Cotten as Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949)

Cotten as Holly Martins in The Third Man (1949)

Joseph Cotten, who was born May 15, 1905, appeared in some of the best films of the 1940s, including Citizen KaneThe Magnificent AmbersonsShadow of a DoubtGaslightPortrait of JennieLydia, and The Third Man. In 1982 he wrote a memoir, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere, that was almost finished when he suffered a catastrophic illness, which postponed the book’s completion until 1985. It’s a lovely book, full of colorful anecdote and serious talk about his work with Welles, Reed, and other great directors. In honor of the 111th anniversary of his birth, here are a few stories from an extraordinary career and a life well lived. 

The Philadelphia Story 500th performance party: encounter with Tallulah 

To celebrate the 500th performance of The Philadelphia Story Phil Barry gave a party at Passy, which he took over in its entirety for the occasion. Sardi’s must have been as deserted as the Vanderbilt Theatre that night. Everybody from Broadway, that is everybody who owned a white tie or a tiara, was at Phil’s party.

I was standing facing the bar, when a soft hand grasped mine and turned me around. I looked down into the eyes of Tallulah Bankhead—the blinking eyes of Tallulah Bankhead I should say—although what I assumed to be a come-hither flutter, I was later to learn was a nervous tic. She had seen The Philadelphia Story three times. My performance, she wanted me to know, as if I didn’t, was one of the most skillful light comedy achievements of the decade. My timing was “impeccable,” my charm “overwhelming,” and my personality “hypnotic.” I listened, enraptured, and with great strength restrained my little finger from touching my raised eyebrow.

     Her flattery was intoxicating, when suddenly it stopped. Her eyes no longer blinked; they now clicked as she realized with utter disgust to what extremes her exaggeration had carried her. Her eyes now stared at me wildly, as if I had insulted her. “And now, go and fuck yourself,” she said, and walked away.

Joseph Cotten portrait

Vienna: Shooting the ending of The Third Man 

     …At that time no definite end had been decided on, and no final scene was ever written that appeared in the film.

     We were on location in the cemetery one gloomy, biting, raw day. Carol stood staring down a long alley of trees that flanked a perfectly straight, endless road whose perspective took it to a tiny point, finishing with grey sky. He simply announced: “Now we’ll shoot the ending.”

     When the camera was ready, it was pointing its eye directly at that distant apex. Then Carol shouted, as loudly as he could, “Action!” From far, far away, Valli started her walk up that lane toward the camera.

     The hero, smoking a cigarette, was standing in the foreground waiting for her. Like the audience, he was confident that she would join him, and they would stroll away happily together, arm in arm. Valli walked on and on, closer and closer, until at last she was a life-sized figure in the foreground with the hero. And then, without turning her head, or even glancing in his direction, she continued her steady pace, out of the shot, and into limbo. 

Joseph Cotten Third Man ending shot

     I remained there, as directed, still smoking the cigarette. My eyes followed Valli out of the shot and, anticipating Carol’s shout of “Cut,” I almost strolled back to my chair to wait for the assistant to announce “Once more, please,” or for Carol to say “Print.”

     Nobody uttered a word. The camera kept rolling. The special effects men from their high perches continued to drop toasted autumn leaves from above. I continued to puff on my cigarette, and began to get quite panic-stricken. Was there more to the scene? Had I gone blank? What was Carol waiting for me to do? I took one more puff, then in exasperation threw the cigarette to the ground, at which point Carol shouted through his laughter the word I had been waiting desperately to hear—”Cut!

      And that is the way the movie ends, in spite of the studio’s pleas to him to make an alternate and less stark ending, which would suggest a glimmer of hope for a happy finale. Stubborn Carol, of course, refused. 

      This scene and Orson Welles’s sudden introduction (Do you suppose that Mozart ever dreamed that another boy genius would one day darken his door?) are considered by many film buffs to be the crowning triumphs in cinema pictorial entrances and exits. King Vidor, one of our cinematic giants, always said that in the history of films, every great moment that shines in memory is a silent one. 

Reading the unfinished Kane script at the Mankiewicz’s

      “We haven’t finished the script yet,” said Orson. “Herman Mankiewicz is writing it with me, and we’re reading what we’ve got at his house tomorrow afternoon. Why don’t you join us?”

     The Mankiewiczes lived in a large, comfortable house in Beverly Hills. Around the pool were sprinkled about a dozen chairs. Blue-bound manuscripts, sharpened pencils, pitchers of iced tea were in evidence. I met a lot of people.

     “Well, shall we?” said Orson, leading the way to the garden. He then told us where to sit. Shiffra handed out scripts. 

     “We’ve never actually heard it,” said Herman.

     “I think I’ll just listen,” Orson said. “The title of this movie is Citizen Kane, and I play guess who.” He turned to me. “Why don’t you think of yourself as Jedediah Leland? His name, by the way, is a combination of Jed Harris and your agent, Leland Hayward.”

      “There all resemblance ceases,” Herman reassured me. 

      These afternoon garden readings continued, and as the Mercury actors began arriving, the story started to breathe. Many evenings we would assemble in Orson’s office and see the story tell itself through his visuals. The artist had seen most of the cast by now, and the characters began to look like Ray Collins, Everett Sloane (who played Bernstein, pronounced Bernsteen, a name that was snitched from Orson’s godfather, Dr. Maurice Bernstein), Paul Stewart, and George Coulouris. Even William Alland, over whose strong shoulders most of the scenes were shot, was heard to say, “Yep, that’s my back all right.”

