At Large

John Huston at 100

He was a prolific American original.

By 8.15.06

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In 1945 at a Hollywood dinner party at the home of producer David O. Selznick, John Huston had a ferocious fistfight with Errol Flynn over the affections of Flynn's estranged wife, Nora Eddington. The brawl lasted a full ten minutes. By the time the police arrived the two combatants had pounded each other out-of-doors and into a garden. Both ended up in the hospital, Huston with broken ribs. Never one to hold a grudge, Huston later gave the washed-up, alcoholic Flynn a role in The Roots of Heaven (1958).

John Huston's relations with women were interesting, to say the least. He once flipped a coin to determine the fate of a beloved art collection that was contested in one of his divorce settlements, and lost. He was married five times, one wife divorcing him because he wouldn't part with a pet monkey. Another, who had earned his enmity, was forever "the crocodile." Recalling her work on The African Queen, Katharine Hepburn -- who had suffered some minor tropical ailment on the set -- wrote that her director tenderly "rubbed my back when I was sick."

Huston's carousing was legendary. Clark Gable, in the dining room of a Reno casino after a long day of shooting The Misfits, spied Huston drinking hardily and gambling in the next room, and humorously told friends present: "Look at that old man. He won't last much longer carrying on like that." Gable died of a heart attack twelve days after they finished shooting the picture, the direct result of insisting on doing his own stunts, including being dragged on the ground behind a horse. Huston lived another twenty seven years.

When he finally passed on at 81 in 1987, his friend the actor Robert Mitchum offered up some good natured gallows humor that Huston would have appreciated. Mitchum said that he refused to believe that Huston was dead until somebody "drove a stake through his heart." Huston had directed Mitchum in one of his rowdy location shoots, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). Another friend, commenting on Huston's much-sanitized 1980 memoir An Open Book, ribbed its author by inquiring: "Great book, John. Who's it about?"

It's an understatement to say that John Huston had a Rabelaisian zest for life. But he also had a studious side, and was a lifelong and voracious reader with a reverence for the classics. As a young man he had literary aspirations himself, and was a regular contributor to H.L. Mencken's American Mercury. He later got his start in Hollywood as a screenwriter.

This love of words was -- in a sense -- his legacy as the American film director most adept at bringing classic fiction to the screen. The list is long. In chronological order amidst Huston's total directorial oeuvre of 45 films (not to mention the 50 he acted in, and 37 screenplays that he wrote or collaborated on): The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Red Badge of Courage, Moby Dick, The Man Who Would Be King, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, and The Dead.

Huston himself could have been a character in a Hemingway novel. As a young man -- in addition to his literary period -- he was an amateur boxer, a mercenary in the Mexican cavalry, a reporter, and an aspiring painter. After a drunken car accident that killed a young woman, Huston had a penitential Orwell-like sojourn as a starving artist in London and Paris.

Later in life Huston carried on this love of adventure in more aristocratic ways by attending bullfights and horse races, and by pursuing big game hunting in exotic locales. Fox hunting was a favorite pastime when he was at "Clearans," his estate in County Galway in the west of Ireland. Huston loved horses. Once -- after his passing -- his daughter Angelica Huston while in a museum and pensively viewing a bucolic painting with horses, was heard to remark: "This is my father's idea of heaven."

JOHN MARCELLUS HUSTON WAS BORN in Nevada, Missouri, on August 5, 1906, to Walter and Rhea Gore Huston, his father a struggling stage actor and vaudevillian, his mother a journalist -- the occupations of both parents combining to make the son the man he became. Walter Huston -- the future Oscar-winning character actor -- also worked as a civil engineer to make ends meet. After a youth spent on the fringes of show business amidst his other sundry adventures, the younger Huston -- with the help of his father -- landed a job as a screenwriter at Warner Brothers, where he was put to work adapting novels (copying out all the dialogue for more senior writers). He was soon assigned his own screen work, and wrote the scripts for Jezebel (1938), Sergeant York (1941) and High Sierra (1941), the movie on which he developed his notable friendship with Humphrey Bogart.

