Jeff Chandler: Vanity will get you someplace
In my last year of high school three movie companies came to the island to shoot scenes for big important pictures. Prior to this only two films had ever been shot there and both were war pictures where most of the action took place on the water. So we didn’t see any movie stars, any cameras, lights or other movie making paraphernalia around. We were just told by the local newspaper that they were there and then they were gone. But this time things were different. The companies not only shot many scenes on the streets and on the beaches but the stars themselves lived at our largest and most luxurious hotel and could been seen on days when they weren’t working, walking the sidewalks, shopping and looking at sights or at night in clubs drinking and laughing it up with friends.
The first company to arrive was Universal Pictures called in those days Universal International. Their film was Away All Boast, a naval war story based on a best selling novel. This being a war picture the entire cast that was brought to the island location was all men. There were scenes involving women in the finished film but they had all been shot in California. The principals around whom the main story revolved were Jeff Chandler and George Nader. The supporting cast included Lex Barker who played Tarzan in several films, Jock Mahoney a stunt man turned actor whom I had seen in many westerns and Charles McGraw another veteran actor who played both good and bad guys in a score of films. Another member of the cast was Richard Boone who later went on to TV fame as Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel. As I said before they were all staying at the Hilton Hotel where a studio for the local radio station was located. I had a one hour movie program where among other things I would interview any celebrity who happened to be staying there. So naturally when the Away All Boats cast arrived I politely wrote them all a note requesting an interview. And everyone, stars and supporting players alike, said sure.
Now it should be explained that at the time I was sixteen years old and had no idea what I was doing. I was this socially backward kid who had seen every movie that came to the island, read every fan magazine that was available and was totally in awe of anyone who had a substantial role in a movie. So when it came to interviewing these people I would just babble and go on about how wonderful they were in the films I had seen. The actors would just sit there smiling pleasantly trying to make sense of all the stupid things I was saying and answer as best they could. I still have audio tapes of these interviews but I can’t listen to them because I’m so embarrassed by my own stupidity. And although it is now all a blurry memory from a very distant past some faces and personalities still remain vivid for a variety of reasons.
One of those was Jeff Chandler. He had been a leading player in several Universal releases, always playing men of power and authority. In this film he was playing the courageous captain of a battleship. I was very impressed by him. Not just by his looks but his presence as well. The first time I saw him he was standing on the street with several other members of the cast. All were handsome young men I had seen in a number of films but somehow he seemed to stand out. There was something in the way he carried himself that told you he was not your garden variety movie star but something or someone special, unique and different. I don’t know what it was but it was something. Now I have heard critics and others talk about someone having “screen presence” all the time and sometimes it’s true. Other times they’re just reflecting their bias for a certain personality. In life I have met very few people who possesses this thing called “presence” but to me Jeff Chandler was one of them. I think it started with his head. He had this incredible face. It was deeply lined with strong features that projected a serious kind of masculine integrity you rarely see anywhere. His hair was prematurely grey and it added to the gravity of his demeanor. Because of it he appeared to be both young and old at the same time. In other words, ageless. And with this agelessness came the suggestion of a wisdom that was universal. Added to this he had a body that was handsome and well muscled that he was clearly proud of and worked hard to maintain. In many films there was always a scene where he was required to appear without his shirt. Quite often this was the shot that they used as the advertising poster for the film.
Now I have heard it said and seen it written in a number of places that Cary Grant was the quintessential movie star and I have no reason to dispute that opinion. I never got to see Mr. Grant in person. But I did see Jeff Chandler so to me he remains the ultimate movie star in the old fashioned sense of the term. One, his face alone seemed to be a thing of iconic radiance. It looked like it was modeled from a bust found in ancient Greece or Rome. But it didn’t stop there, the body that supported it also looked like a classic statue from the past. And then there was that voice. It was well modulated and expressive and he used it to maximum effect. Chandler, whose real name was Ira Grossel, had been a radio personality prior to getting into movies so he was well versed in utilizing his vocal abilities.
He was not an overwhelmingly powerful actor but he could hold his own with anyone on the screen, even a scenery chewer like Joan Crawford (Female on the Beach – 1955). His performances were straightforward and simple. He didn’t indulge in any of the so called “Method techniques” that were so popular at the time. He approached the dramatic demands of the script head on without subjecting the character and the audience with any kind of personal neurotic baggage.
Recently I spent a whole day and well into the night looking at Jeff Chandler movies. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) was running them on the anniversary of his birthday or some such thing. All the films were pretty ordinary but Chandler was good, sometimes very good in them. On looking at them and trying to decide what it was that made him so unique, I decided that it was his narcissism. Jeff Chandler might just be the most narcissistic actor I have ever seen on screen. He’s right up there with Yul Brynner but a lot more interesting. When he stands there just listening or talking you can’t help but think that he is aware of every part of himself. How he looks to the camera, and what effect he is having on not only the person he’s sharing the screen with but on the audience as well. He was obviously a vain man but he had a lot to be vain about. In life we are taught that vanity is a vice and most of us try as best we can to hide whatever aspect of it we may possess. And often we will go to great lengths to prove that just the opposite is true, that we are among the most humble of God’s creatures. And that if we are possessed of any quality that might be identified as handsome or beautiful, we are not at all aware of it. Jeff Chandler was just the opposite. He clearly knew he was handsome (and perhaps by some standards beautiful) and he gloried in it. He made vanity a virtue and it served him well. And that I think was the secret of his presence. He carried himself like an event. When he walked into a room you felt that something important was going to take place just because he was there. When he said something it took on weight and import just because he said it.
There are many vain people in the world, most display it too prominently and turn us off. Chandler wasn’t like that. His vanity was just a part of his whole persona like his handsome face and silver grey hair. In films it drew us to him right from the beginning when he played Cochise in the western Broken Arrow (1950). We wanted to know more about this proud, noble man. Not the character Cochise but the actor playing him. And he carried that special aura from film to film right to the end.
He was never a major box office draw or a major movie star for that matter, but he carried himself like one and was treated as such even in Hollywood where they surely knew that he wasn’t. That just goes to show how far a healthy dose of vanity will get you.
He died in 1961 (age of 42) from blood poisoning after an operation for a slipped disc. Today Jeff Chandler is pretty much forgotten except for periodic reruns of his films which I said weren’t all that good. But in my little gallery of great stars he stands tall, not for the films he made, but for the aura he brought to each and every one of them.