Archive for An Open Book

Animal Magic

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2015 by dcairns


I had the great pleasure of meeting Michael Fitzgerald in Telluride the other year. An impressive gentleman, he numbers among his achievements exec producing two late John Huston movies, WISE BLOOD and UNDER THE VOLCANO. I asked him about the Great Man, and he was VOCIFEROUS, and extremely convincing in his passion, as he stated UNCATEGORICALLY that Huston was indeed a great man and that anybody who had anything bad to say about him was doubtless an untalented ingrate. However, I have also asked novelist and screenwriter Alan Sharp about Huston, having been promised that the results would be entertaining… but Sharp seemed already tired of the subject and merely said that Huston was a nasty man and a sadist. Both witnesses seemed credible and were in a position to know. Fortunately, I’m not called upon to come up with the definitive verdict on this legendary filmmaker and can content myself with the platitude that Huston was doubtless large, contained multitudes etc.


His autobiography, An Open Book, I can give a thumbs up to, however. Dipping into it again as an accompaniment to a viewing of THE BIBLE… IN THE BEGINNING was extremely informative and fun. First, the movie —

Dino de Laurentiis’ demented inspiration to make The Film of the Book notwithstanding (they managed only a few opening bits of Genesis), I’d always found this a dull film, but it rewards a sympathetic re-viewing. It’s all flawed, and many of the flaws do result in a kind of tedium, but you can see why the decisions seemed reasonable at the time. Huston, essentially an atheist, was drawn in by the language of the King James Bible, and handed himself the job of narrating the movie, effectively becoming the Voice of God. Getting Christopher Fry to write all the dialogue in a comparable style results in lines that are hard to speak naturalistically. George C. Scott solves this by talking very slowly, giving his character, Abraham, time to come up with all this great material. Unfortunately, all the lesser actors in the previous chapters have spoken slowly too, wearing down our capacity to appreciate another ponderous prophet. The only actor in the whole film who talks rapidly is Huston himself, not as God but as Noah.


Huston pours a full bucket of milk into a gaping hippo then pats it on the nose — insanely dangerous.

When Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Alec Guinness all passed on playing Noah, Huston realised that as he’d been practicing with the menagerie assembled for the ark scenes, he might as well take the part himself, and would have stolen the show if the raven, the elephant and the hippo weren’t on hand to steal it from him. Tossing off his lines with casual disregard, he invents a new kind of biblical acting that could have rescued the movie if only he’d passed the tip on to somebody else. As he once told Sean Connery about his character in THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, “He can talk fast: he’s an honest man.” (Connery has said that his usual error is to talk TOO fast, resulting in Hitchcock requesting “a few more dog’s feet,” by which he meant “pawses.”)

The animal action here is extraordinary, and went largely unremarked, since, as Huston writes, everybody knows the animals went in two by two so they aren’t amazed to see it happen before their eyes.


As entertaining as the stuff about THE BIBLE is in An Open Book, the whole chapter about Huston’s charmed relationship with the animal kingdom tops it. His pet monkey, the Monk, gets some very sweet anecdotes (riding about New York on the back of a Pekingese). The only animal Huston expresses doubts about is the parrot. Realising that his grandmother’s parrot loved women but hated men (parrots seem to bond with the opposite sex), the young Huston once attired himself in a wig, full drag and face powder, doused himself in perfume, and approached the sacred perch, addressing it in an assumed falsetto.

“The parrot’s feathers fluffed out. I put my hand in the cage and the parrot cooed. Suddenly it cocked its head, looked me right in the eye, and then proceeded to dismantle my finger.”

OK, Fitzgerald’s right on this one: he dragged up to seduce a parrot, he’s a great man.

Beat the Devil

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2010 by dcairns

Via Regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider I’ve had the pleasure of being cybernetically introduced to the niece of Veronica Lake (not a direct blood relative, but she called her “Aunt Connie” which is good enough for me), Gloria Mann Craft. I’m hoping to get her input for the SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS FILM CLUB on Friday the 23rd of this month, but prior to that I received an amusing, if slightly grotesque, true story, which naturally I will now share with you.

“Mr. Huston ‘summoned’ Aunt Connie to his office, (I think it was on the Fox lot at the time, not sure), she decided to go, (although as she put it: ‘I don’t take kindly to being summoned, AND I don’t care a whit who is doing the summoning’). When she got to his office, his door was ajar and no secretary was around.

“He asked her to come in and to ‘please close the door behind her.’

“She did. She sat down and noticed a rather thick telephone book on his desk, but thought nothing of it in the moment. Suddenly without warning he unzipped his ‘fly’ (as she called it), pulled out his schlong and placed it on the desk right in front of her.

“Without missing a beat she grabbed the thick telephone book in her hands and smashed it down on…yes, his schlong. He let out a scream, she replied ‘THAT’S A WRAP’, turned to leave, and heard the words ‘Ronnie you’re hired!’

“Needless to say she DID not take the job.”

I wonder if this is why Huston’s bio is called An Open Book.

Apart from Mitchell Leisen’s rather acerbic memories recounted in Hollywood Director, most of what I’ve read of Veronica makes me like her even better than I already did when I first saw I MARRIED A WITCH, aged 16, and fell in love  with her.

Great Directors Made Little #2

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , on March 15, 2010 by dcairns

Uncle Sam’s little Nephew John.

John Huston clearly picked up some theatrical mannerisms from his celebrated dad, the soft-show shuffle man turned classical actor Walter Huston (one of my favourite performers EVER).

Son John is a fascinating bastard. There are plenty of filmmakers who just seem mean, and some who seem mean because they sincerely believed it’s the only way to make pictures (“It would be nice to be nice,”  mused William Wyler after a hard day’s sadism), but Huston interests me because he put considerable ingenuity and thought into his evil. Elaborate and vicious practical jokes, savage and unrelenting bullying, devious and crafty lying and deceit. And yet he was not an insensitive man, nor a particularly hot-tempered one. And his autobiography, mischievously called An Open Book, reveals (to the extent to which it does reveal anything) a man who could feel deeply, and not only for himself. You feel that compassion in his movies about losers and no-hopers, often his best films.

Yet when a friend asked him why he persistently targeted people on the set who were a bit emotionally vulnerable, he replied with a twinkle, “Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block!” His charm is absolutely that of the Devil himself.


As far as the practical jokes go, they’re too entertaining to leave unquoted. Upon learning that his screenwriter on MOBY DICK, Ray Bradbury, was deathly afraid of fast transport, flying, etc, Huston was too amused by the irony of a science fiction writer with a horror of flight not to want to exploit this for evil comedy value. Huston was always chauffeur-driven, being a bad driver who had killed a woman on one occasion, and put actress Zita Johann (THE MUMMY) through the windshield of his car on another. Driving along with Bradbury in the backseat, he leaned forward and asked the driver to slow down (even though they were traveling at a perfectly average speed). “Yes, slow down,” urged Bradbury, suddenly nervous. They went back to their conversation, and a few minutes later, Huston interrupted by crying, “Slow down, man, are you trying to kill us?” Bradbury, sweating profusely (is sweat the only thing one can do profusely?) echoed his demand, despite the driver being well under the speed limit. This continued for some time, until they were fairly crawling along the curb, and almost being outpaced by it, with Bradbury, close to tears, still urging the baffled chauffeur to greater heights of deceleration. Mean, but creative, you see.