This past weekend, on October 13, Cornel Wilde would have turned 100. Though he was such a quintessentially American leading man of mid-century Hollywood, he was actually born in Hungary and didn’t come to America until he was seven or eight. Wilde, who died of leukemia at age 77 in 1989, never gave an exceptional screen performance but he was an always capable and dependable presence, blessed with an extremely handsome face and fine physique. And what other star could say that he qualified for the U.S.’s 1936 Olympic fencing team, or count among his credits the role of Tybalt on Broadway in the 1940 Romeo and Juliet starring Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh? Wilde also directed eight movies, starring in seven of them, the most notable being The Naked Prey (1966). Never a great actor but an impressive fellow nonetheless.
Wilde appears in a number of movies that I like, some of them unfairly neglected. Robert Wise’s Two Flags West (1950) is a beautiful black-and-white Civil War western with a fascinating premise: Confederate P.O.W.s are offered their freedom if they’ll join the Union Army in defending the West against Indians. Wilde, as a Union captain, is part of a fine cast that includes Joseph Cotten, Linda Darnell, and Jeff Chandler. John Sturges’ The Scarlet Coat (1955) is an intriguing Revolutionary War movie about how Benedict Arnold was found out. As in Two Flags West, Wilde is a serviceable member of a solid cast in an unusually good story. This time, as a major, he’s joined by Michael Wilding, George Sanders, and Anne Francis. In both these films, Wilde essentially plays bland good guys. When given a more interesting role, like his obsessive cop in Joseph H. Lewis’ The Big Combo (1955), Wilde didn’t quite rise to the occasion. A flawed but fascinating film noir, The Big Combo is noted for its stylish filmmaking and especially violent content, with a frightening Richard Conte (as a mobster) providing much of the nastiness.
Wilde had his share of man-candy roles. He provided the beauty while Ida Lupino supplied the brains in the irresistible trash known as Road House (1948). The year before, Linda Darnell chased him throughout Forever Amber, reminiscent of Scarlett O’Hara’s relentless pursuit of Ashley Wilkes. Darnell and Wilde looked awfully attractive together in this Restoration England answer to GWTW, but the film, colorful and lavish though it may be, isn’t anything more than a sex-driven romance-novel costume picture, a case of much plot and little character. Wilde was also in tip-top physical shape as the Great Sebastian, star trapeze artist, in The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar-winning yet brain-numbing circus drama with Wilde undone by his unintentionally hilarious French accent.
Wilde had gotten an early boost alongside Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (1941), playing the “inside man” of a hotel heist and, ultimately, a squealer. But 1945 was the year that Wilde became a star, going so far as to receive his one and only Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing Chopin in A Song to Remember, a performance noted more for its convincing piano fingering than its nuanced feeling. It’s a good-looking and certainly good-sounding movie, but it has a rotten script, which is worsened by the dreadful acting of Paul Muni as Wilde’s teacher/mentor. Hammy beyond belief, Muni was perhaps bad enough to make Wilde, by comparison, look worthy of a nomination.
Also in 1945 came Leave Her to Heaven, one of Wilde’s more enduring films, a two-dimensional but juicy and visually vibrant melodrama whose true star is Leon Shamroy’s spectacular Oscar-winning color cinematography. The color becomes the content, the place where the film’s emotional textures are expressed most vividly. Gene Tierney is a breathtaking central figure, a deranged beauty who loves obsessively and possessively. Wilde is the innocent novelist who reminds her of her deceased daddy, though the film can only hint at the incestuous nature of that father-daughter relationship. Tierney jilts Vincent Price when she decides she must have Wilde, even though Wilde is more naturally suited to Jeanne Crain, as Tierney’s sweet, pretty, dull cousin.
The film’s most memorable and astonishing sequence takes place on a lake in Maine, when a jealous Tierney, sitting icily still in a rowboat and clad in a white robe and sunglasses, allows Wilde’s beloved kid brother, Darryl Hickman, to drown. The incongruity of the gorgeous Technicolor location and the shocking content is riveting, not to be believed. After all, such horrid things can’t possibly happen in picture-postcard settings. Tierney is insanely jealous of everything in Wilde’s life, not just his adored brother but his novels, their unborn child, and, of course, cousin Crain. Though the film certainly has its campy moments, most of which stem from Tierney’s broad-stroke acting style, it never loses its power to make you sit up and take notice, with director John M. Stahl offering a purely sensory experience aimed at your gut, not your brain. Call it color noir, which isn’t really a contradiction in terms. The twisted, pulpy story is noir, turned into something quite unexpected by being photographed like a Betty Grable musical, meaning that just about anything can happen. And it ends with one of Golden Age Hollywood’s more rapturously beautiful final images (a reunion at dusk).
Leave Her to Heaven features Wilde as a nice-guy boy toy, but, hey, there are far worse movie-career fates than being remembered as one of the screen’s more reliable and likable hunks.