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Dana Andrews and What Makes a Hollywood Tough Guy Tough

Hollywood expects a variety of qualities from its leading men; good looks, virile physicality, an appealing and understandable voice, acting ability, sex appeal, and a sense of toughness. Of course, this being Hollywood, any or all of these qualities can be and have been faked. The hardest one to fake, also the hardest to define, is toughness.

Dana Andrews

Material Science defines toughness as a material’s ability to absorb energy without rupturing. In other words, toughness is a balance of strength and flexibility. Something can be strong enough to support a heavy load but will shatter quickly if the load shifts and there is little provision in the design for flexibility. Examples of toughness can also be seen within military units; the Sergeant will assign the biggest recruit to a leadership position thinking that his strength will inspire the other troops on a long march. The big recruit can carry the biggest load, but tires after a few hour’s march and quits. The smaller but tougher recruit may not carry as big a load, but will continue to carry it for hours, and will be willing to shoulder the load and continue to march the following day.

As the third to thirteen children born to Charles and Annis Andrews near Collins, Mississippi, New Year’s Day 1909, Dana Andrews had to learn toughness early. Papa Charles was a Baptist Minister, so Dana had to become tough to endure his father’s discipline as well as compete for everything with a dozen other kids in the house. Charles moved the family from Mississippi to Huntington, Texas, where Dana entered Sam Houston State University to study business.

Dana Andrews

Dana took a job as a bookkeeper for Gulf Oil in 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash made a business career seem like a terrible idea. Convinced that he could make it in Hollywood as a singer, he packed a suitcase and hitch-hiked to the West Coast, where he found a town full of talented young men who thought they could sing. For a time, he drove school bus, dug ditches, picked oranges, and stocked department store shelves before returning to the oil industry in the somewhat lower capacity of a service station attendant. He continued to try and break into show business and convinced the owner of the service station to “invest” in him. Dana’s boss would fund his singing and acting lessons, even allow him to rehearse in the garage, and Andrews would repay him once he made it as an actor.

The Pasadena Playhouse was a famous training ground for acting talent, but Andrews was told he didn’t have what it took to get in. He used his boss’s support to begin opera training when a music agent told him to stick to acting. He tried the Pasadena Playhouse again and this time got in. He had to work his way up from nonspeaking “spear-carrier” roles to walk-ons to supporting parts before starring in Playhouse production, and he appeared in dozens of plays. Eventually, Sam Goldwyn offered Dana a contract.

Andrews now had a contract after nine years in Los Angeles, but Goldwyn still did not have any major work for him. However, the folks over at Fox liked him, and Goldwyn loaned him for Sailor’s Lady and Kit Carson (both 1940) before selling half of Dana’s contract to Fox. Goldwyn finally used him in William Wyler’s The Westerner (1940) supporting Gary Cooper. Andrew’s got his first leading role at Fox in the B-grade propaganda film Berlin Correspondent (1942) and he did further propaganda work in John Ford’s December 7th: The Movie (1943, a censored version won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject). Other War films for Fox included Purple Heart and Wing and a Prayer (both 1944).

Also, at Fox, Andrews nearly achieved A-List status as an NYPD detective investigating the shotgun death of an enigmatically beautiful advertising executive in Laura (1944, the third of five films Dana made with Gene Tierney). Laura helped to cement Dana as a Hollywood Star. He again shared the screen with Ms. Tierney in the early Cold War propaganda piece, Iron Curtain (1948) and he would play a salty operator in The Frogmen (1951, based on the exploits of Navy Underwater Demolition Teams in the Pacific, the forerunners of the Navy SEALs). 

Around this time, however, good roles were passing Andrews by. Finally, his friend Sam Goldwyn took him aside to tell him that his drinking problem was interfering with his career. As the son of a Baptist preacher, young Dana had never been directly exposed to the results of har drinking, but Hollywood was awash in booze and the libations lubricated business and social functions. Dana got to the point where he simply could not function without another drink and realized he needed to get help. While he found it, he went to work for ZIV Syndications starring in the hard-boiled radio drama I Was a Communist for the FBI.

McCarthy

I Was a Communist for the FBI was based on a series of stories published in The Saturday Evening Post detailing the undercover adventures of Matt Cvetic, an operative who had infiltrated the upper echelons of the Communist Party of the USA and reported his finding to the Bureau and testified before the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. This made IWaC an artifact of McCarthyism as well as a highly entertaining Hard-Boiled noir Radio story. A movie version of Cvetic’s story had been released by Warner Bros starring Frank Lovejoy in 1951 before the ZIV shows aired, but many propaganda historians find the radio program more compelling.

I was a Communist for the FBI

Dana Andrews did beat the bottle, and rather than hiding his problems actively campaigned to get the word out that help was available to other alcoholism sufferers. However, his film career never rebounded. He was elected to the Presidency of the Screen Actors Guild in 1963. He drifted away from show business as fewer and fewer good roles came his way. He would quip that he was making more money from real estate investments than he ever had as a film Star.

Sadly, after achieving clarity beyond his battle with the bottle, Dana Andrews spent the last years of his life trapped in a fog brought on by Alzheimer’s Disease. He was confined to the John Douglas French Center for Alzheimer’s Disease in Los Alamitos, California, where he passed away after congestive heart failure on December 17, 1992. He was 84.