John Huston Showed Us the Dark Side of the Quest for Riches

There has never been a greater storyteller in American movies than John Huston. A recurring thematic element in many of Huston’s films is the quest for riches that comes to naught. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), the action centers on an antique object that turns out to be fake; in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), three prospectors amass a fortune in gold dust only to have it scattered by the wind. Before hubris brings about their downfall, two soldiers enjoy ruling the remote country of Kafiristan in The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

Huston was born August 5, 1906, in Nevada, Missouri. His mother Rhea, a journalist, and his father, actor Walter Huston, were divorced when he was small. As a young man, he became interested in acting and writing while watching his father rehearse Eugene O’Neill’s play Desire Under the Elms. An early milestone in the younger Huston’s life came in 1929, when a short story he wrote was accepted for publication in the American Mercury, then a highly regarded magazine. During this period, he also tried his hand at newspaper reporting.

With his father’s film industry connections, Huston got a job writing for the movies. He received his first Academy Award nomination for his contribution to the screenplay for Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940). The following year, he received two nominations: one for his work on the team that wrote Sergeant York and one for his solo effort on The Maltese Falcon, also the first film he directed.

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon brought detective Sam Spade to life in a definitive performance by Humphrey Bogart. The archetypal gumshoe, Spade becomes involved with an unscrupulous group of characters played by Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor. Huston’s signature visual style, with the camera’s movement and placement at the service of the story and its characters, was already in evidence.

Huston joined the Army Signal Corps during World War II and made three documentaries. The Pentagon delayed release of two of these films because of their frankness in showing the horrors of war. (One of them, Let There Be Light, focused on the psychological damage sustained by soldiers in combat, and was suppressed for decades.)

Back in Hollywood after the war, Huston wrote and directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), an adaptation of a novel by B. Traven. Huston’s father, Walter, played an old prospector who guides two younger men, played by Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt, on a quest for gold in the mountains of Mexico. John Huston won Academy Awards for writing and directing this picture; his father won in the best supporting actor category.

In 1950, Huston directed The Asphalt Jungle, his adaptation (with screenwriter Ben Maddow) of a novel by W.R. Burnett. For his work on this tale of jewel thieves, Huston again received Academy Award nominations for both directing and writing.

One of Huston’s most beloved films, The African Queen (1951), paired Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as a drunken riverboat pilot and a prim missionary. Once again he was nominated for Academy Awards for his screenplay (with James Agee) and direction.

Moulin Rouge (1952) was a story of painter Toulouse-Lautrec. In an effort to create cinematic images that resembled their subject’s work, Huston and his cinematographer Oswald Morris used smoke on the set and other techniques to achieve the right color effects.

Among Huston’s other pictures during this period are Beat the Devil (1954), a parody of film noir; Moby Dick (1956), an adaptation of the classic novel by Herman Melville; and The Misfits (1961), with a screenplay by Arthur Miller. The latter film starred Clark Gable as an aging cowboy who becomes involved with a depressed younger woman played by Marilyn Monroe.

Having appeared in front of the camera on several previous occasions, Huston took the role of Cardinal Glennon in The Cardinal (1963), directed by Otto Preminger, and received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting performance. Some of his other notable performances were as Noah in his own film The Bible (1966) and as villainous Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown(1974).

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The Man Who Would Be King (1975) paired Sean Connery and Michael Caine as soldiers who go to a remote region of Afghanistan with the intent of stealing its riches. Huston received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay (written with Gladys Hill), which reflected his admiration for the source story by Rudyard Kipling. His love of storytelling was close to the heart of his work; he spoke of his “desire to share an emotional and intellectual experience with a new audience” as his motive for making movies.

Two strong films brought Huston’s long and varied career to an impressive finish. Prizzi’s Honor (1985), a black comedy about professional assassins, garnered several Academy Award nominations, including one for Huston’s direction, and an Oscar for best supporting actress for his daughter, Anjelica Huston. The Dead (1987), also featuring Anjelica, is an adaptation by Huston’s son, Tony, of the classic story by James Joyce. (Another of his children, son Danny, is also an actor and director.) It was the last film Huston completed before his death on August 28, 1987.

Three of John Huston’s films—The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—are included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies. He received a total of fourteen Academy Award nominations: eight for writing, five for directing, and one for acting.

John Huston is one of four directors featured on the Great Film Directors pane. The stamps will be issued Wednesday, May 23, at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, but you can preorder them today!

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Great Film Directors Stamps Premiering Soon!

The Great Film Directors First Day of Issue ceremony is just one week away! The Forever® stamps honor four filmmakers who captured the many varieties of the American experience. These extraordinary directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, and Billy Wilder—created some of the most iconic scenes in American cinema. They gave audiences an unforgettable (and in some cases, deeply personal) vision of life.

