Queens of Noir Series: Miss Claire Trevor

Warner Brothers Starlet Claire Trevor

She has been called the “granddam of noir” by none other than premier film noir historian Eddie Muller. The reason behind this designation is probably because Claire Trevor starred as the femme fatale in some of the best examples of the dark genre ever to come out of Hollywood.

Long before she earned this title, Claire Trevor (born Claire Wemlinger) grew up in New York City, the only child of a Fifth Avenue tailor and his wife. Always drawn to the arts, the young woman attended classes at Columbia and then spent half a year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Claire landed a contract with Warner Bros. at the age of twenty, after working in repertory and stock theater for a couple of years. Throughout the 1930s, the young actress starred in shorts and played hard-luck ladies in a string of B pictures at the studio best known for yanking its subject matter straight from the day’s headlines.

It wasn’t until the 1940s that Claire became the depraved female centerpiece in a succession of some of the finest film noir offerings to be put on a strip of celluloid, and with each new picture, lucky fans got to watch the actress stretch her acting muscles with ever-increasing skill until she inhabited each heart-stopping role completely.

Street of Chance (1942)

“I’m not bad. I’m not a killer.”

—Ruth Dillon

Claire’s first foray into film noir was the rather run-of-the-mill crime drama Street of Chance. Burgess Meredith co-stars as amnesia victim Frank Thompson, who wakes up in the middle of a construction site on a street he doesn’t know, eventually locating a wife he hasn’t lived with for over a year. Determined to find out why he is being followed, Frank goes back to the street named Chance and is recognized by a beautiful blonde (Trevor) who tells him to get the hell inside—doesn’t he realize that he is wanted by the cops? After discovering that he is wanted for the murder of the very social Harry Diedrich, Frank decides to go to the Diedrich estate to try and clear his name.

Turns out that Ruth Dillon, the beautiful blonde, works as a maid for the Diedrich family and doesn’t want to return to the scene of the crime, pleading with Frank to run away with her instead. While trading barbs with the murder victim’s brother and his wife, Frank discovers that Grandma Diedrich, mute and unable to move, is trapped in a claustrophobic room upstairs but knows “who done it.” After hiding in the family’s greenhouse for a couple of days, Frank develops a way of communicating with old Mrs. Diedrich and learns that Ruth is the killer! Pulling a gun on her boyfriend, the maid coolly lets him know that she knifed Harry to death because he caught her stealing money for the couple’s marriage nest egg. Like a host of other femme fatales before her, Ruth dies in her lover’s arms after a struggle for the gun.

As if finding her way around the role of Ruth Dillon, Trevor completely underplays the laconic murderess. With little of the fire that she brings to her later noir roles, Trevor seems to sleepwalk through this picture, displaying only a glimmer of the diamond hardness she would soon become famous for.

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

“I haven’t been good. Not halfway good, but I need your help.”

—Velma Valento/Helen Grayle

Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely, this noir begins with detective Philip Marlowe’s search for a singing tootsie named Velma Valento. Signaling a successful career makeover for her co-star Dick Powell, Murder, My Sweet casts Claire as the thoroughly blonde Helen Grayle—a lady with a truly remarkable set of pins that go from “here” all the way into next week. Married to a wealthy and much older man, the icy Mrs. Grayle just happens to be the unlucky dame who claims that her priceless jade necklace was pinched, and Marlowe is hired to find it.

The always laconic Marlowe finds himself wading through dead bodies, hit over the head, drugged, and falling for Helen’s stepdaughter, Anne (earnestly portrayed by the pretty Anne Shirley). He soon uncovers a racket in which a likable but slithering psychic teams with thugs to separate well-heeled women from their jewels. To nobody’s surprise, Marlowe discovers that it’s the cool Mrs. Grayle who has been pulling the strings the whole time. Amthor, the psychic, has been blackmailing Helen Grayle, and she initially agrees to part with her necklace but ends up keeping it for herself, offing the guy who is supposed to retrieve it for her. After the man who has been searching for Helen accidentally kills her blackmailer, the resourceful lady pulls a gun on Marlowe because he knows too much, but ends up getting pumped full of led by her long-suffering husband instead. The ever-obliging Mr. Grayle knocks off his wife’s blackmailer only to get himself killed in a struggle for the gun. As sometimes happens in film noir, Anne and Marlowe ride off into the murky darkness.

