The Remarkable Career of
Above: Anne Baxter as Nefrititi in DeMille's
1956 "The Ten Commandments"
At left, Baxter
faces off against Bette Davis in "All About Eve" (1950) as George Sanders and Marily Monroe look on.
Baxter in her Oscar-winning role as a
drunk in "The Razor's Edge" (1946)
confronts leding man Tyrone Power.
Baxter in "20 Mule Team"
By JIM BAWDEN
I want to go on until they have to shoot me laughed Anne Baxter during one of our interview sessions.
And the versatile actress sort of got her wish: She died of a brain aneuryism in December, 1985, aged 62, at the top of her game in a starring role in the hit TV series "Hotel."
The obituaries were predictably filled with "All About Eve" anecdotes but it wasnt her only great movie.
After all, by the age of 19 shed acted with John Barrymore and been directed by Orson Welles and Jean Renoir.
Hers is a case study of survival: I once saw her as a compelling Gertrude in "Hamlet" on the stage in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, of all places.
From movies to made-for-TV movies to game shows to one night stands, she never stopped working.
And every Easter audiences still enjoy her slinky appearance as Nefrititi in DeMille's "The Ten Commandments."
I first interviewed Anne Baxter during a long afternoon in 1974 in the Garden Room restaurant of the Century Plaza hotel in Southern California's Century City.
Then I interviewed her again in the late 1970s when she was making a TV movie "Nero Wolfe" that took years to actually get on the network schedule. (The film's star, Thayer David, had died).
When she was promoting her book "Intermission" in Toronto, we met again. And I visited her on the set of "Hotel" a year before her unexpected death.
Here are some highlights from our various chats:
Jim Bawden: Lets go back to your first film "Twenty Mule Team" (1940).
Anne Baxter: Oh, lets not. Id been on the stage since I was 15 in New York. My teacher was that old sourpuss Maria Ouspenskaya. Then in 1938 David Selznick asked me out along with Montgomery Clift to read for "Tom Sawyer." Monty had bad acne right then. David had me open my mouth and examined my teeth like I was a prize horse. And both of us flunked our tests. Two years later David asked me again to come out and read for "Rebecca" and (the film's director) Alfred Hitchcock said I had made the best test but the lead at that time was going to be Ronald Colman and he was 31 years older. That would make the story seem to be one of robbing the cradle, so I lost again.
But the test went the rounds and I had definite offers from MGM and Fox. I simply chose Fox because it was for more money. My parents were worried until it was arranged Id room with a family friend, Nigel Bruce, and his wife. They were very strict, which is what I needed. Then MGM asked to borrow me for "Twenty Mule Team," a Wally Beery western after Ann Rutherford was too busy and I made my debut there. Wally Beery had very busy hands and Marjorie Rambeau said shed protect me and she did very nicely. Stepped right in and would snort Back off, you old sea horse! Acting with him was impossible. Hed paraphrase everything and told me to Jump right in when I stop talking.
JB: Back at Fox you were in John Barrymores last film "The Great Profile" (1941).
AB: I was the stock ingénue. Did my first take with him and I was flailing away and Barrymore turned to director Gregory Ratoff and said, Does she have to swim? He was in terrible shape. In the morning he was so wasted that his man would have to carry him in and set him down in an easy chair. Then hed pour Barrymore a Coke. No response. Then hed shake in some rum flavoring and this great actor would suddenly spring to life. Amazing. Once we were waiting for a take and I asked him why he read his lines from chalk boards. Couldnt he remember his lines? And he stood up and recited a Hamlet soliloquy. He never made a pass at me but it was hard going for our resident vamp Mary Beth Hughes. She bent over once to fix her stockings and he instantly leapt up to pinch her behind. If youd asked the public of the day the greatest actor they would have instantly responded John Barrymore.
JB: How did you get the lead in "Swamp Water"(1941)?
AB: I read for Jean Renoir, the great French director, and he had to choose a studio girl, so he chose me. Adored him but he was a lost soul. Kept saying, They dont make films here like we do in France, nest-ce pas?" For one thing he had a pesty producer in Irving Pichel, who usually directed. He reported back to Zanuck every day on the number of minutes Jean had gotten, the number of takes, the constant tea and coffee breaks. The movie may have been set in the Okefenokee swamp but all the second unit had already been done. We filmed indoors on a studio stage with a recreated swamp. Jean could only clasp his arms and look horrified. He was limited in camera angles because of the transparency screens--a movement of inches and the screens would be exposed. And his English was learned from books. In conversations, he was terrible. One day he told a little girl extra to Make some water. He meant get her dress damp because shed just been pulled from the swamp. Her mother was horrified, thinking hed asked her to tinkle and slapped his face. I mean he had Walter Brennan and Walter Huston running loose and just daring him to try and tone down their outrageous mugging. Then Ward Bond and Guinn Williams would wrestle to break the tension. I was on my own, frantically overdoing it and I got bad notices that stung me.
