PETERSBURG –Last Friday technically was the first full day of fall, but it was still hot, and still humid, when a small group of us gathered in front of the Appomattox Regional Governor’s School.
That could have been part of why the tour crowd was so small – just four, including the leader. Oh, there was a fifth of
sorts, CBS 6 reporter Wayne Covil, who was doing a story but not going on the tour. (See his report: http://wtvr.com/2016/09/23/writer-visits-petersburg-to-research-film-star-joseph-cotten/.) Indeed, four others had canceled at the last minute.
So the weather could have been behind the small crowd. It also could have been that the tour was put on by the too-little-known new offshoot of Turner Classic Movies, TCM Backlot. (For more on “the ultimate fan club,” go here: www.tcmbacklot.com.) If you’re not a member, you wouldn’t have known.
But I’d lay money on this being part of it, too:
Few know Joseph Cotten anymore.
That’s a shame. The Petersburg native used to be a star back in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Not a star on the order of Humphrey Bogart or Cary Grant but a star nonetheless. He was a Broadway actor in the 1930s and a film actor in the 1940s and beyond. He’s remembered now mostly as Orson Welles’ sidekick, having been in the latter’s Mercury Theatre radio series and classic films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, along with a film in which Welles makes a memorable appearance, The Third Man. But Cotten acted in more than 80 films, including such classics as Shadow of a Doubt and Gaslight. In 1949, he won the Venice Film Festival’s best actor award for Portrait of Jennie. The man had chops.
Marya E. Gates hopes to let people know again.
Gates does social media for Turner Classic Movies (www.facebook.com/tcmtv/) and even handles a Facebook page specifically for Cotten (www.facebook.com/josephcheshirecotten/.) TCM’s page, by the way, has more than 1 million followers. Cotten’s has but 275.
Gates was in Petersburg both for research and to lead our little tour group. The walking tour began at the base of a four-month-old state historical marker in front of the governor’s school. It is one of the few indications now that Cotten ever wondered this area. The school used to be Petersburg High School, which Cotten attended more than 90 years ago. He acted and played football.
Before our tour, she had posted this about her research:
“Today I discovered Jo was part of the School Weekly News staff (that’s him at the top looking thrilled). I dug through a year’s worth of microfilm featuring their writing and couldn’t find a single article with his byline. This picture was in what would have been his senior yearbook, but he dropped out before graduating. He was also Vice President of the Monogram Club which ‘protected the letters and promoted clean athletics and greater school spirit.’ He also did not look thrilled to be in that photo (and he’s hunching, trying to hide his height). The only photo I found where he almost looked happy was a junior year shot of him on the football team. I’m bummed he didn’t finish school because even in 1923 they had really funny features about the seniors with nicknames and in jokes and Jo didn’t get one! However, I did find one years later for his brother Whit who constantly referred to himself as “slow” and had many in jokes about failing Spanish over and over.”
Gates enthusiastically took us to the site of four of Cotten and/or his family’s homes in Petersburg. Fortunately, she had done her detective work. None of the homes are marked. Only two remain. One of the missing two is a parking lot now; the other is a hole in a parking lot. Friday’s walking tour, which stretched to more than five miles and nearly three hours, also took in Cotten’s grave in the family plot in the far corner of famed Blanford Cemetery. It was a hike.
But an enjoyable hike. That’s because Gates is an unabashed Cotten fan. She’s researched him, met family members, plans further research across the country and in Europe and – blast of trumpets – hopes to write a biography. Oddly, there has never been a biography of Cotten, she says. He did write what she calls a fine autobiography in 1987, Vanity Will Get You Somewhere. She hopes to see her book published about 2020. I, for one, will buy it.
So why and how did Gates become such a fan of an increasingly little known actor who died in 1994? The passion came quickly.
“I watched several of his films in the fall of 2010: Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight, The Third Man, and a rewatch of Citizen Kane, and I started to take notice of him,” she says. “Then in early 2011, I saw September Affair and Lydia and that really cinched it.”
Gates attended the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival and, coincidentally, four of his films were shown in one day. She skipped The Third Man, choosing instead to attend Peter O’Toole’s handprint-in-the-sidewalk ceremony. “But I went to the other three: Citizen Kane, Niagara and Gaslight. From then, I was just smitten and have spent the last few years watching as many of his films as I could.” By now, she’s done virtually everything except see some of his later films.
Oh, and finish writing his biography.