To say that Trevor plays it cool in this one would be an understatement of gigantic proportions. One can almost hear the inner click of her steel-trap mind as she manipulates every man who is unfortunate enough to cross her path, but it is as the grasping Helen that Trevor comes into her own as a femme fatale. Unbelievably, the best was yet to come.

Born to Kill (1947)

“Most men are turnips.”

—Helen Brent

The cold-blooded Born to Kill is arguably one of the finest examples of film noir ever to hit the silver screen. In it, Trevor plays the always-knowing and rabidly selfish Helen Brent, a smart-as-a-whip dame who considers most men “turnips.” Her leading man for this outing is the high-strung bad boy Lawrence Tierney, who handles the role of the aptly named Sam Wilde as if he’s playing a schizophrenic game of Russian roulette.

After getting divorced in Reno, Helen discovers the mangled bodies of Sam’s girlfriend Laury (played ably in a marvelous star turn by character actress Isabel Jewell) and the boyfriend she’s been running around with just to make him jealous. Because reporting a double murder is always so messy, Helen wisely decides to leave town rather than inform the police. After meeting Sam on the train, Helen sees him as an “assured” man who knows what he wants—definitely not of the turnip variety, she reasons.

Unfortunately for Helen, her new love interest has a screw loose. Sam thinks it’s “feasible” to kill anyone who does him wrong for any reason. As a matter of fact, he’ll kill anyone who “makes a monkey” out of him. But the ever-resourceful Helen has a trick or two up her designer sleeve. She’s going to marry the owner of the Grover Steel Company. To this end, she returns to San Francisco and the comfort of her fiancé’s dependable arms.

Throwing a monkey wrench into her well-calculated existence, Wilde shows up on Helen’s doorstep, and she can only seethe while she watches Sam woo and then marry her wealthy stepsister, Georgia. Just to badger him, Helen accuses Sam of “having a secret.” Too late, the former Mrs. Brent realizes that Sam is the murderer of the couple in Reno and that she and Sam are kindred spirits.

Trevor attacks this role with all the steely aplomb of a Beverly Hills society matron planning a dinner party for a hundred. She is the ultimate cool customer when she meets with the dead Laury’s friend Mrs. Kraft in order to keep her from going to the police with her suspicions about Sam. “Perhaps you don’t realize,” Helen threatens icily, “it’s painful getting killed. A piece of metal sliding through your body…”

In order to save her bankbook and her soul, Helen runs back to her fiancé, Fred, but he’s had enough of her shenanigans and gives her the gate. Realizing that Sam doesn’t want her either, Helen coolly tries to get him to kill her stepsister, Georgia. But Sam turns on Helen when he figures out that she has squealed on him, and just to pay her back, he riddles her with bullets.

Raw Deal (1948)

“A girl can’t trust a guy—even when he’s locked up in the pen.”

—Pat Regan

Claire Trevor plays Pat Regan, a hard-luck dame who will do anything to keep her jailbird boyfriend in her arms, in RKO’s noir thriller Raw Deal, co-starring the incredibly likable Dennis O’Keefe, with pretty and sincere Marsha Hunt as the third point of their shaky love triangle.

While Pat assiduously works her underworld connections to get her man sprung from the big house, social worker Ann Martin (Hunt) is doing her best to get Joe Sullivan to cop to the error of his crooked ways and fly right. You see, Joe is in the slammer under false pretenses. He’s taking the rap for rotund mob boss Rick Coyle (Raymond Burr), who is doing everything he can to see to it that Joe goes six feet under.

Unable to listen to Ann’s oh-so-eloquent pleas, but attracted to her sweet prettiness just the same, Joe follows Pat’s lead and escapes stir only to find that he’s on the run from not just the cops but his former boss as well. The usual “on the lam” scenario unfolds as Pat and Joe find themselves escaping with the hapless Ann in tow because they need her set of wheels. Pat finds Ann’s insipid begging for Joe to go straight nauseating, to say the least, and one gets the idea that Trevor’s version of the character would happily push her competition down a bottomless ravine in a heartbeat. Indeed, Trevor gives the impression that Pat is completely without sympathy for anybody but Joe. After all, hasn’t life given her a swift kick or two on her shapely backside more than once?

