Search This Blog

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Van Heflin: A Life in Film, by Derek Sculthorpe--Book Review

Van Heflin: A Life in Film, by Derek Sculthorpe. c. 2016 by McFarland & Company, Inc.
"Don't look back baby. Don't ever look back."
With these words to Lizabeth Scott at the end of  THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERSVan Heflin may have oddly foreshadowed how little information about him exists today, 45 years after his death.  And that's a shame.  As I discovered him in this film noir, and then the classic western SHANE, I began to believe the man could play anything.  It turns out he was good-looking and charismatic enough to land leading man roles, and quirky enough to assay villains, sidekicks, or desperate men.  His talents put him arguably in the top echelon of the purest actors of Hollywood's golden age. So I was thrilled to learn that a biography was just being published.  U.K.-based biographer, Derek Sculthorpe, an archives assistant and researcher, and a writer of plays, short stories, and articles, has done a tremendous service for film historians and old Hollywood enthusiasts in tackling the life and career of Heflin.

Heflin was born Emmett Evan Heflin Jr. in 1908 in Walters, Oklahoma.  After a turbulent childhood and a move to California, he enrolled in college in Oklahoma City but took time away to indulge his love for the sea and serve as a merchant sailor. After finishing his degree at Yale Drama School he embarked on a stage career.  By chance Katharine Hepburn saw him in a performance and encouraged him to try Hollywood, where in his first film, A WOMAN REBELS (1936), he played opposite Hepburn in an important secondary role.  He won his first and only Oscar for a supporting role in JOHNNY EAGER (1941), and his career began to gather steam.  He signed a contract with MGM that lasted through the 1940s, with a break for war service as a combat photographer. Returning to MGM, and unsatisfied with his opportunities he took to freelancing, landing multiple memorable roles in the 1950s and 1960s, including in SHANE, 3:10 TO YUMA, and his final film, AIRPORT (1970).  Heflin made over 2000 radio appearances as well.  He died in 1971 at just 62 years old. 

The first thing I did when my copy of the biography arrived was to open it to the very back to peruse the references.  I was not disappointed as I found a full 19 pages combining detailed notes for every chapter with an lengthy bibliography. [I perhaps should not have been surprised considering the publisher, McFarland & Company Inc., specializes in academic and non-fiction material.]  Sculthorpe uncovered every item that had been written about Heflin that could be found, from contemporary accounts and interviews, to more recent sources.  He tracked down some contemporaries, and watched every film.  Unfortunately, Sculthorpe was unable to make contact with Heflin's children or any other family members, and admitted this in the book's preface.  The result is a bio that is much heavier on the career than the personal life of Heflin.
Heflin with Katharine Hepburn in his
first film role in A WOMAN REBELS (1936)
At the outset though, we do get details of Heflin's early life. Sculthorpe highlights how his diverse experiences gave him an emotional honesty and an ability to assay a wide range of characters.  An early mentor, director Richard Boleslawski, apparently said Heflin was "a strange mixture of scholarly gentleman and two-fisted sailor."  Heflin's career choices are detailed along the way; one of Sculthorpe's conclusions is that Heflin was hampered by his contract with MGM -- the studio wasn't a good match, and when he finally exited there he had lost many good years.  Woven throughout each chapter are synopses of nearly every film Heflin made, with Sculthorpe's take on Heflin's contribution to each.  After a while, I found this a bit much and skimmed over some of these summaries.  However, if you didn't know that in 1943 Heflin played a romantic lead to Judy Garland, in a light comedic role in PRESENTING LILY MARS, this tidbit will come as a happy surprise.  From the few clips I've seen the film looks delightful.  I also started a list of many rather obscure films that I need to see:  B.F.s DAUGHTEREAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, and the Italian-made 5 BRANDED WOMEN are just a few. 

