FEATURES

ACTOR
Clifton Parmelee Webb 1890-1966
Mabel "Mabelle," David H., Frederick Edgar, Linus, Samuel, Joseph, Isaac, John, John

Clifton was born Webb Parmelee Hollenbeck on Nov. 19, 1889, at 355 N. Mississippi St., Indianapolis. The street no longer exists, but was then in the heart of the city, near the railroad yards, where his father worked. He died Oct. 13, 1966, at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., at age 76.

He appeared in more than 25 movies was nominated for three Academy Awards:

  • best supporting actor in "Laura" (1944), losing to Barry Fitzgerald in "Going My Way"
  • best supporting actor in "The Razor's Edge" (1946), losing to Harold Russell in "The Best Years of Our Lives"
  • best actor in "Sitting Pretty" (1948), losing to Laurence Oliver in "Hamlet."

His parents were Jacob "Jake" Grant Hollenbeck (1867-1939), an assistant passenger traffic manager for the Missouri Pacific Railroad Co. who died the day after he retired, and Mable "Mabelle" A. Parmelee (1869-1960), the daughter of railroad conductor David H. and Grace (Seville) Parmelee.

 

Clifton lived with his mother until her death. They were inseparable, attending premieres, parties and other social events together. He once described his mother as "not a bit like Whistler's."

As her childhood scrapbook reveals, Mabelle had theatrical ambitions of her own. Thwarted, she transferred them to her young son. The two never spoke of Clifton's father, whom Mabelle left when her beloved "little Webb," as she called him for the rest of her life, was 3. She always dismissed questions about Clifton's father with: "We never speak of him. He didn't care for the theater."

Ever the stage mother, Mabelle sent Clifton to dancing school once they had moved to New York. At age 7 he attracted the attention of Malcolm Douglas of the Children's Theater. In 1900, Mabelle, her widowed mother Grace, and Clifton were living with Green Raum Jr., a 36-year-old copper foundry worker, at 101 77th St. (Ten years later they'd all moved to 214 W. 83rd St. but things evidently weren't going so well for Mabelle -- there was also a separate entry for Green at the Alexander Cummings Hotel on Reed Street.) It was in 1900 that Clifton made his theatrical debut: as Cholly in "The Brownies" at Carnegie Hall. Next he played the title role in "Oliver Twist," followed by "The Master of Carlton Hall." He also began studying singing and painting and gave his first one-man art show at age 14.

Singing became his career, first in grand opera, then in operetta. After studying with Victor Maurel, 17-year-old Clifton made his operatic debut in "Mignon" at the Boston's Back Bay Opera House in 1911. Appearances with the Aborn Opera Company ranged from "Madam Butterfly" to "Hansel and Gretel." In 1913, he switched to operetta, appearing as Bisco in "The Purple Road" at New York's Liberty Theater.

His ability as a dancer attracted such attention in appearances at the Winter Garden and other leading Broadway theaters that Bonnie Glass invited him to team up with her. He accepted, earning $250 a week during his first dance engagement. His other partners included Jenny Dolly of the Dolly Sisters and Mae Murray. And it was Clifton who introduced Irving Berlin's classic song "Easter Parade" on the Broadway stage.

 

Like many other young men, Clifton registered for the World War I draft. When asked if there is any reason he should not serve, he indicated on his card, at left, that his mother was dependent on him.

In the 1920s and '30s, he played dramatic roles in London, on Broadway, and in a few silent movies. And by 1930, Clifton and his mother were living at 205 W. 57th St.

It was on the heels of "As Thousands Cheer," a play in which he did such impersonations as Mahatma Gandhi and Douglas Fairbanks Jr., that Hollywood summoned in 1936. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer put him on a $3,000-a-week salary to star in a movie about a dancer; he stayed 18 months without ever making the picture because of production problems. Clifton returned to Broadway where he played the role of a cantankerous wheelchair patient in "The Man Who Came to Dinner" for a year and a half. Next came Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit," which toured from Seattle to Toronto -- and then 20th Century-Fox came calling in 1942, asking him to appear in Otto Preminger's "Laura" as the acerbic Waldo Lydecker. With that role came his first Oscar nomination. And so satisfied was the studio that it signed him to a five-year contract.