The stamps will be issued at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, on May 23. Stay tuned for more details on the time the event will kick off. Will you be joining us?

In the mean time, you can celebrate these four cinematic masters by pre-ordering the Digital Color Postmark First Day Covers. Including four envelopes with each of the stamps, the color postmark design, modeled after an admission ticket, showcases the stamp name in dramatic type and includes the date and location of issue: May 23, 2012, Silver Spring, MD, 20910. A beautiful addition to any collection, it also makes a great gift!

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John Ford’s Larger-Than-Life Films Portray Pioneering Spirit

No filmmaker has been more sensitive to the American landscape than John Ford. Though he is often associated with stories of the Old West, Ford’s work shows an impressive range. He received five Academy Award nominations for directing, winning four times—for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), How Green Was My Valley (1941), and The Quiet Man (1952). His fifth nomination was for Stagecoach (1939), lauded by critic Pauline Kael as a “movie that has just about everything.”

The son of Irish immigrants, Ford was born on February 1, 1894, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. He went to Hollywood as a young man, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Francis, who had gone there to work in the fledgling movie industry. He learned his craft by acting in bit parts and by assisting his older brother. He directed dozens of pictures—many with silent film actor Harry Carey—before he had a major success with The Iron Horse (1924), a feature film about the building of the transcontinental railroad.

The Informer, an adaptation of a prizewinning novel by Liam O’Flaherty, is set during the Irish War of Independence. It centers on a man torn by a guilty conscience after he reports a friend’s involvement in the Irish Republican Army to the police.

Stagecoach showcased John Wayne in his breakthrough role as the Ringo Kid, a fugitive traveling by stagecoach with a diverse group that included Thomas Mitchell as an alcoholic doctor and Claire Trevor as a goodhearted prostitute. It was shot on location in Monument Valley, a distinctive area on the Arizona/Utah border where Ford made several films.

The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel, starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, a poor farmer from Oklahoma who travels to California with his family in search of a better life during the Great Depression. Widely regarded as a classic, The Grapes of Wrath is considered one of the greatest expressions of sympathy for the poor in American cinema.

How Green Was My Valley, an elegiac look at the passing of a way of life in a Welsh mining community, won several Academy Awards, including one for best picture, in addition to Ford’s for direction.

The Quiet Man is a boisterous romantic comedy starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. It was a pet project that Ford struggled for years to make, earned him another Oscar, and remains an audience favorite.

During World War II, Ford was chief of a U.S. Navy film unit that produced several documentaries. One of them, The Battle of Midway (1942), won an Academy Award “for the historical value of its achievement….” A year later, December 7th earned an Oscar for best documentary short subject. Ford played an active role in the production of films documenting the North African invasion, the campaign in Burma, the Normandy invasion, and—when the war was over—the Nuremberg Trials.

After the war, Ford’s films included several Westerns, among them My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). One of his most influential works, The Searchers (1956), starred John Wayne as a man bent on vengeance after the deaths of his family members.

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The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) stars John Wayne as a taciturn man of action and James Stewart as a lawyer and politician; it suggests that “civilization” is maintained by hidden acts of violence. It contains one of the most famous lines in Ford’s movies, spoken by a newspaperman: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

A recurring theme in Ford’s work is the struggle of order (represented, for example, by towns, railroads, or the military) against disorder (nature, outlaws, etc.). His heroes were inexpressive, masculine archetypes, who dramatized the tension between individualism and law and order. Another characteristic theme is the competing attractions of adventure and domesticity.

Some of Ford’s other films include What Price Glory (1952), Mogambo (1953), and The Last Hurrah (1958). He employed many of the same crew members from picture to picture and repeatedly cast many of the same performers, chief among them John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Ward Bond, his older brother Francis Ford, and the son of his old friend and early associate, Harry Carey, Jr. Members of Ford’s “company” sometimes referred to him as “Pappy.” He died on August 31, 1973.

Three of Ford’s works—The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach, and The Searchers—are included on a list of 100 greatest movies compiled by the American Film Institute (AFI). Ford’s other honors include the Medal of Freedom, presented by President Richard Nixon on March 31, 1973. That same year, the AFI gave Ford its lifetime achievement award.

