Joseph Cotten — Cotten is Just a Guy Called Joe (1943) 🇺🇸
But he’s a special kind of Joe — the kind with high cheekbones and slightly slanted eyes — the kind whose voice does things to women fans — the kind who can rise to heights in four pictures!
by M.M. Raison
When Joseph Cotten was handed his present role in “Hers To Hold,” his latest picture, someone commented that Cotten was growing younger with every picture.
“Yes,” said the actor, “at this rate, I expect my next contract will have to be approved by the court!”
He was referring, naturally, to his first two roles in Hollywood: the garrulous editor who grows old in “Citizen Kane” and the romantic oldster in “Lydia.” Then, much to his relief, he was given three roles in which he acted his age: The American agent in “Journey Into Fear,” the young bluebeard in “Shadow of a Doubt,” and the object of Deanna Durbin’s affections in “Hers To Hold.”
Despite this rather bewildering shuttling around, in and out of white muff, baggy pants, and gray powder, Joseph Cotten managed to set himself solidly as a star with only four pictures to his credit. This is something of a record in Hollywood, where stars are no longer born overnight. At this writing, Cotten has been offered exactly seven roles and is undecided among three of them.
He can name his own terms, approve his own scripts, create his own working conditions. All this on the strength of four pictures! Without question, there must be something superb about a man who can climb so swiftly.
There are several things superb about him. His acting, for one, his manner for another, and his background. Yet by and large Cotten is known as a guy called Joe by his family, his friends, and his business associates, from grip to producer. This pre-supposed that Joe is an easy-going fellow who puts on no airs, will talk readily to anyone, and has no patience with swank and inaccessibility.
This all happens to be true. But it’s also true that Cotten has a peculiar reticence, a genuine shyness which makes him a difficult person to know inside. This may be due to the fact that he hates people who love to turn themselves inside out in public. He thus leans too far the other way.
The first time I met Joe Cotten, it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and he was just finishing breakfast. He explained immediately that this wasn’t a habit he’d acquired in New York around the theatre. He had — and he was very honest about it — a great fatigue. But he’d collected it in a worthy cause. His stepdaughter, Judith, had never been given a Hollywood party and Joe thought it was about time a shindig was thrown for her upon her completion of the school year. Joe discovered that it was tough to compete with a sixteen-year-old on her first party. Now, all he wanted to do was walk. So we walked around the Pacific Palisades where he lives.
Then we climbed to where he could show me the view. The view from his house, he regretted to admit, wasn’t a particularly good one. He wasn’t playing himself and his possessions down deliberately. It was that guy-called-Joe in his nature that did it.
As we began to talk his fatigue no less pronounced — I watched his tanned, lean face and listened to his unusual, timbrous voice, the voice that evidently does things to his women fans. Tall and rangy, Joe might have been a football player. When I queried him about this, he told me he did play professional football once.
It was back in Washington, D. C., when he was attending a dramatic school and went broke. But football, he soon discovered, cost him too many teeth... and the roles for toothless actors were limited.
That brought him to the subject of his bête noir — his greatest fear: being typed. Once, Chic Sale, a young and talented man, was typed and made to play old men’s parts. The same thing has happened to many others. When Cotten was Handed his roles in “Citizen Kane” and “Lydia,” he performed them with such consummate art that sentimental old ladies started sending him foot-warmers and shawls. They were slightly bewildered when he appeared in “Journey Into Fear” and “Shadow of a Doubt.” They weren’t certain whether he was a young actor playing old men’s parts or an old actor playing young men’s parts. But “Hers To Hold” has tipped the balance and the “young man” category, and now Cotten can breathe more easily.
Cotten learned about playing aged characters in his early days in New York. When he was between engagements, he worked for a photographer who specialized in “Before and After” pictures. “Before,” Cotten had to impersonate the aging invalid, or the man-who-lost-his-pep-and-vitality. “After,” Cotten was young, handsome and virile. He was so good at these characterizations that the wolf, which had been loitering conspicuously on the Cotten doorstep, was frightened away, never to return. For while plays may open and shut, “Before and After” ads, be they for pills or toupees, go on forever.
By this time — we were still walking — Cotten had plucked himself a branch from a tree and was chewing on it absently. He suggested that we start back to the house. He had lost the vague look; yet he talked with that same hesitancy I had first detected in his manner. He wasn’t at a loss for words, since Joe is conspicuously one of the “intellectuals” of Hollywood. He was simply trying to explain himself to a stranger, and that’s never easy.
