Steve Hayes regales us each week with his dishy, funny, and informative classic movie recommendations as the Tired Old Queen at the Movies!
Of the many hunks at 20th Century Fox in the mid-1940s, perhaps none of them sparked the imagination of gals and gays as much as hunky Cornel Wilde (1915-89). Darkly handsome, with a gorgeous smile, a reasonable talent and a remarkable physique, which he took great pride in, Wilde was destined for movie stardom. He started out as a competitive fencer and was gearing up for the Olympics when he was "discovered" and whisked off to Hollywood. He was put into everything, from musical comedies (Centennial Summer - 1947), light comedies (Life Begins At 8:30 - 1942) to historical dramas (A Song To Remember - 1945).
Shot in spectacular Technicolor, A Song To Remember, a pseudo- biography of composer Frederic Chopin, also starred Merle Oberon as his lover, the cold and calculating George Sand. According to this version of the famous love story, Sand drove Chopin to an early death from consumption because of his refusal to allow her to dominate him. It played with the facts, but the music was gorgeous and so was Wilde. He became an instant romantic sensation and it earned him his only Oscar nomination for Best Actor, which he lost to Ray Milland for The Lost Weekend.
To capitalize on Wilde's newfound fame, Fox continued to cast him in many romantic melodramas, opposite its most beautiful leading ladies; Gene Tierney (Leave Her To Heaven - 1945), Anne Baxter and Linda Darnell (The Walls Of Jericho - 1947) and with Darnell again in Otto Preminger's scandalous Forever Amber (1947). The studio executives soon discovered that Wilde's limited acting ability and athletic grace lent themselves best to action pictures. Thus he was Robin Hood in The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946), becoming the hottest male in tights this side of Errol Flynn and in westerns such as Two Flags West (1950) and adventures with exotic locales such as Secret Of the Golden Condor (1953) and Star of India (1953).
Cornel Wilde did manage to make some very interesting Film Noirs. Besides Leave Her To Heaven, which has the distinction of being one of few color entries in the genre, he made Road House (1949) with Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark and directed by Jean Negulesco. The combination of the insolent Lupino, in one of her best roles, and Wilde made sparks fly. Their scenes of sexual sparring have a smoldering heat.
Perhaps his most famous role came in the early 1950's as Sebastian the doomed trapeze artist in Cecil B. De Mile's The Greatest Show On Earth. In incredible shape, doing all his own areal stunts and gorgeous in tight green Technicolor leotards, Wilde was beautiful, athletic and very impressive.
Later in his career Wilde made The Big Combo (1954) with his wife, the platinum blonde Jean Wallace and again he seemed right at home with a bad girl in murky surroundings.
Wilde was never happy with the studio system and often balked at the roles he was required to play. He felt he was merely a "clothes horse" supporting the leading lady who carried the movie's plot. In the 1960s, Wilde decided to take a more active position in his career and moved behind the camera, directing a series of low budget action/adventure movies that have become highly regarded by critics and film historians. The most famous of these is The Naked Prey (1967), in which Wilde, captured by a tribe of savage African natives, escapes by running across the desert in little more than a loincloth, to the delight of his audiences, and with his captors in hot pursuit. It sounds simple, but it's riveting and highly recommended.
In the end, Cornel Wilde did things his way, had an interesting career and left his mark. Proving that sometimes beefcake can be an unexpected mixture of brawn and brains.