Cinema’s Forgotten Legends Series: Van Heflin

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“Louis B. Mayer once looked at me and said you will never get the girl in the end. So I worked on my acting.” That quote was from the individual with whom I’m paying my next tribute to in my Cinema’s Forgotten Legends Series, an indelibly charismatic yet brilliantly talented, awe-inspiring, amazing and versatile actor who although portrayed mostly character roles for a greater part of his career also had a significant string of roles as a leading man during the 1940s ; he was the first actor to win an Oscar for a role in a gangster film, which to many is still a great accomplishment no matter how you slice it as well as serving our country during WWII when he was a combat cameraman in the Ninth Air Force in Europe. I’m speaking of none other than the American film, theatre & radio actor Emmett Evan Heflin, Jr. (December 13th, 1908 – July 23rd, 1971)1

In a cinematic career that’s spanned over 4 decades (1928-71), Van Heflin became a dependable yet incredibly talented character during Hollywood’s Golden Age; yes some may feel that he didn’t have those devilishly handsome good looks or that golden smile in which some of Hollywood’s elite “A-list” celebrities can sport right now at the tip of a hat. But Heflin didn’t need any of that; in fact, his actions spoke volumes in ways words could never quite fulfill. For what he lacked in appearance (some say that he was more along the lines of being craggy faced), Van Heflin made it up with hard work, determination, resilience, charisma & more importantly solid acting performances; just like some of the beloved actors and actresses in which I have paid tribute to with each CFLS article that I write about, there wasn’t a single performance of his that I can honestly say I didn’t like for I loved them all. Heflin was profoundly versatile and immensely gifted with his craft in the character actor world; he was also incredibly underrated even though he became a leading man earlier on in his film career. Even earlier on in his childhood, the restless spirit within him wasn’t quenched enough when his family wanted him to pursue other interests; yet later on, Heflin found his passion in the performing arts and just like those before him, the acting bug bit him as well. His exceptional talents first made their way into the cinematic spotlight on Broadway in 1936 with his role of a radical leftist at odds with the established elite in the comedy End of Summers at the Guild Theatre; from there, actress Katharine Hepburn took an interest to Heflin after seeing him in his brilliant performance and persuaded him to make his way towards Hollywood for a part alongside her in the Pandro S. Berman production of A Woman Rebels (1936) & the rest was history…..2

From that point on, Van Heflin heeded his calling for the performing arts and eventually pursued acting with such a fervent passion and appreciation; he starred in many classic films which have become favorites and/or personal favorites of mine that I’ve enjoyed from his film career including Johnny Eager  for which he won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor, Santa Fe Trail, The Feminine Touch, H.M. Pulham, Esq., Kid Glove Killer, Tennessee Johnson, Presenting Lily Mars, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Till the Clouds Roll By, Possessed, Green Dolphin Street, B.F.’s Daughter, Act of Violence, Madame Bovary, East Side, West Side, The Prowler, Shane, Battle Cry, Count Three and Pray, Patterns, 3:10 to Yuma, Gunman’s Walk & finally Airport (1970). Even though there were other wonderful classics he’s starred in that I’ve grown to love him in, the first film which made me a huge fan of Van Heflin was 1951s The Prowler co-starring Evelyn Keyes when he portrayed the unsavory character of  disgruntled cop Webb Garwood7

That unforgettable performance alone really had me on the edge of my seat in more ways than one; manipulative, voyeuristic, cold, calculating, vicious, cruel at times, sadistic even, heartless, seductive, ambitious…..these are just some words to describe Garwood’s façade/personality and yet despite his many character flaws depicted here which makes him someone who has more of a despicable selfish persona about him, Heflin’s portrayal of Garwood made it that much more appealing to view and enjoy. Often times during the filming of The Prowler, I’d say to myself “What a cold hearted fool he is, leaving Susan to rot inside a beaten down bungalow of sorts, while he goes to search in great vain and desperation for a key that could be the answer to all of his problems…knowing full well that she’s carrying his child and that he needs to take better care of his wife, including looking out for their welfare.” Well, maybe often isn’t the right word but I’ve contemplated on that on more than one occasion, yet another part of me would say “How does he make things looks so darn easy? Seducing another man’s wife for what would seem like a way to gain pleasure from the opposite sex, but in actuality just a cover-up for something even more heinous? A shady character indeed, but I’m so drawn to him and that’s what I really enjoyed most about classic film noir although there’s much more to it than what I’ve described just now.” Since watching The Prowler, it’s become one of my all-time favorite film noirs to watch…a Top 10 at that and part of the reason why I still enjoy it very much, aside from the awe-inspiring insightful commentary by noted film historian Eddie Muller and the amazing performance by Ms. Keyes, was the exceptionally brilliant performance of Heflin himself plus for me it’s a gem worth taking a look.prowler-pb-p4During the 1950s, his picturesque transcendence from leading man to character actor began to develop and flourish dramatically yet remarkably with his portrayal of western characters which signified integrity and singularity of purpose to classic film fans of his work, myself included, including more notably Shane, Gunman’s Walk and 3:10 to Yuma; yet even through those amazingly gifted performances that Heflin starred in during that decade in particular and not wanting to be a part of the limelight by any means, the 1960s proved to be an even bigger challenge for him as more noteworthy “meaty” roles were becoming difficult to come by. At this time, Heflin had answered his calling to the performing arts; he became a well-liked, gifted and introspective performer during Hollywood’s Golden Age yet the acting bug continually beckoned him on to find one more role which would solidify his enigmatic presence with many of his classic film fans; that day would come in the form of a deranged demolition expert named D.O. Guerrero in the Oscar-winning box office disaster smash Airport (1970)4

