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Elizabeth Benefiel

Film 140 Stardom and Celebrity

Professor: Eileen Jones
Joseph Cotten and American Masculinity
Joseph Cotten is an interesting and somewhat mystifying star. To a modern
viewer, he appears unique; there is no analogous star in our era, no Joseph Cotten of the
2010s. His understated acting style has no match, and perhaps no place, in contemporary
cinema, yet his popularity in the 1940s and 50s tells us something about the era. By
analyzing Cottens star persona, we can find out more about midcentury Americas vision
of masculinity.
This paper will cover Joseph Cottens career as a film actor, with special emphasis
on his work in the early 1940s. It will analyze three films in depth: Citizen Kane (Welles,
1941), Ill Be Seeing You (Dieterle, 1944) and Gaslight (Cukor, 1944).. Contemporaneous
press releases, film reviews, interviews, television appearances, and Cottens own
autobiography will also be consulted to gain greater insight into Cottens star persona.
Cottens versatility as an actor did not involve deep method acting, where the
actor subsumes himself to an outlandish or outsized persona, a la Daniel Day Lewis.
Cotten did not do accents or impressions; he did not have a background in Shakespeare or
in melodrama. Cottens understated acting style allows us to consult many different
movies to gain greater insight into Cotten as an actor, Cotten as a star and how Cotten
reflected mid-century American ideas of masculinity.
Joseph Cotten was most famous and successful in the 1940s and early 1950s.
After a breakout role in Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941), Cotten appeared in numerous films,
Broadway plays, touring plays and radio dramas. The New York Times rated Cotten as

the 17th most popular star in 1945 (28 December 1945). Like other film stars of the day,
Joseph Cotten was presented as both a very special [being], and as [a being] just like the
readers (Ellis, 90-1). Contemporaneous accounts describe Cotten as suave, blond,
(Toledo Blade, 5 May 1948), a big handsome Virginian (Prescott Evening Courier, 9
May 1946), gentle, and quietly unobtrusive (The Milwaukee Journal, 29 July 1945).
Cottens private life and biography were of little interest to the public; many . Cotten
appeared in many different genres, including Westerns, melodramas, wartime dramas,
romances and thrillers.
Although he is remembered today for his starring role in a handful of stylistically
and culturally innovative films, Joseph Cotten appeared in many formulaic films even at
the apex of his career. Cotten appeared in sixteen films during the 1940s and over twenty
films during the 1950s. Most of these films follow the classical Hollywood style
outlined by Bordwell and Thompson, which subsumed stylistic innovation to storytelling.
Before his film debut, Cotten was already an accomplished radio and stage actor, and
continued to star in plays and radio shows during the peak of his fame.
Cotten first appeared on television in 1954, appearing on Producers Showcase
and General Electric Theatre; from 1956 to 1959, he hosted The Joseph Cotten Show
and made appearances on television shows such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents,
Telephone Time and, amusingly for fans of The Third Man, Zane Grey Theater.
According to Alfred Hitchcock, Joseph Cotten was the only actor I know who can
underplay a corpse (The Milwaukee Journal, 29 July 1945). Cotten later did play a
corpse on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where he plays a man paralyzed
by a car accident who everyone thinks is dead (Dead Weight, 22 Nov 1959). Despite

numerous guest roles on television shows, and hosting The Joseph Cotten Show in the
mid-50s, Cotten is still primarily known for his film roles.
In both film and television, Cotten reinforced midcentury masculine virtues and
norms, even when his character imperfectly embodied them. Richard Dyer, expanding on
Klapps work, suggests that heroes reinforce by embodying dominant values and to
reaffirm values under threat (Stars, 79). We can see this type of reaffirmation
throughout Cottens career, as his persona emblematized values such as reserve, chivalry,
integrity, and good manners, even as these values were gradually subverted by
atomization and a changing political climate. These characteristics are present in Cottens
performances, although not all of them are present in every role. As a star-asprofessional, his performances are more central to his image than they are for some other
stars, and even in his most off-beat roles he still embodied many of these same values
(Ellis, 90).
Since stars exist to help market a wide range of products (Heavenly Bodies,
86), changing values and acting conventions dimmed Cottens star power and
marketability. Cottens star faded after the 1950s, and he appeared in a long succession of
bad horror, science fiction, and western films. His last film, Heavens Gate (Cimino,
1980), was one of the worst box office flops of all time. Only a handful of Cottens post1960 films received any critical acclaim; one of these few, Soylent Green (Fleischer,
1973), features Cotten as a member of a dystopias elite whos assassinated for political
unreliability. Cottens character is seen accepting his death, explaining to his reluctant
assassin that his death is Necessary...To God. The death of Cottens character, which
acts as a catalyst for the action of the film, illustrates the corruption and venality of the