The hapless Ann gets herself kidnapped by Rick, but when Pat finds out, she doesn’t tell Joe. Instead, she boards a ship bound for the honeymoon she’s always dreamed of—a honeymoon with Joe. As doesn’t often happen in film noir, Pat is reformed by her love for Joe and cops to the truth about Ann. Joe moves in to rescue Ann of course, and the social worker ends up proving her love for him by shooting his attacker dead. After tangling with Rick and a fire, Joe dies in Ann’s arms while Pat looks on, her arm cuffed to a waiting policeman. All of the pain that her character is feeling in that moment is present in Claire Trevor’s eyes.

Key Largo (1948)

“Honey, have you been cryin’? Why? Has somebody been mean to you?”

—Gaye Dawn

A topflight production from the get-go, Key Largo stars none other than Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. In their final pairing, the two are more than deftly supported by the likes of Lionel Barrymore, Edward G. Robinson, and in a tour de force performance, Miss Claire Trevor as the hopelessly alcoholic gangster’s moll Gaye Dawn.

Directed by powerhouse John Huston, Largo is the tale of a hotel owner (Barrymore) and his widowed daughter (Bacall) who are trapped not only by a hurricane but also at gunpoint by Robinson and his gang of thugs. Johnny Rocco (Robinson) has just escaped from prison and plans on holding everyone prisoner in the hotel until the storm passes and he can sail away. Bogart is a guest who stumbles into the middle of this mess and finds that he is forced to be a reluctant hero in the face of the gangster’s unrelenting verbal abuse and violence—much of it directed at the hapless Miss Dawn. Indeed, one gets the idea that Rocco brought his former girlfriend along just so that he could have someone to kick around. Indeed, Rocco’s disgust with her alcoholism is palpable every second Claire is on the screen.

In a scene that likely led Miss Trevor to win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, the actress pleads for a drink with such pathetic vulnerability that it breaks your heart. Every emotion wandering around in Gaye Dawn’s head registers perfectly in Trevor’s eyes, and at one point, she looks at the alcohol swimming in her shot glass as if it will save her very life.

When Rocco offers to give his lover a drink only if she’ll warble “Moanin’ Low” for the assembled company, each note that escapes her scratched throat is an open wound, and we are invited to watch her self-destruct right before our eyes. Since Rocco snatches every shred of dignity from her without the slightest hint of remorse, it is completely fitting that it is Gaye—begging to escape with Rocco on the boat out of Key Largo in a gesture of utter self-immolation—who steals the gun that will kill him.

With a film noir lineup of parts like these, it is easy to see why Claire Trevor has been described as the queen of noir. She embodied the spirit of the femme fatale in all of its twisted glory in role after role on the big screen. It is for this reason alone that the actress deserves the title above few others.

The Worst Actress in Hollywood: Queen of Republic, Vera Hruba Ralston

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In the classic film Citizen Kane (1941), Susan Foster Kane is handed a career as an “opera singer” on the proverbial silver platter. This tale was loosely based on the real-life relationship between newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies. The divergence of reality and fantasy is marked, of course, in that while Miss Davies reached legitimate stardom based on genuine talent, particularly in comedies on screen, the character of Susan Foster Kane never became an opera star.

However, the real-life story of another mistress launched to stardom by the wealth and power of her lover follows the plot line of Kane to the letter, including the full-throttled attempt to promote a completely talentless “actress” to the heights of the Hollywood firmament. This is the tale of Czechoslovakian Olympic figure skater turned Queen of the Republic Lot, Miss Vera Hruba Ralston.

Miss Hruba (the Ralston came later in an attempt to Americanize her name) and her mother sailed to the United States to escape Hitler and his henchmen after gaining some notoriety as an Olympic figure skater in the late 1930s. In fact, it was on skates that Vera first came to the attention of Republic Studio mogul Herbert J. Yates. After being featured in two lackluster skating reviews, Mr. Yates determined that while Miss Hruba was no Sonja Henie, she had, in his misguided estimation, the makings of an exotic screen goddess. After all, didn’t the likes of Garbo and Lamar have thick foreign accents?

Despite having shoulders broad enough to be a linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, eyes perilously close together and incredibly heavy facial features, Miss Ralston was given every advantage that hair dye, makeup, flattering lighting and camera angles which the “poverty row” studio could provide. The result was less than inspiring.

