Claire Trevor (1910-2000)
"Claire Trevor was the quintessential hard-bitten floozy with a heart of gold, whose on-screen persona was typified by her portrayals of nearly every conceivable type of "bad girl," from hooker to gun moll. While her busy film career spanned a half century and consisted of more than 60 movies, Trevor was inexplicably relegated to mostly supporting roles in primarily "B" movies. But this husky-voiced performer possessed a talent that could not be denied and, perhaps more than any other actress, she represented the classic film noir femme in seven pictures from the era: Street of Chance (1942), Murder, My Sweet (1944), Johnny Angel (1945), Crack-Up (1946), Born to Kill (1947), Raw Deal (1948) and Key Largo (1948)."  Known among aficionados as "The Queen of Film Noir," Claire Trevor could play any number of heroines, but she proved particularly suited to the shadowy world of crime and mystery showcased in numerous films in the 1940s and 1950s; she was the actress perhaps best known for such floozy roles as well as for being a more heartless femme fatale.
"The gifted actress with the brassy blonde locks was born Claire Wemlinger on March 8; sources disagree as to whether she entered the world in 1910 or 1912. (In a 1992 Architectural Digest article, the actress proclaimed, "I’m 83 and I don’t care who knows it," which would make 1909 the correct year.) This discrepancy notwithstanding, Claire was born into a life of comfort, the only child of Edith Morrison Wemlinger, a native of Belfast, Ireland, and her Paris-born husband, Noel B. Wemlinger, who owned a successful custom-tailoring business on Fifth Avenue. Soon after Claire’s birth, the family moved from Bensonhurst, Long Island, to suburban Larchmont, New York.
Claire’s first acting experience came during her high school years in nearby Mamaroneck but, expressing a sentiment that would come to characterize her Hollywood career, the actress said that she appeared in school and church plays "just for fun." Rather than drama, Claire’s interests were focused on drawing and painting, in which she’d shown early promise, and after high school she took art courses at Columbia University. Before long, however, she decided to enroll with a close friend at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, quickly finding that she enjoyed the challenge of studying diction, memorizing lines and responding to new stimuli. But she only stayed at the Academy for the first six months of the school term: "The second half is when you do all the Shakespearean plays," the actress said in a 1983 Films in Review article. "Instead of doing that, I felt that if I got out and worked and got a job, I’d learn more." And that is what she did.
Her first order of business was changing the rather ungainly last name of Wemlinger. While driving one day to make the rounds at the offices of Broadway agents, Claire was inspired: "There was a sign along the way - Sinclair Oil. I decided to call myself Claire Sinclair. Then I started using Claire St. Claire. Later, I was in some agent’s office and he took a telephone book and put his finger down randomly on a page and it was Trevor." After playing a number of bit roles in stock companies, Trevor finally landed a job in the summer of 1929 with Robert Henderson’s Repertory Players at the annual Theatre Festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. While with the company, she was seen as a member of the Greek chorus in Antigone, followed by a minor role in Lady Windemere’s Fan and a slightly larger part as Nina in Chekhov’s The Sea Gull.
After the run of The Sea Gull, Trevor returned to New York and was cast by a Warner Bros. talent scout in a series of Vitaphone shorts being filmed at Warners’ studios in Flatbush. She was next employed by Warners’ stock company in St. Louis where, along with future film actors Lyle Talbot and Wallace Ford, she appeared in a new show each week. In the summer of 1931, Trevor was the leading ingenue of the Hampton Players in Southampton, Long Island. The actress earned five dollars a week, plus room and board, and the company split the profits at the end of the season. "We all did everything, even made the scenery," Trevor said, "and it was one of the best summers I ever had in my life. It was fabulous."
While appearing with the Hampton Players, Trevor was spotted by producer Alexander McKaig and in January 1932 he cast her opposite Edward Arnold in Whistling in the Dark, her Broadway debut. The show was a smash hit, running a year on Broadway and later going on tour. While performing in Los Angeles, Trevor was courted by several studios, but her sights were firmly set on the Broadway stage and she next accepted a role in The Party’s Over. But despite good reviews, Trevor ’s second Broadway production was not successful, and when Fox Studios offered her a five-year contract, she quickly accepted. On May 7, 1933, Trevor arrived in Hollywood: "My father was so strict he insisted that my mother accompany me to Hollywood and live with me there," the actress said. "Well, she was ready for anything - she was full of Irish humor and love and excitement. She adored being on the set. When we had to work until two or three in the morning, she was thrilled - it was a party."