Baxter joined a distinguished
cast in Orson Welles' 1942
follow-up to "Citizen Kane,"
Booth Tarkington's "The
JB: When did you know youd been loaned to RKO for "The Magnificent Ambersons?"
AB: When it went out as a press release. It was a straight trade, Fox got Vic Mature, I think, and he subsequently joined the studio full time. Id talked and tested for Orson Welles but he said his heart was set on Jeanne Crain who hed met in the RKO commissary. Jeanne was prettier than I was but hadnt acted as yet. RKO studio head George Schaefer made the call much to Orsons displeasure his days as the studio golden boy ended when "Citizen Kane" failed to return a profit. By the time I arrived those huge sets were up--the main house was a fully functioning house built on a soundstage--everything worked including the gas lighting. But the walls couldnt be moved to accommodate cinematographer Stanley Cortez. No wonder he stormed around all the time.
It was a reunion with Joe Cotten who played my father and was perfectly cast. Wed been in the tryouts of "The Philadelphia Story" in 1939 when Kate Hepburn had me fired because she charged I was getting big laughs. Joe had made it a point to come to my dressing room and assure me I had a future. Dolores Costello was so motherly to me. I couldnt believe shed once been married to John Barrymore, she was so demure. And I had Tim Holt as my suitor, George, cast right to type. He was that way off stage. For a guy who spent most of his career in "B" westerns, he sure had a lot of great pictures to call his own. He later made "Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
I was 19 at the time, new to this game. I remember we shot scenes in an ice house so our breath would be visible. That impressed me.
I wasnt around when Agnes Moorehead tried the scene on the staircase five different ways and each way worked. To his credit Orson always asked us for acting solutions, to try something a different way. And, yes, he did make the obligatory pass at me and I made the obligatory refusal.
I saw a print in a screening room at RKO that was very long--maybe almost two hours--and it seemed draggy to me. But Orson had left on his next film adventure to Brazil when the studio head ordered Bob Wise to cut it down to 88 minutes and ship it out. I think its a great film but how it would have run at 120 minutes, Im not sure, that was too long for most features in those days.
JB: In the war years you always seemed to play the girl left behind.
AB: Over and over. I did get to Paramount again on loan for "Five Graves To Cairo" (1943) where Erich von Stroheim up and told me Id be perfect for a sound remake of "Greed"! Sounds crazy--and it was--but I believed everything he said. Once he was in bed for a scene and he asked me: How are my little babies doing? He meant his protuberant tummy and breasts and that just broke me up. But back at Fox I did "Crash Dive" (1943), "Sunday Dinner For A Soldier" (1944), "The Sullivans" (1944). I was getting almost as much mail as Betty Grable. I was our boys idealized girl next door.
JB: Then you won the supporting Oscar at 23 for "The Razors Edge" (1946).
AB: I read in the trades Bonita Granville was up for Sophie and I went into Zanucks office and complained. I never did that before and. boy, he was surprised. I appealed to him purely in terms of economics. I was under contract, (so) hed have to pay me anyway. Bonita was freelance; shed be expensive. Finally, he said go over and see the director, Eddie Goulding. (Zanuck said) "If he OKs it, then Ill agree."
It was late at night when I went to Gouldings Beverly Wilshire penthouse suite. What luxury! A manservant led me into the library. I read a scene and the worldly weary Goulding said I sounded fine. He told me hed get me an Oscar. I did it for Mary Astor and 'The Great Lie' was junk. This is great literature. On the studio floor Eddie would act out all the parts much to the disgust of Herbert Marshall, who snorted and sneered.
I wasnt on the set much. My part was truly supporting. I only had a few scenes to hit that mark. When I come out as drugged and boozy in France I wanted the audience to be in complete shock. I thnk I got a compensation Oscar. Ty Power, the lead, wasnt even nominated. Clifton Webb was nominated in support and he was superb but he lost to a non-actor, Harold Russell (the armless veteran from "The Best Years of Our Lives."). So I figured the voters felt they had to give this film something. And so I got it. But Id already won a Golden Globe so I wasnt surprised at all.