Even in her first major vehicle, it is patently obvious that Vera was being given the “star treatment” at Republic, whose standard fare was Gimcrack westerns and serials. This special treatment began with the opening credits of the comparatively “big budget” horror epic, The Lady and the Monster (1944), when Vera’s name appears above the title. We see Republic’s new star for the first time a good two minutes into the action, beautifully costumed in a long white evening gown at the top of the grand staircase on the vast, dark castle set. Unfortunately, the second Miss Ralston opens her heavy lips, it is obvious that she cannot act her way out of a paper bag. Things did not improve with time.

Despite being cast in one overblown Republic production after another and appearing with several excellent leading men including Fred MacMurray and John Wayne, the personable and intelligent Miss Ralston still came across as forcefully chipper but leaden on screen. Out of twenty-seven top-flight (for Republic) productions, only two of Vera’s pictures turned a profit and these co-starred the studio’s biggest box office draw, John Wayne. Fearing for his own career, Mr. Wayne refused to be in any more Ralston pictures, and many at Republic cited Vera as the reason the western star ultimately left the studio for greener pastures.

Herbert J. Yates’ faith that his mistress was not only a more than competent actress but also a star never wavered despite all evidence to the contrary. Indeed, his personal obsession with the much younger woman increased over time. Unfortunately, Mr. Yates’s stockholders didn’t agree because they threatened to force him out if he didn’t stop sinking large amounts of studio profits into his girlfriend’s dismal career. Miss Ralston retired from the screen in 1958 on the heels of the studio’s impending bankruptcy.

After he left his wife and children for his mistress, Vera agreed to move in with the mogul only if her mother could come along, and Ralston and Yates eventually married in 1952. Apparently, Vera’s devotion to Herbert was not just career-based, as she remained with the former mogul until his death in 1966. But even when viewed through the often-forgiving lens of nostalgia and the passage of time, Miss Ralston maintains the well-deserved reputation for being one of the worst actresses ever to appear on screen.

Clash of the Titans: The Hollywood Rivalry Between Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer

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When the subject of rivalry between screen goddesses comes up, the lifelong competition of Joan Crawford and Bette Davis usually springs to mind. But even before the first shot was fired between the Queen of Warners and the MGM star, Miss Crawford had a rivalry with the Queen of MGM, Norma Shearer.

By the time Lucille LeSueur landed at MGM in January of 1924, Norma Shearer was already the leading lady at the “Tiffany” of studios. Being young, alone and insecure, Lucille needed friends, and when the actress nabbed a tiny part in A Slave of Fashion (1925), she thought that its leading lady, Norma Shearer, might become a mentor, but this was not to be. Norma pulled her best “lady-of-manor” shtick and ignored Lucille all together.

The second nail in the Shearer/Crawford coffin occurred when Joan landed another part in the Shearer vehicle, Lady of the Night (1925). Norma played a dual role, and director Monta Bell needed someone to play Norma’s double in two and long shots. Young Joan agreed to play the relatively thankless part, but while she was on camera, she often ended up “playing” the back of the leading lady’s head.

As Crawford became more successful at MGM, she began to compete with her nemesis for parts. She often complained that she “got Norma’s cast-offs.” Later, the actress compounded this charge by saying, “If they are looking for a lady, they cast Norma. If they want a shopgirl, they cast me.”

Norma (who never admitted to competing with Crawford) made Joan livid when she ran after and eventually married the second most powerful man at the studio, Head of Production, Irving Thalberg. “How the hell can I compete with that?” Crawford was heard to wail. “Norma is sleeping with the boss!” When the frustrated star complained to Irving Thalberg that he was handing his wife all the good roles at the mammoth studio, Joan was plunked into the “B” western Montana Moon (1930) for her pains.

Things came to a head between the two stars on the set of The Women (1939), MGM’s all-star, all-female bitch fest. Apparently, there were fights over costumes (Crawford claimed that Shearer tried to confiscate one of Crawford’s favorite costumes to wear for herself) and photo-shoot placement. Finally, Joan had had her fill. When she was to “feed” lines to Norma while off camera in the famous dressing room scene, Crawford decided to click her knitting needles together as loudly as she could just as Shearer tried to say her lines. Not only did Norma walk off the set until Joan could “behave like a professional,” but director George Cukor ordered Crawford to apologize to her co-star before she could set foot on the set the next morning. Joan responded by telling Norma exactly what she thought of her via telegram.

The two divas never spoke to each other again.