An American gentleman: a tribute to John Hodiak

A few years ago, I made a purchase of a book online from a bookshop in Hollywood.  The book, one ‘Apache Gold and Yaqui Silver’, by J Frank Dobie, was written in 1939, and was about the Adams gold diggings of the early 1860s.  If you are wondering what this has to do with our subject, it just so happens that the copy of the book which is now in my collection once graced the shelves of John Hodiak (1914-1955) and has his handwritten ownership marker inside as proof.  Even more charming is the fact that the bookseller sent it out with a pressed rose and a red ribbon!

Hodiak is not that well remembered these days.  He was born in Pittsburgh on the 16th April 1914 and so this is his centenary year.  Through his father and mother he had Ukrainian and Polish descent, and occasionally he would play characters from these countries, or with this background, in his films.  On radio during the 1930s Hodiak created the character of Lil’ Abner, but it would be as soldiers, cowboys, or gentleman gamblers that he would be shown on the screen.

Through thirty-four films in Hollywood in what was a tragically short career, Hodiak would appear opposite some choice leading ladies, including Judy Garland (in ‘The Harvey Girls’; their duet in this frontier musical sadly did not make the final cut – where he is at his most charming as the gambler who steals Garland’s heart and finds reformation in the process), Greer Garson (in the sequel ‘The Miniver Story’, which received a mixed reception), Lana Turner (in the enjoyable ‘Marriage is a Private Affair’, where he is the stuffed shirt she marries in youthful madness), Tallulah Bankhead, for Hitchcock (in ‘Lifeboat’, his first real leading role and probably his best, flirting and sparring with the gravel-voiced lady who made few films but always left an impression), Gene Tierney (in the flagwaver ‘A Bell for Adano’, as a sympathetic major), Lucille Ball (petty criminals in ‘Two Smart People’, in a fun film), Hedy Lamarr (more criminal activities, in ‘Lady Without Passport’, a film which should have a stronger reputation than it does) and Anne Baxter, who he would marry in real life (in ‘Sunday Dinner for a Soldier’, the film on which their romance blossomed).

Other memorable roles were in the confusing ‘Somewhere in the Night’, ‘The People Against O’Hara’, the disappointing oater ‘Ambush at Tomahawk Gap’, as a charming gangster in ‘Desert Fury’, and a wartime major in ‘Dragonfly Squadron’.  It seems to me, though, that this attractive leading man never really developed into a first rate marquee name and I’m puzzled as to why.  He was also one of MGM’s ensemble cast of Dore Schary’s realistic war film, ‘Battleground’, a film which grows in reputation over the years and proves that screen idols like Van Johnson and Ricardo Montalban were effective actors.

His early death at just forty-one years old from a coronary thrombosis took one of the leading crop of actors who emerged when their peers were away at war (Hodiak was unfit for service due to problems with hypertension).  His films are occasionally revived and shown of television or at festivals, but it seems almost an accident that they are films featuring this actor and not packaged because he is in them.

His daughter with Baxter, Katrina Hodiak, a musician who bears a striking resemblance to her father, appeared in the Merchant-Ivory film ‘Jane Austen in Manhattan’, alongside her mother.