JB: I noticed in Film Daily Yearbook (1948) that Paulette Goddard is heralded as Greg Pecks co-star in "Yellow Sky." When was the change made?
AB: The day after shooting started on the outskirts of Death Valley. Paulette did her costume fittings at the studio, arrived on location with the temperature 119 in the shade and left on the next plane. Couldnt take it. Sometimes I wonder if our director, Wild Bill Wellman, had secretly planned her departure all along. I happened to be free, so I was sent over and the costumes fit me. The heat was a problem. All the makeup would run and end up as a big ball of goo on the end of my chin.
I loved that one because Greg Peck usually was so stolid in his pictures. Billy made him relax more than usual. He was playing an outlaw and I was shacked up in this ghost town with my pa and the outlaws are trying to smoke us out. Well, theres one line where I remark about his body odor and Greg tried to get it removed, saying it might undermine his box office appeal among girls. And Billy just chuckled and kept right on shooting
JB: Wasnt it embarrassing making "Homecoming" (1948)?
AB: You mean because I was married to John Hodiak in real life by then yet in Clark Gables arms during that picture as his wife? John stayed away during those scenes of domesticity. The film just was not believable. Gable and Lana Turner are doctor and nurse on the front lines and each night repair to separate tents? I think not. But the censor would not permit any hints of adultery. That was the Code in effect. And I was stuck on the home front and never wavered? Blah. It would have been far more realistic to confront the actual situations that had arisen. So the picture flopped. Big time.
JB: Then came two with Dan Dailey.
AB: Zanuck was trying to split up the Betty Grable-Dan Dailey partnership and get two big stars whereas the tandem had gotten very expensive. And Dan told me he wanted to break free, become his own star. But "Youre My Everything" (1949) just didnt make it. It spoofed vaudeville and silent movies but people couldnt have cared less. They did it so much better in "Singin In the Rain," Im afraid. Then we did "A Ticket To Tomahawk" (1950), again not much business and Dan was shipped back to Betty. On that one I very well remember Marilyn Monroe as one of the chorus girls. She had dirty fingernails and always seemed so unkempt and then she just exploded in "Asphalt Jungle" and "All About Eve." But here? Didnt even get billing.
JB: How did you get attached with "All About Eve?"
AB: Well, it started with "A Letter To Four Wives." I see that smile on your face. There was no such movie, right? Well, there was in (writer-director) Joe Mankiewiczs first draft and I was the fourth wife. And Zanuck read the script and said, Drop the last wife, which was my part. I vaguely remember I was a young mother concerned about getting her son into the right military college. (The film was released as "A Letter to Three Wives.") And Joe came to me and was very apologetic and said he owed me one.
And that one was his next script, which was originally titled "Command Performance." First cast was Claudette Colbert as Margo and then Zanuck insisted on Jeanne Crain as Eve because she had just had a huge hit in "Pinky" and got an Oscar nomination. Jeanne later withdrew because she found she was pregnant again! And Joe then asked me. In the back of his mind he said Eve and Margo should resemble each other and Claudette and I both had these square faces. Next it was Claudettes turn to leave. She was filming the final scenes of the war drama "Three Came Home" and broke her back the last day of filming. So she needed three months of bed rest and we were starting rehearsals the next week.
Zanuck got on the blower and asked Bette Davis, late at night Im told. She was ready and she brought a different texture to Margo. At the beginning of the shoot she had laryngitis, hence her hoarse voice which she had to continue throughout shooting, but people assumed she was imitating Talullah Bankhead. Another thing: Joe wanted Ann Sothern as the playwrights wife, Karen, but "Letter" had made her hot again and she was back at MGM on a new two-picture deal, so Celeste Holm got it.
JB: Describe the shoot.
AB: Not a single word was changed. The script was that beautifully written. And Bette and Gary Merrill really did fall in love, so they were usually off by themselves. We shot the San Francisco scenes first in Frisco so the ending of the film was done before the beginning. I can report George Sanders was twice as acerbic in person than on camera as Addison DeWitt. He was just plain nasty to poor Marilyn Monroe, who was always quaking in her boots. Hed pat her on her rump and say, "You almost got through that two-line speech, my dear. Shall we try again? That confrontation between Eve and Addison in her hotel suite? We really went at each other, just as Eve says Champion to champion. And George did win the only acting Oscar after all, so he had to be terrific.
JB: Didnt Zanuck want you to be nominated as best supporting actress?
