You always laughed. Loud and long. As John Huston and we did when we wined and dined. His sense of humor was magnetic, and his films are finding favor with new young fans during this welcomed retrospective at the Billy Wilder Theater in the Hammer Museum. Presented by the UCLA archive and the Hugh Hefner Classic American Film Program.
We laughed with John in Manhattan, Los Angeles and in Mexico’s Puerto Vallarta, where he filmed Tennessee Williams’ exotic 1964 The Night Of The Iguana with Richard Burton as the desolute, defrocked priest, innkeeper Ava Gardner and a touring and innocent babe-in-the-woods Deborah Kerr.
With his towering talent, John, who critic Roger Ebert described as a lion of filmmaking, directed 41 films (and wrote many). Any number are deemed classics.
Dating back decades to Dashiell Hammet’s mystery, The Maltese Falcon, starring Mary Astor and Humphrey Bogart, who became his favorite leading man.
Made then for $30,000, the film, which was John’s directorial debut, became an immediate hit, artistically and commercially that continues to rake in money – John’s films are so popular that they are screened time and again. Including The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, starring his father, Walter Huston, considered the greatest actor of his generation. Treasure, also starring Humphrey Bogart, won John two Oscars – for directing and writing.
“I miss the order that old Hollywood had. It was much easier to get a picture made than it is today. It’s become a cliché that the studio filmmakers were picture makers then, but there is a large element of truth in that. They were people who wanted to make pictures, and they knew how to make them,” he told Playboy Magazine in 1985.
“There weren’t accountants and bookeepers, tax consultants and efficiency experts who don’t know how to make pictures. Or wheeler-dealers – that element seems to have taken over today. Promoters who just want a piece of the action … ”
John prized authors and their literary properties … James Joyce, Carson McCullers, Rudyard Kipling, Truman Capote, others. Often adapting their works.
Collaborating with Truman, John made the first “camp” classic, Beat The Devil, with Humphrey Bogart (who else?), Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Peter Lorre, Robert Morley.
Humphrey found himself in a brawl, with his teeth knocked out, which affected his speech, and Peter Sellers filled in until the teeth were repaired.
John had a soft spot for the film, a mix of adventure, comedy and crime.
“Hustlers are stranded in Italy, en route to British East Africa anxious to acquire uranium-rich land.
“We filmed in Ravello, Italy,” recalled John. “No script … Truman and I wandered around the Plaza at night playing around with the story and dialogue for the next day’s shoot. Truman showed off his new black lace shawl that he loved, reminding that this was a gift from Paris couturier Pierre Balmain.
“Truman claimed Balmain was in love with him. Knowing Truman as you do, George, you know what a consummate liar he was. He gossipped that famous women and men were his lovers … all bunk!
“No matter, Truman remains dear to my heart, as he is with many of us.
“While the movie may have its ups and downs, it’s a lot of fun.”
In 1983, the American Film Institute honored John with the Life Achievement Award at The Beverly Hilton, where the black-tie ladies and gents were cast members and admirers.
Hosted by Lauren Bacall, with Orson Welles decreeing that “John’s one of the few living up to his ‘living legend’ status.”
“A two bottles of Irish whisky guy,” added producer Ray Stark.
Ava Gardner flew in from London for the gala. Seated near us, as it were, a dream girl with gold hoop earrings floating in a sea of diaphanous yellow silk chiffon.
As the evening wound down, and John stopped by tableside to bid good night, Ava insisted on another drink. We regretted, she told us to keep quiet, took our hand and we saddled up to the bar.
“Time to hit the road,” we smiled, and she shrugged “No way.”
Chugging down her Scotch whisky, she then begged that we go dancing. Where? “In my suite, we’ll play music on the radio.”
Okay, and off we were …