THE MAESTRO: John Huston


Without a doubt one of the most influential, prolific directors of any era, John Huston's reach spanned several decades and numerous film genres that displayed vast imagination while focusing on characters struggling for individuality despite constraints from the world around them. Huston led quite an adventurous life even before he began his Hollywood career, often recalling his days as a boxer, Mexican cavalry officer, and avid horseback rider in many of his films. After a false start as a screenwriter in the early days of talkies, Huston re-emerged in the late-1930s as a successful contract writer who penned such hits as The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), Sergeant York (1941) and High Sierra (1941). During this time, he developed a strong working collaboration with Humphrey Bogart, who became a major star following his turn in Huston's directorial debut, The Maltese Falcon (1941), one of the best film noirs ever made. The two had even greater success with The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), which earned Huston and his father, actor Walter Huston, Academy Awards. From there, the director entered into what became his most fruitful period, helming such long-held classics as The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), and The African Queen (1952).


Born on Aug. 5, 1906 in Nevada, Missouri, Huston was raised the only child of noted stage and screen star, Walter Huston, and sports journalist and editor Rhea Gore. Though his father quit acting to become a civil engineer when his son was born, he soon returned to his craft, allowing the young Huston to spend his summers traveling with his father on the vaudeville circuit. Naturally, he became attracted to the idea of becoming an actor.

He moved to New York City, where he began performing on stage in 1924 with the Provincetown Players in Greenwich Village. An avid horseback rider, he soon made his way to Mexico in search of a famous trainer and colonel in the army, who gave him an honorary commission, allowing him to ride with the officers. This led to a confrontation with a South African count over a woman that escalated to challenges of a duel that fortunately never materialized. Encouraged to become a writer after receiving an illicit copy of James Joyce's then-banned “Ulysses,” Huston began writing short stories, having "Fool" accepted by legendary editor H.L. Mencken for his magazine American Mercury in 1929. He followed in his mother's footsteps and became a journalist, writing for the New York Daily Graphic, only to realize he lacked the requisite skills to be a good reporter - proven when he mixed up his notes while writing a murder story and accused the wrong man of the crime.

In the early ‘30s, having found some success as a playwright, Huston moved back to Los Angeles, where he became a contract writer for Samuel Goldwyn. His initial Hollywood stint was marred by dissatisfaction, starting with his departure from Goldwyn Studios to Universal Studios after months of landing no assignments.

Determined to become a serious writer, Huston achieved great renown as a contract writer for Warner Bros. It was there that he co-wrote major films like Jezebel (1938) with Bette Davis; The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), starring Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart; and Juarez (1939).

He wrote the script for High Sierra (1941), a gritty crime thriller about a paroled con (Humphrey Bogart) whose early release was arranged in order for him to pull off a big heist. Because the movie was a big hit, Huston - who had it in his contract to be able to direct his next picture - was given the opportunity to step into the director's chair with his choice of material. Huston picked an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's “The Maltese Falcon,” which had previously been made into two failed earlier versions by Warner Bros. Also writing the script, Huston kept close to the source material - no surprise due to his long admiration for the author - which starred Bogart as Sam Spade, a hard-boiled, unscrupulous private detective who takes on a case from a Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) who seeks protection, only to find himself embroiled in an international scheme to find a jewel-encrusted falcon. Though made on a shoestring budget, Huston's version was a huge hit and became the stylistic template for all other film noirs to follow. It also introduced one of the most memorable lines in cinema history - "the stuff that dreams are made of" - while also helping the man who uttered that line, Humphrey Bogart, become the biggest star in Hollywood.

Learn more about John Huston’s outstanding career - and colorful personal life - here.

SOURCE: Turner Classic Movies