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Immediately after making his mark in films late in life playing wealthy, effete, and none-too-trustworthy society gentlemen in three consecutive films--Laura (1944), The Dark Corner (1946), and The Razor's Edge (1946)--Clifton Webb took on a real change of pace with the comedy Sitting Pretty (1948). In it, he plays a master of many professions, Lynn Belvedere, who is hired by a suburban couple to take care of their home, three children, and dog and ends up writing a searing expose of life in the not-so-idyllic neighborhood of Hummingbird Hill.
Actually, this wasn't so much a complete reversal for Webb as a humorous take on his image as an educated and cultured man, out of his element in petty suburban circumstances, whose gentlemanly mannerisms make him easy fodder for rumor and gossip. Much fun was made of Webb as the haughty but rather lovable nanny to three unruly children, carrying on his duties with, as Time magazine said, "chilly relish" and "generally swishy aplomb." It was a job Laura's Waldo Lydecker would no doubt have quickly and lethally dispatched and walked away from. As a result, Webb was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award. The film also received a Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Comedy and a Gold Medal Award from Photoplay magazine.
Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was enthusiastic about the project from the start, calling the Belvedere character "sensational, original, fresh, wonderful" and describing the story as "a perfect setup." Zanuck loved that the character could do just about anything and still be believable; "The wonderful thing about Mr. Belvedere is his superior attitude, his sureness, and it is amazing that an audience will completely believe whatever he tells them."
To change the look from his early oily heavies, Webb got a crew cut. When he started shooting on October 29, 1947, he was advised to meet the youngest of the three children immediately, 18-month-old Roddy McCaskill, so the child wouldn't be frightened by him. "My effect on him was exactly the opposite," Webb later recalled, "and from the day we started to work, he was my pal and buddy." The two appeared together again in another popular Webb comedy, Cheaper by the Dozen (1950).
Webb later recalled one of the most famous scenes in the movie, in which he dumped a bowl of oatmeal on the head of McCaskill's unruly character: "Everyone was very much afraid he was going to raise hell, and kick and scream and yell. So, they...nailed the chair to the floor, tied him in the chair, removed all the cutlery and dishes from in front of him, tied the bowl to his head, and began to pour mush all over him." The child was supposed to start crying; instead, young Roddy thought it all great fun and began to laugh. They tried everything to make him cry, everyone on set taking turns scolding him. "As a final resort, they turned out all the lights on the stage, and his mother called 'goodbye' to him," Webb explained. "With this, he began to cry and they took a soundtrack."
Webb also found another co-star to be far more amiable than he had expected. He had heard Maureen O'Hara, as the children's mother, was difficult to get along with. "On the contrary, I found her most affable, willing, and helpful. The same goes for Robert Young [as O'Hara's husband], who is a first-class trouper in every sense of the word." The seven-week shoot proved to be for Webb "the most pleasant engagement I have ever had, either in the theatre or on the screen." It also turned out to be one of his biggest hits, pulling in more than $4 million in the U.S. alone, well over its $1.3 million budget. Clifton Webb had finally moved from character actor to movie star.
The script was adapted by F. Hugh Herbert from Gwen Davenport's 1947 novel Belvedere, which she in turn had adapted from her unpublished play "Squatter's Rights." Sitting Pretty was the first appearance of the Mr. Belvedere character on the screen, and his appeal was so likable that he would return again and again. Webb played him twice more, in Mr. Belvedere Goes to College (1949) and Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell (1951). Fox planned three additional films around the character, but they remained unproduced after Webb tired of the role. Webb and Young recreated their roles on a 1949 Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of the story. In 1956, it was adapted for the CBS television series The 20th Century-Fox Hour, starring Reginald Gardner and Eddie Bracken, produced as a pilot that never went anywhere. Neither did another pilot produced in 1965 with either Danish comedian-musician Victor Borge or American actor Victor Buono in the lead, depending on what source you consult, although Buono seems the more likely choice. The character finally made it successfully to the small screen in the long-running (1985-1990) series Mr. Belvedere, starring English actor Christopher Hewett.
Director: Walter Lang
Producer: Samuel G. Engel
Screenplay: F. Hugh Herbert, based on the novel Belvedere by Gwen Davenport
Cinematography: Norbert Brodine
Art Direction: Leland Fuller, Lyle Wheeler
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Clifton Webb (Lynn Belvedere), Maureen O'Hara (Tacey King), Robert Young (Harry King), Richard Haydn (Clarence Appleton), Louise Allbritton (Edna Philby).
BW-85m. Closed Captioning.
by Rob Nixon