elite by contrasting it with Cottens integrity and reserve. Even at the end of his career,
Cotten continued to emblematize the same masculine virtues that he did at its beginning.
Citizen Kane (Welles, 1941)
Orson Welles wanted every actor in Citizen Kane to be new to film. The film
included many radio actors from New York, such as Paul Stewart and Everett Sloane.
Cotten, who had worked with Welles on radio and stage productions, was also new to
film, although he had participated in an early filmic experiment by Welles, playing a
married womans lover trying to escape her husbands wrath. At 35 years old, Cotten still
looked boyish enough to star alongside Welles, who was a decade younger than him, and
play his old school friend, Jedediah Leland.
This film sets the pattern for Cottens subsequent career. Leland is a slightly
dissolute writer with too much integrity to lie, even for his friend. Despite his integrity,
Leland is a lonely figure; when Leland goes to see Susan Alexanders play, he is alone,
and Jerry Thompson (William Alland) meets him as a live-in patient in a hospital ward.
There are few films of Cottens where he successfully gets the girlif there is even a
girl to be had. Despite taking on many different roles throughout his career, this film
established Cottens star image that allowed him to succeed as a star-as-professional, with
a specific expression of masculine integrity and vulnerability (Hitchcock, 1944)
(Geraghty, 101-2).
Cotten went on to play the leading man in many films, but today he is best
remembered for his supporting roles. Although Cotten played many different types of
lead characters, in his supporting roles he is almost always a moral center, even when his
morality is laughably childish or inadequate for the situation; this may explain why he is

best remembered for these films, since they preserve the stable star image that a star-asprofessional requires (Geraghty 101). A stars image exists semi-independently of their
fictional roles (Ellis 93-5), but the need for stability in Cottens star image may have led
to Cottens leading man roles becoming a less important part of his star persona than his
supporting roles.
In Citizen Kane, Leland serves as a conscience and check on Charles Foster
Kanes ambitions. When Kane writes out his statement of principles, Leland keeps it,
remarking that I have a hunch [this statement] might turn out to be something pretty
importantLike the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and my first
report card at school. During the party scene, Leland points out to Bernstein that the
journalists Kane just poached from the Chronicle were dedicated to the beliefs of the
Chronicle just a week ago; when Bernstein assures Leland that Mr. Kane will change
them to his kind of newspapermen in a week, Leland remarks that Theres always a
chance, of course, that they will change Mr. Kane without his knowing it. Leland sees
what will happen to his friend before anyone else does.
Later collaborations with Welles, such as Journey Into Fear (Welles, 1942) and
The Third Man (Reed, 1949) echo the dynamic set up in Citizen Kane, with Cotten acting
as a check against the egotism and monomania of Welless character. This dynamic
reflects the different star personas of these men. While Cotten often represents the moral
center of his films, Welless reputation as a mercurial genius, then as box office poison
(Drazin, 71; Estrin XVI-XVII), led him to play many villainous or larger-than-life
characters whose very presence threatens the films established order.
Ill Be Seeing You (Dieterle, 1944)

