Obituary: Dane Clark

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FEW ACTORS were more effective at portraying belligerent, chip- on-their-shoulder characters than Dane Clark. Small in stature, but tough and wiry, he was frequently compared to John Garfield, one of the top stars at the same studio, Warners, but Clark, though popular with cinemagoers in the Forties, never achieved similar stardom. His pugnacious rebels created less empathy than Garfield's and sometimes (as in his overdrawn anarchic painter of A Stolen Life) upset a film's balance in their ferocity.

The actor's intensity was both his strength and his weakness. Though he graduated to leading roles at the studio, his best chance came when he was loaned to Republic to star in Frank Borzage's Moonrise, a moody piece in which Clark was ideally cast as a hot-tempered outsider whose father was hanged for murder.

Born Bernard Zanville in 1913 in Brooklyn, New York, he was a fine athlete and was given the opportunity to become a baseball player, but chose higher education instead. He received a BA from Cornell University and a law degree from St John's University, New York, but the Depression limited his opportunities and he worked as a labourer, boxer and model before turning to writing for radio.

This led to acting, and he made his Broadway debut (as Bernard Zanville) in Friedrich Woolf's Sailors of Catarro (1934), produced by the leftist Theatre Union. George Tobias (later also a contract player at Warners) was in the cast and he and Clark were among those arrested when some of the company joined Communist pickets demonstrating against Orbach's department store. Though the matinee was cancelled, the actors were bailed out in time for the evening performance.

Clark was next in Panic (1935), which ran for only three performances but was described by one critic as "the outstanding critical failure of the year". An anti-capitalist blank-verse tragedy that attempted to account for the national bank calamity of 1933 in terms of Greek drama, it is considered an important part of theatrical history for several reasons - it was the first play by the poet Archibald MacLeish, it starred the 19-year-old Orson Welles, its producers included John Houseman and Virgil Thomson, and the Greek-style chorus was choreographed by Martha Graham.

Clark then joined the socially conscious Group Theatre and acted in a highly praised Clifford Odets double-bill, the anti-Nazi Till The Day I Die and the radical Waiting for Lefty (1935), in which the auditorium was assumed to be the meeting hall for a group of taxi drivers at a union meeting, with the audience the potential strikers and actors spotted throughout the house to increase the feeling of audience participation.

Clark's last 1935 show was the most successful, Sidney Kingley's Dead End, about the deleterious effects of New York's slums, which ran for two years. Clark then toured in several plays, including the Group Theatre's biggest success, Odets' Golden Boy, until being called to Hollywood in 1941 to act in promotional films being made by the US Army.

Bit parts in movies followed, including The Glass Key, Wake Island and Pride of the Yankees (all 1942), and at Warners the Bogart war film Action in the North Atlantic (1943).

Warners then offered him a contract, and with the new name of Dane Clark he was given a featured role in Destination Tokyo (1943), the first of two films he made with Garfield (who was also a graduate of the Group Theatre). The story of a submarine crew on combat duty featured Clark as Tin Can, most aggressive of the crew members.

Clark then settled into a run of girl-chasing "best buddy" roles, portraying the soldier friend of Dennis Morgan in The Very Thought of You (1944), Robert Hutton's soldier pal in Hollywood Canteen (1944), and a wounded soldier who befriends a blinded marine (Garfield) at a military hospital in Pride of the Marines (1945). His role in the all-star Hollywood Canteen is remembered for the moment when he says to the girl with whom he is dancing, "You know, you're a dead ringer for Joan Crawford." When she replies, "Don't look now, but I am Joan Crawford", Clark promptly faints.

He began to tire of such typecasting, though, and had the first of several battles with the studio head Jack Warner for better roles and more pay. "They were always giving me lines like `You woman, you'," he said later. "They had me as a teenage soldier back from the Pacific or some place. In The Very Thought of You I had to bark like a dog when I saw a girl. I ask you, how can you be subtle - how can you underplay when you're making sounds like a dog?"

After A Stolen Life (1946), in which as a consistently bad- tempered painter he woos Bette Davis with the line, "Man eats woman and woman eats man; that's basic", he was given his first starring role in Her Kind of Man (1946), a half-hearted attempt by the studio to recapture the glory of their earlier gangster films, in which Clark, as a newspaper man, gets Janis Paige, a night-club singer, out of the clutches of the gangster Zachary Scott. Whiplash (1948) was similar, only this time Clark was a painter rescuing Alexis Smith from Scott.

Before this, Clark had his best role at Warners, as a bitter convict who escapes from a chain-gang and is sheltered by an introverted farm girl (Ida Lupino) in Deep Valley (1947). Because of a set builders' strike at the studio, the whole film was made on location in Big Sur and Big Bear, California, and its director Jean Negulesco later recounted that the long period away from the studio led Clark and Lupino to have a passionate affair which, he said, ended as quickly as it began once the couple returned to their normal life style.

Clark was then borrowed by Republic for Moonrise (1948). The story of a social outcast on the run after an accidental killing was treated with lyrical romanticism, and the offbeat teaming of the grim Clark and ethereal Gail Russell as his girlfriend gave the film extra piquancy. Clark finished his Warner contract with two minor films, Barricade (1950), in which he beat Raymond Massey, a sadistic mine-owner, to death, and a mystery story, Backfire (1950).

The following year Clark came to England to star with Margaret Lockwood in Roy Baker's comedy-thriller Highly Dangerous. In this fanciful tale of an entomologist (Lockwood) on a government spy assignment who is given a truth drug by the enemy under which she imagines herself as her favourite Dick Barton-like radio character and saves the day with the aid of an American reporter (Clark), the actor revealed an unexpectedly droll sense of humour. In 1954 he co-produced and starred in the story of the Harlem Globetrotters, Go Man Go.

A consistent performer on radio throughout his career, Clark was also a television pioneer, appearing in a Chevrolet Tele-Theatre episode in 1949. He went on to appear in dozens of television shows and starred in two series, Wire Service (1956-57) as a reporter, and Bold Venture (1957), which he described at the time as "about an adventure-bent skipper of a small Caribbean boat-for-hire. Eugene O'Neill this ain't."

Television movies in which he appeared included Say Goodbye, Maggie Cole (1975), the last film made by Susan Hayward, and from 1974 until 1978 he had a regular role on the series Police Story. Clark returned to Broadway in the Sixties as replacement lead in Tchin Tchin and A Thousand Clowns. Late in that decade his wife of many years, Margot Yoder, died, and in 1972 he married a young stockbroker, Geraldine Frank.

Bernard Zanville (Dane Clark), actor: born New York 18 February 1913; married first Margot Yoder (deceased), second 1972 Geraldine Frank; died Santa Monica, California 11 September 1998.

Comments