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John Huston

John Huston was an American screenwrite, film director and actor.

Background

  • Huston, John was born on August 5, 1906 in Nevada, Missouri, United States. Son of Walter and Rhea (Gore) Huston.

  • Education

    • Doctor of Humane Letters (honorary), Monmouth College, West Long Branch, New Jersey, 1981.

    Career

    • Huston had begun in movies as a screenwriter: A House Divided (31, William Wyler); Law and Order (32, Edward L. Calm); Murders in the Rue Morgue (32, Robert Florey); Death Drives Through (35, Cahn); Rhodes of Africa (36, Berthold Viertel); Jezebel (38, Wyler); The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (38, Anatole Litvak); Juarez (39, William Dieterle); Dr Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (40, Dieterle); High Sierra (41, Raoul Walsh); and Sergeant York (41, Howard Hawks). Later on, he had a hand in the scripts for The Killers (46, Robert Siodmak); The Stranger (46, Orson Welles); and Three Strangers (46, Jean Negulesco). And as a director, he was usually involved in reworking the scripts he shot.

      But Huston showed his allegiance to the golden age in that he preferred to work from proven books and plays. Indeed, sometimes he showed a Selznick-like urge to cover the respectable literary waterfront: Melville, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Arthur Miller, Kipling, C. S. Forester, B. Traven and so on (it’s a surprise that Huston ducked out of the Selznick A Farewell to Anns). There is hardly an original in Huston’s career. Yet the diverse materials are shaped to his vision, as well as to his shortcomings.

      Still, there are Huston films that are hard to deny: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is so happy with its own story it has a chipper fatalism, Walter Huston and Bogart are fine, and you feel you re in Mexico; The Asphalt Jungle is a taut thriller, a model story of a brilliant plan and its certain disaster full of Huston’s strengths—story atmosphere and lively supporting actors: Calhern, Hayden, and Sam Jaffe; Beat the Devil is startlingly loose and free, and very funny—it gets better as time passes—and who else would have dared do it?; Fat City is close to a great film, dark, sordid, despairing, and deeply provincial, free from Huston’s besetting cynicism, and with fine performances from Stacy Keaeh and Jeff Bridges; and The Man Who Would Be King would have pleased Kipling himself . Then there is Moby Dick, a big failure in its day, forced into some awkward process shots, yet beautiful in its windblanched coloring, true to Melville and with Gregory Peck far better than one might have expected.

      That’s a rich handful to go with Chinatown, the links to father Walter and daughter Anjelica (very honest actors), the sheer dazzle of his own legend, and the wonder of just how he got away with being thought of for so long as a great director.

      He also acted more: good in The Cardinal (63, Otto Preminger) and The Wind and the Lion (75, John Milius), but variously wasted, foolish, and shameless in The Bible (as Noah); De Sade (69, Cy Endfield and Roger Corman); Man in the Wilderness (71, Richard C. Sarafian); Sherlock Holmes in New York (76, Boris Sagal); Angela (77, Sagal); The Great Battle (78, Umberto Lenzi); The Visitor (79. Giuli Parasisi); Jaguar Lives! (79, Ernest Pintoff); Winter Kills (79, William Richert); Head On (80, Michael Grant); narrating Cannery Roic (82, David S. Ward); and Lovesick (83, Marshall Brickman).

    Works

    • Juarez (Wisconsin/Warner Bros. Screenplay Series)
    • Juárez was Warner Brothers' cinematic attempt to answer the major international question of the 1930s: would democracy or dictatorship prevail? Eager to further the foreign policy objectives of its friend Franklin Delano Roosevelt and equally willing to add to its prestigious and profitable biography series, the stuido set a record high budget and assembled special film stock, extensive scholarly research, a loose time schedule, a renowned director, and a stellar cast that included Paul Muni, Brian Aherne, and Bette Davis.
    • New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882
    • From George Washington's desire (in the heat of the Revolutionary War) for a proper set of Chinese porcelains for afternoon tea, to the lives of Chinese-Irish couples in the 1830s, to the commercial success of Chang and Eng (the "Siamese Twins"), to rising fears of "heathen Chinee," New York before Chinatown offers a provocative look at the role Chinese people, things, and ideas played in the fashioning of American culture and politics.
    • DeadBase 50: Celebrating 50 Years of the Grateful Dead
    • In response to the countless requests to reprint the last complete edition of DeadBase, this anniversary edition contains a complete reprint of DeadBase XI plus 400 new pages of updates to the master list of Grateful Dead shows, updates to GarciaBase and WeirBase, and new sections for NedBase, Phil Lesh and Friends, The Dead, and Furthur.
    • Captain Bligh Portable
    • Captain Bligh's Portable Nightmare is the account of an extraordinary journey, a great achievement in the history of European seafaring and a personal triumph for a man that has been misjudged by history -- Captain William Bligh, the supposedly cruel and foul-mouthed commander of The Bounty.

    Membership

    Served to major United States Army, 1942-1945.