After only two days in Hollywood, Trevor was cast in the female lead in Life in the Raw (1933), a Western starring George O’Brien, followed by another O’Brien starrer, The Last Trail (1933), and The Mad Game (1933) with Spencer Tracy. In the latter film, Trevor received excellent notices for her role as a cigarette-rolling newspaperwoman, and she later said that her costar was "very, very impressed by me. This sounds braggadocio, but it was the truth…. He liked the way I delivered lines, tossed my lines away. He really liked my style."
During the next four years, Trevor worked almost non-stop in 20 films, most of which were fastpaced action melodramas for Fox that rounded off a double bill, earning her the title of "Queen of the B’s." Of these films, her only top-drawer productions were To Mary - With Love (1936), a marital yarn starring Warner Baxter and Myrna Loy, and Second Honeymoon (1937), a popular comedy in which Trevor played the best friend of Loretta Young. But on loan to Samuel Goldwyn for Dead End (1937), Trevor delivered a performance that made Hollywood sit up and take notice. Playing a downtrodden streetwalker, Trevor logged less than ten minutes of screen time, but her powerful portrayal earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress (she later lost to Alice Brady in In Old Chicago). Years later, Trevor acknowledged William Wyler ’s contribution to her performance, recalling that the famed director instructed her to report to the set with her hair uncombed, wearing stockings with runs and broken-down shoes. "I wore no makeup, just some eye makeup and some lipstick, that was it," Trevor said. "I felt dirty and run-down and awful, and it was marvelous. He gave me a wonderful feeling of the whole thing. I wish that scene had gone on forever."
Still, Trevor’s home studio failed to capitalize on the new-found respect generated by her Oscar nomination. "That was kind of disappointing to me," she said. "I thought, ‘Maybe now I can get into ‘A’ pictures,’ because Dead End was an ‘A’ picture, a very big picture." Instead, she was immediately cast in two low-budget quickies, Big Town Girl (1937), in which she portrayed a showgirl who becomes a singing sensation, and Walking Down Broadway (1938), which told the story of six Broadway dancers and their respective fates. The latter film concluded Trevor’s contract with Fox; she later said that studio head Darryl F. Zanuck "never had faith in me. Why, I don’t know. The point is, however, that if he hadn’t confidence in a player, said player might just as well up and leave at the outset. And that’s what I did."
However, while Trevor ’s performance in Dead End failed to make an impact at Fox, it did lead to her casting in a new CBS radio series called Big Town, which starred Edward G. Robinson as a crusading newspaper editor. Trevor was cast in the show as Lorelei, the editor’s "girl Friday." Although the show was an instant hit, Trevor would quit after three years because Robinson, who had script control, was reportedly cutting the actress’ part in order to boost his own. Still, Trevor gained something other than increased fame and income from her work on the series: In July 1938 she married the show’s producer, Clark Andrews. By 1942, however, the marriage was over.
After ending her association with Fox, Trevor appeared as a jewel fence in Warner Bros.’ The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), a clever gangster-comedy starring Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart. Later that year, she was featured in Valley of the Giants (1938) as a shady saloon girl who is reformed by a lumberjack, then returned to Fox for Five of a Kind (1938), a programmer whose sole purpose was to exploit the famous Dionne quintuplets from Canada.
But one of Trevor ’s most memorable roles was just ahead. In 1939, she portrayed a trollop with a heart of gold in Stagecoach, starring John Wayne, Thomas Mitchell and Andy Devine. Receiving rave reviews for her performance, Trevor would later attribute her success in the film to the coaching of legendary director John Ford. On the set one day, the actress recalled, Ford "took Duke Wayne’s chin and yanked it - in front of 200 people. He said, ‘Duke, whaddya doin’ with your chin, with your mouth? Acting is in the eyes!’ I never forgot that. "  Wayne tolerated the rough treatment and rose to the challenge, reaching a new plateau as an actor. Ford helped cement the impression that Wayne makes in the film by giving him plenty of expressive reaction shots throughout the picture. Claire Trevor was the highest paid cast member at $15,000. John Wayne got a grand total of $3,700, less than supporting player Tim Holt, who got $5,000.
