May 15 marks the birthday of one of golden age Hollywood’s most versatile and beloved leading men, Joseph Cotten. To celebrate, we’re sharing an excerpt from James Bawden’s interview with him from our recent release Conversations with Classic Film Stars. Here, the acclaimed actor shares fascinating stories from his long career:
Setting the Scene
Joseph Cotten made a very auspicious screen debut in 1941 in the film most often acclaimed as the greatest-ever American movie: Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. The talented stage and radio actor went on to become a leading man in scores of important films, including a number of renowned classics, among them Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Gaslight (1944), Since You Went Away (1944), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Farmer’s Daughter (1947), and The Third Man (1949).
BAWDEN: Did you always think of a life in movies?
COTTEN: Never! My parents were well-to-do southerners. I grew up in Petersburg, Virginia. I was born there in 1905, the oldest of three brothers. But I always wanted to act—of course, onstage and not in the flickers. I studied acting at the School of Expression in Washington, but no offers came. So I moved to Miami and was the freelance drama critic for the Washington Herald from 1926 to 1928. I had other side jobs to keep me going while I acted in amateur stock. By 1930, I’d made my Broadway debut, but right then the Depression killed off Broadway as a viable option, so I tried to get as many radio gigs as possible. I’d married in 1931 and I felt any experience was all right.
BAWDEN: Don’t you think it strange you made your movie debut in probably the best American movie of all time . . . Citizen Kane ?
COTTEN: But I didn’t. It was my second movie.
BAWDEN: So what was your first then?
COTTEN: The Philadelphia Story. I can see your eyebrows lifting. I’m not in the MGM movie that was released. But I’m in the first one MGM made. Let me explain. Metro bought the rights [to the play] from Katharine Hepburn and decided to film it several times right through and edit that into a movie version. So they rented out our Broadway theater for two performances, had an invited audience, and the cameras rolled. That way they could get an understanding of how the story flowed. And it made for a better final movie with Hepburn, [Cary] Grant, and [James] Stewart because much of the dialogue was cut down by Don Stewart and he also completely eliminated the role of Tracy’s brother. I was C. K. Dexter Haven, replaced by a guy named Cary Grant. And Van Heflin was the reporter replaced by Jimmy Stewart. The photographer, Liz Imbrie, was Shirley Booth, replaced by Ruth Hussey. MGM told me my version is still somewhere in the vaults, but legally cannot be shown.
BAWDEN: How did you meet Orson Welles?
COTTEN: It was about time. I was “only” thirty-five! I’d originally met Orson Welles in the mid-thirties when CBS had a producer on Madison Avenue, Knowles Entrekin, and I was in his office with Orson, and Orson dumped his pipe into the wastepaper basket and set it on fire. Now that’s one way of getting known. He was a boy of twenty-one or twenty-two. I had started going to auditions for radio shows in New York and met him while he was also auditioning. Days later we were rehearsing a play for School of the Air and the line “barrels and barrels of pith” caused me, Orson, and fellow actor Ray Collins to continually double up in laughter, And Knowles became very red-faced with anger and almost, but not quite, fired us.
But when Orson founded the Mercury Theater in 1937, he asked for me to come on board. His first production was a modern-dress version of Julius Caesar, mounted for $5,000. I’d been in such flops as Jezebel with Miriam Hopkins and The Postman Always Rings Twice with Dick Barthelmess Orson saw me in both, told me I’d never be a good actor, but with my curly hair I’d have to get by as a star.
BAWDEN: Did you get to play in Citizen Kane through your connection with Welles then?
COTTEN: No, I was brought out to Hollywood by my agent, Leland Hayward, and trotted around to the studios, all of whom turned me down. I was at RKO, so I dropped in to say hi to Orson and he hired me on the spot as Jededia Leland. The name was a combination of Jed Harris and Leland Hayward. Ray Collins, Everett Sloane, Paul Stewart, and George Coulouris had already been set. The script was still being written by Orson and Herman Mankiewicz out at the Mankiewicz home. Orson said he’d already wasted six months on a script for Heart of Darkness that RKO turned down.
BAWDEN: But when did shooting begin?
COTTEN: In August 1940. I just hung around for weeks, not even getting paid, listening to the fantastic stories Orson and Herman were dreaming up. I was in a wheelchair in my first scene as an old man. I hadn’t seen a finished script until one was presented to me at 7 p.m. I was told to report to make up at 4 a.m. for a rubber mask to be applied. I’d already had an assortment of wigs made for me. At 9 a.m., the buzzers sounded and Orson was in a wheelchair, too, after spraining an ankle at tennis. We went out to a sanitarium; I’m an old senile coot reminiscing about the glory days. Citizen Kane had begun! Gregg Toland [the cinematographer] said to start the cameras and that was that.
BAWDEN: Did anybody know they were doing a film that would be hailed as the best ever made in America?