AB: Oh, yes, and he asked me thinking Id be tinkled pink. He said he could guarantee a win. But could he? Celeste Holm and Thelma Ritter both got nominations and split the vote so Josephine Hull won. So, how would I have won as the third nominee? I told him the movie was titled after my character. It wasnt called "All About Margo," was it? So I refused. I got nominated and so did Bette as best actress and we split the vote and Judy Holliday got it. Bette was more than mildly upset, Zanuck more so. My career at Fox was over although it took me awhile to realize that.
JB: Later Eve became Margo.
AB: When the stage musical came along I was asked to play Margo to replace Betty Bacall and I first thought it was gimmicky. But I can sing, or rather croak and I wanted to do Broadway and it turned out just fine. One matinee day Bette Davis phoned and said she was coming to check me out and we got a chair placed for her right behind the curtain so she could watch without the audience watching her. After the curtain came down she said, Baxter, you can still astonish me. And she left. Just like that. On another occasion, she was in Chicago to receive the real Sarah Siddons award and I popped out to give it to her. Get it? Eve giving Margo the award shed first won. She looked hesitant when she saw me and then roared with laughter. She got it, she really got it.
JB: But you were always being announced for big parts and others would get them.
AB: I definitely was up for "David and Bathsheba" and the press ran with that story but in the end Henry King picked Susan Hayward. Henry told me he couldnt see me as a Biblical queen, which is what I became in "The Ten Commandments." At one time I was up for "How To Marry A Millionaire" until Nunnally Johnson picked Marilyn Monroe, as he should have. She had zoomed in popularity after "All About Eve." But I turned blonde for a screen test for him and I stayed blonde for a bit. My Agent, Henry Wilson, even had me smoking cigars for the sake of publicity!
JB: After "Eve" you never got that career bounce at Fox.
AB: I finally made "Follow the Sun" (1952), which was the story of golfer Ben Hogan, with Glenn Ford. I was the ever loving wife. It was not popular. I also had a baby in there, remember. Then in 1953 I made a pretty poor Dale Robertson western "The Outcasts of Poker Flat." Im getting my clothes selected in rehearsals and Miriam Hopkins comes up and pats me on the shoulder, saying My dear, both of us have survived Bette Davis! And then I did a horrible so-called comedy with Macdonald Carey and Zachary Scott called "My Wifes Best Friend." and, after one (segment) in "OHenrys Full House," I voluntarily ended my 12 years at Fox. I simply asked for my walking papers and I got them in record time.
JB: You were once again a last minute substitution in Alfred Hitchcock's "I Confess"?
AB: Hitch had hired a Norwegian star, Anita Bjork, but when she arrived in Hollywood she confided in Jack Warner she was expecting. And Jack freaked out because that would have made her an illegitimate mother. So he fired her and told me to fly to Quebec City where shooting had already commenced. Hitch was seething but there was nothing he could do and I was never able to warm him up. But he had bigger problems all rolled into Montgomery Clift. It had been 15 years since wed been in L.A. together and Monty was now a fully fledged star. But he was also a Method actor and resisted most of Hitchs directions.
In one bit as the priest he has to come out of the Chateau Frontenac hotel and walk across a courtyard. Hes about to be arrested. And then he has to look up at the crowd looking down from the various windows. And Monty refused, saying My character wouldnt look up. Just plain refused and the normally placid Hitch went crazy, just lost it. He finally ordered him and Monty did it under duress and its in the movie. And then there was the Russian dialogue coach Monty planted behind pillars in the church scenes and after a take hed look at her and not Hitch and Hitch finally banished her from the set. And after all that turmoil I think the film only half works. Something got lost along the way. Was it Hitchs sanity?
JB: Are you surprised your other Warner film of the time--"The Blue Gardenia" (1953)-- is now considered a great film noir.
AB: We only thought of it as a programmer. Ann Sothern quit movies after that for two TV series because she hated working with Fritz Lang. But he could get a lot out of the material and also he shot all over L.A. so the movie looks more expensive than it was.We made it in 16 days. I think Ray(mond) Burr had a great heavy part. I mentioned that film to him decades later when I did an "Ironside" and he just growled, just growled.
JB: Then it was over to Universal for two pictures in 1955.
AB: Universal-International was the kiss of death in those days. I took on "One Desire" (1955), which Lana Turner refused to do, but we made it right after "Magnificent Obsession" (1954), which turned Rock Hudson into a big star. He was going up and I was going down. Then I did a pretty bad remake of "The Spoilers" and that was that for me at Universal.