"After this top-notch film, Trevor played the worldly-wise wife of a big-time criminal in I Stole a Million (1939), then appeared in Allegheny Uprising (1939) and Dark Command (1940). But the latter two films, both costarring John Wayne, were box office disappointments or, as Trevor termed them, "just crummy."
In 1941, Trevor made two Westerns, Texas, an agreeable horse opera that successfully combined action and comedy, and Honky Tonk, starring Clark Gable and Lana Turner. While Honky Tonk was a smash hit at the box office, Trevor remembered it with bitterness, revealing that most of her role as a hard-boiled barroom broad was cut from the final production. "I was so heartbroken when I went to see it, that I started to cry," she said in a 1983 Films in Review interview. "I don’t cry easily. I started to cry and couldn’t stop crying. I thought, ‘I hate this business, I hate it, I’m through with it, I don’t want to do it anymore.’" The next year she starred opposite Glenn Ford in The Adventures of Martin Eden (1942), a maritime melodrama that was poorly adapted from a stirring Jack London story, followed by Crossroads (1942), a diverting suspenser with William Powell and Hedy Lamarr.
Then, in Street of Chance (1942), Trevor entered the realm of film noir, portraying the first of the deadly, double-dealing femmes that she would play so convincingly throughout the remainder of the decade. In her first film noir appearance, Trevor delivered a fine performance of a deadly femme motivated not by greed, but by love, to murder. After being singled out as "sufficient" in the New York Times, Trevor next appeared in Columbia’s big-budget horse opera The Desperadoes (1943) with Glenn Ford and Randolph Scott; Good Luck, Mr. Yates (1943), a fanciful story of an Army reject’s efforts to prove himself to his hometown; and The Woman of the Town (1943), a Western about Bat Masterson’s ill-fated love for Dora Hand.
But the actress’ career took a back seat to her personal life in 1943 when she married Lt. Cylos William Dunsmoore. The following year, on December 1, 1944, Trevor gave birth to a son, Charles Cylos, realizing one of her greatest ambitions: "From childhood on, I wanted children," she said in a 1982 interview. "Even babies in strangers’ baby carriages appealed to me. If the maternal part of my nature hadn’t been satisfied, I’d have felt like a failure in life. I consider myself lucky." Like her first union, however, Trevor ’s marriage to Dunsmoore would not last - the couple divorced in 1946, with Trevor charging her husband with being morose and sulky, failing to seek employment after leaving the service, and using profanity. Trevor was granted custody of their son but, tragically, Charles would die at the age of 34 in a 1978 commercial airplane crash.
After an absence from films of more than a year, Trevor returned to the big screen with a bang in a series of films noirs, the first of which, Murder, My Sweet (1944), is considered to be one of the quintessential films from the era. Termed "pulse-quickening entertainment" by one critic, Murder, My Sweet received rave reviews upon its release and Trevor earned unanimous acclaim for her portrayal of the beautiful but deadly Mrs. Grayle, with Dorothy Manners of the Los Angeles Examiner calling the actress "a knockout in more ways than one," and the critic for Motion Picture Herald stating that her role "calls for considerable dramatic effort, which Miss Trevor supplies." Ironically, actress Anne Shirley would recall years later that she’d originally wanted the role played by Trevor: "I was dying to play a heavy. Then Claire told me she was sick of doing heavies and would love to do the role assigned to me," Shirley said. "Claire and I put our heads together and conspired to reverse the female casting…. But it all did us no good. Claire went back to being bad and fascinating and I went back to being good and dull."
Trevor ’s next film noir, Johnny Angel (1945), reunited her with George Raft, her costar in I Stole a Million. Considered a second-echelon effort by RKO, Johnny Angel proved to be a surprise hit, toting up a box-office take of $1,192,000.