COTTEN: Nope. Certainly not me. That first day we shot until 6:30 the next morning. Then it was all junked because my wig wasn’t right. Orson would say, “This is what I want to achieve here,” and Gregg would nod and go off and make magic or Herman would trot to a corner to cook up a rewrite. It cost well under $1 million, less than budget. Completely on time. What Orson hadn’t reckoned on was the enormous power of the Hearst press, which refused all ads for the picture. [The film’s main character is a thinly disguised portrait of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst.] So people across the country did not know it was ever on.
RKO told me it would open at the Radio City Music Hall. It didn’t. Hearst phoned the Rockefellers, who owned the theater, and the offer was withdrawn. For years after, any movie I was in, the Hearst papers would “forget” to mention me in the reviews. We got nine nominations, but on Oscar night the audience booed mere mention of the title. It got one award—for best original screenplay. Citizen Kane ended up losing money for RKO. It broke Orson’s spirit. But in an odd way it made me, and I just kept on going even when Orson couldn’t take it anymore.
[ . . . ]
BAWDEN: And what do you think of Since You Went Away?
COTTEN: A Herculean achievement. After Gone with the Wind, David [O. Selznick] could never make just a good little movie. It had to be gargantuan. I’d been warned about Claudette Colbert—how she wanted all the sets to be constructed to show off her left side. When I asked her, she giggled and assured me her right side wasn’t the dark side of the moon. A tiny person, so methodical. She left me amazed at her understanding of the film process. John Cromwell was the nominal director, but David was always lurking in the background. We shot and shot. Claudette’s two daughters were played by Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple, in a comeback part at the ripe old age of fifteen. We had a lot of fun on the set because filming never seemed to stop. Or should I say some of us had fun. Jenny’s marriage to Robert Walker was falling apart even as they had to film romantic scenes where they were supposed to be falling in love. I’m a naval officer who comes and goes. There was a slight whiff of romance but nothing more. Today the characters would all be heaving away in bed. We thought we were finished several times and then David would recall everyone for additional scenes. Prints were about to be delivered when he ordered Claudette back again to shoot new scenes with Nazimova [the great Russian actress Alla Nazimova, who played a Polish immigrant in the film]. She told me since she was hired on a week-to-week basis that she made a fortune for it. And it was a big hit, a three-hour black-and-white saga of a family on the home front.
BAWDEN: Around this time you got to kick Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper in the butt.
COTTEN: Well, somebody had to do it. I was then making a Deanna Durbin picture at Universal, a little something called Hers to Hold . And my wife and I were in San Francisco for the weekend. When we got back to L.A. it was after midnight, and since I had a 7 a.m. call I decided to proceed to the studio and sleep a few hours there in my dressing room. What I didn’t know was Deanna had decided on doing the same thing in her gargantuan dressing room on the other side of the lot. I never knew she was there until I read an item in Hedda Hopper’s column blasting me and hinting we were having a clandestine affair. Obviously, a security guard had sold Hedda the item. But it angered me, got my wife upset, and later at a party I saw Hedda bending over to pick something up and I let her have it. She toppled and I walked away singing. Well, a lot later Hedda comes up to me at another party and says, “Joseph, I had that coming to me,” and she just walks away, but with her head turned just in case I try for a repeat.
[ . . . ]
BAWDEN: People say your fifties movies were not as good as the forties ones.
COTTEN [snappish]: I know that! September Affair  is pretty good. Joan Fontaine and I survive a plane crash and decide we’ll desert our families and live together. Very romantic. It should have been in color but the cameras were too bulky to be transported around Italy. The Man with a Cloak  has me as Edgar Allan Poe investigating a possible murder in 1850s New York City. Silly stuff. My only film with Barbara Stanwyck. I was embarrassed I got first billing because MGM was trying to punish her for some transgression. Little Leslie Caron was the ingenue and she cried throughout the shooting. I mean, to go from An American in Paris to this! Blah!
BAWDEN: But you were Marilyn Monroe’s husband in Niagara .
COTTEN: Another murderous ex-soldier type. I never met a girl as introverted as Marilyn. The whole fame explosion had just set in and whenever we filmed on location at Niagara Falls, great crowds gathered to see her. She couldn’t cope, retreated into her shell.
Director Henry Hathaway was a tough taskmaster at the best of times. He got so exasperated with Marilyn and her Russian [acting] coach he finally banned the woman from the set. I tried to keep her distracted. At night there’d always be a party in my hotel suite, but she’d look in, say hi, and then go off with her instructress. We’d wait for hours for her to show up. Hathaway started shooting the rehearsals as backup and found she was less mannered there and actually used some of the footage.
I asked her about the nude photograph and she said, dead serious, “But I had the radio on.” I’m glad I knew her before the troubles enveloped her and destroyed her. I want to remember that superb girlish laughter when I told her an off-color joke. One day Hathaway shouts at her and she yelled back, “After paying for my own wardrobe, my coach, my assistant, and God knows who else I barely have enough left over to pay my shrink!” And the crowd watching applauded her!
1981 was Cotten’s last year as a working actor. He suffered a stroke in the shower and spent several years in rehabilitation before he could speak again. He wrote a funny memoir, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere (1987). He died of cancer in Westwood, California, on February 6, 1994, aged eighty-eight.
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.