door wife. But Andrews endows him with such gravity and such subtle shadowing that he becomes extraordinary. He returns home to find nothing about his pre-war life fits him any more. The war has been an outlet for his drive to improve himself and for a kind of innate refinement — the bearing of “an officer and a gentleman” — at odds with the resigned squalor of his family. As the plane comes in to land in their home town, Fred says to a fellow vet, “Do you remember the way you felt when you went overseas? I feel that way now.” The tidy, drab ordinariness of the small city — the soda fountain and the perfume counter, the cheap Italian restaurant, the bankers’ banquet, the regulation kitchenettes — feels foreign and hostile to the returning soldiers.
The men’s predicament is made worse by their adherence to a code that forbids them from giving way to emotion. Homer, a young sailor who has lost his hands, becomes moody and alienated, unable to speak about his loss. Al, a middle-aged banker, drowns his discomfort by staying drunk most of the time. Fred speaks more openly about his dissatisfaction than the others, but he too is bottled up; only when he is asleep and dreaming can he raise his voice or shed a tear. His recurring nightmares about a friend’s death are part of the everyman script — the movie is careful to cover all the possible obstacles veterans might face in readjusting to civilian life — but they serve as a portal into that intense, haunted inner life Andrews always brought to his best performances.
One of the classic scenes of his career comes toward the end of the film when Fred, embittered by the failure of all his hopes, is about to leave town. While waiting for his flight he wanders through a vast graveyard of air force planes waiting to be junked. He climbs up into the cockpit of one of the derelict planes, reliving his many flights as a bombardier. There are no cinematic flashbacks, though the director supplies ominous music and a slow tracking shot toward the nose of the plane that makes it seem to lumber into the air. But Andrews doesn’t need help communicating what Fred is going through. He sits crouched forward, his face immobile, his eyes unblinking, and he looks gripped in a vise so tight he can’t breathe. Against this frozen stillness, his eyes are full of turbulence.
Dana Andrews was the only one of the three principals in The Best Years of Our Lives not to win an Oscar; he was never nominated for any performance. His scene in the airplane graveyard and a handful of others exemplify under-acting at its finest, but the Academy rarely recognizes under-actors. While he generally got good reviews, Andrews has always had his detractors, who call him wooden, somber, or monochromatic. Richard Schickel, in his biography of Elia Kazan, dismisses Andrews as an actor of “frozen handsomeness, with a resonant voice and a drinking problem.” He was perhaps influenced by Kazan’s own dissatisfaction with Andrews, who starred in the director’s 1947 film Boomerang (below). Kazan complained that Andrews was never entirely relaxed or natural, though relaxation would hardly suit his character, a conscientious D.A. prosecuting a man he begins to suspect is innocent. Andrews’ tense, oppressed performance once again brings out the torment of responsibility; he looks boxed in and weighed down by his own authority. He has a habitual gesture of pinching the bridge of his nose, like a man with a chronic tension headache.
Kazan no doubt found him too polished or too reserved in comparison with Method actors. In an effort to shake him up, Kazan rewrote one of Andrews’ long courtroom speeches and handed it to him at the last minute. Hung over from a night of drinking, Dana made no complaint but merely retired to his dressing room with a pot of coffee and returned less than an hour later with the speech impeccably memorized. If there was a stiffness in his presence, it didn’t come from any awkwardness or inadequacy. It belonged to the kind of men he played, men in gray flannel suits who kept their feelings and their old wounds locked up like their liquor cabinets. (Or, one might say, locked up in their liquor cabinets.) He didn’t act with his body, but neither did Bogart or Spencer Tracy. They shared an old-fashioned masculinity that shunned putting itself on display, as well as an acting style that held everything inside. No one seemed more acutely conscious of this repression than Dana Andrews. He didn’t have Bogart’s insolent self-assurance or Mitchum’s cool indifference or Tracy’s moral certainty. His eyes were full of shadows. He was made for film noir.
He entered the noir universe through a deceptively sunny, sleek apartment overlooking a generic penthouse-in-Manhattan backdrop. Andrews first appears to be playing a generic type too: the tough, no-nonsense cop. We know from the way wears his fedora, the way he talks without taking the cigarette out of his mouth, barely moving his lips to emit cynical wisecracks. The early scenes of Laura savor the comic clash between Andrews’ Detective Mark MacPherson and the effete, waspish socialites he meets as he investigates the murder of Laura Hunt. When Laura began filming, director Rouben Mamoulian wanted Andrews to play Mark as a cultivated, intellectual investigator, eschewing the hard-boiled cliché. When the studio heads were unhappy with the early rushes, Otto Preminger (the film’s producer) told Darryl F. Zanuck that he had insisted all along that Andrews should play the character tougher. Mamoulian was fired and Preminger assigned to direct, much to the cast’s consternation.