In the 1940s, America had to reconcile its conception of masculine virtue with the
horrors of the Second World War and the psychological toll these horrors took on many
soldiers. Exposs of the horrible conditions within mental asylums led to calls for reform
of the mental health system, including calls for reform from Commanding Officers in the
US Army (Taylor 2-5, 152-160). War films, war art, photographs from the front lines,
press reports, and radio programs were all used to help legitimize and comprehend the
war, and to fit these experiences into an acceptable moral framework.
Cottens portrayal of Sergeant Zachary Morgan in Ill Be Seeing You may have
helped mediate anxieties about mentally ill soldiers and veterans. Cottens acting style
may have led to greater sympathy for shell-shocked war veterans. In the film, Sergeant
Morgan is on Christmas leave from a military mental hospital to help him readjust before
returning to active duty. The film never shows Sergeant Morgan crying or
decompensating. In one scene, when a shell-shocked World War One veteran shows off a
facial tic, we get a close-up of Morgans distressed face, which twitches slightly before he
gets up in exasperation, communicating his fear and vulnerability without being overly
One sequence shows how war films attempted to interpret and legitimize posttraumatic mental distress. After attending a dance with Mary Marshall, Morgan tries to
fight off an attacking German shepherd (a not-so-subtle reminder of Americas enemy)
before the dogs owner pulls him off. When Morgan returns to his room, he falls against
the dresser; when he lifts his head, the film cuts to an unfocused, but gradually focusing,
point-of-view image of Morgan looking blankly at himself in the mirror. Through
acousmatic voiceover, Morgan tells himself, Hold on, Zach, hold onThat fight with

the dog took a lot out of you, thats why youre sweating. It doesnt mean anything.
Morgan slowly and clumsily sits down and unbuttons his jacket, as his inner monologue
tells him Dont get scared, Zack, dont get scared. Maybe it is one of those things they
told you might happen. Point-of-view shots of the bed go in and out of focus as Morgan
unsteadily gets out of the chair and walks to the bed. He puts his hand to his heart, and
the film adds the sound of a heart gradually pumping faster and faster. Zach then falls
against the bed while his heart pumps faster and faster, and his inner monologue tells
him, no longer in such a reassuring way, that, This is it. You thought it wasnt for a
minute, but it is. Youre in for it now. The sound of his heart becomes louder and faster,
giving way to acousmatic sounds of dogs barking, then airplanes, gunfire and sirens play
over close-ups of Morgans eyes, mouth, sweating face and clenched hands. This sound
montage fades out as Mary Marshalls voice says Zack over and over, and Morgan runs
his hand over his face and sits up.
During the Second World War, traumatic triggers and panic attacks were observed
but poorly understood. The term panic attack only came into existence in the early
1950s, and only became widely used during the 1980s. This scene depicts a triggerinduced panic attack before the term was even thought of, doubtless reflecting and
validating the experience of many war veterans who may have gone through the same
experience of escalating panic when they could not identify the source of their own
suffering. The point-of-view shots, from Morgans perspective, and the sound montage of
planes and sirens, personalizes a collective trauma that many civilians were unable to
comprehend or even care about. Its difficult to care about huge masses of soldiers, but
seeing one mans distress can bring home the cost of war in a way that no statistic can

(A Short History of PTSD, VVA Veteran, January 1991). Cottens reserve throughout
this scene, and his vain attempts at self-reassurance, also make his situation more
sympathetic to contemporaneous audiences, as he is able to avoid breaking down even
under extreme pressure. This scene thus fills the double purpose of legitimizing posttraumatic mental illness without transgressing masculine norms of the time.
Sergeant Morgan is otherwise shy, gallant and restrained, and tries to hide his
condition from Mary Marshall (Ginger Rogers). At the time, trying to hide a mental
condition was a more sympathetic act than expressing it. As an emblem of shell-shock
victims, who individualizes a collective trauma for the audience (Stars, 80-1), Cotten
offers a picture of masculine restraint and fortitude under pressure that allows viewers to
sympathize with his illness without calling midcentury ideas of masculinity into question.
These masculine ideals were also under threat from womens growing
participation in American economic life. Anxieties about women in the workforce during
World War II stimulated a fear of unchained female sexuality and a push to reassert
traditional gender roles after the wars end (Colman, 23-25, 95-98). Some of of Cottens
roles reflected these changing conditions in American culture.
A comparison of Ill Be Seeing You and Niagara (Hathaway, 1953) shows
Cottens evolving persona and meaning within American culture. In Niagara, Cotten
again plays an Army man with a history of mental illness; at the beginning of the film, his
wife (Marilyn Monroe) informs two strangers that hes just been discharged from a
mental hospital. Unlike Ill Be Seeing You, where the plot revolves around the budding
romance between Cottens character and the female lead, in Niagara Cottens character is
the beleaguered husband of a voracious sexpot; he loses control of himself repeatedly,