John Ford is one of four directors featured on the Great Film Directors pane. The stamps will be issued on May 23 in Silver Spring, Maryland, but you can preorder them today!
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Raucous and Witty Director Billy Wilder’s Films Show Us Our “Wilder” Side

Nearly all of Billy Wilder’s films display his satiric wit. He worked successfully in various genres, from the noir of Double Indemnity to the wild farce of Some Like It Hot, and created several of Hollywood’s most unforgettable pictures. Among the many iconic images in Wilder’s movies, none are more memorable than Audrey Hepburn, playing the title role in Sabrina, sitting lovelorn in a tree, or Marilyn Monroe standing on a grate, her skirt billowing, in The Seven Year Itch. In the final scene of Some Like It Hot, when Jack Lemmon removes his wig and reveals that “Daphne” is a man in drag, the oblivious suitor (expertly played by Joe E. Brown) delivers one of the cinema’s most famous last lines: “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

Wilder was born on June 22, 1906, in an Austro-Hungarian province now part of Poland. As a young man, his break in the film industry was the opportunity to co-write People on Sunday [Menschen am Sonntag], made in Germany. He continued to write film scenarios there until the Nazis rose to power. After a short time working in France, Wilder arrived in Hollywood.

His first major success in America was Ninotchka (1939), a screwball comedy starring Greta Garbo and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, a German-born director who was a strong influence on Wilder. (A sign reading “How would Lubitsch do it?” hung in Wilder’s office for many years.) One of his collaborators on Ninotchka, Charles Brackett, became an important writing partner for Wilder.

The first film Wilder directed in Hollywood was The Major and the Minor (1942). Ginger Rogers played a woman pretending to be a child in order to get a reduced-fare train ticket, and Ray Milland was an Army officer disconcerted by his attraction to her.

With Raymond Chandler, Wilder wrote the screenplay for Double Indemnity (1944), with Barbara Stanwyck as a woman who teams up with an insurance agent (played by Fred MacMurray) to murder her husband. This film, considered risky material for its time, set conventions for later noir films and brought Wilder his first Academy Award nomination for best direction.

The Lost Weekend (1945), frequently cited as the screen’s first serious treatment of alcoholism, starred Ray Milland as a troubled writer. Wilder won Academy Awards for his direction and writing (with Brackett); Milland won for his acting; and the film was voted Best Picture.

Wilder, who had become an American citizen, joined the U.S. Army near the end of World War II. One of his duties was to help develop guidelines for the reconstituted German film industry. He also edited a documentary (Death Mills) on the Nazi concentration camps, using footage shot immediately after the camps were liberated. Wilder’s mother had perished at Auschwitz.

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Sunset Boulevard (1950), written with Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr., was another career milestone. A dark satire of Hollywood, it showcased Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a star of the silent screen who is planning her comeback. In a memorable exchange, when Joe Gillis (played by William Holden) remarks that she “used to be big,” Desmond replies, “I ambig. It’s the pictures that got small.”

Wilder’s next important writing partnership, beginning in 1957, was with I.A.L. Diamond, with whom he created Some Like It HotThe Apartment, and other films. Some Like It Hot (1959) starred Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as musicians who, when pursued by gangsters, dress as women and join an all-girl band; Marilyn Monroe unforgettably played the group’s singer, Sugar Kane. The Apartment (1960) starred Lemmon as a corporate striver who scores points by letting his married boss use his apartment for romantic trysts. For the latter film, Wilder won three Academy Awards—for writing, directing, and producing (“Best Picture”). Among Wilder’s many other works are the World War II comedy-drama Stalag 17 (1953); the courtroom thriller Witness for the Prosecution (1957); and The Fortune Cookie (1966), a comedy pairing Lemmon with Walter Matthau. Wilder received 21 “Oscar” nominations in his career and in 1987 was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Award for “a producer whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality.” He received many other awards and tributes as well, including the National Medal of Honor from President Bill Clinton. Four of his films—Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, Double Indemnity, and The Apartment—were included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies.

Despite winning so many honors, Wilder maintained a workmanlike attitude: “I just make a picture and I hope that it’s going to be good, that it’s going to entertain people and going to show them something which they have not seen yet.” Like Lubitsch, Wilder put greater emphasis on story and language than on visual effects. His movies were often thought cynical; the world in his films, not unlike the one he had experienced in his youth, belonged to those who could think fast and adapt to various situations. Disguise was a frequent thematic motif in his work.

Billy Wilder died at age 95 on March 27, 2002, at his home in Beverly Hills. Recalling the end of Some Like It Hot, his tombstone is inscribed: “I’m a writer but then nobody’s perfect.”

Billy Wilder is one of four directors featured on the Great Film Directors pane. The stamps will be issued on May 23 in Silver Spring, Maryland, but you can preorder them today!

Some Like It Hot © 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

On This Day: Director John Ford Receives Medal of Freedom

On this day in 1973, President Richard Nixon presented film director John Ford with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest awards given to civilians. “In his life and in his work,” reads the award citation, “John Ford represents the best in American films, and the very best in America.” The presentation took place at the first ceremony for the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, which Ford also received.

John Ford is one of four directors who will be honored later this year on the Great Film Directors stamp pane. The others are Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, and John Huston. Have a favorite John Ford movie? Tell us about it in the comments.

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