Devious as he may have been, Preminger was right about MacPherson. Not playing him as hard-boiled not only destroys the comedy in his interactions with Laura’s friends, it eliminates the tension within Mark’s character as he begins to feel and behave in ways no one would expect of a standard-issue tough cop. Laura introduces the essential Dana Andrews character: the Average Joe with unexpected complications. It also demonstrates the Preminger Paradox: the director was a notorious tyrant, prone to tantrums and sadism often directed at the most vulnerable of his actors, yet the keynote of his films was tolerance for ambiguity. Ensembles in shades of gray, full of subtle, tamped-down performances, his films never turn on a simple axis of good and evil but listen to many voices and allow each some degree of persuasiveness. Dana Andrews, with his naturally tamped-down style and his gift for ambivalence, was an ideal leading man for Preminger. Apart from The Best Years of Our Lives, Andrews’ four films with Preminger (Laura in 1944, Fallen Angel in 1945, Daisy Kenyon in 1947, and Where the Sidewalk Ends in 1950) were the peak of his career, and they gave him his most complex and compelling roles.
Laura gave him another of his best showcases, similar to the airplane-graveyard scene in that he holds the screen alone. In a long, wordless sequence, followed by Preminger’s fluidly tracking camera, MacPherson prowls around Laura’s apartment, ostensibly looking for clues but really indulging his insatiable desire for communion with the dead woman. Reading her letters and her private journal isn’t enough; he opens her closets, fingers her silky handkerchiefs (obvious Hays Code stand-ins for her unmentionables), and sniffs her perfume. He doesn’t linger over things sensually; he fidgets brusquely, irritated by his own romantic yearning. He heads for the liquor cabinet and gulps Scotch while gazing at Laura’s portrait. He snarls at Waldo Lydecker, who hits the nail on the head when he sneers, “I wonder you don’t come here like a suitor with flowers and a box of candy.” Mark couldn’t, or wouldn’t, openly admit his own feelings: cops just don’t find themselves in the grip of morbid, perfumed obsession with dames who have been bumped off. But he knows that Waldo is right, hence his seething, brooding restlessness. Alone again, he plants himself in front of the portrait and nurses a drink until he falls into a stupor.
Far from a clichéd cop, Mark is an unexpectedly damaged hero. Tormented by jealousy after Laura turns up alive but engaged to another man, he becomes bullying, cranky and unprofessional. Once he is assured both of Laura’s innocence and her affection, he gets his cool back along with a new gentleness, and he solves the case and saves the day. But for the first time Andrews played a man whose decency, competence and rectitude could be called into question. The shadows were beginning to come out, and they suited him.
Six years later in Where the Sidewalk Ends the shadows have almost engulfed him. Again he plays a New York police detective named Mark, and again Gene Tierney is the beautiful woman who brings gentleness into his life. But Mark Dixon is an older, sadder, more disturbing version of the cool cop in a trench coat. The bullying, brooding, corrupt tendencies that started to show in MacPherson have taken over Dixon.
MacPherson gratuitously slugs his rival, Shelby Carpenter, in the middle of a cocktail party. Where the Sidewalk Ends opens with Dixon getting dressed down by his boss for his chronic brutality toward suspects. Like Kirk Douglas’ violent cop in Detective Story, Dixon owes his seething contempt for crooks to his father’s criminal past. But where Douglas is self-righteous and blind to his own flaws, Andrews’ Dixon is burdened by repressed guilt and self-loathing. After sarcastically promising his boss that he will “try not to hate hoods,” he accidentally kills a suspect and covers up his actions with an attempt to throw suspicion on a slimy gangster (Gary Merrill) whom he has pursued in vain for years. Instead, a kindly cab driver is suspected because he’s the father of the dead man’s estranged and mistreated wife Morgan. Dixon has to not only contend with his own guilt and his frustration as the gangster keeps slipping through his fingers, he has to save the father of the woman he loves without giving himself away. Andrews turns this nightmare into his best performance, a tour-de-force of slow-burning pain and agonized intelligence.
A rebuke to Hollywood’s fantasy of the two-fisted tough guy, Where the Sidewalk Ends is an unflinching portrait of the reality behind the façade, vividly conveyed by Andrews’ tired, bruised, sickened face. In the end he finds the strength to regain his honor, but there is no triumph in this gripping study of the roots and consequences of violence.
Dixon and MacPherson are both compromised heroes, but Fallen Angel cast Andrews in a new light: as a man who just might be a complete heel. Eric Stanton is a drifter, a con man, and an amoral opportunist, and Andrews is looser than usual, glibly charming and sexually aggressive. Kicked off a bus for riding without a ticket, he wanders into a little seaside diner that will turn out to be one of the lower circles of noir hell, and there encounters the very sultry Stella (Linda Darnell), a waitress hungry for better things. Stanton has a con man’s brazen self-assurance. When he realizes there is another hustler in town, a spiritualist played by John Carridine, Stanton takes over his hotel room and calmly muscles in on his racket. On a first date with Stella, he spouts the usual lines about taking her away from all this, but makes his immediate aim very clear. When he encounters a pair of rich, unmarried sisters, he begins pursuing the younger and prettier one with arrogant, cynical confidence, intending to get hold of her money and run away with Stella. When Stella is murdered, his only concern is to avoid taking the rap for it. Yet unease is always visible under the surface, a mounting disgust with himself. This self-consciousness is Stanton’s only redeeming quality; it hints at a very dormant, deeply buried decency in his character.
