Although he’s not well remembered by most people, especially those under, say, 50, Joseph Cotten, 1905-1994) had a superior number of classic movies to his credit. A member of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater ensemble, Cotten joined Welles on the director’s Citizen Kane (1941) and immediately afterward starred in the wunderkind’s star-crossed The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). With Welles uncredited, Cotten starred with him in Journey Into Fear (1942, U.K., 1943 U.S.)
That was quite an initiation for a novice film actor but the quality work continued throughout the ensuing decade. (It is hardly ever noted that even the biggest stars, the legends, rarely appear in excellent and successful movies for more than a decade. In this sense, David Shipman downplayed Cotten’s career in The Great Movie Stars: The International Years.)
Next up for Cotten was Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the murder mystery that turned the star’s charming demeanor upside down. As Teresa Wright’s Uncle Charlie, he ingratiated himself with his niece’s family, but she soon realized there was something terribly dark about him.
In Gaslight (1944) Cotten was part of a triumvirate of topnotch stars that included Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. That same year Cotten returned to form, playing a naval lieutenant on leave who provides Claudette Colbert and her children (Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple) a shoulder to cry on in Since You Went Away.
Cotten would see much more of Academy Award-winner Jones, who became a lifelong friend. First up was Love Letters (1945), followed by the western epic Duel in the Sun (1946), and in 1948 they co-starred in the romantic fantasy Portrait of Jennie (1948). For that he received the Best Actor International Award at the Venice Film Festival. (Cotten had co-starred with another Academy Award winner in 1947’s The Farmer’s Daughter: Loretta Young.)
The end of the decade reteamed Cotten and Orson Welles in the classic The Third Man (1949). Everything revolved around Cotten despite Welles playing the title character.
Like Richard Widmark in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), in 1953 Cotten may have been cast to help 20th Century Fox’s rising star Marilyn Monroe improve her acting. The film was Niagara, a big success.
As the fifties progressed, Cotten, like so many others, found himself on TV and increasingly in character parts. Nevertheless, on occasion he found some leading movie roles. Based on Jules Verne’s novel, From the Earth to the Moon (1958) saw him as the leader of the expedition.
During this time Cotten continued doing radio programs. In fact, he’d begun on radio in the 30s. His voice was perfect for that medium as it would be when he narrated the 22 episodes of the 1963 TV documentary, Hollywood and the Stars.
Following Vincent Price and Ray Milland into the horror genre, he battled Price’s maniac in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and that same year played Baron Frankenstein in the low budget but curiously compelling Italian horror movie Lady Frankenstein. Then came another Italian horror film, Baron Blood, in which he menaced Elke Sommer.
About his life and career Cotten had no regrets. He married actress Patricia Medina and closed his autobiography with, “I continue to love my wife passionately, spiritually, and completely. That she calmly and unregretfully closed the door on a thriving and glamorous movie career to be at my side, tells of her love for me. We are ordinary, extraordinarily lucky people. For that, all I can say is ‘Amen’.”
Cotten, Joseph. Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. 1987.
Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The International Years. 1972.