After her "convincing" performance in Johnny Angel, Trevor appeared in yet another film noir entry, Crack-Up (1946), in which she portrayed her only sympathetic noir femme. Upon its release, Crack-Up was hailed in the New York Times for its "competent performances" and in Motion Picture Herald as a "surprisingly suspenseful melodrama." Following this film, Trevor returned to her stage roots, performing in Dark Victory, Tonight at 8:30 and Noël Coward’s Family Album. She also contracted to play opposite Keenan Wynn in the Broadway-bound comedy Out West It’s Different, but the play closed in Princeton, New Jersey, before reaching New York. The following year, the actress did appear on Broadway, costarring with Philip Dorn in The Big Two, but this production was another flop, folding after 21 performances. Trevor later said that the disappointing experience was "the finest thing that could have happened to me. The Broadway mirage was gone. I had always said I didn’t want to be a movie star, and I had meant it. I woke up to the truth, and decided to try to be a Hollywood star. You have such advantages."
Back on screen, Trevor next played a rare comedic role in The Bachelor’s Daughters (1946), a lightweight romp about four salesgirls who cook up a wild scheme to attract wealthy suitors. But she was back at her "bad girl" best in Born to Kill (1947), her fifth film noir entry, delivering a hardbitten performance of a depraved woman driven by passions that she is powerless to withstand. Described as a "homicidal drama strictly for the adult trade" and a "sexy, suggestive yarn of crime with punishment," Born to Kill tells the doomed story of Helen Trent and Sam Wild (Lawrence Tierney), who meet on a train platform on their way to San Francisco. As Helen Trent, Trevor portrayed perhaps her most perverted noir femme; her lack of virtue is revealed early on when she discovers the dead bodies of Sam’s first victims and quickly decides not to contact the authorities. ("It’s a lot of bother - coroner ’s inquests and all that sort of stuff," she later explains.) And although she soon learns of Sam’s crimes, she seems inescapably drawn to him, viewing the psychotic murderer as the personification of "strength and excitement and depravity … a kind of corruptness." It is Helen’s attraction to this corruptness that ultimately becomes her ruin.
The film’s director, Robert Wise, would later praise Trevor for her top-notch performance in Born to Kill, stating that she "contributed very much to any scene she was in, was very professional, took direction very well. I particularly appreciated her patience and understanding in working with Lawrence Tierney, who tended to be a bit unstable at times. Claire and I always hoped to work together again but the right project never came along." Trevor and Wise appeared to belong to a mutual admiration society; in a 1983 interview, she stated that Wise was still somewhat of a novice when he directed Born to Kill, but "boy was he good," she said. "I was thrilled to work with him."
Next, continuing her spate of appearances in first-rate films noirs, Trevor starred with Dennis O’Keefe and Marsha Hunt in Raw Deal (1948), her sixth picture from the era. Hailed by one critic as a "well-performed and exceptionally well photographed rough and tumble melodrama," Raw Deal met with favorable notices upon its release and Trevor earned praise in Variety for her "first-rate interpretation of a gangster moll, maintaining a steady sense of strain without going to pieces." After her appearance in the film, Trevor made a another try at matrimony, this time with realtor and sometime-movie producer Milton Bren. It appeared that, for the actress, the third time was the charm - in a 1992 Architectural Digest interview, a neighbor of the couple claimed that their union was "one of Hollywood’s truly good marriages. I mean, they shared the sea, the kids, parties, travel. On their last boat they must have traveled 50,000 miles. Milton used to say that Claire was the most intellectual person he ever met." The couple had one son, Peter, and remained married until Bren’s death in 1978." 
