The Cult of Actor Jeff Chandler in The Tattered Dress (1957)

*contains spoilers

Jeff Chandler (1918-61 blood poisoning) was one of the few grey-haired actors to make the Top 20 Box Office stars during the 1950s… He was also reportedly a cross-dresser according to former lover Esther Williams (1921-2013 natural causes) who later said she lied about this fact in her autobiography.

Jeff Chandler was a star in the 1950s

Chandler was long dead by then and the actor remains, curiously, forgotten by many movie fans today… But in his heyday, he played Indians as well as the hero in many westerns.

It was his performance in the courtroom drama The Tattered Dress (1957) which I find to be his best and most resonant. In it, Chandler plays a lawyer who charges large fees because he always seems to win his cases. As a result, he finds his clientele are usually rich and guilty of the crimes they have committed.

The Tattered Dress (1957) poster

This is something not lost on actor Edward Platt (1916-74 possible suicide), who was Chief in Get Smart, as he and Chandler talk about a case on board a train where there has been a possible miscarriage of justice. Platt hopes that Chandler will use his courtroom expertise for good instead of for money from wealthy clients.

But all that Chandler is interested in is the Miss in the dining carriage played by Ziva Rodann (1933-) aka Ziva Shapir, who was an Israeli beauty who figured later in such turkeys as Macumba Love (1960), College Confidential (1960) with a slumming Herbert Marshall (1890-1966 heart failure) and 3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt (1964) directed by Tommy Noonan (1921-68 brain tumour) who played Gus Esmond, the nerdy fiancé of Marilyn Monroe’s Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953).

Ziva Rodann appears very briefly in The Tattered Dress (1957)

Ziva only makes a passing appearance in The Tattered Dress and we haven’t even got off the train yet to the small town where gun for hire Chandler checks into a local hotel where he gets a call from a former client who is a comedian played by George Tobias (1901-80 bladder cancer) who previously murdered his wife and got off scot free.

“He doesn’t seem to have it anymore,” says Chandler to Platt, who is not surprised that the comedian’s on-stage performances may have suffered due to his reputation having preceded him.

Director Jack Arnold (right) on The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) soundstage

The script for The Tattered Dress doesn’t start off well but it improves as it goes along and it has a good director in Jack Arnold (1916-92 arteriosclerosis) who is well known for his sci-fi films It Came from Outer Space (1953) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) among others. Chandler and the director would make three films together including Man in the Shadow (1957) and The Lady Takes a Flyer (1958). Man in the Shadow was probably the first of these three films to be shot as its release was delayed a year. Perhaps it was because the filmmakers knew they had a better product with The Tattered Dress or perhaps it had something to do with Chandler’s apparent trouble with the studio at the time. He had been contracted at Universal since the beginning of the decade.

Chandler and Colleen Miller in a still from Man in the Shadow (1957)

Both Man in the Shadow and The Tattered Dress were produced by Albert Zugsmith (1910-93), who also made the aforementioned College Confidential, as well as other so-called ‘camp’ exploitation movies such as The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960). It was reputed that the producer, who also directed, created the titles before he made the movies in much the same way as Golan-Globus’s Cannon Pictures operated.

Female on the Beach (1955) trailer

Zugsmith also produced Jeff Chandler in his film with Joan Crawford (C.1903/7-77 heart attack) called Female on the Beach (1955). The producer had Orson Welles (1915-85 heart attack) fill in for a proposed Robert Middleton (1911-77 heart failure) in Man in the Shadow because Welles was going begging over a tax bill… Anyway their association had Welles create Touch of Evil (1958) before Zugsmith tailed off into exploitation.

Chandler is an interesting actor in that by the age of fifteen he stood six foot four inches and by the age of eighteen was already going grey. He started out in bit parts in the mid to late 1940s and was contracted to Universal where he scored an almost instant success with Broken Arrow (1950) in a supporting role as the Indian Cochise (c.1805-74 possible abdominal cancer), something which earned him an Oscar nomination.

