As the most important member of a Hollywood family dynasty whose professional roots were planted in vaudeville, John Huston (1906-1987) left an indelible mark on American cinema as a director, writer, and actor.
The son of actor Walter Huston and Rhea Gore Huston, John Huston was born in Nevada, Missouri, on August 5, 1906. He was named for his maternal grandfather. At age four Huston's parents separated; they divorced in 1912. His father, who had temporarily quit vaudeville to take various jobs as an electrical engineer, decided to return to his true calling and left for New York. John and his mother moved to Dallas. In 1916 Huston was diagnosed as having an enlarged heart and Bright's disease, or nephritis, a sometimes fatal kidney disease. For the next two years Huston and his mother (who had remarried) traveled around the United States to get the opinions of various doctors. He was a sickly child. After they moved to Phoenix, they decided that a recommended cure of a strict diet and sweat baths was harmful. Once back on a normal regimen, he regained his health.
At age 13, living in southern California, Huston and a friend were arrested for juvenile delinquency after setting fire to a condemned building. Huston was sent to a detention home. After his release his mother enrolled him in the San Diego Army and Military Academy, where he stayed for six months before returning to public school in Los Angeles.
He went to Lincoln Heights High School because of its boxing program. He eventually compiled a 23-2 amateur record as a lightweight. A magazine article on futurism got him interested in art, and he enrolled first in the Smith Art School and later the Art Students League. In 1924 Huston moved to New York, where his father's guidance provided a new direction for his creative passion.
Acted with his Father
By 1924 vaudeville veteran Walter Huston had scored his first successes in the legitimate theater. That year John Huston had a small role in The Easy Mark, a play that starred his father. Huston acted in two other plays in 1924, Sherwood Anderson's The Triumph of the Egg and Ruint.
Acting soon took a backseat to creative writing. Huston's first published piece, in 1929, was a short story, "Fool." It was published by H.L. Mencken in his American Mercury magazine, which paid Huston $200. Other stories soon followed.
In 1929, Huston eloped with Dorothy Harvey. That year also marked Huston's film acting debut, in the short Two Americans for Paramount Pictures. Two Americans also starred Huston's father. In 1930 his puppet play, Frankie and Johnny, went over well in New York and was nearly produced for the legitimate stage, starring Fanny Brice.
Early Hollywood Years
For Huston the 1930s marked his transition from the theater to film and from acting to screenwriting. During the decade he acted in only one play—The Lonely Man in 1937—and no films. Except for a few cameo appearances, Huston would not act again in films until the 1960s. After the success of Frankie and Johnny, Huston began working as a scriptwriter for Universal Studios, contributing to three films in 1932: A House Divided, Law and Order (both of which starred his father), and Murders in the Rue Morgue. Huston wrote much of the dialogue for these pictures.
As his professional life was on the upswing, his personal life took a turn for the worse. Living the fast life, he began neglecting Dorothy, who descended into alcoholism as his infidelities became more apparent. During the first half of 1933, Huston was arrested twice for drunk driving and in September of that year his car struck and killed a woman. He was cleared by a grand jury when the evidence proved that he had a green light when he hit the woman, but Universal let him go. He and his wife divorced. Huston went to Great Britain and worked on two films for Gaumont-British.
Huston married Lesley Black in 1937 and returned to Hollywood to work as a scriptwriter for Warner Brothers on the film Jezebel. In 1939, loaned out to Goldwyn-United Artists, he worked (though without being credited) on the script for Wuthering Heights. He also earned his first Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for Dr. Erhlich's Magic Bullet.
In 1940, Huston directed his father in the play A Passenger to Bali. In his autobiography, An Open Book, Huston assessed his first directorial effort as "an honorable failure, even though it closed after only a few performances."
Succeeded as a Director
After the play closed, Huston went back to Warner Brothers and received his second Academy Award nomination for the screenplay for Sergeant York. He also collaborated with W.R. Burnett on the screenplay of Burnett's novel, High Sierra. The film was the turning point in the careers of Huston and actor Humphrey Bogart, who was the fifth choice to play the role of Roy Earle, the film's protagonist. The success of High Sierra convinced Warner Brothers to allow Huston to direct his first film, The Maltese Falcon.