Dan O’Mara, Andrews’ character in Daisy Kenyon, is a high-powered lawyer married to the daughter of his wealthy partner. Far from getting kicked around by bus drivers, he lords it over maitre-d’s at the Stork Club. But Dan has a lot in common with Eric Stanton. Glib, spoiled, and overconfident, he lives by his wits and charm, and he acts like a bastard. He cheats on his wife and treats her with cold contempt, and he refuses to take seriously his mistress’ threats to leave him. Everything comes too easily to Dan; he takes it for granted that he’s smarter than everyone he meets, and his charm is irresistible, despite his slick habit of calling people “honeybunch” or “dewdrop.” His daughters adore him, his secretaries adore him, the maitre-d’s adore him. Then everything goes wrong. He loses the first case he ever really cared about (defending a Japanese veteran dispossessed of his land), he loses his children to divorce, and he loses his mistress to another man. The bleakness that comes out from under the smirk feels like it was there all along.
By the end of the forties, Dana Andrews was a long way from the actor who in 1941 had seemed too clean-cut and likable to be convincing as a gangster. Heavy drinking darkened his features, brought a heaviness to his presence, and began to prevent him from getting good roles. Fox had assigned him to many mediocre and forgettable films in the forties, and after 1950 the assignments got even worse. He made a few good movies in the fifties: Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. In the two Lang films, his characters are even more guilt-ridden and morally compromised than any of his Preminger roles. In the first he is an ambitious, unscrupulous, and sexually frustrated TV broadcaster who risks his fiancée’s life to catch a serial killer; in the next he’s a devious reporter who takes advantage of his publisher’s naïve idealism to plot an almost perfect crime. He is a troubled and troubling man. In Night of the Demon he plays a fairly straightforward hero — a skeptic investigating reports of paranormal phenomena — but the slur in his voice and uneasiness in his manner make him intriguing in a role that could have been played by Kent Smith.
In 1962-63 Andrews was president of the Screen Actors’ Guild, a role in which he fought for actors’ salaries and spoke out against the exploitation of actresses coerced into doing nude scenes. But his career continued to falter; he turned up in schlock like Hot Rods to Hell (1967) and on daytime TV, though he had some successes on stage (he took over from Henry Fonda in Two for the Seesaw) and a few more prominent film roles in Kazan’s The Last Tycoon (1976) and Good Guys Wear Black (1978.) Alcoholism finally broke up his marriage and brought on a string of arrests for drunk driving. But he succeeded in quitting the bottle, and in 1972 he began speaking out publicly about alcoholism, since he believed the media and society refused to face the issue. Once sober he was reunited with his wife, and they remained together until his death in 1992.
It is easy to conclude that Dana Andrews represented the stresses and dark undercurrents beneath the surface of mid-century American success. He embodied both the attributes of an ideal hero — strength, competence, rectitude — and the hidden reality of ambivalence, guilt, and self-doubt. But who was he? Did his self-created persona reveal or conceal his true nature? In interviews he sounds wry, modest, and down-to-earth, but gives away no secrets. He admitted to hiding his feelings, though he never said why he hid them; nothing in his life necessarily explains his presence on film. On screen, his mask never fully protected him, because of the intelligence he couldn’t turn off. He could never shut his eyes, which might be why they were the most haunted eyes in Hollywood.
Note: There is no full-length biography of Dana Andrews, whose career has received little critical attention. Most of the biographical information here is drawn from Andrews’ entry in Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir, by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry. The epigraph quote is from “Dana Andrews, or the Male Mask” an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien in O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors, ed. Luc Sante and Melissa Holbrook Pierson.
- Andrews’ children saw his commitment to poise and excellence as a reflection of his early poverty. On the commentary track for the DVD of Fallen Angel, his daughter Susan recalls how he would lecture her on the importance of good self-presentation and make her practice to acquire a graceful walk. [↩]
- Fan magazines tightened this story up a bit and had the talent scout — or in some versions Goldwyn himself — pulling up at the gas station, being impressed by the young man’s winning smile and attractive voice, and instantly recognizing star potential. [↩]
- He claimed his first stroke of luck came when the publicity department at a New York theater advertised the film as starring “Gary Cooper and Dana Andrews,” though he had only a few lines, because they assumed he was an actress and wanted to suggest the picture was a romance. [↩]
- He had married Mary Todd, whom he met at the Pasadena Playhouse, in 1939. He had been married to a woman named Janet Murray in 1932 and they had a son, David, but she died of pneumonia in 1935. He and Todd would go on to have three children, Kathryn, Stephen, and Susan. [↩]