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,” Joseph Cotten wrote in his excellent 1987 autobiography, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere.
Cotten was no doubt referring to the final scene of The Third Man. But there are many memorable silent moments in many of Cotten’s films. Perhaps because he worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood.
Some backround about Cotten. Born in rural Virginia in 1905, he came from a well-off Southern family (his father wanted him to join Uncle Benny’s banking business).
From an early age, he was determined to become an actor, and eventually worked his way up to starring roles on Broadway in the early Thirties. He joined lifelong friend Orson Welles in the Mercury Theater, and it was Welles who brought Cotten to Hollywood to take on the role of theater critic Jed Leland in Citizen Kane.
The association continued with 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons and 1943’s Journey Into Fear, which Cotten wrote with Welles based on the Eric Ambler novel. Cotten also worked with Welles in a cameo part as a drunken coroner in 1958’s Touch of Evil, and in a small part in the director’s 1974 late-career film, F for Fake.
In addition, Cotten starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 classic, Shadow of a Doubt (above), playing young Teresa Wright’s cold, serially murderous Uncle Charlie. In all, he appeared in 66 films over a 40 year period, from the classics mentioned here to studio generated disaster movies (Airport 77) and worse.
What most people don’t know is that Cotten was also a stage star. He created the role of C. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story on Broadway opposite Katherine Hepburn. And, on stage, he was the first to play Linus Larrabee Jr. in Sabrina. But the stars of the film versions, Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart, are who people remember today.
Our recommendation is to catch Cotten’s work in four solid films: George Cukor’s 1944 Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman; King Vidor’s 1946 western outing, Duel in the Sun with Jennifer Jones; William Dieterle’s A Portrait of Jennie (with Jones again in 1949; and Robert Aldrich’s Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte (1964 with Bette Davis and Olivia DeHavilland.)
Offscreen, Cotten was widowed, then married actress Patricia Medina (check out her great performance as a floozy in Welles’ 1955 Mr. Arkadin, a big favorite of Frank’s). The union was a happy one, lasting until Cotten died of multiple health problems (including a stroke) in February 1994. He dedicated his autobiography to Medina — “For Patricia, who is my world.”
The actor took a rightful measure of pride for being the star of films that three of the greatest directors who ever walked this earth — Welles, Hitchcock and Carol Reed — singled out as their finest individual work.