Dana Andrews: From Huntsville to Hollywood

(Originally published September 11, 2009)

Dana Andrews, the most famous movie star to hail from Huntsville, Texas, was born 100 years ago, in 1909.   His work in classic films such as The Ox-Bow Incident, Laura, and The Best Years of Our Lives has generated an international following, but his legacy is local as well, reflecting connections to Huntsville High School, Sam Houston State University, the First Baptist Church, and the community at large.

Andrews was born in Don’t, Mississippi.  In the days before two-letter state abbreviations, the postal abbreviation for his hometown was “Don’t, Miss.”  He was the third child of Charles Forrest and Annis Andrews.  There would be thirteen children in all, although only nine survived childhood.  The large family subsisted on the elder Andrews’ meager wages as a Baptist preacher, a recipe for what the film critic Imogen Smith described as “grinding Southern poverty.”  This poverty followed the family as Charles Forrest followed jobs across the south:  Mississippi; Louisville, Kentucky; Uvalde, Texas; and Huntsville, Texas.

Dana came to Huntsville in 1924.  He attended First Baptist Church, where his father served as pastor of the First Baptist Church.  The Andrews lived in the Baptist Parsonage, next to the First Baptist Church sanctuary.  The home was large and free, a perfect combination for a family large and poor.  And it was well situated for the adolescent Dana Andrews.  Huntsville High School, from which Andrews would graduate in 1925, was seven blocks to the northeast.  Sam Houston State University was five blocks to the south.  He would attend what was then Sam Houston State Teacher’s College from 1925 through 1928, majoring in Business Administration and participating in theater productions.  The town square was a block to the east, with stores, shops, restaurants, and movie theaters, although Dana was forbidden from visiting the latter, lest he be too acquainted, even vicariously, with the sins of Hollywood.

But Hollywood was his dream.  Years later, upon seeing Andrews play detective Mark Dixon in Where the Sidewalk Ends, film historian Eddie Muller noted: “He looks like he was born in a fedora and trench coat.” He wasn’t born in a fedora and trench coat, but they were two of the items—along with three dollars cash—that he hiked to Hollywood with in 1931.

His first major movie was Gary Cooper’s The Westerner.  Andrews was originally pegged for a large role in the film, but his lines were cut by studio marketers.  A film starring “Gary Cooper and Dana Andrews,” they feared, could be mistaken for a romance.  The Ox-Bow Incident was his breakout film, with Andrews displaying “dignified emotion and…rugged good looks.”  Laura, one of the greatest crime dramas ever produced, made him a star.  He was, according to Film Professor Jeanine Basinger, “One of the most underrated actors….He’s distinctive looking, masculine, handsome….[with] a rich, beautiful voice.”

Although a classically trained singer, Andrews never got to use his “rich, beautiful voice” in a screen song.  State Fair, his follow up to Laura, was a musical, but the studio didn’t know about Andrews’ vocal training.  He said nothing, figuring the singer hired to dub him needed the money.

Perhaps his greatest film was 1946’s biggest hit, The Best Years of Our Lives, a heartbreaking story of three soldiers returning from World War II.  The film won the Best Picture Oscar, and earned Andrews’ two co-stars Academy Awards.  Andrews wasn’t nominated.  Following the Oscar ceremony, a colleague put an ad in Variety ,“I would surely like you to watch The Best Years of Our Lives one more time and tell me what Dana Andrews has to do to win an Oscar.”

Best Years of Our Lives

Through the 1940s, Andrews had gone from a social to a problem drinker, but his intelligence and memory helped him mask alcohol’s effects: “He had a fantastic memory,” noted director Elia Kazan, “He could get drunk all night and come back and remember pages of scripts.”  By the 1950s, however, he wasn’t just drinking late at night.  He drank in the morning before going to the set.  He was drunk while filming, and there was no more talk about Dana Andrews winning an Oscar. In the 1960s, with a couple of drinking and driving arrests on his record and a failing marriage, he was reduced to making Hot Rods to Hell to help pay for his children’s college.  “Finally,” he recalled, years later, “I said to myself, ‘You’re a miserable man.  Whether or not you want to remain miserable is up to you.’  So I quit.”  He was one of the first actors to go public with his alcoholism, making public service announcements warning people about the dangers of alcohol.

He revived his acting career by touring in theater productions.  He returned to Huntsville to perform Together Tonight: Jefferson, Hamilton, and Burr in 1976, one of his four return trips in the 1970s.  He acted regularly on television, with his portrayal of General George C. Marshall in a made for television mini-series being his best work.

In the early 1980s Andrews began exhibiting early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.  His film and television work dwindled, and his live performances stopped, but even as the disease robbed him of his memories, he didn’t forget Huntsville.  He returned to his hometown for a final “performance” in 1985, entertaining many old-time friends and fans with a presentation followed by a question-and-answer period.  According to Dr. Ralph Pease, who helped coordinate the event, Andrews recalled having drinks with Ronald Reagan and William Holden in the 1960s.  They had one drink, then another.  When Andrews ordered a third, Reagan went home.  Andrews and Holden stayed.  “That’s why Reagan ended up as President,” concluded Andrews, “and we ended up as alcoholics.”

Andrews lived the last sixty-one years of his life outside of Texas.  His parents, however, chose to retire in Huntsville.  Andrews’ visits home were quite the celebrations.  According to Dr. Carl Rollyson, currently writing a biography of Andrews, on one such occasion, a family member asked the elder Andrews, “Aren’t you excited about Dana’s return home to see us?”  “He’s not coming home to see us,” Charles Forrest replied.  “He’s coming home so that we can see him.”

And on Saturday, September 12th, 2009, two of Andrews’ films are coming to the Wynne Home so that local residents can see him again.  The event, from 5:30-10:00pm, hosted by the Political Science Junior Fellows and The Friends of the Wynne, will celebrate his centenary.  Dr. Rollyson will be on hand to present “From Huntsville to Hollywood: The Dana Andrews Story” and to introduce showings of The Ox-Bow Incident and Laura.

The Cover of Dr. Rollyson’s “Dana Andrews: Hollywood Enigma”

Note: Dana Nicolay, Assistant Dean of Arts and Sciences at SHSU is named for Dana Andrews.  Also, local resident Daina Baker (formerly Mickelwait) was also named for Dana Andrews, although her mother threw in an “i”.

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1 Comment

Filed under Film

One response to “Dana Andrews: From Huntsville to Hollywood

  1. This was fun to read. Laura is one of my all-time favorite movies.

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