Vaudevillian and actor Walter Huston and his wife, the former Rhea Gore, a former sports reporter in the days when there were no women on that beat, found themselves in the unlikely location of Nevada, Missouri in 1906. One story was that Huston’s father had won the town in a poker game. The young couple tried to settle down to start a family. Walter got “honest work” as a mining engineer and Rhea abandoned the race tracks for motherhood when son John Marcellus Huston was born on August 5 of that year.
Domesticity did not suit the couple, who divorced when John was six year old. Each returned to their former professions. John was sent to a series of boarding schools. On summer breaks he would travel with one parent or another. He occasionally performed in Walter’s vaudeville act and later got small parts when his father was establishing himself in New York on the stage. His glamorous mother introduced him to a shady world populated with gamblers and hustlers. He adored and respected his father. He loved his mother, but she was a distracted and sometimes apathetic care giver at best.
By 1920 John was living with his mother and attending high school in Los Angeles. He was bright and had wide ranging interests and passions but chaffed in school. After a sickly childhood in which he was often hospitalized with an enlarged heart and kidney problems, John worked hard to strengthen his growing frame—he eventually grew to 6’ 2”—by taking up boxing. At the age of 14 his mother let him drop out of school to pursue fighting. Within two years he was Amateur Lightweight Boxing Championship of California, winning 22 of 25 bouts. Before he could turn pro, his career ended with a severely broken nose. In the mean time he married a childhood sweetheart. That marriage was predictably doomed, and set a pattern for failed marriages that his ex-wives would latter unanimously blame on his conflicted feelings about his mother.
With his new wife in tow, Huston headed to New York to give his father’s trade a whirl. By this time Walter was establishing a solid reputation. John, who learned the craft by watching his father rehearse, soon had success himself. In 1927 he had the lead role in one off-Broadway production and good parts in two Broadway successes.
But Huston grew bored with both acting and his wife and decamped for Mexico. He spent more than two years south of the border. Depending on who was telling the story, John rode with the Mexican cavalry as either a junior officer or a tolerated Gringo hanger-on.
While in Mexico he started writing and on return to the States sold a play. Encouraged, he turned to short stories and sold two to H.L. Menken’s American Mercury. He decided to make a career of writing, picking up a job as a reporter and submitting free lance stories and articles to popular magazines.
At the age of 25 John followed his father to Hollywood. John wanted to try to write for the movies. After a disappointing six months as an under-used script editor at the Goldwyn Studios, he moved to Universal where his father was an established star. He contributed dialoged to a number of films. He worked with director William Wyler and his father on A House Divided. Wyler became a friend and mentor. He also took small roles in various films, usually unaccredited and starred as Abraham Lincoln—a role once played by his father—in a stage play.
What looked like the beginning of a promising career was cut short in 1933 when Houston, already renown for hard drinking and living, hit and killed a young dancer, Tosca Roulien, while driving on Sunset Boulevard. Although cleared by the police of wrong doing—likely because of studio pressure—Houston was horrified and grief stricken. He abandoned Hollywood and was soon in Paris studying art and living the bohemian life. Despite being a promising student, he eventually he ran out of money and found that actual homelessness made the life of a starving artist less appealing.
In 1937 he returned to Hollywood determined to make his mark as a writer and hoping someday direct his own script. He also married for a second time, to Lesley Black. Signed by Warner Bros., he worked on a number of successful projects including Jezebel, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Juarez, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet, and Sergeant York. He received Academy Award nominations for the last two.
But Huston was restless and wanted to direct. He made a deal with the studio—if his next script became a hit, he could direct a movie. The next project was High Sierra, directed by Raoul Walsh. The 1941 film made Humphrey Bogart a genuine star instead of a second lead or character actor and began a fruitful partnership between the two.
True to his word, Jack Warner reluctantly gave the go ahead for Huston to direct his maiden effort. But he did not want to waste an “A” property. He let Huston have a crack on a new version of Dashiell Hammett’s detective thriller, The Maltese Falcon. Two earlier versions had bombed for the studio. Houston was given the tight budget and fast shooting schedule of a “B” movie programmer. But he was given an outstanding cast including the newly hot Bogart, veteran Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greensteet in his first film role.
Houston came to the shoot with the whole film, shot by shot, on story board, which expedited shooting. Very little post production editing was necessary. The film was released with very little studio promotion but immediately caught the attention of both audiences and critics who recognized a classic when they saw it. Huston garnered another Oscar nomination for the script.
Warners was now more than eager to let him direct. He followed up with the melodrama In This Our Life with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Houston was called away by the War Department, to make the short recruiting film Winning Your Wings featuring real life Air Corps pilot James Stewart. Raul Walsh was called in to finish shooting the film, but was unaccredited after numerous clashes with Davis. Then the studio re-teamed Huston with Bogart, Astor, and Greenstreet in another thriller, Across the Pacific. Both features were hits.
