Tribute By Monica Sullivan
The only time I saw Claire Trevor in person was on a Tuesday afternoon late one spring in the garden room of San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. "I would simply adore a chocolate milkshake!" she announced to no one in particular. An aide quickly brought her a glass of water instead so the press conference could proceed. Miss Trevor was in town to appear in "John Brown's Body" opposite Leif Erikson & Rock Hudson. She was older than both of them, but looked young enough to be Erickson's daughter or Hudson's sister. She also outlived them, by 14 & 15 years, respectively. That Tuesday afternoon, she was a bundle of energy as she described how she & Rock Hudson had asked Tyrone Power for tickets to his sold-out performance of "John Brown's Body" in 1952. They got to see it & dozens of years later, Hudson launched the play as a vehicle for Trevor, Erickson & himself. "It's a man's play," Miss Trevor said in her trademark husky voice. "Women have very little to do with its development. They are appendages. A lot of feminists won't like this play."
But when I finally saw the play & watched Miss Trevor transform herself from a love-sick teenager to the belle of the ball to a steely-eyed old woman, I couldn't understand what she'd been talking about. Even when Trevor played an appendage, her interpretation gave it emotional depth, honesty, intrigue & sizzle. She had such a small part as an airline passenger in "The High & the Mighty," but she gave the role a vital meaning that wasn't in the script & won her third Oscar nomination for the film. In 1948's "Key Largo", she played the alcoholic love slave of mean old Edward G. Robinson. He insults her every chance he gets & then makes her sing a torch song he knows she can't carry. It was a painful moment, but she plunged into it full speed ahead & won an Oscar for her uncompromising portrait. In 1937's "Dead End," she had to convey the agony of youth gone astray when she's confronted by an old flame. Neither she nor Humphrey Bogart could use the word syphilis, but they managed to get the idea across anyhow & Miss Trevor won her first Oscar nomination.
My favorite Claire Trevor movies are her noir films where she got to play a bad girl to the hilt. In 1944's "Murder My Sweet", Dick Powell looked like a little chipmunk when he was being batted around by hulking Mike Mazurki as Moose. But Claire Trevor as Velma gave Powell credibility as Philip Marlowe. If a vamp like her "could have liked him-could have liked him a LOT," he HAD to be more than the runt he appeared to be. In 1947's "Born To Kill, her character falls in lust with killer Lawrence Tierney after she sees the dead bodies he leaves behind. She even makes out with him on the wedding night he's supposed to be spending with another woman. Miss Trevor always understood every character she played & she made sure the audience understood, too. Hers was a rare & unique talent & whether she played a skunk or an overbearing wife or an overbearing mother or a stool pigeon, she made all her women seem completely real to anyone lucky enough to catch her in flickers from the 30's through the 80's.
© 2000 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 4/12/00
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