We got as far as the porch, and I remarked on the smart color scheme and the comfortable furniture. Joe said the scheme was devised by his wife. Later I discovered that Joe is quite a hand with the saw, plane, and paint brush himself. In fact, for a while he was constructing so many bookcases that his wife had to conveniently misplace tools. A neighbor’s chickens are now roosting in some of Joe’s cabinet work but, as Joe observed, an egg is more valuable than a book.
Over coca-cola (unadulterated), Joe told me something about his early life. Through his discourse, the name of Orson Welles occurred frequently. This was natural enough since Joe joined the famous Mercury Theater soon after its founding and co-starred with Welles in many plays. It was Orson who brought Joe to Hollywood to play in “Citizen Kane.”
“I first met Welles,” said Joe, gulping his drink thirstily, “when we both laughed at the wrong place in a radio program. We were in the audience and an actor — a pompous fool — made an embarrassing error in pronunciation. We were the only two in the radio audience who dared laugh. We were thrown out on our ears by the producer.
“I’ll never forget our first play. It was presented for the Federal Theatre, and it was called ‘Horse Eats Hat,’ a slightly bewildering French farce. The critics hated it... but the audiences loved it. They loved it so much we actually the audience. We discovered this one night when we tried to change the lines. The audience shouted back the right ones. And because the audience had the cast outnumbered (contrary to our general policy, I might add), we had to stick to the right ones.”
Joe smiled and all his facial lines went upward. He has high cheek bones and slightly slanted eyes. He even wears his sandy hair in a pompadour. He was beginning to enjoy talking about himself and was a vastly different person from the “movie guide” I first met.
He was born, he told me, in Petersburg, Virginia. His father was, and still is, superintendent of the mails there. He spent sixteen years in Petersburg, dutifully going to the public school and high school. But, he admitted, he was somewhat of a problem. He read a great deal, mostly plays, saw every road company that had the fortitude to come to Petersburg, and avidly devoured the theatrical and “drama” pages of the local newspaper. Since his father was so intimately connected with the mails, it wasn’t hard for Joe to catch an occasional glimpse of a metropolitan paper which really had dramatic pages.
He began to pester his father about becoming an actor. This was a far cry from being a Virginia gentleman — the goal his father had set for him. So Joe, who has a stubbornness all his own, started on a campaign of being a general nuisance.
“In fact,” he admits, “the boll weevil and I were the biggest problems the townspeople had to cope with.”
The boll weevil was controlled with eradicator; Joe with banishment. The day he was graduated from high school, he was handed some money and told to go find himself a dramatic school in Washington, the nearest large city. Joe joyously took the train for Washington, vowing to come back to Petersburg another Garrick.
But the money... as money will... petered out. That’s when he started playing professional football and losing teeth. It paid twenty-five dollars a quarter... and pay your own dentist bill. But it didn’t pay Joe. He tried selling vacuum cleaners. Unfortunately, in those days, every house in Washington had a vacuum cleaner.
That drove him to New York, where he became a paint salesman. He learned, to his horror, that New York was almost as clean as Washington. Every house he went to had just been freshly painted.
But New York meant that he could tramp from one theatrical producer to another for the doubtful pleasure of sitting hour after hour in an unfriendly outer office. This was bad enough in the summer. When the winter came, Joe — who needless to say had hocked his overcoat — began thinking of a warmer climate.
His thought was translated into action when a friendly furniture store owner (who didn’t buy any paint) offered to pay half of Cotten’s round trip fare (excursion) to Miami, if Joe would give the return half of the ticket to the furniture man’s daughter, who was happily stranded there. Joe jumped at the opportunity and took the first southbound train. He had exactly two dollars in cash and many high resolves for the future.
But some one on the train started
Ba poker game, and in no time Joe’s two dollars were gone — and also his return ticket! Fortunately, the furniture dealer’s daughter, who was carrying on with a saxophone player, was in no hurry to go home. Joe, caught up in the fever of buying and selling, which was agitating Miami in those days, went into the real estate business himself.
He made enough the first week to buy the stranded daughter the return ticket, much to her annoyance, and then proceeded to live the hectic existence of a Florida realtor.
