Day Eight of Noirvember: Remembering Wendell Corey
Far too many of our classic film stars shuffled off this mortal coil too soon. One of these was film noir veteran Wendell Corey, who died at the age of 54 on today’s date in 1968.
Renowned for his versatility, Corey appeared in only 40 films during a span of 22 years, but these included such gems as Rear Window (1954) and The Rainmaker (1956), along with a total of seven films noirs, in which he demonstrated that he was equally adept at playing sympathetic sidekicks, smarmy lackeys, and vengeful killers.
Corey was born on March 20, 1914, one of four children of a Congregational minister. His parents wanted Corey to follow in his father’s footsteps, but the young man wasn’t interested. Still, he wasn’t a dyed-in-the-wool thespian, either – his introduction to the theater was more happenstance than design. For several years after high school, Corey held a variety of jobs, including selling appliances for a local department store. One day, he dropped by a rehearsal of the Springfield Repertory Players, where a friend was performing in Street Scene. After learning that the cast was in need of an actor to play a Swedish janitor, Corey auditioned and won the role.
“No one else wanted the part,” Corey later said. “So I was selling refrigerators during the day and playing the janitor at night.”
Corey wound up staying with the Springfield company for a year, then toured in several productions throughout New England with the Federal Theater Project. While appearing in a Boston theater in 1942, Corey fell for his co-star, Alice Wylie, and just three weeks later, the two were married by Corey’s father. They went on to have four children and remained together until the actor’s death.
While Corey was performing opposite Betty Field in Elmer Rice’s Dream Girl, he attracted the attention of producer Hal Wallis, who signed him to a contract and cast him in his screen debut and his first film noir, Desert Fury (1947), with Burt Lancaster, John Hodiak, and Lizabeth Scott. That same year, he also appeared in the London stage in The Voice of the Turtle.
The following year, Corey appeared in two more films noirs, I Walk Alone (1948), where he played the brother of Burt Lancaster, and Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), starring Barbara Stanwyck and (again!) Burt Lancaster. Corey’s other noirs were The Accused (1949), with Loretta Young as a professor who accidentally kills one of her students; The File on Thelma Jordon (1950), where Corey played an assistant district attorney who falls in love with the murderous woman of the film’s title; The Big Knife (1955), an especially dark feature in which he was featured as a shallow toady named Smiley Coy; and The Killer Is Loose (1956), starring Corey as the loose killer.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Corey was seen in such successful features as Holiday Affair (1949), where he was part of a romantic triangle with Janet Leigh and Robert Mitchum; Harriet Craig (1950), opposite Joan Crawford, and The Furies (1950), with Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston. He also began focusing much of his energies on the small screen, including a two short-lived series, Harbor Command and Peck’s Bad Girl.
“I decided to appear in a series for just one reason – money,” Corey explained. “I’d have to make two pictures a year to earn as much loot as [I do] on television. This way I can do both.”
Later in the decade, Corey expanded his interests to the realm of politics. A one-time president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Corey participated in several political activities, including introducing President Dwight D. Eisenhower at his second inaugural ball in 1956, and serving as chairman at the 1959 Republican Convention in San Francisco. And in 1965, the actor won a seat on the Santa Monica city council, saying that he was interested in the things that are going on.” The following year, he threw his hat in the ring for the United States House of Representatives from the 28th District in Santa Monica. His bid for Congress was unsuccessful, though.
Sadly, just a few years later (shortly after filming a part as an FBI agent in a film called The Astro-Zombies), Corey began complaining to friends that he felt ill. He was admitted to the Motion Picture Country Home and Hospital, and died there on November 8, 1968, of a liver ailment.
One of Hollywood’s unsung performers, Wendell Corey demonstrated his genuine talent and versatility in a wide variety of roles. If you’re not familiar with his work, you only owe it to yourself to check him out. You’ll be glad you did.
And join me tomorrow for Day Nine of Noirvember!