Jeff Chandler as Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950)

There are no really classic movies on his resume as most of his movies were routine westerns or escapist fare… But you can’t go past such movies as Red Ball Express (1952) about military truck drivers who fed the front lines with supplies in the latter stages of World War Two… also Sign of the Pagan (1954) with Jack Palance (1919-2006 natural causes) as Attila the Hun (c.406-53 haemorrhage) and Chandler as a Roman centurion… The pair would also make another good movie together Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) about former German soldiers who defuse Allied bombs in German cities after World War Two has ended…

Sign of the Pagan (1954) trailer – thanks to Larry’s Incredible Trailers

I remember one of the first movies that made me cry as a child was Foxfire (1955) when Jane Russell’s (1921-2011 respiratory illness) character miscarried her and Chandler’s baby. Chandler’s good in that one and he sings the title song as he was also an accomplished singer. Other good films include Yankee Pasha (1954) and Away All Boats (1956). It all depends if you are taken in by the Chandler charisma.

There are those that argue that Chandler’s best performance was in the biography of tragic silent and sound actress Jeanne Eagels (1890-1929 drug overdose of chloral hydrate) in the movie which uses her name made the same year as The Tattered Dress in 1957. Chandler was on loan to Columbia for that one and so that year seemed a big one in terms of him flexing his acting muscles.

Jeff Chandler sings a live version of the dated song Foxfire. He also wrote the lyrics.

It is enigmatic that Esther Williams was dating Chandler around the time of The Tattered Dress – he had separated from his wife and his two daughters – and that she is the only person to claim that Chandler liked to wear dresses. It all seems hardly possible since he was such a big man and thus unable to buy off the rack! Surely, there would be more evidence in the form of dress designers and makers who would have made such dresses! According to Williams, Chandler was fond of polka dots!! Is it all lies, as Williams later claimed?

Esther Williams and Jeff Chandler

If Chandler’s apparent secret was out by 1957, then the title The Tattered Dress is part of the enigma as it could relate to the remains of any such costume the actor may have tried on unsuccessfully.

Nonetheless, the type of man projected by Chandler seemed larger than life, both in his size and personality, and you get the feeling with Chandler that you are watching an actor as opposed to say someone like Gary Cooper (1901-61 prostate cancer) who would be more or less playing himself.

Well, fancy that!

The Tattered Dress has Chandler go to that small town and acquit a murderer, but in the meantime, Chandler is framed by some locals, for bribing the jury and a second trial is called in the town to judge Chandler, who could very well go to jail.

These characters include Jack Carson (1910-63) and Gail Russell (1924-61) who want to see revenge for the victim whose wealthy killer was acquitted in the original trial.

Jack Carson in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

Chandler, Carson and Russell would all be dead within just over half a decade. Carson collapsed on stage in August 1962 while rehearsing the play The Critic’s Choice in Andover, New Jersey. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer and died six months later at the age of 52 in 1963 only a few hours before actor and director Dick Powell (1904-63) also died of cancer. Carson had appeared in one of producer Zugsmith’s more quality productions The Tarnished Angels (1957) directed by Douglas Sirk (1897-1997).

Gail Russell in her early career

As for Russell, she was an alcoholic, so beautiful in the mid-1940s in such films as Salty O’Rourke (1945) and the John Wayne (1907-79 stomach cancer) film Angel and the Badman (1947). Russell denies drinking under oath in The Tattered Dress which is ironic as she does it so well.

Russell began to suffer panic attacks while she was filming The Uninvited (1944) which was that classic ghost story starring Ray Milland (1907-86 lung cancer) and she learned to calm her nerves through the use of alcohol.

It is claimed in Yvonne De Carlo’s biography that it was actress Helen Walker (1920-68 cancer) who introduced Russell to vodka. Walker’s career was ruined when on New Year’s Eve in 1946 she killed a passenger in a car she was driving after crashing it while under the influence.

Gail Russell fails a sobriety test after her drunken 1957 car crash

Over the years, Russell’s drinking and anxiety got worse as her career faded despite a good second appearance with Wayne in Wake of the Red Witch (1948). By 1950, she was unreliable and Paramount terminated her contract and from 1950 to 1961 appeared in only six movies including The Tattered Dress. During this period, she had a number of psychiatric admissions and arrests for drinking under the influence, including one in 1957 for crashing through a cafe. In the end, despondent and unable to give up alcohol, she became a recluse in her apartment, refusing the help of neighbours – and she drank herself to death. There was a report of an empty vodka bottle by her side and others scattered around her dwelling. This once beautiful young girl had liver failure and malnutrition according to the autopsy.

