Dan Duryea Heel with a Heart
Hollywood Legends Series
University Press of Mississippi, 2016
Though Dan Duryea made his name playing slippery cinematic cads, it turns out he was one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, just like fellow screen rascals and beloved citizens Basil Rathbone and Audrey Totter. What is it about being good that makes it so easy to play bad? Biographer Mike Peros doesn't get into that in his new book about the actor, but he creates a satisfying portrait of one of the studio era's most memorable performers.
Though he played both good and bad characters and even starred in comedies, for most classic movie fans the name Dan Duryea evokes crime and film noir. His most memorable roles were as lady slapping, sneaky snakes in dark flicks like The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Too Late For Tears (1949) and Criss Cross (1949).
Actors live to play great parts, so it isn't surprising that, like many stars who experienced typecasting, Duryea wanted to break out of the bad guy parts, but he knew how to face facts. Being mean paid the bills and it was what he did best. He was rewarded for his philosophical attitude with a career that lasted to the end of his life and which eventually led to a better variety of parts on film, television and the stage. That said, his audience always preferred him in the black hat.
Though he was attracted to acting from an early age, Duryea first became an advertising executive with the reasoning that he'd have a regular paycheck to support his family. While he was successful in the industry, he was also unhappy and became so stressed out that he had a physical breakdown. His wife Helen essentially told him she'd rather deal with irregular paychecks than a dead husband.
Once he changed careers, Duryea never had trouble finding work. It wasn't always the best of work, and starting with strong supporting roles in movies like The Little Foxes (1941) Ball of Fire (1941) and Pride of the Yankees (1942) was good as being set up for a fall, but he had a satisfying career, in good part thanks to his own practical attitude about the industry. Though higher-paying movies were always his primary interest, he was happy to work in radio, on television and on the stage to pay the bills, with the added perk of often finding more interesting parts. These pursuits often gave him the higher profile he needed to receive more movie offers.
Peros' portrait of Duryea reveals a contented family man who was beloved in his community and in the film industry. He was blissfully married to his wife for over thirty years, adored by two sons for whom he was never too busy to build a relationship and even led a Boy Scout troop. Always interested in the needs of those less fortunate than himself he often devoted time and money to improving the lives of others. He spent and invested his money wisely, apparently never had an affair (though he does seem to have been a bit of a flirt), didn't do drugs and drank in moderation.
With a scorecard that good, you might expect Duryea's life story to be a bit dull. In some respects that's true, as complications are generally the spice in your typical biography. In lieu of colorful stories from the set and stories of illicit lady loves, much of the text is devoted to detailed plot descriptions. Still, for the most part this is an engaging read, because it is deeply satisfying to admire the intelligence with which this consummate professional approached his life and career. He was a smart, compassionate man, who brought joy to those around him and the reminisces of the people he knew are some of the best passages in the book.
While Duryea did not have many friends in the film industry, those he did have were life-long companions. Some of the best stories from his time on the set are about his frequent costar and pal Jimmy Stewart. While stuck on location with Stewart in Durango, Colorado, he would sit on the corner with Jimmy and costar Audie Murphy, drinking beer and betting on which direction the next car to go by would be driving. On another set, Stewart and Duryea had an ongoing competition as to who would say good morning first, which led to a four AM phone call on one occasion and a noisy loudspeaker greeting on another.
The warmth of those stories essentially reflect the tone of the book, which is affectionate, though not overly worshipful. Peros offers a thoughtful and I thought well-informed analysis of Duryea's strengths and weaknesses as a performer. As a man, as hard as it may be to believe, he seems to have been essentially flawless.
This is a solid effort, sure to please fans of Duryea or film noir.
Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.
A few more titles I have reviewed from the University Press of Mississippi Hollywood Legends Series:
Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad
A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright
Garden of Dreams: The Life of Simone Signoret
Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman
Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-up