Conventional critical wisdom long ago pegged Victor Mature as 100% Hollywood beefcake; a rare Tyrolean-Swiss steak from Louisville, Kentucky who was a graduate of the Cigar Store Indian Drama School. Replete with a toothy, Tyrannosaurus-like smile and sporting a wavy pompadour with a Crisco sheen, Mature was dismissed by those who recall him as De Mille’s bare-chested exponent of Philistine urban renewal in Samson and Delilah (1949) or being able to, as he put it, “…make with the holy look” in films like The Robe (1953) and Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954). However, before Mature got biblically pigeonholed by Hollywood, his work on screen, particularly in darkened 20th Century Fox productions, proved to be diverse and distinguished.
After making his acting bones at the Pasadena Playhouse, Mature was inked by Hal Roach to alternately battle iguanas and emote at Carole Landis in One Million B.C. (1940).
After some non-descript film roles, the neophyte actor ended up scoring on Broadway opposite Gertrude Lawrence in the musical, Lady in the Dark. Fox signed him and Mature quickly showed a deft touch as a beleaguered red herring in Steve Fisher’s I Wake up Screaming (1941). For the first of what prove to be numerous occasions, Mature’s solid work would be overshadowed by either a co-star or a supporting actor. On this occasion, he was eclipsed by the obsessive psychosis of newcomer Laird Cregar who walked away with the picture.
Next was The Shanghai Gesture, a beautifully bizarre film that was shot before Pearl Harbor, but released to a box office fizzle a month after war was declared. A mélange of opium dens, prostitution and torture was nicely dished up by an ensemble of American and European actors playing Asians in accordance with contemporary Production Code dictates. Mature donned a fez and clipped off some pithy lines as “Doctor Omar”, but he was lost in the shuffle amongst Walter Huston, an exotic Gene Tierney and Ona Munson playing “Mother Gin Sling”. The Shanghai Gesture is a fascinating movie that is worthy of contemporary discovery.
After service in World War II, Mature returned to Fox and made a lasting impression as the tubercular Doc Holliday in John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine (1946). Mature’s performance as the champagne swilling, fatalistic Holliday whose downward spiral reveals a lost love (Cathy Downs) amid a doomed one (Linda Darnell) was praised by none other than Darryl F. Zanuck and John Ford. Again, Mature was vying for screen time with Henry Fonda – one of his seminal portrayals as Wyatt Earp – along with Ward Bond, Walter Brennan among other worthies and the critics barely lifted an eyebrow his way.
Moss Rose (1947) is a forgotten period mystery helmed by the eclectic Gregory Ratoff. Adapted from Joseph Shearson’s book about a Cockney chorus girl with a yen for high society finery that leads to murder, Mature skillfully underplays alongside newcomer Peggy Cummins (who got the positive notices), Ethel Barrymore, Vincent Price and bulbous eyed George Zucco. About the best Mature could achieve was a grudging “… competent” from N.Y. Times grouch Bosley Crowther.
Victor Mature accomplished the majority of the dramatic heavy lifting in the classic noir Kiss of Death (1947) even if every movie goer in the whole wide sweet world was awestruck by Richard Widmark’s frenetic, ground-breaking turn as cold-blooded killer Tommy Udo.
Mature’s multi-dimensional characterization of star-crossed gangster Nick Bianco who reluctantly turns stoolie amid his wife’s suicide and a double cross in order to take care of his children and craft a new life with ingénue Coleen Gray was a revelatory portrayal. There is an authentic moral ambiguity and depth of character to Mature as the principal protagonist in Kiss of Death that made some of his severest critics finally take notice of his acting ability. His performance was the suspenseful glue that holds the entire picture together.
(Note: Patricia Morison’s role in Kiss of Death as Bianco’s wife who descended into alcoholic prostitution and eventual suicide by sticking her head into an oven was entirely excised from the picture by Zanuck who feared censor Joe Breen’s wrath. Miss Morison recently claimed that her part was cut out was because she wouldn’t succumb to DFZ’s sexual blandishments; her name still appeared on the film’s promotional material and posters)
Mature was reunited with Coleen Gray in Fury at Furnace Creek, a nicely turned oater with a veteran cast directed by H. Bruce “Lucky” Humberstone. Miss Gray recollected that Mature was a charming co-star with “…hands the size of catcher’s mitts”. Gray also recalled that after politely but firmly turning down Mature’s advances during the Kiss of Death shooting, the relentlessly amorous actor shrugged it off and settled in as a wholly professional co-worker.
Cry of the City (1949) is probably one of the more underrated film noirs from the classic period. In a Cain and Abel saga of urban Italian boyhood friends ending up on opposite sides of the street, Mature, as Lt Candella the cop was matched against Richard (Nick) Conte, the amoral gangster. Beautifully written by Richard Murphy and helmed by Robert Siodmak, Conte has the meatier role; however he and Mature play off each other brilliantly until the Greek tragedy finale. Victor Mature again brought genuine depth to what could have been a pedestrian role.
From 1950 on, there would be fewer roles for Victor Mature that caused him to stretch dramatically as an actor. As the studio system was under siege due to anti-trust divestiture and nascent television, biblical pictures in varying degrees of Technicolor and Cinemascope became the order of the day. Sandwiched around the sword and sandal epics were several films such as Gambling House and The Las Vegas Story that proved to be mostly mediocre RKO features produced under the screwball stewardship of Howard Hughes. Exceptions to the indifferent quality of Mature’s later films included Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1954) and Anthony Mann’s rugged oater The Last Frontier (1955).
Even if his commercially popular, but critically panned biblical pictures might not hold up well, Victor Mature brought a genuine sense of tragic gravitas to his acting. Besides, who else could mouth some of the dialogue in those movies and not come across as occasionally absurd? It was probably with financial regret tinged with professional relief that Victor Mature handed off his toga and sandals to Charlton Heston in the mid 1950’s.
There would be more movies for Victor Mature into the next decade, but the golf course proved to have greater allure than sound stages. Mature, who invested his money wisely, viewed acting as a diminishing means to an enjoyable end. He was a self-deprecating and humorous man who bragged that he was no actor, “…and I’ve got 64 films to prove it.” A story about Mature and his old friend Jim Backus bears mention. The pair was working at RKO in Androcles and the Lion (1952) and walked across the street in Roman military regalia – armor, helmets, swords and bent plumes – to get lunch. After a flustered waitress haltingly told the actors that she couldn’t seat them in costume, Mature replied, “What’s the matter? Don’t you serve members of the Armed Forces?”
After a self mocking tribute of a movie star caricature in After the Fox (1966), Mature hung it up with the exception of few cameos. He doted on his daughter, born in 1975 to his fifth wife, and the leisure of Rancho Santa Fe, California before succumbing to leukemia in 1999.
Movie star, beefcake hunk, but a highly credible performer, Victor Mature was made of sterner professional stuff than typically given credit for. He might have gotten a bum rap from the critics, but a closer look at his career proves that, given the opportunity, the man could act.