“Always understated and all too underrated.”
That’s how writer David Stenn describes Dana Andrews. Film historian Jeanine Basinger agrees: Despite Dana’s popularity with fans and stellar work for Oscar-winning directors, “Andrews is seldom listed among the legendary male stars…” Even Dana knew where he ranked in the Tinseltown pecking order: “They want top box-office names for blockbusters, and I’m not in that category.”
Despite his “second-tier” status, Dana was nothing less than a first-rate actor. I would also argue that Dana’s restrained performances surpass the adjectives critics inevitably haul out – enigmatic, indifferent, square-jawed – to peg his motion picture persona. Yes, Dana could be all those things; I just find those oft-used terms more limiting than enlightening (though I love TCM host Eddie Muller’s take on Dana: “He looks like he was born in a fedora and trench coat”).
Carver Dana Andrews was actually born buck naked on January 1, 1909 in a town called Don’t (not a typo!), Mississippi. Dana’s Dad was a teetotaling, Elmer Gantry-type Baptist preacher and father of 13, who warned Dana to steer clear of two sinful temptations: movies and liquor. Pastor Andrews was wrong about films, but right about booze -- Dana struggled with alcoholism for decades.
In 1931, Dana hitchhiked to Los Angeles to chase his screen dreams. Dana’s gas-station boss offered to pay him $50 a week to study acting, in return for a five-year share of Dana’s future earnings if he succeeded. By 1938, Dana was under contract with indie producer Samuel Goldwyn. Plagued by insecurity (confiding to his diary, “Fear, fear, fear – I’m all tied up inside,”), Dana was cast in William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940), starring Gary Cooper. From there, Dana scored supporting roles in hits like John Ford’s Tobacco Road, and Howard Hawks’ screwball smash, Ball of Fire, playing Barbara Stanwyck’s mobster boyfriend.
Dana’s slow-but-steady rise continued opposite Henry Fonda in the vigilante Western, The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). The next year, Dana earned raves for The Purple Heart, then aced the part of a detective obsessed with a murder victim in the noir classic, Laura. And I’m not the only person who felt Dana deserved an Academy Award in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives. A colleague placed an ad in Variety after the ceremony, berating voters: “I would surely like you to watch [the film] one more time and tell me what Dana Andrews has to do to win an Oscar.”
Despite the snub, Dana’s hot streak persisted with Fallen Angel, A Walk in the Sun, Boomerang!, My Foolish Heart,Where the Sidewalk Ends, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and Daisy Kenyon (he was apparently one of the rare co-stars Joan Crawford didn’t shag)!
By the 1950s, Dana’s heavy drinking was jeopardizing his career. Eddie Muller describes an incident from While the City Sleeps: “[The director] recalled one scene – Andrews, Lupino and Mitchell hoisting a few in the corner saloon – in which the actors were three sheets to the wind. Sadly, by 1956, this was common for Andrews, who couldn’t work before 11 a.m. due to the severity of his hangovers.”
Eventually, Dana won his battle with the bottle. In 1972, he made a courageous admission in a TV spot about drunk driving: “I’m Dana Andrews and I’m an alcoholic.” Stricken with Alzheimer’s disease in the ‘80s, Dana retreated from public view. Sadly, while visiting Dana in 1990, his friend Burt Lancaster suffered a debilitating stroke. Dana died on December 17, 1992 at age 83, and Burt passed away two years later. Dana was survived by his wife of 53 years, and their three children.
(This post is excerpted from my article in the special "GIANT" issue of The Dark Pages, The Newsletter for Film Noir Lovers, edited by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry.)