Cool summer nights sitting on a blanket under the stars—there’s no better setting to watch a film from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Plus, May 6th and 7th mark the birthdays of Academy Award-winners Orson Welles and Anne Baxter, respectively, making this the perfect time to celebrate these film legends.
While Baxter will always be remembered for her role as the conniving Eve Harrington in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All about Eve (1950), James Bawden and Ron Miller reveal her softer side in their recent release, Conversations with Classic Film Stars. Today, in celebration of what would have been Baxter’s 93rd birthday, we’d like to share some interview excerpts in which she discusses working with Welles on The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), among other things:
Setting the Scene
Anne Baxter (1923-1985) was a prodigious acting talent from a prestige-heavy family—her grandfather was America’s leading architect, Frank Lloyd Wright—and always seemed destined for greatness. She began acting at age eleven and went on to study with Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya and America’s Stella Adler. She made her Broadway debut in Seen, but Not Heard in her early teens and her movie debut at seventeen. While still a teen, she worked with Orson Welles in his 1942 masterpiece The Magnificent Ambersons.
BAWDEN: Let’s go back to your first film, Twenty Mule Team .
BAXTER: Oh, let’s not. I’d been on the stage since I was fifteen in New York. My teacher was that old sourpuss Maria Ouspenskaya. Then in 1938 David Selznick asked me, along with Montgomery Clift, to read for Tom Sawyer. Monty had bad acne right then. David had me open my mouth and examined my teeth like I was a prize horse. And both of us flunked our tests.
Two years later David asked me again to come out and read for Rebecca and [the film’s director] Alfred Hitchcock said I had made the best test but the lead at that time was going to be Ronald Colman and he was thirty-one years older. That would make the story seem to be one of robbing the cradle, so I lost again. But the test went the rounds and I had definite offers from MGM and Fox. I simply chose Fox because it was for more money.
My parents were worried until it was arranged I’d room with a family friend, Nigel Bruce, and his wife. They were very strict, which is what I needed.
Then MGM asked to borrow me for Twenty Mule Team, a Wally Beery western, after Ann Rutherford was too busy, and I made my debut there. Wally Beery had very busy hands and Marjorie Rambeau said she’d protect me—and she did, very nicely. Stepped right in and would snort, “Back off, you old sea horse!” Acting with him was impossible. He’d paraphrase everything and told me to “jump right in when I stop talking.”
MILLER: You were so young then. What did you look like in 1940?
BAXTER: I had a body like a mini Mack truck and a face that looked like it was storing nuts for the winter. I was very naïve. I had been very well brought up and I was very well educated. I was precocious, I’m sure.
Miller: Is it true that you actually were fired from the Broadway cast of The Philadelphia Story before you went to Hollywood?
BAXTER: Yes. I was fourteen and was already too busty to play an eleven-year-old.
MILLER: Even if you were pretty well developed for a young girl, it seems a testament to your acting ability that Hitchcock even considered you for the leading lady in Rebecca. Tell me about the audition.
BAXTER: They had me in a rubber girdle, laced up practically under my bosom. My knees were knocking. It was awful.
BAWDEN: After your debut at Fox, you were in one of John Barrymore’s last films, The Great Profile . Legend has it he was pretty well juiced in his final films. How did that go?
BAXTER: I was the stock ingenue. Did my first take with him and I was flailing away and Barrymore turned to director Walter Lang and said, “Does she have to swim?” He was in terrible shape. In the morning, he was so wasted that his man would have to carry him in and set him down in an easy chair. Then he’d pour Barrymore a Coke. No response. Then he’d shake in some rum flavoring and this great actor would suddenly spring to life. Amazing. Once we were waiting for a take and I asked him why he read his lines from chalkboards. Couldn’t he remember his lines? And he stood up and recited a Hamlet soliloquy. He never made a pass at me, but it was hard going for our resident vamp, Mary Beth Hughes. She bent over once to fix her stockings and he instantly leapt up to pinch her behind. If you’d asked the public of the day the greatest actor, they would have instantly responded, “John Barrymore.”
[ . . . ]
BAWDEN: When did you know you’d been loaned to RKO for The Magnificent Ambersons?
BAXTER: When it went out as a press release. It was a straight trade: Fox got Vic Mature, I think, and he subsequently joined the studio full-time. I’d talked with and tested for Orson Welles, but he said his heart was set on Jeanne Crain, who he’d met in the RKO commissary. Jeanne was prettier than I was but hadn’t acted as yet. RKO studio head George Schaefer made the call, much to Orson’s displeasure. His days as the studio golden boy ended when Citizen Kane failed to return a profit.
By the time I arrived, those huge sets were up—the main house was a fully functioning house built on a soundstage—everything worked, including the gas lighting. But the walls couldn’t be moved to accommodate cinematographer Stanley Cortez. No wonder he stormed around all the time.
It was a reunion with Joe Cotten, who played my father and was perfectly cast. We’d been in the tryouts of The Philadelphia Story in 1939 when Kate Hepburn had me fired because she charged I was getting big laughs. Joe had made it a point to come to my dressing room and assure me I had a future.
Dolores Costello was so motherly to me. I couldn’t believe she’d once been married to John Barrymore. She was so demure. And I had Tim Holt as my suitor, George, cast right to type. He was that way offstage. I was nineteen at the time, new to this game. I remember we shot scenes in an icehouse so our breath would be visible. That impressed me.
I wasn’t around when Agnes Moorehead tried the scene on the staircase five different ways and each way worked. To his credit Orson always asked us for acting solutions, to try something a different way. And yes, he did make the obligatory pass at me and I made the obligatory refusal.
I saw a print in a screening room at RKO that was very long—maybe almost two hours—and it seemed draggy to me. But Orson had left on his next film adventure to Brazil when the studio head ordered Bob Wise to cut it down to 88 minutes and ship it out. I think it’s a great film, but how it would have run at 120 minutes I’m not sure—that was too long for most features in those days.
[ . . . ]
BAWDEN: How did you get the part of the pharaoh’s wife in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments?
BAXTER: DeMille asked me to come in. His office at Paramount was bursting with books, props, rolls of linens. I told him I’d have to wear an Egyptian false nose and he pounded the table. “No. Baxter, your Irish nose stays in this picture.” He acted out my part and I kept nodding, and I walked out with the part. The soundstage sets were magnificent. It was all corny, sure, but DeMille knew it was corny—that’s what he wanted, what he loved. I loved slinking around—really, this was silent film acting but with dialogue. No shading was permitted. “Louder! Better!” That’s what DeMille roared at everybody. It was all too much for him, I’m afraid, and directing the desert scenes in the Sinai was so strenuous he had a heart attack. This one was the last film he directed. It’s on TV every Easter. I advise sitting down with a big box of chocolates, a jug of white wine, and a loaf of freshly baked bread. I do it that way and I still love this last gasp of old Hollywood excessiveness.
[ . . . ]
BAWDEN: Have you ever given any thought to retirement?
BAXTER: No [laughing]. I want to go on until they have to shoot me.
Anne Baxter died suddenly in 1985 from a brain aneurysm. She was only sixty-two.
If you’re looking for more astounding behind-the-scenes stories from the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, look no further than Conversations with Classic Film Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller