With Dana Andrews, Carl Rollyson hit the jackpot. Carl, like all who devote their lives to exploring the lives of others, knows how hard it can be is to contend with the family of a biographical subject. Some relatives are resistant, wanting the family secrets to remain secret. Some want to take control, insisting that their version of events is the only possible interpretation. There’s a grim joke among biographers forced to deal with a deceased subject’s next of kin: “First kill the widow.”
But occasionally you get lucky. Carl was approached by Susan Andrews, Dana’s daughter, because she and her siblings were seeking a fuller understanding of their famous father. They had letters, memorabilia, and the diary of a man who had always held firmly onto his past. They were happy to be interviewed, but would not interfere with Carl’s conclusions. It was the perfect opportunity to take a closer look at an actor whom Carl had long admired. The book was published in 2012. Carl calls it Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews.
As the title suggests, Dana Andrews was something of a mystery man. Not for him the flamboyant public life of most stars. He and his family lived well, in suburban Toluca Lake, but he vigorously shielded his wife and kids (as well as himself) from the Hollywood social circuit, with its retinue of eager reporters trolling for gossip. His resistance to glitz and glamour partly stemmed from his upbringing, as one of 13 children born to a strait-laced Texas preacher and his wife. His early years as a cog in the Hollywood studio system also helped shape his attitude. While a contract player (1938-1941) under the imperious Samuel Goldwyn, he was expected to squire starlets around town, in order to generate publicity. Though he badly wanted to wed his sweetheart, Mary Todd, he was forced to seek Goldwyn’s permission before heading for the altar.
As an actor, Dana Andrews was known for portraying common men who reveal an uncommon nobility. His best performances are subtle ones, marked by heroic restraint. Carl Rollyson, once an aspiring actor himself, is at his best when dissecting Andrews’ pivotal role as a lynching victim in 1943’s The Ox-Bow Incident. It was Laura (1944) that shot him to stardom, as the police detective who’s not quite as matter-of-fact as he first seems. But the performance I cherish can be found in 1947’s big Oscar winner, The Best Years of Our Lives. This film about military draftees readjusting to civilian life meant a great deal to my parents – and, I suspect, to many whose lives were touched by the upheavals of World War II. At the Oscar ceremony, Frederic March was named Best Actor for portraying a middle-aged banker whose values shift after his homecoming. And Harold Russell, a first-time actor who’d lost both hands in a military training exercise, won a Best Supporting Actor statuette, while also copping an honorary award for inspiring his fellow veterans. Their performances are undeniably poignant, but Andrews (as a war hero brought down to earth by his lowly civilian status) is the glue that holds the story together. He received no Oscar love then, nor for any other role.
It’s startling to read about Dana Andrews’ problems with alcohol, which ultimately shortened a splendid career. Carl views drink as Andrews’ way of coping with a world in which he felt uncomfortable. In 1972, though, he licked his demons, then bravely filmed a public service announcement owning up to his alcoholism and urging drunk drivers to stay off the road. As always, he was a class act.
As a biographer myself, I applaud Carl Rollyson’s many achievements. And I can’t resist mentioning a coup of my own: getting an unexpected rave from a New York Times reviewer who favorably compared my Roger Corman bio to a new Corman coffee-table book costing twice as much.