He didn’t, however, neglect his theatre. Nights he acted in the Miami Civic Theatre, a semi-professional group. It was here Joe met Lenore Kipp. In the years BC (Before Cotten), Miss Kipp had been disposed to look down her aristocratic nose at theatrical folk. In all probability, she would have continued that commendable attitude had not Fate intervened in the form of a charity production. Miss Kipp, as accomplished a pianist as she was dazzling a socialite, agreed to supply off-stage music at the Miami Civic Theatre.
To her surprise, she liked the experience — and Cotten. She went further. She told Joe he was a great actor and belonged on the stage. With the help of Lenore, he collected letters to the “right people” in New York and trekked northward.
This was the Second Cotten Invasion. Hopefully he went after the “right people,” only to discover that their outer offices were even more unfriendly than the producers he’d attempted to see during his first invasion.
He made fruitless calls on producers, managers, agents. Fruitless, that is, until he happened to barge in on David Belasco, of all people. The maestro greeted him like a long-lost friend. It was clearly a case of mistaken identity, but Joe was in no mood to quibble. When the producer asked Joe to trail along to a rehearsal at his 44th Street Theatre, Joe did so gladly.
In the Theatre, Belasco repeatedly asked Cotten’s opinion on everything.
“Mr. Cotten,” Belasco would ask deferentially, “don’t you think it would be more effective if those costumes were blue instead of green?”
“I certainly do,” Cotten would agree heartily. Whereupon Belasco would have the costumes changed.
Cotten never did find out just who Belasco thought he was, but he must have pleased the old man for he was made assistant stage manager and understudy to the late Lynne Overman in “Dancing Partner.” Later, he understudied in “Tonight or Never.”
Joe admits he was probably the only understudy on record who prayed every night that the star would not get pneumonia or be hit by a truck. The very thought of taking over an Overman role set his teeth chattering and knees shaking.
“I don’t know why,” ruminated Joe, “but I was sure I’d never remember anything! And, at the same time I was dying to act. I guess it was sort of inverted stage fright.”
Yet Cotten successfully concealed his fright from Belasco who kept him busy until Belasco’s death.
The lean days came again, and they were mighty lean.
In 1931, Joe was engaged by the Copley Square Players of Boston as their leading man. This looked like steady work; so he and Lenore Kipp were married. But because the company manager believed that leading men were better box office if they were single, the news was kept secret, and Lenore was cheated out of a honeymoon.
It was shortly after this that Joe got his first real New York break. He was given the role of the collegian in “Accent On Youth.” The part almost became a career for the actor. He played it for years. He couldn’t get away from it. Once even, when he had a two hour stop-over in an upstate New York town, he visited the local theatre, where “Accent” was playing, just to kill time. He dropped backstage for a moment to visit with the boys and girls, only to learn that the actor playing the collegian had just been removed to the hospital. In the emergency Cotten took over the role, “for tonight, only.” But the two-hour stopover became a two weeks’ engagement.
Then the bottom fell out of legitimate theatre, and the Cottens had to tighten their belts. Joe was all for quitting acting entirely. He told me seriously, “The landlord and grocer were beginning to question my choice of a career.”
It was about this time that Cotten met Welles, leaving the Boy Genius only to go into “The Philadelphia Story” with Katharine Hepburn. It was a miracle that he and the fiery Katie hit it off well together. But I can understand it. It’s that “Joe” quality.
In the year of 1940 when Welles arrived in Hollywood to harry the old guard by producing, writing, directing, and acting in “Citizen Kane,” he asked for Cotten as his co-lead. Two other major studios wanted Cotten, too, but their representatives lacked the persuasiveness of Welles.
“You just don’t say ‘no’ to Orson,” Cotten explained simply. “He’d be beating tom-toms under your window if you did.”
He took the part even though another studio offered him a role on the “old folks” side. Joe told the studio, “I don’t want to be the poor man’s George Arliss. If I’m going to be a poor man’s anything, I’d rather be the poor man’s Cary Grant.”
Now you know that he’s neither. He’s Joseph Cotten, star in his own right. And that ain’t bad!
Joe goes into half a dozen torrid love scenes with Deanna Durbin in Universal’s picture, “Hers to Hold.”
Remember him as Uncle Charley in “Shadow of a Doubt”? That Cotten man certainly is a versatile actor.
Collection: Movieland Magazine, November 1943