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Thursday, March 18, 2010

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.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Bravo! Thank you for your thoughts about Gordon Douglas. His movies are refreshingly unpretentious. To me, Gordon Douglas is like William Beaudine or William Berke -- seeing his name on a picture means I'll stick around to enjoy it.

Your post has me thinking about what Gordon Douglas picture I would nominate as a showcase for his workmanship. I came up with the humble DICK TRACY VS. CUEBALL. The script suggests a standard cops-and-robbers B and Douglas gives it the flavor of a straight police procedural, with the businesslike Morgan Conway as the detective. But Douglas adds his own touches, planting the tongue firmly in cheek to capture the flamboyant villainy of Chester Gould's comic strip. Douglas fills the screen with familiar faces (Byron Foulger, Milton Parsons, Skelton Knaggs, Esther Howard, Dick Wessel) and lets each of them "make an entrance" with carefully composed introductory shots. For the finale Douglas stages a spectacular film-noir, shot-at-night climax at the railroad yards, where the villain forcefully gets his. Very efficient filmmaking and no dead footage: it's like watching an entire serial in an hour.

This kind of movie makes me glad I follow old movies. Thanks again for a very interesting piece.

11:30 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

John, I'M looking forward to the WB Archive's release of "Yellowstone Kelly" too! I've always loved this film (even though it's not that good)after seeing it as a kid in '59 at the matinee. Warner's didn't really push Clint Walker as a "movie-star" and that's too bad because I certainly thought he "had what it takes" to make it on the big-screen. I imagine Walker's "feuds" with J.L. Warner were at the root of that......"Yellowstone Kelly" would have been a GREAT Western if it had been shot in CinemaScope and had an original score by say, Max Steiner, Hugo Friedhofer or Jerome Moross....Keep the same script, same director, everything the same but change those two elements and it could've been great....

1:09 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

And don't forget - - Gordon Eugene Lee (Porky of OUR GANG) told us he was named after Gordon Douglas.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

"Maybe it was guiding such fluff toward the end that diminished Douglas’ status and justifies our ignoring him now."

Or maybe it's just that he directed Sincerely Yours, Liberace's ill-fated WB starrer. To quote Groucho Marx, "One like that is worth three ordinary ones."

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Ed Watz said...

I interviewed Gordon Douglas in 1978 about his work at Hal Roach studios, the start of his career as a director. He was totally unassuming and friendly, and what struck me especially was his great sense of humor. About the Hardy-Langdon ZENOBIA Douglas said, "from that lousy title people thought Babe Hardy was starring in a zombie movie! Would you want to see Hardy playing like he was Boris Karloff?" On SAPS AT SEA, Laurel & Hardy's last feature for Hal Roach, Douglas told me that he had a special visitor to their set every day for about a week: D. W. Griffith. Griffith was working for Roach at the time, and one day Douglas overheard The Great Director remark to Stan, "you fellows are funnier at this slapstick than Charlie Chaplin."

Thanks John for stirring up these memories...

12:53 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Wow, Ed. DWG on the set of "Saps At Sea"! That is some great stuff. Thanks for sharing it.

Michael, I'm still waiting to see "Sincerely Yours." Will I like it?

Yes, Bolo. He stood there and told us that in Knoxville, I think. I'd almost forgotten.

James, I actually like the score of "Yellowstone Kelly" as it is. Clint and Kookie did a nation tour when it opened. That's one of the things I want to write about whenever the pic becomes available.

Scott, I haven't watched the RKO Tracys since Channel 8 ran them in the sixties. I'll make a point to revisit "Cueball" this week.

3:34 PM  
Blogger JoeM said...

The name at first for some reason was not familiar to me, but I read your article and then went to IMDB and took a look at his credits. This man made some good films and some of those I have enjoyed a lot. To mention a few-Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (one of Cagney’s most underrated films), Come Fill the Cup (another great although different Cagney performance), Them! (classic 1950’s sci fi), Robin and the Seven Hoods (a very underrated movie), and so many others (including of course his work with Our Gang).