Huston's directorial debut was The Maltese Falcon (1941), the cinematic treatment of Dashiell Hammett's classic detective novel, with Bogart cast as the hardboiled private eye Sam Spade. The rest of a bizarre cast included Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet. Huston was the third choice for director, and Warner Brothers decided to give him a chance and a small $300,000 budget. The resulting movie is considered to be the birth of film noir, quite an accomplishment considering it was Huston's first time out. He spent World War II making three pro-American war propaganda documentaries (how times have changed in Hollywood), including the award-winning The Battle of San Pietro, filmed among the troops in Italy.

The director's first postwar project was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), based on B. Traven's novel about hustling gold prospectors in Mexico. Huston again cast Bogart in the lead role, this time as the banally evil Fred C. Dobbs. There was also Tim Holt, and Huston's father Walter as a crusty sourdough miner. The elder Huston won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and John Huston garnered Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay. The film would have won Best Picture if Laurence Olivier's Hamlet had not been such an unbeatable rival that year. And Bogart lost out to Olivier for Best Actor. But Huston had made good on an old promise made to his father that he'd direct him in an Oscar-winning role. Walter Huston died soon after, but his son the director had arrived.

The African Queen (1951) -- from a novel by C.S. Forester -- was Huston's next triumph. He collaborated on a contentious screenplay with James Agee and Peter Viertel , and again teamed with Bogart (after Beat the Devil in 1953, the six-films-in-twelve-years partnership would end with Bogart's 1956 death from throat cancer), who played the coarse, hard drinking river captain delightfully named Charlie Allnut, opposite Katharine Hepburn as the pious spinster Rose Sayer. The plot detailed their growing romantic attachment (after a rough start) when they were thrown together to travel in dangerous circumstances down an African river in World War I. The location conditions in the Belgian Congo were primitive (the sweltering set and living quarters infested with mosquitos), and the practical joke-loving Bogart and Huston were fond of trying to fluster the demure Hepburn by sitting around the fire and boorishly guzzling whiskey out of the bottle every night. The African Queen received multiple Academy Award nominations, but Bogart's "Best Actor" nod was the only one to win.

The Red Badge of Courage was a box office flop in 1951, but this film version of Stephen Crane's classic holds up well today and is a perennial favorite at Huston retrospectives. Starring the World War II hero Audie Murphy, the picture is a testament to the director's genius at filming battle scenes. Huston used filtered lighting techniques that gave the movie the intentionally grayish look of Matthew Brady photographs of the Civil War. The critics labeled it an "art picture" to the consternation of studio executives who wanted a popular Civil War film, and had taken great liberties with editing to the disgust of Huston, who was at the time on location directing The African Queen. Lillian Ross of the New Yorker wrote a famous piece about the making and unmaking of The Red Badge of Courage, which became the book Picture (1952).

Nineteen fifty-six saw Moby Dick, Herman Melville's epic tale of monomaniacal revenge on the high seas, and Huston's tribute to nineteenth century whaling scrimshaw carvings (many of Huston's best pictures were opportunities for him to explore on film art forms related to milieu). Gregory Peck played mad Captain Ahab, with Richard Basehart as Ishmael. Orson Welles had a memorable cameo delivering Father Mapple's famous sermon at the beginning. The screenplay was written by the young writer Ray Bradbury (under Huston's heavy-handed supervision), soon to make a name for himself as America's premier science fiction author. It was another of Huston's wild -- if not dangerous -- location shoots, this time on the storm-tossed Irish Sea.

The film's paean to 1950s high tech special effects was the mechanical white whale that foundered twice and almost sank. It required a man inside to operate it, but after those two dangerous mishaps, the entire crew refused when Huston sought a volunteer. So the director took a long slug from a bottle of Irish whiskey and climbed in himself, issuing directorial orders as he did so. The scene went well. Years later, Ray Bradbury wrote a comic roman a clef titled Green Shadows, White Whale, chronicling the briny insanity of the making of Moby Dick. The thinly disguised Huston character in the novel is simply named "John," and functions as the narrator's own private Captain Ahab.