JB: How did you get the part of Nefritiri in "The Ten Commandments" (1956)?
AB: DeMille asked me to come in. His office at Paramount was bursting with books, props, rolls of linens. I told him Id have to wear an Egyptian false nose and he pounded the table. No. Baxter, your Irish nose stays in this picture. He acted out my part and I kept nodding and I walked out with the part. The soundstage sets were magnificent. It was all corny, sure, but DeMille knew it was corny, thats what he wanted, what he loved. I loved slinking around, really this was silent film acting but with dialogue. No shading was permitted. Louder! Better!" Thats what DeMille roared at everybody. It was all too much for him, Im afraid, and directing the desert scenes in the Sinai was so strenuous he had a heart attack. This one was the last film he directed. Its on TV every Easter. I advise sitting down with a big box of chocolates, a jug of white wine and a loaf of freshly baked bread. I do it that way and I still love this last gasp of old Hollywood excessiveness.
JB: Again there was little bounce for your career.
AB: Paramount thought it would be great to reunite Charlton Heston and me immediately in a fine western, "Three Violent People" (1957). Then I did a British thriller "Chase A Crooked Shadow" (1958) which Doug Fairbanks Jr. produced but few people in North America saw it. By 1959 I was living in Australia and I did "Season of Passion" which had been the play "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll." John Mills, Angela Lansbury, Ernie Borgnine were the co-stars and it wasnt very Australian at all, I guess.
JB: You lived in Australia in the early Sixties but still got back every year to L.A. for a film.
AB: "Cimarron" (1960) was this huge remake and Glenn Ford and Maria Schell were ahead of me in the cast but it tanked at the box office. Then I had fourth billing in "Walk on the Wild Side" (1962)the bigger stars were Jane Fonda and Laurence Harvey--who positively loathed each other. I was 39 by thenconsidered an older woman type! Barbara Stanwyck was also in it as a whorehouse madam. To show she was playing a lesbian she wore a suit! One day our leading man Harvey kept everybody waiting for hours after lunch and then lurched in quite inebriated. Barbara turned all guns on him, denouncing him for his unprofessionalism and he burst into tears and ran to his dressing room. And he wouldnt come out for the rest of the afternoon. Dont blame him. Barbara would have socked it to him again if he dared appear.
JB: You gradually shifted to TV.
AB: We all did. Had to. Movie work dried up. I did one of the first TV movies, "Stranger on the Run" (1967). Hank Fonda was also in it--and we got that one done in 19 days. Then came "Companions in Nightmare" (1968). That one was 20 dayswhat a luxury! All the actors--Melvyn Douglas, Patrick Neal, Leslie Nielsen, Gig Young--were all veterans. We could handle this sort of schedule. Universal hired me as a stock company of one to brighten up the schedule as I was told and I did all those Universal series: "Marcus Welby," "The Challengers," "Ironside," "Columbo." It was my busiest ever period. But I absolutely refused to do a weekly series, I was asked to join "Marcus Welby" at the beginning, but I said no.
JB: Why not?
AB: I was proud. I wanted to do theatre, movies. I lived off TV movies as income. It was reunion month on "The Moneychangers" (1976). I was back working with Kirk Douglas and Jean Peters from my Fox days. I replaced Lana Turner on one days notice on one of them, "Little Mo" (1978. Lana got pneumonia. You interviewed me on "Nero Wolfe," which was released to TV in 1978, but wasnt it at least four years in the can? It was a TV movie pilotthey all were, reallybut the star, Thayer David, died right after and Paramount then tried to recast with Orson Welles, but he couldnt remember so many lines. Then I was in "East of Eden" (1981), which I liked.
JB: Now we come to "Hotel" (1983-86).
AB: I know what youre saying: Once again Eve was replacing Margo! Bette (Davis) did the pilot, had a stroke and mastectomy and here we go again. At first it was only temporary until she got better, then the schedule was just too much for her to contemplate. She left but later said with all the sex scenes the title should be changed to "Motel." So I did them and I love doing them because some weeks Ill be in only one scene so I can fly home to my new home in Connecticut. I had a reunion with Ralph Bellamy. We last acted in "Guest in the House" (1944). And Stewart Granger said he finally had me as leading lady. The one where Jane Wyatt plays an old school friend, that came out fine. Wed never met until our first scene together.
©2010 by Jim Bawden.This column first posted Sept. 20, 2010.
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