Joseph Cotten in "The Third Man"
Actor Joseph Cotten’s apt title for his autobiography is Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, which, matched with an elegant onscreen demeanor and a mellifluent Upper Tidewater Virginia-inflected voice, sent him many places – including out of his home town of Petersburg, 22 miles south of Richmond. And in 1948, he was cast by director Carol Reed in The Third Man. Also in the film is Cotten’s mentor and friend Orson Welles, whose centennial is marked this year. The film recently underwent its first major restoration. On Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. at the Byrd Theatre, Richmond’s Bijou Film Center screens this diamond-sharp 4K resolution version of The Third Man using the Byrd’s new 4K projector.
Tickets are $7 in advance, $10 day of, and the free after-party at the New York Deli will feature live music by the Gypsy Roots.
I asked Bijou co-founder F.T. Rea what’s so special about the 4K renovation. “It’s the highest resolution for scanning a single frame of the film. In addition, this is a film some people will be experiencing for the first time. They might’ve seen it on TV or on their computer, but this is one made for — and should be seen, if possible — on the big screen. And this renovation is a little controversial. I was reading a critic the other day who says, ‘It goes too far.’ Perhaps it’s a matter of some of the grain that’s in celluloid by nature that we don’t necessarily see, but it’s there and it has to do with the way white looks, black looks — they’ve gone beyond something that celluloid was capable of.” Rea allows a little chuckle and adds, “Which is just the sort of thing a certain kind of a film buff will say.” Like Craig Hubert, here.
Here’s Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz introducing the film.
During the early 1930s as Cotten struggled to get his New York City theater break, he met a young actor, writer and director, Orson Welles. That relationship landed Cotten in Welles’ stage and radio company he called the Mercury Theatre. Welles cast Cotten in a modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that confronted the rising Europan nationalist authoritarian regimes.
Cotten recalled, “We were a young, enthusiastic group who reveled in Orson’s boldness of production. In most of these plays were Martin Gable, George Coulouris, and a terribly talented, handsome young actor named Joseph Cotten.”
At the time, Cotton’s confidence in his abilities wavered. He received a mixed assessment from Welles, who regarded Cotten’s tall, curly-haired good looks and general grace on stage as “fringe assets," and said, "I’m afraid you’ll never make it as an actor.” Welles listed Cotten’s deficiencies: his regional accent, lack of classical training and a “stubborn resistance” to twist personal characteristics to fit roles. No, he’d never make it as an actor — although Welles added, “But as a star,” he made a dramatic pause, “as a star, I think you well might hit the jackpot.”
Welles overcame his misgivings to cast Cotten in a fourth-wall-bursting farce Horse Eats Hat that propelled him to the massive Broadway hit The Philadelphia Story, co-starring Katharine Hepburn, which ran for 417 performances at the Shubert Theatre and saved the Theatre Guild company from bankruptcy. The play paused before hitting the road when Hepburn went off to make the movie – but with established film star Cary Grant.
The 23-year-old Welles put Cotten in his first film, Too Much Johnson, in 1938. In this antic adaptation of an 1894 marriage farce, itself based on a French play, Cotten played Billings, an unrepentant philanderer, and makes his screen debut wearing a pinstripe suit and a straw boater tilted at a rakish angle as he makes a jaunty approach to the door of his mistress while the neighborhood looks on.
This followed with some of the most remarkable films in cinematic history including Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. This minted Cotten for other well-remembered films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt , wherein he played a serial killer masked beneath suavity, George Cukor’s Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman, Duel In The Sun featuring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones (they co-starred four times). He was in Niagara (1953) — playing Marilyn Monroe's troubled husband. The first thing she said to him when they met: "Is this where the party is?" Cotten recalls, "She was outgiving and charming. If you wanted to talk about yourself, she listened, She was defensively shy. If you wanted to talk about her, she blushed. If you wanted to sing, she joined in the chorus." Cotten even appears in Soylent Green playing the man who knows the secret of what the nutrient supplement is made out of.
He ended his career in a film acknowledged as the biggest failure of modern cinema: Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate. Cotten observed, "Heaven help Heaven's Gate. All that heaven could do was open the gate and let it in ... but not out."
Joseph Cheshire Cotten Jr., was born in 1905 the first of three sons of Joseph Sr. and Sallie Willson Cotten. “Jo” proved an indifferent student who desired a life in theater from an early age. His father, a postmaster, wanted his youngest son to enter the business world and sent him to relatives in the nation’s capital to keep him out of trouble.
There, sympathetic Uncle Benny, a banker, loaned Cotten $150 to begin acting lessons at the Hickman School of Voice and Expression. He also started playing semi-professional football. “In my mind, I wasn’t even a semipro football player,” Cotten recalled in his book about his conflictedness between art and sports — and losing his meager football pay at the craps table. “But that semi bothered me so much that I vowed that one day the word professional would be applied to me – even if it had nothing to do with football.”
When he’d completed his voice lessons at Mr. Hickman’s, he returned to Petersburg and took up a lifeguard job at Lake Wilcox to earn money to pay back Uncle Benny, which he accomplished, with interest. When Cotten gave his uncle the envelope, Benny then handed him a “crisp fifty-dollar gold certificate in my hand. ‘Give my regards to Broadway,’ he said.”
In Petersburg, there remain a few of the residences associated with the Cotten family. One is 811 W. Washington St., where Cotten lived from ages 10 to 16, and 1824 Powhatan Ave. in Walnut Hill, the last place he lived with the family before setting off for the footlights.
Petersburg historian Dulaney Ward writes of 1824,”this house, which appears to have been constructed ca. 1920, has been covered with aluminum and vinyl siding, and appears to have lost some of its detail. Jo Cotten is listed as living there with his parents in 1924, as a student; by 1927, he is not listed, but his brother Whitworth is for the first time, as a student.” “Whit” remained there after becoming the city's assistant engineer until his 1936 marriage to Maybelle. Cotten attended that ceremony and often returned to Petersburg. The city’s Blandford Cemetery is also his final resting place. The ashes of his second wife, Patricia Medina Cotten (they were together from 1960 to 1994), are next to his site. Cotten's first wife, Lenore Kipp, died in 1960 of leukemia after a marriage of 29 years.
Cotten can still be seen, however, on the 16-minute introduction film shown every half hour since 1976 at the Petersburg Siege Museum.
Which goes to show that movies bequeath a certain immortality.
Take us out, Anton Karas.