Despite having been a leading man in such Broadway musicals as "She's My Baby" with Beatrice Lillie, and "Treasure Girl" with Gertrude Lawrence, Hollywood used Clifton as a nonmusical character actor, playing waspish, elitist roles. His only musical film role was as the nonsinging John Philip Sousa in "Stars and Stripes Forever."

 

Stardom came in 1948 when he dumped a bowl of oatmeal over young Raymond C. Hair Jr.'s head. The film was "Sitting Pretty" in which 55-year-old Clifton played Lynn Belvedere, a babysitter who was as formidable as he was unlikely. Of that performance, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote: "Yet there slyly protrudes through his arrogance a flickering spoof of pomposity and a tentative benevolence toward humanity, of which he generously agrees to be one. A student of the fine shades of kidding will find a lot to admire in Mr. Webb."

Clifton repeated that success in three sequels -- "Mr. Belvedere Goes to College," "Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell" and "For Heaven's Sake"-- and a series of similarly light-hearted comedies that resulted in 1950 in his selection by the country's motion-pictures exhibitors as one of the year's top 10 money-making stars.

His priggish Mr. Belvedere series was supposedly not far removed from his real-life persona. Clifton was known for his impeccable diction and his elegant taste for clothes. He was credited with having introduced into the American man's wardrobe such items as the white messcoat dinner jacket, the double-breasted vest and the red carnation boutonniere. He also admitted in an interview later in life that he was the inspiration for Mr. Peabody on "The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show."

Clifton immensely enjoyed the fame and money that came to him in midlife. The lifelong bachelor and his mother, who served as secretary and manager of the Webb Dance Studio where he conducted private classes, settled into their Beverly Hills home in 1947. Their home, at 1005 N. Rexford Drive, was built in 1921 by silent-screen director Arthur Rosson and went to his wife, Lucille, when they divorced. She married director Victor Fleming and leased the house to such tenants as actress Marlene Dietrich and operatic soprano Grace Moore. The Flemings sold the house in 1943 to actors Gene and Kathleen Lockhart (daughter June of "Lassie" and "Lost in Space" fame). The Webbs, who were frequent guests, persuaded the Lockharts into selling it to them.

 

At this Hollywood outing are Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Joan Bennett -- with Clifton and Mabelle at right.

Clifton and Mabelle probably had no idea at the time this photo was taken that they were sitting just a few feet from a Parmelee cousin -- Humphrey DeForest Bogart!

  • "Bogie" was the son of Belmont DeForest and Maud (Humphrey) Bogart;
  • Maud was the daughter of John Perkins and Frances (Churchill) Humphrey;
  • John was the son of Harvey and Elizabeth Rogers (Perkins) Humphrey;
  • Harvey was the son of Jonathan and Rachael (Dowd) Humphrey;
  • Rachael was the daughter of John and Elizabeth (Norton) Dowd;
  • Elizabeth was the daughter of Ebenezer and Elizabeth (Baldwin) Norton;
  • Elizabeth was the daughter of Nathaniel and Elizabeth (Parmelee) Baldwin;
  • Elizabeth was the daughter of Isaac, granddaughter of John Jr., great-granddaughter of John Sr.

Clifton's effeminate mannerisms off and on screen flaunted his homosexuality, but a scrupulous private life kept him free of any scandal during a closeted era. And he was honest about it. When one belligerent director asked if he was a homosexual, the actor quickly replied, "Devout!" And yet, he was a popular family man on the screen, in such films as "Cheaper by the Dozen" and "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker." His other notable successes were "The Razor's Edge," "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Boy on a Dolphin," and "Holiday for Lovers."

When Mabelle died in 1960, Clifton began a mourning that lasted until his own death. Playwright and friend Coward noted in a letter: "Poor Clifton ... is still, after two months, wailing and sobbing over Mabelle’s death. As she was well over 90, gaga, and driving him mad for years, this seems excessive and overindulgent." The most famous remark to go the rounds of Clifton’s friends was Coward’s final, acerbic one to him: "It must be tough to be orphaned at 71!" Clifton, who told friends that he’d seen his mother's presence in the house, held frequent seances in attempts to contact her.

Clifton made one more movie, "Satan Never Sleeps," the year after her death, about the time his health had begun to fail. He played a Catholic priest in the violent melodrama; the movie was not well-received.

with Dana Andrews
in "Laura" (1944)
with Barbara Stanwyck
in "Titanic" (1953)
with Sophia Loren
in
"Boy on a Dolphin" (1957)

Five months after surgery for an abdominal aneurysm in Houston, Clifton died of a heart attack at his Beverly Hills home. With him at the end was Helen Matthews, his secretary for 20 years. His obituary appeared on Page One of the Los Angeles Times.

