A few days ago, I came across the following exchange on YouTube — it’s from a video that features a Q&A session with Robert Wagner, during a TCM cruise. The clip begins with the off-screen voice of an elderly woman, identified as Aunt Helen, who is evidently in mid-sentence.
Aunt Helen: . . . well, number one . . .
Robert Wagner: Number One? I’m Number Two . . .
AH: Robert . . .
RW: Yes, dear.
AH: I fell in love with you when I was thirteen years old . . .
RW: What stateroom are you in?
Classic Robert Wagner — affable, polite, amused, likeable and slightly naughty.
Nobody can accuse Robert Wagner of having appeared in too many great pictures, but he has been in plenty of good ones; he’s unfailingly an agreeable presence, and he always, always holds his own against all comers. He’s often better than the material he appears in, and is never worse. Like many stars from the era that immediately preceded his own, his voice is immediately recognizable — it’s melodious and as easy on the ear as the rest of him is easy on the eye. Anyhow, I’ve always liked the guy: when he turns up in a picture, I’m always delighted to see him. He’s a first-rate light comedian — he’s one of the best and most graceful comic actors in the business — and he handles drama with considerable skill. But he’s best in sophisticated comedy. What’s not to like? He’s a dreamboat with a sunny disposition and a heart of gold.
In his early pictures at Twentieth Century-Fox, where he was first under contract, he was either getting killed in battle (e.g., “What Price Glory?”), or, at the very least, taking an awful beating, as in these two examples:
With a Song in My Heart
In “With a Song in My Heart,” from 1952, Wagner appears briefly as a sweet-faced soldier whom we meet only twice. First, we see him as a fresh recruit at a performance of the recently crippled pop singer, Jane Froman (Susan Hayward). In his memoir, “Pieces of My Heart,” Wagner points out that he hadn’t yet learnt to act, and that his reactions are genuine. Naturalness has always been the hallmark of Wagner’s style. His entire performance is contained in the next three clips; it’s the performance that started his whole career.
It’s just possible that Susan Hayward is the biggest ham in pictures. Everything about her is phony. Here she is, painted like the Whore of Babylon, and lip-syncing to Jane Froman’s recording of “Embraceable You.” She sings/mouths much of it directly to the fantastically handsome Robert Wagner — and, ham that she is, instead of just having a good time, she “indicates” it — acts it out — like in a game of charades. Aw, fer Chrissakes, honey, stop acting! And yet, I can’t get mad at her: without her, there’d be no Charles Busch. Her brand of terrible doesn’t make me mad: it makes me laugh.
Those two gentlemen at the end of the clip are Rory Calhoun and David Wayne. Calhoun’s career was derailed by a scandal in the mid-fifties. Robert Wagner writes about it in his memoir, and in “You Must Remember This: Life and Style in Hollywood’s Golden Age.” (Both books were co-authored by Scott Eyman; both are great fun to read.) According to Wagner, when “Confidential” (a fifties scandal magazine) was about to print a tell-all exposé of Rock Hudson’s private life, Hudson’s agent, Harry Willson, bought their silence by selling out one of his less popular clients: Rory Calhoun. Willson let them know that Calhoun had been busted on a robbery beef when he was a teenager. As Wagner puts it, “It was a simple calculation on Willson’s part — 10 percent of Rock’s salary meant a lot more than 10 percent of Calhoun’s.” The scandal ruined Calhoun’s career. Wagner also mentions that Willson died broke.
Tea for Two
Awww, he’s bashful . . . ! Look at this handsome bastard go into his innocent act. Great stuff.
“Joe . . . May we have a soft, soulful light, please?” God, look at that phony broad act
Every major studio during the fifties had a dozen or more handsome young contract players competing for the same small number of small parts, but Robert Wagner is the only real looker from that era who is still going strong. His contemporary, Tony Curtis, achieved major stardom more quickly and, at his peak, was a much bigger star than Wagner ever was, but Wagner’s career never took the nose-dives that Curtis’ did, nor did Wagner ever have to make a fool of himself in any sword and sandals epics. (“Prince Valiant” was a serious embarrassment early on, but the wig took most of blame for that one.) And Wagner is still alive and hard at it (except that he never allows it to look hard).
I’ll Walk Alone
Wagner shows up a little later in the picture, after the War has done terrible things to him. Just look at the Kabuki makeup they used to make him look ill and shell-shocked, and you know the poor boy is doomed. In those days, the more pancake makeup that was visible on an actor’s face, the closer his character was to death. In this clip, Wagner is clearly at the very gateway of the Great Divide, a victim of Hollywood’s favorite disease, pancake poisoning.
In “Pieces of My Heart,” Wagner writes:
I’m embarrassed to say that I read the script and didn’t see it. “This isn’t very much,” I told Darryl [Zanuck, head of the studio]. And with great patience, he told me, “This will be the biggest break you will have had in your career. You will be on the screen for three minutes. When people come out of the theater, they will want to know who you are.”
That was the last time I questioned Darryl Zanuck’s judgment about the movies. I was too young to realize that Darryl was placing me, sculpting moments for me that would compel the audience’s attention. He was taking very good care of me.