In 1942 Huston was formally called into the Army Signal Corps with the rank of captain to make propaganda films. In addition to some shorts, he shot three major films—all of them controversial and either heavily edited, censored, or banned outright. Later all have been hailed as classics. Report From the Aleutians (1943) was a documentary of pilots and crews in the low profile Alaskan campaign that featured a frank look at the daily lives, and tedium between stark moments of terror for the air crews over Japanese positions. The Battle of San Pietro (1944) featured grizzly footage of allied war dead in the Italian Campaign, and frankly showed the disastrous consequences of an intelligence failure. Army brass would not allow it to be released to the public and at first tried to keep it from being shown to troops for fear of destroying moral. Huston was also accused of making an anti-war film, to which he responded that if he ever made a made a pro-war film he should be shot. On personal orders of Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, the film was used in training to underscore the seriousness of war. With Marshall’s approval, Huston was promoted to major.
The most controversial of his war time efforts was Let There Be Light (1945). It followed the lives and treatment of a group of shell shocked soldiers at a state-side hospital. It was the first frank examination of what would come to be called post traumatic stress. Not only did the Army refuse to release the film to either a civilian audience or to the troops, it actually confiscated a print from Huston that he planned to show privately to friends at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The film was not released for public viewing until 1980.
On returning to Hollywood after the War, Huston found himself back in the familiar role of writer. Three Strangers starring Greenstreet, Lorre, and Geraldine Page was his own original story and was also the last complete script that he wrote which he did not direct. For contractual reasons—he was bound to Warner Bros.—he contributed uncredited to the scripts of his friend Orson Welles’s film The Stranger and to Ernest Hemingway The Killers.
Huston returned to directing with a triumph in 1948. The Treasure of Sierra Madre was based on a novel by the mysterious American expatriate writer in Mexico, B. Traven. Using his knowledge of Mexico he crafted a compelling script and even convinced Jack Warner to let him shoot it on location in Mexico—and Warner hated to let productions off his lot. Once again reunited with Bogart as the greedy Fred C. Dobbs, the cast also included Tim Holt and Walter Houston. The film was filled with legendary lines—“Badges. Badges! We don’t need no stinking badges!” Walter Houston’s turn as the old miner was one of the great performances of film. The film garnered Oscars for Houston for both the screenplay and direction and for his father as Best Supporting Actor—the only time a father and son have won for the same film.
It was the beginning of one of Houston’s most fertile periods as a film maker. The same year he followed up with Key Largo—Bogart again with Edward G. Robinson, Lauren Bacall, and Claire Trevor. The studio made cuts to the film without Houston’s approval and so angered him that he left Warner’s when his contract was up. None the less, the film was a critical and popular hit and won Claire Trevor an Oscar as best supporting actress for her role of the drunken, fading beauty and gangster’s moll.
Houston now had enough clout as a successful hit maker to produce his own films. In 1950 he turned to MGM for financing and distribution of the film noir crime caper gone bad The Asphalt Jungle. The film starred Sterling Hayden, Sam Jaffee, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, and Jean Hagen. Marilyn Monroe had a small but key role that really established her as an actress.
His next film, an adaptation of Stephen Crane’s Civil War story The Red Badge of Courage in 1951 brought him into conflict with MGM. Houston had wanted to make a film from the book since his front line experiences in World War II. For his lead he picked the boyish looking young Texan Audie Murphy, the most highly decorated soldier of the war. He cast another non-professional Bill Mauldin, the G.I. cartoonist who created Willie and Joe in Stars and Stripes. Houston favorite James Whitmore provided voice-over narration mostly taken from the novel. When studio executives saw Huston’s final cut they were aghast, and frightened. They feared that with the Korean War raging and the Red Scare in full force that he had made an anti-war film. And, of course, he had. They chopped nearly 20 minutes of the film out. It tested badly with pre-view audiences who were not prepared for a non-glorious look at war. The studio refused to release it as an “A” picture and instead sent it out as the “B” half of a double feature. Predictably it lost money. Houston was furious. Later he and Murphy tried to buy the film from MGM so that they could restore it, but the studio claimed the cut footage was destroyed. It never has been found. Despite all of this movie is still a powerful statement and is now regarded as a classic.
Huston was on dangerous political ground in those days anyway, saved from blacklisting only because of his stature and because he had not joined any of the organizations assumed to be Communist or sympathetic earlier in his career. But he was incensed by the growing repression of the post war years. In 1947 he and his friend William Wyler formed the Committee for the First Amendment to counter the House Un-American Activities Committee’s Hollywood which hunt. Friends Bogart, Bacall, Sterling Hayden and others joined the effort. All came under attack.
