In 1948 the Soviet blockade of Berlin began, as did the Western response to it with the Berlin Airlift. The United States recognized Israel as a country, and Harry Truman signed an Executive Order ending racial segregation in the US military.
That year the House Un-American Activities Committee continued to wreak havoc on lives and careers in Hollywood and elsewhere. The United States v. Paramount Pictures case ended the monopoly by movie studios that both made films and owned the theaters which showed them, marking the beginning of the end for the studio system.
The year’s top earning movie in the US was The Red Shoes, a dark meditation on art and life written, directed, and produced by the British team of Powell and Pressburger and featuring a daring 17 minute surrealist ballet. The number two movie was MGM’s old-school, swashbuckling Technicolor adventure The Three Musketeers, starring Gene Kelly and Lana Turner. The times and the movie landscape were beginning to change, but slowly.
In 1948 Montgomery Clift turned 28 years old. He’d already been an actor half his life, starring in Broadway productions by playwrights including Robert E. Sherwood, Thornton Wilder, Lillian Hellman, and Tennessee Williams beginning in his teenage years. He’d acted on stage with luminaries of the mid-twentieth century theater, among them Tallulah Bankhead, Fredric March, Lynn Fontanne, and her husband and Clift’s acting idol and mentor, Alfred Lunt. Monty Clift was a shining light on Broadway, admired and praised by critics and audiences for his sensitive and perceptive portrayals, even in instances where the plays themselves weren’t so well-reviewed.
Hollywood had been after him for years, trying to lure him into signing a long-term contract. They saw promise in both his talent and his photogenic beauty, and were eager to begin the studio-prescribed process of grooming him to become the next big star. For his part Monty had no interest in being groomed, and for years had refused to be tempted by Hollywood’s entreaties. Finally in 1946 his agent, Leland Hayward, talked him into visiting Hollywood for a while to speak with Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer, Harry Cohn, and Darryl Zanuck and see what they could offer him. One by one he met them, and each time he failed to be persuaded by their offers.
“[Mayer] told me Leo the Lion is the father of one big happy unsuspended family. And I too will be happy,” he wrote fellow actor Sandy Campbell. “They keep throwing Greer Garson in my face – nostrils and all…as a perfect example of what…a career can be. Ye Gods!” Revolted by the studio men like Mayer who saw actors as “properties” and who wanted to shape his image and determine the things he worked on, Monty wrote letters to friends back home in New York with the dateline “Vomit, California.” He told studio heads their scripts were terrible, that he didn’t want to be typecast, and that he believed his career would be ruined if he signed with them.
Judith M. Kass writes that “Monty was ambivalent about becoming a Hollywood star; there was no doubt in his mind that he could be one if he wanted to…but [he was] not so sure he could acquiesce in all that would be necessary to make his aspirations a reality. Monty hated the idea of drowning in a press agent’s dream of lotusland luxury; of the invasion of his privacy; the premieres with starlets; and the autographs. His equivocating impressed the studio chiefs as indifference, a nonchalance that only increased their determination to sign him. And that, in turn, made Monty still more elusive.”
In 1947 Monty finally received two movie offers that appealed to him – the cattle drive themed western Red River, to be directed by Howard Hawks, and The Search, a realistic look at the lives of orphaned children in post-war Europe, to be directed by Fred Zinnemann. Both movies would eventually be released to considerable acclaim for the films and for Monty himself, and would earn high box office receipts in 1948.
Clift would never sign a long-term contract with a studio, however, and never settle comfortably into the Hollywood system of publicity and image-making, despite the difficulties his iconoclasm caused him within the movie industry. Dominated by his mother his entire childhood, internally tormented about his homosexuality, he at least wanted control of his career – to continue being choosy, artistic, and as he laughingly admitted to Leland Hayward when discussing Hollywood, “snobbish.”
“I’m just trying to be an actor,” Monty said. “Not a movie star, an actor.” By the end of 1948, with two well-received films behind him, his face on the cover of Life magazine as the standard-bearer of a group of “New Male Movie Stars,” and an Academy Award nomination for The Search soon to come, he would – for better or worse – be both.
How he got there and what happened afterward are still to come as these posts unfold here all month. For now, however, it’s 1948, and the Montgomery Clift who bursts to life on movie screens around the country is handsome, boyish, natural, funny, sensual, and heartbreaking. He can wordlessly express thoughts and emotions with his eyes as powerfully as any silent movie star, yet the kind of acting he does is modern, different. He’s quite unlike anything movie audiences have seen before, and in 1948 they like what they see.
In part 2 of this look at Montgomery Clift in 1948, I’ll be back to discuss the first movie he filmed – Howard Hawks’s classic western, Red River.
Montgomery Clift by Patricia Bosworth, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978
The Films of Montgomery Clift by Judith M. Kass, Citadel Press, 1979
Who the Devil Made It: Conversations with Legendary Film Directors by Peter Bogdanovich, Ballantine Books, 1998