    Personality

    Huston was always readv to be presented as the movie director who told manly, energetic stories, and liked to end them on a wry chuckle. He was himself a writer, a painter, a boxer, a horseman, a wanderer, a gambler, an adventurer, and a womanizer. More than most, he relished the game of getting a movie set up and the gamble of out-daring and intimidating the studios. His best pictures reflect those tastes and that attitude and had an expansive, airy readiness for ironic endings, fatal bad luck, and the laughter that knows men are born to fail.

    He was assisted in this broad, fetching act by his own rough-hewn face, his gambler's insolence, and his courtly eloquence. He was a character, at least as large as those in his films; there are also stories of a hard, mean streak that did not stop short of cruelty. Roaming all over the world, he could seem Hemingwayesque, though he possessed a serene confidence denied to the writer. And he was such a character that eventually people thought to use him in front of the camera. For lie always had his act: that’s what makes Peter Yiertel’s novel. White Hunter; Black Heart, so fascinating and so frightening. Viertel (who worked on several Huston ventures, including The African Queen) loved and admired the man: but he knew the malign devil who was dangerous to be with.

    That’s what makes Huston’s Noah Cross in Chinatown (74, Roman Polanski) one of his greatest gifts to the screen: a man of the West, a pioneer and maker of cities, a realist, a killer, and a man of unflawed confidence and selfishness—a terrible, charismatic paradox, a bastard and an aristocrat.

    The act and the legend keep getting in the way of the movies he made. His troubles with MGM over The Red Badge of Courage had been publicized by Lillian Ross in her book Picture and accepted as a fable of individual enterprise thwarted by the stupid system. But Red Badge remains as a series of gracious battle scenes, a noble aspiration, but a folly and a mess. Much later, Huston was reported as devoted to the point of his own extinction, surviving on oxygen, as he shot The Dead (in California). No doubt about the courage or the gambling perseverance. But that movie is muddled and a travesty ol the Joyce story, for all the care and delicacy in art direction and the array of Dublin players.

    Yes, Huston was always ambitious to exceed the set limits of American genres, and surely he loved distant and difficult locations (not only for the films, but for the chance of adventure they provided). Yes, he was a born storyteller, and someone who easily got bored with his own movies if the story proved slack or misbegotten. How often? Well, if Huston was a grand or good director, we have to reconcile ourselves to the banality and sheer boredom of. at least. Across the Pacific; We Were Strangers; The Barbarian and the Geisha; Freud: The Secret Passion; The List of Adrian Messenger: The Bible; Sinful Davey; A Walk With Love and Death (the first movie chance for his daughter, Anjelica, yet an ordeal for her, too—a warning even?); The Kremlin Letter; The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean; The Mackintosh Man; Victory; Phobia; and Annie.

    Then there are the famous or alleged successes that crack apart on investigation because of arty pretension (Moulin Rouge and Under the Volcano, for instance) or because of the star-struck kindness of critics. The Maltese Falcon was a striking debut, and it did put Lorre and Greenstreet together, as well as allowing Mary Astor to be Brigid O’Shaughnessy. But it’s overrated, talkv, slow, and often clumsy in its shooting. Bogart goes in and out of moods in uncertainty, and Mary Astor’s Brigid cannot help but illustrate Huston’s misogyny. The African Queen is a beloved film for many, yet is it about real people or the chutzpah of brave casting and actors’ schtick? Prizzi’s Honor has several droll passages, and in casting his daughter as Mae Rose, Huston pulled off a coup and helped heal old wounds. But the picture is so lugubriously slow, and Nicholson seems so unsure about the mood to play it in—-just like Bogart years before (Huston was not known for directing actors—he cast them and watched how the cards played). Nor did Huston see that Richard Condon’s novel might have translated better to the screen if Mae Rose had been at its center.

    But Huston never quite trusted women as characters. He married a lot—Evelyn Keyes and the model/dancer Ricki Soma were two of his wives— and there were many affairs. But in the movies women are sometimes nowhere to be seen (Red Badge, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moby Dick, and most of The Man Who Would be King—and wouldn’t Huston have preferred a Misfits without Monroe?). Elsewhere they are exotic adornments, prizes for the men, or emblems of treachery as witness Brigid O’Shaughnessy, Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle (an unwitting doll), and Lily Langtry in Roy Bean. There are so few films in which women matter. As for love stories, The African Queen is the best that Huston could do— and that, really, is just another version of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, the intriguing but truly safe (because impossible) mismatch, so that love and sex need not be explored. There is no real female challenge to the male smoke-room atmosphere of the films. But there is a list of female onlookers as wan and powerless as Jacqueline Bisset in Under the Volcano, Lauren Bacall in KL'IJ Largo, Elizabeth Tavlor in Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Dominique Sanda in The Mackintosh Man.

    Connections

    • Married Evelyn Keyes, July 23, 1946. Married Enrica Soma, 1949 (deceased 1969). Children: Walter Anthony, Anjelica.

      Married Celeste Shane, 1972 (divorced 1975).
    John Huston
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    Born August 5, 1906
    Died August 28, 1987
    (aged 81)
    Nationality
    • 1981
      Monmouth College

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