A few weeks ago, I was looking at Shirley Temple’s filmography in hopes of finding that one movie in which she has her hair in ringlets and sing-talks all adorably. A 1949 film title jumped out at me: Mr. Belvedere Goes to College. “What I coincidence!” said I, “Surely this cannot be the same Lynn Belvedere of my childhood!” But it totally was. Almost forty years before the 80s TV series began, Clifton Webb had portrayed Lynn Belvedere, persnickety butler, in on the big screen.
But that’s not all: Mr. Belvedere Goes to College is, in fact, a sequel to a 1948 film, Sitting Pretty, which had paired the butler character with a different family unprepared for his snooty sort of British love. There was even a third movie, Mr. Belvedere Rings the Bell, and on top of that, the character originated in a 1947 novel, Belvedere, written by F. Hugh Herbet, the guy who wrote The Moon Is Blue. TCM has some clips that show some footage of Webb in the role:
As you can see, he’s very much so that type of effete Lord Autumnbottom character that makes you ask, “Is he just very particular about everything, or is he supposed to be gay?” — sort of a forerunner to Niles Crane, and look how that turned out. Mr. Belvedere's ambiguous sexuality may well have resulted from the fact that Webb himself was gay. The version of Mr. Belvedere that Christopher Hewett played on the TV series had fewer queeny tendencies, but it’s probably worth noting that it’s speculated that Hewett — per Wikipedia, “a devout Catholic and lifelong bachelor” — was also gay, and not in that trite “OMG, I heard [Attractive Young Actor] is gay, OMG” way but in the sense that he fairly obviously was gay but was also just too religious and too publicity-wary to be open about it. To Hewett’s credit, he did play Carmen Ghia’s lover in The Producers, and I totally didn’t realize that until I wrote this post. And that counts for something.
Clifton Webb, meanwhile, was visited by and posed for a photo with Marilyn Monroe on the set of Sitting Pretty, during which he apparently did the what came naturally to a man who had no sexual interest in her whatsoever: crammed her mouth with food.
|on the left: moderately famous person laurette luez (less famous but far longer-lived than marilyn)|
Webb died in 1966, meaning he did not witness Hewett’s take on his character. (I’m sure he would have disapproved, in classic, Niles Cranesian style.) Had he lived through the early 90s, however, Webb would have seen two echoes of his film work on mainstream American TV. There was Mr. Belvedere — which ran from 1985 to 1990, which is about ten years less than I feel it should have run, based on how often I remember watching it as a child — but there was also Twin Peaks, which ran from 1990 to 1991, which is about thirty years less than you might guess, based on how often film studies types talk about it today. Twin Peaks featured a bird named Waldo and a veterinarian named Dr. Lydecker, and the two combined to form a nod to the 1944 film Laura, in which Clifton Webb played Waldo Lydecker, the man who unsuccessfully tries to kill the title character, after whom noted Twin Peaks floatie Laura Palmer was named.
And that, friends, is all I have to say about Mr. Belvedere, save for one last thought: Remember Angela? The Kimmie Gibler-type who’d visit the Owens family and mangle Mr. Belvedere’s name? In case you wondered if anyone had attempted to compile all the things she’d erroneously called him, rest easy knowing that the internet is already on it. Thanks, internet!