Steve Cochran is one of my favorite undersung talents of the films of the 1940s and ’50s. He had a leading man’s looks—handsome face, lustrous black hair, a well-toned body—yet was primarily a character actor, more specifically the kind of guy who played a lot of mugs and thugs. Cochran was the fellow most likely to be seen messing around with Virginia Mayo, which is exactly what you could find him doing in A Song Is Born (1948), White Heat (1949), and, most memorably, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). His “hunk” factor served him well while calling Joan Crawford “a dirty tramp” in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). He even got a shot at his own version of T-shirt-wearing Stanley Kowalski in Storm Warning (1950), getting particular rough with Ginger Rogers in this blatant imitation of the play A Streetcar Named Desire, which got to screens before Marlon Brando’s Stanley did. Cochran was sexy, slick, and exciting, most typically cast in films with titles like Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) and Private Hell 36 (1954).
Just as Cochran’s movie career was petering out, he got the best (and perhaps most unlikely) role of his career, the recovering alcoholic in Come Next Spring. This lovely, virtually unknown gem was made with genuine feeling and authentic small-town ambiance, similar in its impact to the wonderful Stars in My Crown (1950). Set in Arkansas in 1927, it is an effortlessly relaxed, charming, and touching picture. The film opens with Cochran’s return to his family after a nine-year absence. He had run out on them, a drunk, but has returned sober (which he has been for three years). Ann Sheridan, another favorite of mine, another player at the end of her good years, is his wife. They have a daughter (Sherry Jackson) and a younger son (Richard Eyer) who was born after Cochran bolted. The thrust of the drama is derived from Cochran slowly proving to his family and their community that he can be trusted, that he is worthy of them, that he is now different. Sheridan takes him back as a hired hand on their farm but not into her bed. Their daughter has been mute since a childhood trauma.
Cochran gives what should have been a career-altering performance, certainly one worthy of an Oscar nomination, far beyond the limited boundaries of his stereotypically slimy roles. He’s intensely likable here, someone we’re rooting for from the moment he appears. His rehabilitation is deeply absorbing, so alert and alive, so poignant and open. His best scene is a beautifully delivered speech to young Miss Jackson, about how she came to be mute following a car crash in which Cochran was driving under the influence. It’s also lovely to watch Cochran and Sheridan fall back in love. Sheridan, however, isn’t quite at her best, strong and low-key but a bit stiff and too muted.
Director R.G. Springsteen, a man who spent his film career making B and C westerns, crafted a surprisingly gentle and emotionally varied film. There may be moments of sentimentality and unevenness, but this is still a rare kind of easygoing, unforced commercial filmmaking. It’s interesting that we never see Cochran drunk yet utterly believe in his alcoholism. The film came and went without notice, doing nothing for Cochran’s Hollywood career or reputation as an actor. He did go to Italy, following in Anthony Quinn’s La Strada footsteps, and worked with an Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, on Il Grido (1957), a minor but effective neorealist drama, stark and simple, grim but beautifully made, another feather in Cochran’s cap that did next to nothing for his career.
Cochran died from a lung infection at only 48 in 1965. He had spent most of the previous decade working on television programs. You can easily enjoy him in all those Warner Brothers melodramas that play constantly on TCM, but the one to watch for is Come Next Spring, the one that shows you the Steve Cochran career that might have been. The thing about the movies is that it’s never too late to be discovered.