Here, he showcases to us just how incredibly versatile and gifted Heflin was; The Prowler’s become my No. 1 favorite film of his that I’ve enjoyed him in followed closely by this one and for good reason too because in my opinion, I’ve always considered Airport to be his penultimate classic. His character is flawed yes just like in The Prowler, but there’s also an emotional depth to it as well; his loving wife is always worried about him and looking out for his best interests. Guerrero knows that what he has isn’t nearly enough to live off comfortably and deep down he genuinely wants to give his wife the world if he had it. He struggles day to day, just to make sure that his wife will always be well taken care of…and I’m not talking about the whole “selfish, greedy, unappreciative housewife whose husband needs to provide her by any means necessary” concept either. I’m referring of course to the “unconditional selfless wife who loves her husband through the good/bad days no matter what life may throw at them” concept, which really when it comes right down to it isn’t really a concept at all but a way of life quite honestly; she knows this and strangely enough so does Guerrero but deep down he feels that there must be something else out there as well. From there, things don’t go as planned as he tries to create a makeshift bomb in his briefcase so that she will be able to collect the insurance money that he took out at the last second in order that she will always be well provided for; I don’t want to give away ANY spoilers, but the film is definitely worth viewing if you haven’t already done so…especially with a stellar ensemble cast of characters. Van Heflin was married to actress Frances Neal with whom he had 3 children together (their marriage lasted for 25 years); Heflin also enjoyed other pastimes/interests as well including sailing, fishing and swimming. Unfortunately one of his favorite pastimes was also one in which we would lose a beloved icon in the classic character world: On June 6, 1971, Heflin suffered a heart attack while he was swimming in his pool. He managed to get to the pool’s ladder, where he held on until found hours later, unconscious but still alive. Medics took him to a hospital but by that time, the damage was far too great for him to recover from; Heflin apparently never regained consciousness from the heart attack and even though he lived for six weeks, Van Heflin died on June 23rd 1971 at the young age of 62. I wish I had the honor, like so many of us, to have the pleasure in meeting him and letting him know just how much I’ve deeply appreciated all of his selfless contributions for the cinematic community; although I was unable to meet him in person, seeing that he passed away before my time, through Turner Classic Movies I was able to witness firsthand the wonder, depth, emotion, brilliance and talent which made me greatly admire as well as respect Van Heflin even more to this day. It’s a sight to behold when your friends, along with countless others, continue to appreciate character actors like Van Heflin unconditionally (A great example of this was in February of 2016 when a biography, entitled Van Heflin: A Life in Film51W8l0qHYaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

was written by one of our awesome members from a Facebook group that I’m an admin of: Derek Sculthorpe). For me, knowing that there are amazing individuals out there who have such a fervent passion for expressing their appreciation for classic film stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age is truly remarkable and one in which I feel will never die…that’s something worth holding on to always and that’s my main reason behind my Cinema’s Forgotten Legends Series’ posts: although they have been “forgotten” in a literal sense, figuratively they remain in our hearts and so once we are able to remember all of those incredibly underrated talents that way, then we can be able to appreciate and love them even more but profoundly different. I’ve always enjoyed posting blogs about my favorite actors, actresses, directors and films but the Cinema’s Forgotten Legends Series will always hold a very special place in my heart because it holds a deeper meaning to my endless love/passion for all things classic. Thank you for taking the time to read my post and be on the lookout for my next CFLS entry, so until next time everyone HAPPY VIEWING!3

 

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