Also, he has a credit that I may be one of the few if not the only one to remember. A 1975 television movie/unsold pilot called Nevada Smith. It starred Lorne Greene and I remember after watching it feeling a great sense of disappointment that a series was not picked up. After Gunsmoke was cancelled James Arness stood with the western playing Zeb Macahan in The Macahans and How The West Was Won. Greene mostly stood away from westerns after Bonanza, but I still remember Nevada Smith 35 years later. It seemed to me that it had that “something special”, and I think it would have made a great series. As I recall Greene played a variation of his Ben Cartwright character, but unlike his Commander Adama from Battlestar Galactica (which I did like) there were some significant variation that made his character (named Jonas Cord) an original, rather than a copy. I don’t believe it has ever been repeated or released on video.

8:02 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

Thanks John for this great usual. In my younger movie watching days I had fond memories of some of Gordon "Douglas's films. Stuff like "I Was a Communist for the FBI," had the super cool Frank Lovejoy in it.

"Gold of the Seven Saints" is very good and films like "Up Periscope" and "Rio Conchos" always delivered the action goods. I always liked "Tony Rome" and his remake of "Stagecoach" did have an exciting action finish whatever other issues they had as films.

When my son was younger I browbeat him into watching "Them," he as a typical jaded Star Wars special effects influenced kid but even he got excited during the final battle in the LA sewers.

Yes I have since "Sincerely Yours."

Thanks for the trip down memory lane

9:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the informationI really liked it

Greets everyone!

8:52 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Awww, what the hell did D.W. Griffth know! I'm smiling here big-time, John, because I currently have a script making the rounds called "Sincerely Mine" and since most of the people working in the studios these days are well-under 50, and while they love the title, they haven't a clue what its' a "take" on. (And if you say anything, I'll break both your legs!)

My best to you, as always, and to dear Scott McGillvray for his kindness in sending me an autographed of his book, last Christmas!

P.S.: Just noticed that you never saw the true masterpiece among "Awful in Mid-20th Century" known as "Sincerely Yours". Unless you want to suffer serious sleeping and/or digestive problems at night, would suggest you avoid like plague! Our picture, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with the old Liberace film, which as you doubtless know, was Jack Warner's ill-advised attempt at an update of the old George Arliss "The Man Who Played God", but I simply couldn't resist that title!


4:22 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

JoeM, I never knew about that "Nevada Smith" pilot. I wonder if an obscurity like that will ever be shown again.

Dugan, I've found that "Them!" is a film nearly everyone likes if they just give it a look.

RJ, that title of yours, "Sincerely Mine", is an inspiration. I'm getting more and more curious, by the way, to finally see the Liberace film ...

9:41 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


This is one script that was written directly for people like you. An old-fashioned romantic comedy in The Lubitsch/ Billy Wilder mode and I'm getting great feedback on the thing. I'll keep you posted -- but that title is really a killer, isn't it?( Do yourself -- and those around you -- a big favor: Forget "Sincerely Yours". Please!)

Thanks again, R.J.

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Doug Bonner said...

Good insight into an overlooked director. This post was a joy to read. BTW, decades ago when I was a kid reading ESQUIRE magazine, there was an article that MARA MARU was getting in trouble in Japan because the title meant "Feces Boat."

8:18 AM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

Thank you for THIS ! At LAST!...SOME KIND WORDS here for ONE of the MOST NEGLECTED American Film Directors OF CINEMA- YESTERYEAR...Tragic how our (American) INTEREST in "Old Hollywood" ITSELF, has been, of late, FADING RAPIDLY FASTER than "COLOR BY Deluxe", generally speaking.... ALSO much too LATE, IN PRAISING CINEMA PAST,... a wish for an ENTRY IN THE LONG-GONE "THE FILMS OF" SERIES', as well. OF HIS MANY WESTERNS, THERE are several true classics there to note, whenever the genre calls for any film-study. It sure would be nice to read (anything) MORE about this man, who, indeed, probably had one of the most satisfying CAREERS in CINEMA. Well, Gordie; a MOST SATISFYING time at the MOVIES YOU HAVE LEFT FOR ALL OF US CONCERNED, . WE DO, AND WE WILL... REMEMBER....!!

9:20 PM  

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