John Huston: A Biography Series

January 30, 2012

A high school dropout turned cinematic visionary, film director, screenwriter and actor John Huston taught the world to think differently about life on and off the big screen.

Not long after Warner Brothers gave him his first directing assignment in 1941 (The Maltese Falcon), Huston was sketching out each shot and selecting a superior cast. While other directors were being tossed million dollar budgets and elaborate studio contracts, Huston quietly analyzed how he would best use his $300,000 allowance and eight week window.

"He shot economically, eschewing the many protective shots favored by timid directors,”  said film writer Peter Flint. “He edited cerebrally so that financial backers would have trouble trying to cut scenes."

That vision and perfectionism helped deem Huston one of the most influential filmmakers of the Hollywood golden age. Time and again, Huston shattered critics’ preconceptions of what quality filmmaking could do- first with his early career as a screenwriter for Universal Studios, next collaborating on majors films like Jezebal and Dr. Echrlich’s Magic Bullet, and then in rapid succession with brilliant adaptations of some of the most treasured stories of literary history (The African Queen, Moby Dick).

“I think the camera is an eye as well as a mind,” said Huston, when asked how he envisioned his films. “Everything we do with the camera has physiological and mental significance.”

An intensely sentimental man who made time for little beyond his work and his family, Huston had a demeanor that was special, he became, in a way, his most iconic creation, from his trademark soothing voice to his deep and endearing love for animals.

“He liked to be in wild places.” said Anjelica Huston, John’s daughter and Hollywood acclaimed actress. “He liked animals as much as he liked people.”

Even amidst the “grand narratives” of the twentieth century like religion, war and freedom, Huston’s relentless creativity and extraordinary resilience kept his focus on tackling the tough issues head on.

During his years with the Army Signal Corps in World War II, his captain assignment as filmmaker brought him deep into the heat of soldier survival. While serving in uniform, Huston indulged his love of film and raw thematic inspirations (truth, meaning) and produced three films that are now considered to be some of WWII’s finest.

Huston was that kind of artist. It was all about the human experience.

Born in 1906, Huston quickly became the product of divorce and subsequently spent most of his childhood bouncing from one boarding school to another.  His father, Walter Huston, a famous Hollywood actor who later would star in many of his son’s pictures, encouraged Huston’s talent and interest in the arts. His mother Reah, a sports editor, was believed to have held a strenuous relationship with her son, a gift that left Huston so challenged in the area of romance that several of his conquests “always felt that John was ridden by witches.”

By the time most young men were graduating from college, Huston had already tried his hat at amateur boxing, reporting, and calvary riding (among many others). However fascinating these avenues were to some, they soon proved tiresome for Huston. Hungering for that air of opportunity only Hollywood could provide, the 31-year-old returned to Los Angeles committed to pursuing a writing career.

With fast screenwriting success came a heightened need to further follow his dream of filmmaking. In 1941, the fledging Huston not yet a directorial success, Warner Brothers’ Jack Warner gave Huston his first shot on the set of The Maltese Falcon. Upon critics hailing the film a “classic”, Huston launched a directing career that would quickly turn into a wild success.

From Mexico on the set of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), to Africa and The African Queen (1951), to the fishing village of New Bedford, Massachusetts and the three 100-foot prop whales used for Moby Dick (1956), Huston continued to sketch scenes beforehand, and remain insightful about human nature and life predicaments.
 
Creating his films while they were being shot was a way of life. No overzealous takes, no fancy camerawork, no elaborate editing. Come filming, Huston could be found behind his sketchpad, exploring a stylistic close-up, or playing with any animals nearby (as he did with his favorite elephant on set of his film The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)).

As millions of people worldwide continue to experience his artistic creations, it seems safe to predict John Huston’s influence will endure for decades to come.

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