In a smaller role as Bar Amand in
Sculthorpe makes the choice to present his material in approximate chronological order with each chapter organized around a theme. At times, I found this confusing, as there were inevitable breaks in the logic of the chronology.  For example, in Chapter 8 "Freelancer (1950-1955) there was little discussion of SHANE, which Heflin made in 1951, but instead it was covered in Chapter 9 "Shane and After (1953-1959)."  Also, while understanding sources were limited, I was disappointed at the relative lack of information about Heflin's personal life.  Heflin was married (2nd time) for many years to Frances Neal, had three children, but sadly they divorced a few years before Heflin's death.  This experience seemed to have a negative effect on Heflin's physical and emotional health and there was a hint of a potential alcohol problem.  Reading, I wonder what was below the surface of the iceberg here.  And while we get a *sense* of his personality, it stops there.  There are conflicting reports that he was both beloved by his co-stars, and also considered 'difficult', or a scene-stealer.
Heflin with his wife Frances Neal and daughters Vana and Kate
We are left with a partial portrait of a very complex man and brilliant actor, who cared deeply about his craft, even intending to get a doctorate and lecture in drama in film studies in his later years. He may not have fulfilled the star potential that his talent warranted, but Sculthorpe presents the case that considering his entire filmography, one can not only appreciate his diverse skill, but also conclude he raised the quality of nearly every film he appeared in. Kudos to Mr. Sculthorpe for his invaluable work in preserving this important part of classic Hollywood history.

A few of Heflin's films are streaming on YouTube:

THE PROWLER (1951) also with Evelyn Keyes. He's fantastic in this, managing to be variably creepy, desperate, sympathetic, and manipulative.
COUNT THREE AND PRAY (1955) with Joanne Woodward and Raymond Burr:

THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), also with Barbara Stanwyck, Kirk Douglas, and Lizabeth Scott.  Watch this if only for the tremendous opening title music (!):


  1. Last week I was at my local library and saw a new biography on Teresa Wright on the display shelf - I thought, "How wonderful to see a bio on an underrated actress like Wright". Now, through your post, I discover a new bio on Van Heflin, whom I believe is another highly underrated actor. I'm looking forward to reading this one.

    1. thanks for visiting. Yes, Heflin doesn't seem to have gotten his due; he's soooo good. I saw recently that there was a bio of Teresa Wright, but I didn't realize it was new -- I have to check it out. I've liked her in everything I've seen her in as well!

  2. Enjoyed your review. Must get this book. Heflin is in so many good films. I love East Side West Side, Act of Violence, Black Widow.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Vienna. Of the movies you mentioned, I've only seen AOV. I will definitely see those others soon. I'm becoming a big fan of this guy. I LOVED 3:10 TO YUMA, but really he was just one of the great things about that one. I thought Glenn Ford was just amazing and I got goose bumps at the end. I saw BF's DAUGHTER since I wrote that post and for the first 3rd of the film I didn't like him. I'd be interested in your thoughts on that one.

  3. I Think Van Heflin Is The Greatest Star I Have Ever Seen Like That Before.

  4. Quoting your words - "Reading, I wonder what was below the surface of the iceberg here. "
    I agree; there is a deeper sense of the man behind the actor that peeks out in movies like 'Once A Thief' (1965) or 'Five Branded Women' (1960), making the fan want to know more.
    There was a mention on another blog that his wife walked out on a lunch once. It is sad to see his failing health, especially in the movie 'Airport' (1970).
    About 'B. F.'s Daughter', somehow, VH plays the role so well, it feels like the character is almost his true self ..
    My favourite is 'The Prowler' (1951) though. Of course after '3:10 To Yuma'; for in this movie we see the emotional conflicts VH's character goes through, from a careful domestic hardworking bread earner to reluctant 'deputy' (for earning money), to jealous husband, to responsible citizen. The character's growth is so well portrayed with few words and only close up shots of changes in VH's features and expressive eyes ...
    [I've fallen hard fast after watching 'Black Widow' and 'Patterns', so kept going, hoping to catch up with all his films!]

    1. Hi, Eliza, thanks for stopping by--I'm excited to meet another fan of Van! I think The Prowler might best represent his acting range in the context of one film. So good! I also loved him in Patterns for the same reason. I need to see the 1960s films you mention to get a sense of his later talents. Although I'm not sure I could sit through 'Airport'!

    2. :) I know what you mean [did sit through 'Airport' just to watch VH! Well, if you have a day to yourself and are in the mood to laze the time, it is alright - the music and the snow has a symphony of it's own ..].
      Do take the time to watch the later movies - he is just as good.
      I love his portrayal in 'The Prowler' and for the same reason enjoyed his role as 'Keith Alexander' in 'Tap roots'. He does have a way with his voice, the tone changing from charming to sarcastic to menacing to admiring ..
      {I know I've fallen hard .. Dying to watch 'Weekend With Father'!}
      Thanks for the reply.