Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Victor Mature's 100th Birthday

Darryl F. Zanuck once referred to Victor Mature as "...one of the most under-rated performers in Hollywood." And I think that perhaps he still is. While one hears about Victor Mature as one of the stars of the Golden Age, one does not hear much about his talent as an actor. This is sad, as he gave a number of great performances in his time. It was 100 years ago today, on 29 January 1913, that Victor Mature was born.

It is difficult to say why Victor Mature was underestimated as an actor in the Forties, but I suspect today it might be because he is strongly identified with Biblical epics, sword and sandal films, action movies, and Westerns. Indeed, to this day I rather suspect that for many Victor Mature remains Samson from the Cecil B. DeMille film Samson and Delilah (1949). Samson and Delilah was not the only Biblical epic in which Mr. Mature appeared, as he appeared in The Robe (1953) as well, playing Demetrius.  Given that they are also set in ancient times, the genre of sword and sandal movies can be considered related to that of Biblical epics, so it should come as no surprise that Victor Mature appeared in sword and sandal films. He reprised his role as Demetrius from The Robe in Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), and played Hannibal in Hannibal (1959). He also appeared in such sword and sandal movies as Androcles and the Lion (1952), The Egyptian (1954), and The Tartars (1961).  Sadly, both the genres of Biblical epics and sword and sandal movies have never been particularly cited for their great acting. It is true that both genres made ample use of Shakespearean actors, but it seems that outside of those Shakespearean actors it was a rare thing for an actor to be cited for a great performance in either genre. Despite this Victor Mature gave good performances as both Samson in Samson and Delilah and Demetrius in The Robe. This is particularly true of his performance as Demetrius, which in many respects is more impressive than that of Richard Burton as Marcellus in the same film. Demetrius was a particularly difficult role, as Victor Mature had to take him from being a defiant Greek slave to a convert to Christianity.

While actors have rarely been cited for their performances in Biblical epics and sword and sandal movies, they have been cited even less frequently for their performances in action movies.  Particularly later in his career, Victor Mature did a large number of action films. Indeed, his big break came with the caveman fantasy One Million B.C. (1940).  Later in his career he appeared in such action films as The Glory Brigade (1953), Zarak (1956), Safari (1956),  No Time to Die (1958), The Bandit of Zhobe (1959), and Timbuktu (1959). He also appeared in Westerns, including the John Ford classic My Darling Clementine (1946). Victor Mature also appeared in such Westerns as Fury at Furnace Creek (1948), Chief Crazy Horse (1955), The Last Frontier (1955), and Escort West (1958). Mr. Mature gave fairly solid performances in both the action movies and Westerns in which he appeared.

In fact, arguably the best performance of his entire career was in a Western, My Darling Clementine, in which he played Doc Holliday. While My Darling Clementine departs a good deal from the actual, historical events surrounding the gunfight at the O. K. Corral, Victor Mature's portrayal of Doc Holliday is very true to the historical figure. Mr. Mature's Holliday is learned, cultivated, and refined (especially when compared to the other residents of Tombstone), but at the same time he is both domineering and self loathing. Victor Mature brought all of these qualities in Doc Holliday to the fore in My Darling Clementine, to the point that he is by far the most fascinating character in the movie. Indeed, Doc Holliday may have been the most complex character Mr. Mature ever played.

While Victor Mature's performances in Biblical epics, sword and sandal movies, action films, and Westerns, beyond My Darling Clementine, have rarely been recognised, in all probability all but classic film buffs realise he made many musicals in his career. In fact, he appeared in eight different musicals throughout his career. What is more, he appeared opposite such leading ladies as Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball, Betty Grable,  and Betty Hutton. Some of Victor Mature's musicals remain well known to this day, including My Gal Sal (1942), Footlight Serenade (1942), and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). While Victor Mature's roles in musicals were not as demanding or challenging as those in some of his other films, they were pleasant enough. He was always convincing and always delivered fairly solid performances in the musicals in which he appeared.

Curiously, while the public at large tends to identify Victor Mature with Biblical epics such as Samson and Delilah and The Robe, he should perhaps be better identified with film noir. He appeared in several films noir over the years, at least as many (if not more) than other genres. Given that actors are often noticed for their performances in films noir, it then remains odd that Victor Mature has never quite been given his due as an actor. Not only did Victor Mature appear in several films noir, but he gave impressive performances in many of them. A perfect example of this can be seen in the Henry Hathaway classic Kiss of Death (1947). Victor Mature gives a bravura performance as Nick, a former bank robber trying to go straight while not running afoul of his former associates. It could well be the best performance Victor Mature ever gave, short of playing Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine. Cry of the City (1947) saw Victor Mature on the opposite side of the law, playing the police lieutenant who pursues the criminal Martin Rome (Richard Conte). Victor Mature is impressive as Lt. Candella, playing him as sincere and good hearted, but at the same time dedicated to his job. Victor Mature also delivered a solid performance in I Wake Up Screaming (1941) as an innocent man accused of murder. Over the years Mr. Mature appeared in such films noir as The Shanghai Gesture (1941), Gambling House (1950), The Las Vegas Story (1952), and Violent Saturday (1955). Looking at the films noir that Victor Mature made, it is surprising that even today he is consistently underrated as an actor, particularly given he gave great performances in most of them.

Following The Tartars Victor Mature went into retirement, although he would come out of retirement for some of his best work. In After the Fox (1966) Mr. Mature played a once big star who makes a living from  the reputation of his past work. In Head (1968) he appeared as "the Big Victor," a giant who menaces The Monkees. The latter role was not particularly demanding (although Mr. Mature did well in it), but both showed that he had a self-deprecatory sense of humour. Indeed, he convinced that he didn't understand the script for Head, but he thought it was hilarious.

Indeed, Victor Mature never took himself seriously as an actor. In 1968 he said of his acting career, "Actually, I am a golfer. That is my real occupation. I never was an actor. Ask anybody, particularly the critics." Despite Mr. Mature's dismissal of his acting career, he was not only an actor, but a very good one. While critics may have dismissed him more often than not, looking back at his career it can be seen that he gave many great performances over the years. Sadly, many of those performances were in genres that many do not take that seriously or, at least, underestimate the quality of the acting in them. Indeed, Victor Mature did not just give great performances in the films noir in which he appeared, but also Westerns (My Darling Clementine), Biblical epics (The Robe), and comedies (After the Fox). Contrary to what critics at the time or Mr. Mature might have thought, he was a great actor.

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