He trained as an engineer, but gave that up for vaudeville and then the legitimate theatre.
When sound came, he was one of the many stage actors invited to Hollywood; in this case to Paramount for Gentlemen of the Press (29, Millard Webb) and The Lady Lies (29, Hobart Henley). He made a big impact as the villain in The Virginian (29, Victor Fleming) and then showed his versatility in the title role of Abraham Lincoln (30, D. W. Griffith); a romance. The Virtuous Sin (30, George Cukor and Louis Gasnier); the prison governor in The Criminal Code. At Warners, he made Star Witness (31, William Wellman); The Ruling Voice (31, Rowland V. Lee); and The Woman from Monte Carlo (32, Michael Curtiz). He also played in William Wylers A House Divided (31), a reworking of Desire Under the Elms, which Huston had done on the stage.
This was his busiest period and he managed to dominate every film he made: as Wyatt Eaqi in Law and Order (32, Edward L. Calm); a policeman in Beast of the City (32, Charles Brabin); a drunk in The Wet Parade (32, Fleming); the banker in Capras American Madness (32); and Reverend Davidson, opposite Joan Crawfords Sadie Thompson, in Rain (32, Lewis Milestone). But he was not a star and the quality of his movies began to fluctuate: Hell Below (32, Jack Conway); the president in Gabriel Over the White House (33, Gregory La Cava); The Prizefighter and the Lady (33, W. S. Van Dvke); going to prison in Ann Vickers (33, John Cromwell); and Storm at Daybreak (33, Richard Boleslavsky).
He played Sinclair Lewis’s Dodsworth (36, Wyler) on stage, and then on film, and gave a beautiful portrait of an ordinary, truthful man of wealth and power. He went to England to play Rhodes of Africa (36, Berthold Yiertel) and The Tunnel (36, Maurice Elvey), but had few offers of further work and only made Of Human Hearts (38, Clarence Brown) and The Light that Failed (39, Wellman) in the next four years. With the war, he found more work, although almost exclusively in character parts: All That Money Can Buy (41, William Dieterle); staggering into Spade’s room with the bundle and then expiring in The Maltese Falcon (41, the first film directed by his son, John); Swam)) Water (41, Jean Renoir); The Shanghai Gesture (41, Josef von Sternberg); the father in Yankee Doodle Dandy (42, Curtiz); the ambassador in Mission to Moscow' (43, Curtiz); The North Star (43, Milestone); deliciously funny as Pat Garrett in The Outlaw (the Howard Hughes/Howard Hawks melange, shot in 1940, released in 1946, and better than most critics claim); Dragonseed (44, Conway); And Then There Were None (45, René Clair); Dragonwyck (46, Joseph Manldewicz); the preacher in Duel in the Sun (46, King Vidor).
Huston’s career ended with four shaggy parts: the rather callow old-timer in his son’s Treasure of the Sierra Mad re (47) for which he got the supporting actor Oscar; Summer Holiday (47, Rouben Mamoulian); the gambling-mad father in The Great Sinner (49, Robert Siodmak); and the patriarch in The Finies (50, Anthony Mann).
Huston lacked the raw material of a star: he was not beautiful; he was forty-six before he made his first film; he never entirely gave up Broadway for Hollywood. Above all, he was never ingratiating: indeed, some of his earlier films—The Criminal Code (31, Howard Hawks), for instance—are startling for their unaffected understatement. Huston is one of those actors who seem to hide most of their feelings and thoughts. As a cinematic method it has no equal and Huston— although as years went by he succumbed more readily to overplaying—is a constantly interesting actor.