When the movie premiered, most critics found Moby Dick too "literary" and "intellectual," ironic commentary considering that upon publication, Melville's great novel had failed commercially, and marked the beginning of a heartbreaking decline. Like The Red Badge of Courage before it, Moby Dick fared poorly at the box office, and for Huston inaugurated a twenty year period of mostly mediocre directorial efforts.

But for two worthy films, The Misfits (1961) and The Night of the Iguana (1964) -- the 1960s through the early '70s were a fallow period for John Huston the director. He put out a few turkeys, including The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) and The Bible (1966), the latter causing one waggish reviewer to recommend the book over the movie. Trying to put these setbacks behind him, John Huston the actor turned in noteworthy performances in The Cardinal (1963), Man in the Wilderness (1971), Chinatown (1974), and The Wind and the Lion (1975), in which he played Theodore Roosevelt's Secretary of State, John Hay.

HUSTON THE DIRECTOR REGAINED his balance and in 1975 tackled Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King, the great Victorian's adventure novella about two retired British soldiers -- Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) -- who try to use their military expertise ("It's detriments like us that built this bloody empire") to subvert a remote Afghan mountain kingdom and steal its vast royal treasure. Because Dravot wears the symbol of the Masons around his neck, the locals believe him to be the divine reincarnation of Alexander the Great, who had conquered the region in antiquity. This masquerade is foiled when Dravot is accidentally cut and bleeds, thus casting doubt on his divinity, and leading to his death and Peachy's torture and exile. Huston was nominated for an Oscar for his screenplay, and though the picture garnered none at all, The Man Who Would Be King restored his languishing reputation as a director. It is interesting to note that Huston first contemplated the Kipling classic over twenty years earlier, envisioning the roles of Danny and Peachy as played by Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart.

Flannery O'Connor's work has never translated well to the big screen, but that didn't stop Huston from doing her novel Wise Blood in 1980 . The dark Southern comedy starred Ned Beatty as the grotesque Reverend Hazel Motes of the "Church of Christ without Christ." And later Huston was as daring a filmmaker as to take on Malcolm Lowry's difficult 1947 novel Under the Volcano (1984), the stream-of-consciousness story of the last day (November 2, 1938 -- the Mexican Day of the Dead) in the life of an alcoholic living in Mexico on the eve of World War II. Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) is the washed-up British ex-Consul of Cuernavaca. His estranged wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) returns to Mexico accompanied by Geoffrey's younger brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews), who is in love with Yvonne. Huston dropped Lowry's intricate Joycean-like narrative to tell the story straight, albeit retaining much of the novel's more subjectively terrifying Lost Weekend-type aspects. Under the Volcano may have been Huston's most brilliant failure, but you have to applaud him for trying

The director next returned to film noir -- though in a lighthearted way -- with Prizzi's Honor (1985). The adaptation of Richard Condon's lively novel of New York mobsters starred Jack Nicholson as Charlie Partanna and Kathleen Turner as Irene Walker, contract killers and lovers who, through amusing twists of plot find that they have contracts on each other. Angelica Huston (as Maerose Prizzi, who lusts after Charlie) won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. John Huston is the only director in Hollywood history to have directed both his father and his daughter in Oscar-winning roles.

Huston's love of all things Irish (he became an Irish citizen in 1964) is reflected in his final film, The Dead (1987). James Joyce's best short story (from Dubliners) was the germ of his masterpiece Ulysses, and was for Huston a project he had contemplated for years. The story -- set in Dublin on a snowy night in 1904 -- examines the marriage of Greta and Gabriel Conroy, and how Greta (Angelica Huston) secretly longs for her dead lover Michael Furey. It is admirable as a period piece, perfectly evoking fin de siecle Ireland with nothing more than a softly-lit dinner party around a large table in an elegant Georgian home, the apotheosis of the Irish bourgeoisie.

The irony of The Dead for John Huston was his own upcoming mortality. He directed the picture in a wheelchair while hooked up to an oxygen tank to relieve the emphysema that was slowly killing him after a lifetime of cigarettes and cigars. A sad ending, and yet a life-affirming one for a man who worked joyfully to the end, and who lived up to a description of him once offered by a friend: "John was parade all by himself."

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.