After “With a Song in My Heart” was released, Wagner began to receive thousands of fan letters a week and his career was on its way.
For the record, Wagner also has nothing but praise for Susan Hayward: he gives her most of the credit for his effectiveness in the scene. His loyalty to the actress does him credit, but still I beg to differ. His performance still looks real today; hers is one hundred percent baloney. (She was nominated for an Oscar, of course, but lost to Shirley Booth in “Come Back, Little Sheba.”)
Stars and Stripes Forever
Prim, swishy, desiccated Clifton Webb was an early mentor to Wagner; characteristically, Wagner has only good things to say about him. They made two pictures together (“Titanic” was the other), but I find it especially funny to see Webb in his John Philip Sousa whiskers and suffering agonies of desire for Wagner in “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1952). Musical biopics are almost without exception spectacularly terrible, but “Stars and Stripes Forever” is among the worst of the lot; “bottom of the barrel” doesn’t begin to describe it: it’s the slime underneath the barrel. It is remarkably, hilariously, memorably bad. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Clifton Webb is less dreadful than usual (bad material agrees with him better than good stuff), but it’s Robert Wagner who really holds my interest. He is so outrageously handsome that every time he’s onscreen I begin to laugh: how can anyone look that good? Debra Paget is the sex-kitten, but Wagner’s a whole lot prettier than she is. The role he’s playing is impossible, but he’s funny and charming in it.
This clip should give you a fair idea of what the whole picture is like:
Well, you can see for yourself that the material is atrocious, but Wagner’s self-possession is pretty remarkable, considering his inexperience. And I enjoy watching poor old Clifton eating him with his eyes (this is more apparent in other scenes than in the clip above). Later on in the picture, Wagner’s character loses a leg — a rum go for a fellow whose chief desire is to be in a marching band. I’ve uploaded a longish clip of the last scene on YouTube (it’s called “Wagner lo Zoppo”), but I’ve decided not to offer it here. It really is too crummy, even for here, where lousiness has often been celebrated. But there are limits.
The Pink Panther
“The Pink Panther” (Mirisch Company, 1963) is the first Robert Wagner picture I ever saw. I was just a little kid at the time, but he made an indelible impression on me: I thought he was the swellest guy I’d ever seen. He doesn’t have to do much in this next clip except be debonair, get the lighter to work on the first try, and keep a straight face — he does each to perfection.
He has even less to do in this clip. He only has to sit next to David Niven and listen to gorgeous Fran Jeffries sing “Meglio Stasera,” but I like how well he does it. He gives her his full attention and never takes his eyes off her. Peter Sellers never stops trying to steal scenes; he often succeeds, but not always — anyhow, as far as Sellers is concerned, every scene he’s in is about him. Wagner is content to put the focus where it belongs. Sellers is funny, all right, but I constantly find myself wishing he’d do less. I prefer Capucine and Wagner.
I love this brief clip of Wagner and Capucine. She needs to find a way to make him keep his trap shut, so she uses the age-old, time-honored, sure-fire method of securing silence and cooperation: she gives him a boner.
In the Clink with Niven
Here he is near the end of the picture, completely holding his own in the presence of David Niven and Peter Sellers.
“Harper” (Warner Bros, 1966) has what is generally regarded as Wagner’s best performance. He rarely has had the opportunity to play so many different emotions as he does in this one.
Here’s how we first meet him. That’s Pamela Tiffin on the diving board. On William Goldman’s amusing, often cantankerous commentary track, the first sight of Miss Tiffin all but knocks the wind out of him: “Isn’t she gorgeous?!” he says almost incredulously. Yes she is.
How many actors are able to say “Top o’ the morning” and sound hip? Not even Paul Newman sounds right saying it. But Wagner . . . well, as Brando once said of John Gielgud, “That cat is down!”
Here he is in what is probably the most dramatic scene of his movie career. He’s perhaps a little bit of a lightweight for this sort of thing, but then again, Alan Taggart is supposed to be something of a lightweight. I don’t think anyone else could play it better than he does.
By the way, the girlfriend/singer in question, whom Newman calls “that Fraley broad,” is played by Julie Harris. Her singing must be heard to be believed: when Newman says she’s a no-talent, he’s not kidding. Lauren Bacall is also on hand in an amusing role — she’s the rich bitch who hires Newman to find her missing husband. We’re supposed to believe she’s paralyzed after a fall from a horse, but in one scene, we can see her easily move her fabulous legs. This would seem to be a clue to the mystery, but it turns out to be merely an error. But it’s never a mistake to have a good look at Bette Bacall’s sensational gams.
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
This essay began with a reference to Wagner’s comic turn as Dr Evil’s henchman, Number Two, and that is where I’ll end. Number Two is a role Wagner was born to play. Here is his first entrance.
You get the idea. In “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery” (New Line, 1997) it’s a running gag to have the jokes go on far too long.
And here we see Number Two cheating at cards. You will note that the Soup Nazi (Larry Thomas) is the dealer — and he’s still in a bad mood.