Jeanne Crain and Jeff Chandler in The Tattered Dress (1957)

The other star of The Tattered Dress is Jeanne Crain (1925-2003 heart attack) as Chandler’s wife. Her career had peaked long ago with an Oscar nomination for Pinky (1949). As for director Jack Arnold in terms of awards, he was nominated for Best Documentary in 1951 for With These Hands (1950), which looked at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, which was the deadliest industrial disaster in New York history and compared working conditions to the present.

The script for The Tattered Dress, was one of the last feature films by George Zuckerman (1916-96), who wrote the Jeff Chandler movies Iron Man (1951) and Taza, Son of Cochise (1954) in which the actor only cameos at the beginning.

Screenwriter George Zuckerman

Zuckerman is best known for the Douglas Sirk movies Written on the Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1957) and The Tattered Dress came out between these films. Producer Zugsmith also had a hand in the Sirk movies which are regarded as semi-classics.

The reason why Chandler was seen as difficult during this period at Universal maybe because he had dropped to second in his ranking at the studio as its top star. Youthful Rock Hudson (1925-85 AIDS) was now number one after his success in the Sirk films Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All that Heaven Allows (1955). Not to mention Hudson’s performance in Giant (1956), which got him an Oscar nomination. He was also in Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels.

Chandler played a rare bad guy in Ten Seconds to Hell (1959) trailer

So, perhaps Chandler had a lot riding on the Zugsmith productions and his performance in The Tattered Dress and the delay of the release of Man in the Shadow must have been frustrating for the actor. He possibly felt neglected for not being dealt a great director like Sirk.

I’m not imagining this performance is good, as the Los Angeles Times reported that Chandler “does the best acting job of his career”.

The great monologue by Chandler in the courtroom at the end of The Tattered Dress to persuade the jury to acquit him is punctuated by Ed Platt saying: “You know what the boys think about your performance?”

Chandler gives a courtroom pose for The Tattered Dress (1957)

Was the script talking about Chandler’s cross-dressing in front of Williams as well as his standing as an actor for being difficult with Universal’s head office? Had there been a scene with studio brass? Oscar never really rewards actors who have been difficult, no matter how good their performances, and as a result Chandler was ignored by all award shows for The Tattered Dress and every other movie he made after that. And it was a Jack Arnold movie as well and films by him never received proper recognition because he was seen as a b-movie director.

Chandler is so good at the end of The Tattered Dress that it almost seems existential.

“My fees were exorbitant… Until word went around… that was my reputation… I never failed to be the principle actor in the drama…”. These are just some of the lines which ring with the actor’s then present situation: “…This note of apology is… for any of my own behaviour or misbehaviour…”

Chandler gave a good performance in Jeanne Eagels (1957)

It’s a great monologue and it’s almost as if Chandler is forced to grovel on screen to Universal hierarchy.

“I’m not sold it was all for real… it was all part of the act,” continued Platt about what the boys thought about Chandler’s performance. Whether you believe Chandler as an actor or as a man, it perhaps all comes down to the verdict of the court at the end of the movie, something which is followed by a flourish of melodrama on the court steps. Is it a crime for a lawyer to acquit guilty persons? No, it’s the law but there seems to be something dishonest about it. There seems to be a double standard to Chandler’s character in The Tattered Dress… Did that also go for the actor himself? Was he just a cross-dressing prima donna? Does Chandler’s performance in the finale The Tattered Dress redeem him? Watch the movie if it interests you.

Chandler with his wife and daughters

Jeff Chandler was playing baseball on the set of Merrill’s Marauders (1961) in the Philippines when he injured his back. He used painkillers to dull the pain until he returned to the United States a month later and had surgery for a spinal disc herniation. A 17-and-a-half-hour emergency operation followed where the actor was given 55 pints or 27 litres of blood. There was a third operation where he received an additional 20 pints. Three weeks later he died of blood poisoning. Later his family would settle a malpractice suit with the hospital.

The crypt of Jeff Chandler at Hillside Memorial Park

The pallbearers at Chandler’s funeral included actors Tony Curtis (1925-2010 heart attack) and Gerald Mohr (1914-68 heart attack). Merrill’s Marauders was released the week Chandler died and was a critical and financial success.

The Tattered Dress is by no means a classic and remains forgotten along with Chandler. But the actor had a handsome presence and an iconic voice and the year The Tattered Dress was released he was ranked 22nd in the Top Box Office rankings in the United States. He was sixth in the United Kingdom that same year.

I still don’t believe he wore dresses. A uni-sex sarong, maybe.

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