His funeral at All Saints Episcopal Church in Beverly Hills was attended by about 150 mourners, according to The Times. Among them were Katherine Hepburn, Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis, Rosalind Russell, Raymond Massey and Janet Gaynor. Joining Matthews in a section of the church generally reserved for family members were Bacall, Gaynor and Ruth Donnelly.

Producer Sam Engel eulogized Clifton as both a "bon vivant" and a rigidly self-disciplined man who "gained a healthy respect for hard work and integrity."

Pallbearers included Robert Wagner, Richard Zanuck, William Baker, Roger Eden, Leonard Gershe and Frank McCarthy. Honorary pallbearers were Coward, Samuel Goldwyn, Alfred Lum, Daryl F. Zanuck, Spyrous Skouras and George Cukor.

He was entombed in the Abbey of the Psalms at Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery (now Hollywood Forever Cemetery) on Santa Monica Boulevard -- next to his mother.

 

Despite being laid to rest, Clifton reportedly does not rest peacefully. His ghost -- and those of Virginia Rappe, Rudolph Valentino and the Lady in Black are said to haunt the cemetery. Some visitors to the mausoleum report hearing whispers, seeing strange lights, feeling cold drafts and smelling cologne near his tomb. A semitransparent figure of Clifton in a suit and an aura in the shape of his body have been reported by some, while others say they've heard the sound of whistling or his voice.

Before the Webbs' home was demolished in the 1990s, subsequent owners said Clifton haunted the property. Several days before he died, Clifton had warned: "I’m not leaving this house — even at death."

In 1967, the house was purchased by Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Joyce Haber and her TV producer husband Douglas Cramer. Several times, while enjoying drinks by the pool, the two caught sight of a swaying figure in the master bedroom. "It was a dark, transparent shadow the size and shape of Clifton," Cramer said. "I never saw it up close, as Joyce did. I only saw it through a window when I was outside. I didn’t see clothes or details, but he always resembled Clifton and he seemed to be ageless."

Cramer also said he saw shadows in the hallway the size and shape of Mabelle. Their dogs reacted to cold spots in that hallway -- where Clifton was said to pace outside his mother’s bedroom. "They would not go near the cold spots in the hallway without barking enormously and often urinating on the spot," Cramer said. A cold presence was said to have attacked a maid on several occasions. On a hunch, Haber brought home one of Clifton's movies: When the dogs saw his image on the screen, all three began howling.

Haber also held a seance with some of Clifton's friends, including playwright Garson Kanin, actress Ruth Gordon, producer Dick Zanuck. "The seance convinced them all that Clifton was in the house," Cramer said. "And the medium, Sybil Leek, did become Clifton in mood and spirit and intent — and most particularly in language and dialect. She told things that only they knew about Clifton, things that Sybil could never have known." When asked why he stayed, he replied: "Because I’m afraid I’ll be forgotten."

After the seance, neither Clifton nor Mabelle were seen in the house again. Even the dogs stopped barking in the hallway. The Cramers divorced and sold the house in the '70s. The house was demolished in the 1990s.

Filmography

"National Red Cross Pageant" (1917)


"Polly With a Past" (1920)

"Let Not Man Put Asunder" (1924)

"New Toys" (1925)

"The Heart of a Siren" (1925)

"The Still Alarm" (1930)


"Laura" (1944)


"The Dark Corner" (1946)


"The Razor's Edge" (1946)


"Sitting Pretty" (1948)


"Mr. Belvedere Goes to College" (1949)


"Cheaper by the Dozen" (1950)


"For Heaven's Sake" (1950)


"Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell" (1951)


"Elopement" (1951)


"Belles on Their Toes" (1952)


"Dream Boat" (1952)


"Stars and Stripes Forever" (1952)


"Titanic" (1953)


"Mr. Scoutmaster" (1953)


"Three Coins in the Fountain" (1954)


"Woman's World" (1954)





"The Man Who Never Was" (1956)


"Boy on a Dolphin" (1957)
as Victor Parmalee


"The Remarkable
Mr. Pennypacker"
(1959)


"Holiday for Lovers" (1959)



"Satan Never Sleeps" (1962)