breaks a record that he suspects holds a special meaning for his wife, and kills her
suspected paramour in a fit of jealous rage. Cottens character in Niagara, who may
killed men in battle, has become helpless before the whims of a capricious, promiscuous
female; his wifes very sexiness emasculates him, and his vulnerability is no longer
Gaslight (Cukor, 1944)
Gaslight shows a different facet of Cottens star persona, while still reflecting his
roles in other films. Cotten, as Detective Brian Cameron, is a moral center of this film,
confronting and exposing the plot of Mr. Anton. Here there is none of the ambiguity or
tone-deaf morality of Cottens post-war roles; Cameron is sure of himself, pushing
through the objections of his superior to open up an old case, able to master a confusing
situation instead of letting it master him.
Cottens performance is intimately connected to the act of seeing. His characters
primary role is to observe and interpret the relationship between Paula and her husband,
to act as a reference point independent of Mr. Antons manipulations and Mrs. Antons
emotional distress. It is Cottens character who first takes an interest in Paulas plight,
who figures out the nightly pattern of the husbands movements, who first confirms the
dipping of the gaslight for Paula, and who finally explains the true identity and intentions
of Mr. Anton to her. Mr. Anton senses the danger of Camerons presence; when they
finally meet, Anton tells Cameron, I knew from the first moment I saw you that you
were dangerous to me. Cameron replies, I knew from the first moment I saw you that
you were dangerous to her (emphasis mine). This motif of seeing runs throughout the
film, with all three main characters looking. Even the films poster shows Cotten, in the

background of the image, watches Charles Boyer leaning over an angelically lit Ingrid
Brian Camerons gaze helps save Paula from her evil husband. Cameron first sees
Paula as a ghost of her dead sister, then as a woman in a disturbing situation, and lastly
as a beautiful woman and an object of desire. When he first meets Paula in her own
house, the camera focuses tightly on Camerons face, showing him melting at her beauty.
In the last scene of the film, Cameron says to Mrs. Anton, Let me come here and see you
and talk to you. Perhaps I can help somehow. Camerons interest in Mrs. Anton may be
chivalrous, but it is not platonic. Here, as in most Cotten films, Cottens character does
not sail into the sunset with the leading lady. There is no unequivocal passionate embrace
or declaration of love, although the coda at the end implies that its a possibility.
Joseph Cottens career.spanned four decades, many genres and all major media
formats. Cotten played a murderer, a sheriff in the Wild West, a writer of Westerns, a
struggling artist and even a living corpse. From his first appearance in Citizen Kane,
Cottens star persona embodied the masculine virtues of an American gentleman. Cotten
was thus able to maintain a stable star image through so many decades, genres and
variations in his own fame.


Cottens career has been much praised but critically overlooked; few, if any,
critical studies exist of Cottens life, work, or star persona. Further study of Cottens long
and storied career will doubtless unearth further material of interest to scholars,
historians, and fans. Citations:

