Among The Underappreciated: Gordon Douglas
I looked around for interviews with Gordon Douglas after deciding to post on him. There weren’t many. Even though the director lived until 1993, he doesn’t seem to have been approached much. That strikes me as odd for a name I recognized from moviegoing very early on. During the mid-sixties, you could see a new film Gordon Douglas directed, like Way, Way Out or In Like Flint, then come home and watch innumerable Our Gang shorts bearing his credit. Asked to random name a movie director at age twelve, I might have mentioned Douglas. There’s still not enough attention paid to craftsmen like him. It seems men who got jobs done on time and budget were valued more during their lifetimes than today. Could that be a consequence of modern historians’ own inexperience with deadlines/payrolls? Douglas and his brethren shoveled movies into a furnace that was the studio system and kept locomotives at steam without regards to artistic fulfillment beyond a living wage. They were happy enough being efficient and making the best of resources at hand. I did uncover a chat between Gordon Douglas and writer Ronald L. Davis in an excellent collection of interviews entitled Just Making Movies. The director comes across here as the professional he was; modest, but pleased with a career he recognized for aspects of luck and timing that enabled it, and aware throughout that to make a good picture, it’s got to be on paper first.
Just for instance, I don’t know how much of Them!’s success we can credit to Douglas, but suspect lots more than he’s been given. Same goes for a dozen or so others I’ve enjoyed a lot but haven’t recognized properly as his. Two were recently out from Warner Archives. They are Mara Maru and The Iron Mistress. Both have long been pets of mine for fanship with Errol Flynn and Alan Ladd. Watching them again last week, I’ve about decided Gordon Douglas was the last of virtuoso in-house Warner directors. Is virtuoso too generous a word? Heaven forfend my going overboard for a director missing off everyone’s pantheon list, but I’m for nominating Douglas natural successor to Michael Curtiz and Raoul Walsh as top kick craftsman among WB helmers laboring there while steam drained out of that studio’s postwar engine. So many fine technicians were reaching their summit in tandem with Hollywood’s descent. You can say on one hand that Mara Maru is a nothing product for a star in collapse, but look again at what lighting, mood, and tempo salvaged from said ruins. Here is a gemstone of the expertise we associate with a cherished system, all the more endearing because now it’s 1952 and so much of that wonderfully able talent will soon be let go. Douglas directs Mara Maru and The Iron Mistress with brio. His compositions are not unlike those of Curtiz at full tilt. Errol Flynn enters a bar from our lowered vantage and the shot continues beyond his stride through the place and well into dialogue that follows. Later when he’s pursued by heavies, we see Flynn in moody foreground and opponents distant in a nicely highlighted doorway. If you’ve watched The Iron Mistress, I needn’t remind you of its exemplary knife to the death combat staged in a completely darkened room, an action peak to challenge Walsh running wide open. I’d like to think Douglas, being of a second generation seeking careers after movies discovered sound (born 1907), spent time observing, and sought advise from, veterans like Curtiz and Walsh who’d preceded him into the industry by a considerable margin.
I’ll concede that Douglas worked mostly at absorbing Warner overhead, keeping expensive staff engaged in microwaved star vehicles to relieve buyer’s remorse the company felt for paying these actors so much. Mara Maru was mostly about throwing meat to distribution lions and getting something out of Flynn for weekly checks he cashed. They were through putting serious effort into this star’s vehicles, thus staffers like Gordon Douglas took megaphones wielded by Curtiz and Walsh back when Errol mattered more. Seen-it-all Walsh offered sage advice to his younger colleague … Let me tell you something, Gordy. There’ll be a script on your front lawn every morning. That was less jesting than a caution from Walsh, for directors on Warner’s clock were expected to have said script digested and ready to disgorge on Monday morning. Those who remained on payroll understood better than to argue over merits of commodity scheduled to ship within the month. Douglas figured he was lucky to put over a good one out of three, knowing that renewal of studio pacts was based entirely on profits generated by a past year’s work. A look over his WB credits for the 50’s decade he was there reveals a solid list I’ll watch again (and maybe again) before I’m done: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, I Was A Communist For The FBI, Come Fill The Cup, Mara Maru, Charge At Feather River, Them!, three more Alan Ladds after The Iron Mistress, Bombers B-52, and a trio with Clint Walker (I’m just waiting for WB Archive to release Yellowstone Kelly so I can post on it). There’s more, but long lists are wearying other than to convey a consistent quality output such as Douglas’ was.
I particularly appreciate directors who were in it from Day One. Gordon Douglas began child acting for Maurice Costello at Brooklyn’s Vitagraph studio, then migrated to odd jobs and gagging at Hal Roach. He said later that ever dollar he ever earned came from show biz. Douglas’ level of experience and competence was something he probably took for granted. That’s what makes interviews with men of that era so refreshing. They never have to reassure themselves or us. Douglas was sanguine about grunt work he performed at RKO in the forties, directing as best anyone could the intended comic antics of The Great Gildersleeve and an increasingly desperate-for-laffs Eddie Cantor. Plum assignments were extended, then ruthlessly withdrawn. The director told interviewer Davis of one lunch date at which he found out that George Marshall was starting a choice project that had been promised to Douglas. Such was life among this second tier of industry artisans. To be a "program director" was to know disappointment, yet ones built to last like Gordon Douglas took the bitter and ended up relishing far more of the sweet. He worked past contemporaries through most of the seventies and bowed out only when health considerations foreclosed further effort. My impression of Douglas was that he got along in large part for getting along. A congenial relationship with Frank Sinatra put Douglas behind the camera of five of that star’s vehicles, something of a record among directors for handling such a mercurial presence. There was also Elvis, Bob Hope, and Jerry Lewis. I would think all of these shared positive impressions of Douglas and got word out he knew his business. Some could argue Douglas was a pushover for spoiled talent run amok, though I don’t think financial backers would have abided that for long. Maybe it was guiding such fluff toward the end that diminished Douglas’ status and justifies our ignoring him now. The DVD release of a good ten of his from Warners, with promise of more to come, will hopefully get this director some of the recognition he’s got coming.