Around the same time Huston’s post-war marriage to actress Evelyn Keys ended in 1950. The couple adopted a son from Mexico who Huston found during the filming of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. He began regular visits to Ireland and became more attached to the country as his disenchantment with both Hollywood and American politics grew.
Huston looked away from Hollywood for production support of his next film The African Queen based on E. M. Forester’s novel. British Romulus Films was the principle backer. Much of the film was shot on location in East Africa, the rest on English soundstages. The film teamed Huston’s favorite actor, Bogart as the drunken captain of a broken down river steamer with Katherine Hepburn as the high minded spinster sister of a missionary. Together they take a treacherous voyage down a river on a mission to sink a German warship blocking British advances on a large lake. Distributed in the U.S. by United Artists, the film was another huge success and earned Bogart his only career Academy Award.
His next film was also produced by Romulus in conjunction with Huston. It was a departure from the tough adventure and crime stories for which Huston was best known, but appealed to his interest in art. Moulin Rouge starred José Ferrer as the maimed and crippled French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Awash in Technicolor the film captured the vibrant and decadent café society that the painter famously documented.
In 1953 Houston decided to permanently move to Ireland. He established a home at Saint Clerns House near Craughwell, County Galway with his fourth wife, Italian-American ballerina Enrica “Ricki” Soma and their daughter Anjelica and son Tony. He built a studio and spent much of his time painting. In 1961 Houston became an Irish citizen. In 1963 he fathered a son Danny, in a relationship with writer Zoe Sallis. This put an understandable strain on his marriage and Ricki left him. Although estranged, the couple did not divorce. Ricki had a daughter Allegra from another relationship during the separation. When she died in 1969 Houston adopted the girl and raised her as his own.
While settling in to Ireland, Houston made his last film with Bogart. Beat the Devil was produced by Bogart’s company and written by Houston and Truman Capote. It was a quirky story of a group of fortune hunters and scoundrels forced together in Africa. It co-starred Jennifer Jones, Gina Lolabrigida, and Robert Morley. Filmed in England and Italy, the movie was distributed in the States by United Artists who gave it little support. Not quite a commercial failure, it did not get the wide audiences of other Huston films, but is now considered a sort of black comedy classic.
Houston’s next film was an adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Houston took years to develop the film, originally hoping to cast his father as Ahab. But Walter died in 1950. Houston turned to Gregory Peck. Produced by his own company, Moulin Production, it took him three years to shoot on location in Ireland, Wales, at sea and at Associated British Elstree Studios in Herefordshire. For the first time in years he was not working from his own script. Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury was the principle writer, although Huston was also credited. The two clashed repeatedly as the film was in production. Despite a classic American source, a top box office draw as star, and exciting whaling footage, Moby Dick failed at the box office. Like other Houston films that did not get a good first reception, it is now considered a classic and remembered as one of Peck’s finest performances.
The late Fifties were difficult for Houston. It was harder to get financing for favored projects after the failure of Moby Dick. He took Hollywood assignments not totally suited to him. The Barbarian and the Geisha was a historical romance built around the diplomat who opened Japan to American trade. John Wayne was hopelessly miscast in the lead and clashed repeatedly with Huston, who work habits differed strongly from his favorite directors John Ford and Walsh. In one argument, Wayne knocked Huston out cold.
Closer to Huston’s heart was Roots of Heaven produced by Daryl Zanick and Fox. The tale of a quixotic crusade to save the elephant from extinction in French Equatorial Africa staring Errol Flynn late in his career was shot under difficult conditions on location. It was a box office failure, but Huston said it was the one movie he would like to re-make.
In 1960 Burt Lancaster recruited Huston for his production company’s The Unforgiven, an unusual western with complex themes of racial prejudice and conflicting cultures. Audrey Hepburn was cast as a young girl raised in a sprawling Texas family who discovers that she was kidnapped as a child from the Kiowa. Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford, and silent screen legend Lillian Gish also co-starred with Lancaster. Despite a great cast and strong script, the movie was not well received. Many now regard it as a great, but forgotten western and it has been compared favorably with the John Ford/John Wayne classic The Searchers which tells a similar story—except the girl is white and her kidnappers Comanche.