Angst, J. (1998). Panic disorder: History and epidemiology [Abstract]. Eur

Psychiatry, 13(2), p. 51-55.
Bing Crosby Again Box-Office Leader: Van Johnson Second in Film Poll of
Exhibitors Rogers Wins for Westerns. The New York Times. December 28,
Brackett, Charles (Producer) and Harry Hathaway (Director). (1953). Niagara
[Film]. Retrieved on 12 December 2014 from
Brooks, Xan (2012 March 20). The 10 biggest box office flops of all time in
pictures. The Guardian. Accessed on 30 November 2014 at
Callow, Simon. Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu. Viking Penguin, USA, 1999. Print.
Colman, Penny. Rosie the Riveter: Women Working on the Home Front in World War II.
Crown Publishing, New York, 1995. Print.
Cotten, Joseph. Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. Mercury House, San Francisco, 1987.
Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies. In Stardom and Celebrity. Redmond, Sean and Su
Holmes (Editors). London: SAGE Publications, 2007. Print.
Dyer, Richard. Stars. From Stardom and Celebrity. Redmond, Sean and Su Holmes
(Editors). London: SAGE Publications, 2007. Print.
Ellis, John. Stars as a Cinematic Phenomenon. In Stardom and Celebrity. Redmond, Sean
and Su Holmes (Editors). London: SAGE Publications, 2007. Print.
Estrin, Mark W. (Editor). Orson Welles: Interviews. University Press of Mississippi,
2002. Print.


Gaslight Poster. All Posters. Accessed on 28 November 2014 from
Geraghty, Christine. Re-examining Stardom. In Stardom and Celebrity. Redmond, Sean
and Su Holmes (Editors). London: SAGE Publications, 2007. Print.
Golden, Herb, Jerry Sohl (Writers) and Stuart Rosenberg (Director). (22 November 1959)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents - Dead Weight [Television series]. From Alfred Hitchcock
(Producer). Hollywood, California: Revue Studios.
Heffernan, Harold (1945, July 29). Gentle Boys Win Girls Now. The Milwaukee Journal,
p. 4. Retrieved 30 November 2014 from
Hornblow, Arthur Jr. (Producer) and George Cukor (Director). (1944). Gaslight [DVD].
Origin: Warner Archive.
Joseph Cotten Interview. Those Were The Days (Radio Program) (1971). Accessed at on 16 November 2014.
Joseph Cotten Much Prefers to Under Act. Prescott Evening Courier, p. 11. Accessed
176 on 18 November 2014.
McCall, Ash. Art of the American Soldier. From Army Live. Accessed at on 18
November 2014. Web.
Panic Attack. (n.d.) In Oxford English Dictionary Online. Retrieved 16 December 2014
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Seltzer, Walter, Russel Thacher (Producers) and Richard Fleischer (Director). (1973).
Soylent Green [Film]. Retrieved on 18 December 2014 from
Selznick, David O. (Producer) and William Dieterle (Director). (1948). Portrait of Jennie
[DVD]. Origin: MGM.


Selznick, David O. (Producer) and Carol Reed (Director). (1949). The Third Man [DVD].
Origin: The Criterion Collection.
Selznick, David O. (Producer) and Carol Reed (Director). (1949). Original Theatrical
Trailer. On The Third Man [DVD]. Origin: The Criterion Collection.
A Short History of PTSD: From Thermopylae to Hue, Soldiers Have Always Had a
Disturbing Reaction to War. From The VVA Veteran, January 1991 [Journal]. Retrieved
16 December 2014 from
Silver, Alain and Elizabeth Wood. The Film Noir Encyclopedia. Overlook, New York,
2010. Print.
Skirball, Jack H. (Producer) and Alfred Hitchcock (Director). (1944). Shadow of a Doubt
[DVD]. Origin: . Film.
Taylor, Steven J. Acts of Conscience: World War II, Mental Institutions, and Religious
Objectors. Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 2009. Print.
Welles, Orson (Producer-Director). (1941). Citizen Kane [DVD]. Origin: Warner
Welles, Orson (Producer-Director). (1941). Peter Bogdanovich DVD Commentary. On
Citizen Kane [DVD]. Origin: Warner Brothers. Film.
Welles, Orson (Producer-Director). (1941). Roger Ebert DVD Commentary. On Citizen
Kane [DVD]. Origin: Warner Brothers. Film.
Welles, Orson (Producer-Director). (1938). Too Much Johnson: Work Print. National
Film Preservation Foundation. Accessed at on 16 November 2014. Film.