Meanwhile, Trevor’s professional life was about to reach new heights. In her last film noir, Key Largo (1948), she played the alcoholic former moll, ex-nightclub singer Gaye Dawn, of a vicious hoodlum, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson). One of the dramatically strongest scenes in Key Largo occurs when Gaye is forced by Rocco to sing a song a capella before he will allow her to have a drink. Trevor was nervous about the scene. All along, she assumed she would be lip-syncing to someone else’s voice. She kept after director John Huston, wanting to rehearse the song, but he put her off, saying "There’s plenty of time." Then one afternoon, out of the blue, Huston told Trevor that they would shoot the film without any rehearsal. She was given her starting note from a piano, and, in front of the rest of the cast and the crew, sang the song. It was this raw take that was used in the film. Claire Trevor won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Gaye Dawn, a character based on Lucky Luciano's mistress, Gay Orlova.
"On the heels of her triumph in Key Largo, Trevor turned in another of her magnificent performances in The Velvet Touch (1948), portraying an acid-tongued Broadway actress falsely accused of murder, followed by a rare "normal" role as the wife of the legendary baseball player in The Babe Ruth Story (1948), and a breezy portrayal of a befuddled secretary in The Lucky Stiff (1949). With the advent of the 1950s, the actress continued to offer stellar portrayals in a wide variety of characterizations, but she frequently had to rise above the less-than-stellar material in such films as Best of the Badmen (1951), yet another big budget Western roundup; Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), the Ida Lupino directed tale of a tennis champion exploited by her ambitious mother; Stop, You’re Killing Me (1952), the unsuccessful remake of the 1938 Edward G. Robinson starrer A Slight Case of Murder; and The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), a Randolph Scott vehicle filmed in 3-D. During this period, Trevor also made her television debut, appearing in the 1953 production of "Alias Nora Hale" for NBC’s Ford Theatre. The actress would later say that she enjoyed working in this new medium, explaining that it allowed her to do "what I can’t do in pictures - play sympathetic, normal roles."
Then in 1954, Trevor won accolades for her portrayal of a warm-hearted kept woman in The High and the Mighty, an air disaster film costarring John Wayne, Robert Stack, Jan Sterling and Laraine Day. Along with Sterling, the film earned Trevor another Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but the statue would be won that year by Eva Marie Saint for On the Waterfront.
In 1955 Trevor played yet another hard-boiled saloon keeper with a heart of gold in Man Without a Star, followed by the wise-cracking pal of the title character in Lucy Gallant. But in her sole film of 1956, Trevor appeared in a real clunker, The Mountain (1956), which starred Spencer Tracy and Robert Wagner as two brothers feuding over the loot contained in a downed airplane. Years later, Trevor would leave no doubts as to her impressions of this film, describing it as "a horrible picture. Oh, God, that was a terrible picture! It goes on forever and it’s bad. Robert Wagner … looked like he was 12 years old and Spence had already gotten heavy and old-looking. It was ludicrous." Still, the actress compensated for this rather absurd film with her appearance that year opposite Fredric March in Dodsworth, an NBC-TV Producers Showcase Production. For her role as Fran, Trevor won an Emmy Award for Best Actress in a Single Performance.
By now, Trevor ’s screen career was nearing its end. Of the five films she appeared in during the next decade, the best were Marjorie Morningstar (1958), in which she turned in a fine performance as the title character ’s mother, and The Capetown Affair (1967), with Trevor portraying a bag lady who gets mixed up with a Communist ring. The latter film would be her last appearance on the big screen for nearly 20 years. Instead, she was seen in numerous roles on television, including appearances on Ford Theatre, G.E. Theatre, Playhouse 90, Desilu Playhouse, The Untouchables, Dr. Kildare, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and, more recently, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote. She also returned to the stage in 1968 after a 14-year absence, playing a cigar-smoking lesbian in The Killing of Sister George, and eight years later, she costarred with Rock Hudson and Leif Erickson in a 21-week national tour of John Brown’s Body, a narrative poem adapted by actor Charles Laughton.
In 1982, at age 73, Trevor was cast as Sally Field’s tart-tongued mother in her last feature film, Kiss Me Goodbye, stating that she accepted the role because "I get to be glamorous and I get to be funny." But this mildly amusing romantic comedy was a box office dud and Trevor later expressed her disappointment over the reviews: "It was only meant for entertainment. The critics killed the picture. Why did they take the axes and slaughter it? I don’t understand … I really don’t. I thought it was a darling picture." 