…One afternoon Paul Stewart, Everett Sloane, and I were living it up in Orson’s office. Shiffra had given us some chilly glasses, and we were applauding the fine performances we were giving in the visuals on the wall. Orson came in and suggested we take a look at a movie set, and we followed him through a garden of blooming roses, down a hedge-lined street to a soundstage. He pulled a heavy door open, and we followed him inside. It was very still. The light was much dimmer than outside, the temperature much lower. We could hear a voice or two, almost whispering, somewhere far off.

     Orson put his finger to his lips to motion silence and beckoned us to follow him, which we did on tiptoe. We arrived at a lighted set. A small crew was quietly adjusting lamps and furniture. One of them was seated behind the biggest black box ever built. It was ornamented with shining wheels and handles; it rolled on a track. It was a movie camera. Paul, Everett, and I paled. This monster drew from our eyes the same look the Sabine ladies must have given the invading hordes of Romulus. 

     Orson introduced us to the crew and to the cameraman, Gregg Toland. “Shaking hands” was a literal description of our meeting. We mentioned the black cyclops. “Oh,” said Gregg, patting his camera, “you’ll come to love this little gadget.” 

Cinematographer Gregg Toland, as supportive as Welles to their actors

Cinematographer Gregg Toland, as supportive as Welles to their actors

     Gregg was right. Like all truly talented artists, he was generous with his knowledge and assistance. He was amused by the awe of the uninitiated. He had a keen sense of others’ problems, and he accepted them as part of his own. He would destroy an entire lighting plot rather than have it impose one uncomfortable moment on an actor. In this way he was like Orson, who in his whole career as a director never led an actor or even allowed an actor to make a move alien to his own nature or utter a self-conscious line of dialogue. This is one of the reasons, I’m sure, that all actors felt safe in his hands. He was uncanny at instant personality perception. I have seen him change the whole concept of certain characters to take advantage of an inspirational, on-the-spot discovery of a natural human quirk. Harlequin always wears the same mask, the same costume; but under this conventional exterior it is the actor’s interpretation of Harlequin that stirs attention or boredom.

Losing Orson 

It has been four and a half years since I wrote that last line. “I’ll finish the book tomorrow,” I thought. Tomorrow was June 8, 1981. I have total recall of that dreadful day.

     I was having a shower. I felt something snap in my chest, then I fell to my knees on the floor. How I finally got up and dried myself I do not know. I called Patricia, and she rushed in. When she saw me she shouted for our beloved housekeeper, Shirley, who helped me put my pajamas back on and took me to our bedroom while Patricia called the paramedics. 

     I had had a heart attack, followed by a stroke that struck at my speech center. Having come through my throat operation successfully and regained my normal voice, I now couldn’t speak at all. It seemed so unfair. 

     As soon as I was well enough, I started speech therapy. Patricia would drive me to the hospital daily. After four and a half years, I still go twice a week. She still drives me there and back.

     We have moved to Palm Springs, as the doctors said the weather here would help me, and it has. We have a lovely house that my wife found, and I have flowers in my lovely garden. 

     I can now speak to them.

     I am a very lucky man.

     One day when we were returning home from buying some lamps for our new house, the telephone started ringing. It was Orson asking me to have lunch with him when we went to Los Angeles the next day. When I was first stricken, he had spoken to Patricia every day. Then later, he and I talked each week for a couple of hours. He was strong and supportive, and whenever I used the wrong word (which was frequently) he would say, “That’s a much better word, Jo, I’m going to use it.”

Cotten, Welles, and Sloane putting together their first edition of The Inquirer

Cotten, Welles, and Sloane putting together their first edition of The Inquirer

     Our lunches the last few years were mostly reminiscences about our early success, but he was still determined to make one more film, one more great film. 

     I told him I had written a book. “Bring it with you when we have lunch, I’ll take it home and read it as soon as I can.” I did just that.

     He called us the same night, and said he had read it, couldn’t put it down, and would I let him find the right publisher. “Do you mind if I interfere with your writing career?” he said. Good heavens, how would I have started a movie career without him?  Patricia and I were delighted. 

     We still had workmen working on the house. One day on returning from lunch, we found them lined up outside, looking rather somber.

     “Anything wrong?” asked Patricia.

     “The telephone has been ringing constantly,” said the foreman, “Orson Welles…”

     “Is Orson Welles on the telephone?” asked Patricia excitedly as she started toward the house.

     “No, Mrs. Cotten. Uh, eh…I’m afraid he’s dead.”

     I walked up to Patricia, who stood frozen in shock.

     I still miss David Selznick very much. I had known Orson considerably longer. He had cheated death for so many years (being overweight and having a heart condition) that he had seemed somehow indestructible. I know what his feelings were regarding his death. He did not want a funeral; he wanted to be buried quietly in a little place in Spain. He wanted no memorial services, saying that a lot of hypocrites would get up and say how much they loved him.

     I respected his wishes. I refused to appear in any memorial service. The telephone kept ringing, and people said that I ought to make an appearance. I was stubborn about doing what I felt David wished as he left this world, and I was equally stubborn about not appearing at Orson’s memorial. I sent a short message, and I ended it with the last two lines of a Shakespeare poem that Orson had sent me on my most recent birthday…

              But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,

              All losses are restored and sorrows end. 

     We talk about him often. Somewhere among his possessions is a manuscript of this book. He would have had it published. He would have made another great film. But it was not to be.

Vanity Will Get You Somewhere is available at Amazon. Highly recommended. I didn’t even get to the story about Cotten and Bergman pranking a big party at Selznick’s by showing up dressed as wait staff and running into party crasher Errol Flynn, disguised in a red mustache, too wasted to know where he was…

Joseph Cotten memoir book photo