After wrapping up The Unforgiven, Huston turned to what would become the most important film of this period of his career. The production of The Misfits was troubled. Playwright Arthur Miller continued to work on the script as filming was under way in the Nevada dessert. His marriage to actress Marilyn Monroe was coming apart and Monroe was, as usual, difficult and unreliable on the set. Clark Gable was ill and Montgomery Clift was drinking heavily. Many observers thought that method acting icons Clift and Monroe would blow Gable’s old school acting out of the water. But Gable gave the performance of a lifetime. For that matter so did Monroe, who despite everything, showed what she was truly capable of. It was a swan song for both. Gable died of a heart attack just after principle shooting was finished. Monroe never completed another film before she died two years later. Clift made only two more American films—one of them Huston’s Freud the next year. Stunningly filmed in unforgiving black-and-white the movie is a true classic. And the publicity surrounding Gable’s death drove the box office, making it Huston’s first real hit in years.
In 1963 director Otto Preminger convinced Huston to return to the screen as an actor. He had often taken small, usually unaccredited cameos in his own films. But the part of Cardinal Glennon, the mentor of Tom Tryon’s young priest in The Cardinal won him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor and led to a string of acting parts the rest of his life.
Huston was prolific in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Some films were pet personal projects. Others were taken largely to finance those projects. Mixing misfires with classics among his memorable films were:
- The Night of the Iguana (1964) based on the play by Tennessee Williams was shot on location in Mexico remembered for searing performances by Richard Burton, Ava Gardner, and Deborah Kerr.
- The Bible: In The Beginning (1966) produced by Dino De Laurentis was supposed to be the first in a series of films of the whole Bible. Only this one was made, covering the first stories in the book of Genesis. Huston provided voice over narration pretty much straight from the source material. It is best remembered for Huston’s ecstatic performance as Noah dancing madly as the animals enter the Ark.
- Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) was intended to reunite Elizabeth Taylor with Montgomery Clift, but he died before filming began. The part of the repressed homosexual Major Weldon Penderton went instead to Marlon Brando.
- A Walk With Love and Death (1969) was meant to mirror Vietnam in The Hundred Year’s War. Huston cast his 18 year old daughter Anjelica and Assi Dyan, son of Israeli General Moshe Dyan in the leads. Neither was yet ready to carry a major film. It bombed.
- Fat City (1972) has the look of an indie film shot on a shoe string. It is the bleak chronicle of down and out boxers in hardscrabble Fresno, California which stared Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. It now enjoys a cult following.
- The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) was a return to more commercial film making. A glorious comedy western that raised some unexpected issues, the film stared and was produced by star Paul Newman with a memorable cameo by Ava Gardner as Lilly Langtree.
- The Man Who Would be King (1975) based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling marked Huston’s return as a screen writer. It is one of the great adventure stories ever filmed and also lays bare the folly of British racism and Imperialism. Brilliant performance by Sean Connery and Michel Caine make it in every sense a modern classic.
- Wise Blood (1979) was another small film. Based on Flannery O’Connor’s novel and shot in the vicinity of her Georgia home, the film was a black comedy about a young man who starts his own church. A German-American co-production, it won an audience in Europe. Despite good, even great reviews in this country, it remains another cult film.
- Annie (1982) may have been the most uncharacteristic film of Huston’s long career. Hired to transfer the Broadway musical hit to the screen, he was out of his element. He did seem to relish taking arch-reactionary Harold Gray’s comic strip characters and making a sunny endorsement of the New Deal. Famous for hammy performances by Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks, Carol Burnet, and Tim Curry and for a gaggle of adorable orphans, the movie was a huge hit and remains a cherished memory of many a childhood.
- Under the Volcano (1984) returned Huston to Mexico for a story of a drunken English diplomat posted to obscurity in a remote Mexican village. Against the colorful and symbolic festivities of the Day of the Dead the character portrayed by Albert Finney muffs the offered chances of reconciliation with his beloved ex-wife and redemption offered by his brother-in-law. Finney earned an Oscar nomination for best actor. Another seldom seen cult classic.
- Prizzi’s Honor (1985). If A Walk With Love and Death had nearly killed Anjelica Huston’s career at its beginnings, her father more than made up for it by casting her as a Mafia Don’s daughter. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress making the father-daughter team unique in film history—and John the only man to direct both his father and child to an Academy Award. The box office hit starred Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner as Mob assassins who fall in love and find that each has been hired to kill the other.
- The Dead (1987) was John Huston’s last film as a director and a collaborative labor of love for the Houston family. Based on the short story from James Joyce’s The Dubliners, the film was an homage to the country where Houston lived for much of his life and where his children grew up. Son Tony adapted the screenplay and Anjelica starred as Greta Conroy who comes to an epiphany at a Dublin Christmas dinner party.
In his final years, Huston moved his primary residence to Mexico. He had one more marriage, even more disastrous than usual. He enjoyed his status as an icon and a maverick. Years of heavy smoking left him devastated by emphysema. Huston died of a heart attack on August 28, 1987 in Rhode Island. Despite decade of exile from Hollywood he was buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery next to his mother. They share a tombstone.