Trevor’s last appearance was in a 1987 television movie, Breaking Home Ties, and the actress has since devoted much of her time renewing her love for painting: 'To me, acting and painting are closely related. You need imagination for both. I don’t know how good the paintings are, nor do I care. I’m filling my hours with pleasure, and you can’t take that away. Painting is a lot cheaper than going to a psychiatrist.' "In her retirement, Trevor devoted much time to the University of California, Irvine's School of the Arts, where she acted as a mentor for students and was an advocate of the school's goals. Trevor died as a result of respiratory failure on April 8, 2000, a month after her 90th birthday. In the wake of her passing, Trevor's stepson Donald Bren and his brother made a $10 million donation to UCI, which renamed its arts school the Claire Trevor School of the Arts in recognition. In 2011, the school inaugurated its own Walk of Fame, with Trevor as the first to be honored. The actress also donated her Academy Award and Emmy statuettes to the school, which were put on display in the facility.
Claire Trevor was one of the few actresses whose seemingly effortless talent made most viewers take her for granted, while film buffs cherished her. Looking back, she concluded that she never became a top star because she lacked the drive that energizes them. "I didn't know," she said, "that to make a real career in Hollywood you have to become a 'personality,' have to cultivate publicity departments and become known as 'The Ear' or even 'The Toe.' "Although she was most often associated with the numerous "B" movies in which she appeared, Claire Trevor was much more than a "B" movie actress. As she demonstrated in stellar performances in such films as Dead End, Murder, My Sweet and Key Largo, hers was an acting gift that could not be denied. Her innate talent was perhaps best summed up by Robert Wise, her director in Born to Kill, when he said, "She was a fine actress and a lady of quality. Although she didn’t attain the big 'star' name of some others in that period, she certainly deserved to be a big star from an acting standpoint." 
- Breaking Home Ties (1987)
- Kiss Me Goodbye (1982)
- The Cape Town Affair (1967)
- How to Murder Your Wife (1965)
- The Stripper (1963)
- Two Weeks in Another Town (1962)
- Marjorie Morningstar (1958)
- The Mountain (1956)
- Lucy Gallant (1955)
- Man Without a Star (1955)
- The High and the Mighty (1954)
- The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953)
- Stop, You're Killing Me (1952)
- My Man and I (1952)
- Hoodlum Empire (1952)
- Best of the Badmen (1951)
- Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951)
- Borderline (1950)
- The Lucky Stiff (1949)
- The Babe Ruth Story (1948)
- Key Largo (1948)
- The Velvet Touch (1948)
- Raw Deal (1948)
- Born to Kill (1947)
- The Bachelor's Daughters (1946)
- Crack-Up (1946)
- Johnny Angel (1945)
- Murder, My Sweet (1944)
- The Woman of the Town (1943)
- Good Luck, Mr. Yates (1943)
- The Desperadoes (1943)
- Street of Chance (1942)
- Crossroads (1942)
- The Adventures of Martin Eden (1942)
- Texas (1941)
- Honky Tonk (1941)
- Dark Command (1940)
- Allegheny Uprising (1939)
- I Stole a Million (1939)
- Stagecoach (1939)
- Five of a Kind (1938)
- Valley of the Giants (1938)
- The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938)
- Walking Down Broadway (1938)
- Big Town Girl (1937)
- Second Honeymoon (1937)
- Dead End (1937)
- One Mile from Heaven (1937)
- King of Gamblers (1937)
- Time Out for Romance (1937)
- Career Woman (1936)
- Fifteen Maiden Lane (1936)
- Star for a Night (1936)
- To Mary - with Love (1936)
- Human Cargo (1936)
- Song and Dance Man (1936)
- My Marriage (1936)
- Navy Wife (1935)
- Dante's Inferno (1935)
- Spring Tonic (1935)
- Black Sheep (1935)
- Elinor Norton (1934)
- Baby Take a Bow (1934)
- Wild Gold (1934)
- Hold That Girl (1934)
- Jimmy and Sally (1933)
- The Mad Game (1933)
- The Last Trail (1933)
- Life in the Raw (1933)
- The Imperfect Lover (1932)
- The Meal Ticket (1931)