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Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Here's Your Hat, Hodiak, What's Your Hurry?


Never Mind The Billing --- Desert Fury Was All About Lancaster



Name a crueler aspect of the biz than billing. I can’t offhand. A star might assume he's the noise until the picture is out and lo/behold, it ain't so. John Hodiak learned this a hardest way between Desert Fury in production (1946) with him as the lead, and belated release in August, 1947, during which interim third-billed Burt Lancaster shot to stardom of his own in The Killers. Hodiak became less than a tail to this meteor. He had been borrowed from Metro by Hal Wallis, his name advertised behind Lizabeth Scott’s, but above Lancaster, per contract. Scott was a Wallis discovery made prominent by well-received parts in You Came Along, The Strange Love Of Martha Ivers, and lately opposite Bogart in Dead Reckoning. Lancaster got third placement, OK when agreements were drawn because he had not been seen in movies to that point, but baffling by 8/47 when Desert Fury was out and Lancaster was a best reason to go see it. He too was pacted with Wallis, an uneasy alliance as the two did not much like each other. Lancaster, it seems, felt his oats from the moment he entered a sound stage. The confidence was not misplaced. Anyone who saw Lancaster perform, on stage when Wallis found him, knew that this was a rocket just waiting for Hollywood to light the fuse. For purposes of selling Desert Fury, Hodiak would be the grass, Lancaster the lawn mower.








Lancaster hated Desert Fury and his vapid part in it, looking all the more a smack-off for playing a deputy sheriff, badge and all. Hapless Hodiak is well short of reach for dynamism, which bless his heart, this actor, though competent, never had. Support players (Mary Astor, Wendell Corey) and Technicolor on vivid locations took whatever laurels were issued, though critics still called Desert Fury a cluck, and word is, it lost money. Reception is warmer amidst re-estimate of Desert Fury as frustrated bromance between Hodiak and Corey, a sub-theme that, if sensed by 1947 watchers, would drive them further into Lancaster clutch. Ads plus Paramount’s pressbook did the rest, BL dominating all art with a featured image of him preparing to beat tar out of Hodiak. Billing was cheated too by cast montage that saw Lancaster alone on a top row, Scott beneath him, and Hodiak to the right, and below, her. Did MGM legal examine this publicity, or regard objection as an act of futility? Complaints might sway Paramount’s home office, but showmen in the field knew their berries, and so far as they figured, Lancaster was a sole name here, Lizabeth Scott and certainly Hodiak junior to him.








1958 Reissue One-Sheet for Desert Fury
Individual ads, as provided by Para’s pressbook, were replete with Lancaster/Scott in sizzling embrace. I could not find one of her in similar posture with John Hodiak, even though they kiss constant through Desert Fury. I just hope Hodiak’s mother gave him the talk about life not being fair, or maybe it didn’t matter. He was paid after all, and would go back to Metro where there still were starring parts for him to graze on. Most diminishing for Hodiak was ad art where he is either on receiving end of Lancaster’s fist, or knocked down, with an oversized Lancaster head issuing the threat, “Keep away from her … far away … or I’ll kill you where you stand.” Fans who had seen The Killers knew Burt meant business. An even unkinder cut came with Desert Fury’s reissue in 1958, three years after John Hodiak had died. Bets (and contracts) were all off now, his billing below Lancaster (first) and Scott (second). Poster art was given over entirely to Lancaster, who by 1958 was undisputedly the biggest name Desert Fury had to sell. Now we’re in receipt of a Blu-Ray from Kino, with its lovely pouring of Technicolor. I checked the billing on the box, and to Kino credit, it is correct to 1947 placements, even if contradicted still by that familiar image of Burt laying the haymaker to forever also-ran Hodiak.

3 Comments:

Blogger Mike Cline said...

Reminds me of billing Tony Curtis & Jerry Lewis in Boeing, Boeing and Newman & McQueen in THE TOWERING INFERNO.

7:12 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

And it reminds me of Gloria Jean, on her way out at Universal, billed second to Olsen & Johnson in GHOST CATCHERS, only to be demoted to sixth billing in the posters and trailer.

Two years later, when Gloria was no longer at the studio, Universal reissued IF I HAD MY WAY. The original 1940 billing had the names of Bing Crosby and Gloria Jean in equal size and prominence. The reissue had "Bing Crosby" in giant letters and "Gloria Jean" about as prominent as "monosodium glutamate."

Gloria herself never cared about billing at all -- she told me it made no difference to her.

11:10 AM  
Blogger CanadianKen said...

Hodiak and Hollywood never seemed to be a very good fit. I suspect he was one of those actors more charismatic in person than on screen. Fine voice. Tall, fit and clearly intelligent. After all, lovely Anne Baxter –one of Golden Age Hollywood’s brightest, most perceptive observers – actually married him.
I’d say his best screen performance was the one that put him on the map. Working with Hitchcock and Bankhead in “Lifeboat”, studly and spirited - he definitely generated sparks. No wonder people expected big things would follow. For some reason, he never really communicated that kind of intensity again. Post “Lifeboat” there was always something stiff and guarded about Hodiak’s onscreen work. And audiences seldom worked up any real interest in decoding the reasons behind it. The actor often had to make do with mediocre material, but – that said – he seldom did much to elevate it. Case in point “Desert Fury” where Burt Lancaster – in a nothing part - oozes barrels of charisma.
Whatever its shortcomings, though, I’d say “Desert Fury” is an absolute must-see for Lizabeth Scott fans. Her unusual beauty was at its peak; that husky essence of noir voice was intoxicating. And with powerhouse producer Hal Wallis fully behind her, major-league stardom seemed all but assured. The Technicolor in “Desert Fury” is mind-blowing. Never more so than in the constant, ravishing close-ups of its leading lady. Decked out in an eye-popping parade of Edith Head creations, she gets the same loving visual treatment Tierney and Monroe did in their own color noirs “Leave Her to Heaven” and “Niagara”. Lancaster, Astor and Corey all deliver nicely. But “Desert Fury” is – above all - a visual love letter to Lizabeth Scott. And – as that – it’s a honey.

7:05 PM  

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