Released in 1941, The Maltese Falcon made Bogart into a star, and Walter Huston had a small part in the film. John Huston got another Oscar nomination. From then on Huston was primarily a director, though he also wrote screenplays for films he did not direct, notably The Killers and The Stranger, both released in 1946.
During World War II, Huston was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps. His military service involved making documentary films about the military in the Aleutians and in Italy. His final documentary for the Signal Corps, Let There Be Light, narrated by Walter Huston, was about the treatment of "psychoneurotic" combat veterans. The film was made in 1946 but was suppressed by the Army for more than 30 years. Also in 1946 Huston divorced Lesley Black and married actress Evelyn Keyes; they divorced in 1950. After the war, Huston returned to the theater, directing Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit on Broadway. Huston wanted to film No Exit, but nothing ever came of it.
In 1948 Huston returned to film directing in Hollywood, making another classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Huston wrote the screenplay and also made a brief appearance in the film, which again starred Bogart and Walter Huston. John Huston won Academy Awards for best director and best screenplay and Walter Huston won for best supporting actor. While filming the movie Huston took in a thirteen-year-old Mexican boy, Pablo Albarran, and adopted him. In later years the two became estranged and lost contact. In addition to Pablo, Huston had four other children: Tony, Anjelica, Danny, and Allegra.
By this time Huston was an admired film director with a unique method of working. Peter Flint, writing in the New York Times after Huston's death, noted that Huston "edited cerebrally so that financial backers would have trouble trying to cut scenes. He made brilliantly evocative use of color … closely supervised all stages of production" and always worked within his budget. In Open Book Huston discussed his preferred method of shooting scenes in sequence. "Even more important is the sense of storytelling—the cadence and rhythm that's in the director's subconscious. Jumping back and forth in time is interruptive." Besides The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston also directed and co-wrote (with Richard Brooks) Key Largo in 1948. In the early 1950s Huston had another success with The African Queen, which he directed and co-wrote with James Agee.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy initiated the "Red Scare," and the effect on the film and television industries was the infamous blacklist. In late 1947 Huston, along with writer Philip Dunne and director William Wyler, formed the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA), trying to counter the influence of McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). But when Hollywood producers went along with the blacklist, the CFA was doomed. In 1950, Huston, along with Wyler and director John Ford, successfully opposed an attempt to have Joseph L. Mankiewicz removed as president of the Screen Directors Guild after Mankiewicz refused to take a loyalty oath.
The day after his divorce from Evelyn Keyes, Huston married Enrica (Ricky) Soma, a ballerina. In 1953 the financial success of Moulin Rouge allowed Huston to immigrate to Ireland, which remained his permanent residence until 1978; Huston became an Irish citizen in 1964. By then he had separated from Ricky Soma; she died in an auto crash in 1969. In 1972 he married Celeste Shane and divorced her in 1975.
The variety of Huston's directorial output never abated. In the 1950s he directed such films as Moby Dick (1956) and the war movie, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957). Films he directed in the 1960s included The Misfits (1961), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Bible (1966), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). Among Huston's films from the 1970s were The Kremlin Letter (1970), The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), and The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Also during that decade Huston managed to balance his directing responsibilities with numerous acting roles. Though some of his appearances were in his own films, his best-known role was playing the manipulative Noah Cross in Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski.
In the 1980s Huston's output, though diminished due to illness, remained as varied as ever. His movies included Wise Blood (1980), Annie (1982), Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi's Honor (1985), and The Dead (1987). Prizzi's Honor costarred Huston's eldest daughter, Anjelica, who received an Academy Award for best supporting actress. The film received four Golden Globe Awards including best director. The Dead was released posthumously.
Huston's first serious brush with death occurred in 1977 when an aneurysm required emergency surgery and an abdominal blockage forced a second operation. In his later years Huston suffered from emphysema, which was the cause of his death on August 28, 1987, in Middletown, Rhode Island. By then Huston was an icon in the film community. Just three months before his death he testified (on videotape) before a congressional committee in opposition to the colorization of black-and-white films. In 1980 he was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center; in 1983 came the American Film Institute's Life Achievement Award. He was honored at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival "for the entirety of his work and his extraordinary contribution to the cinema," and in 1985 he was given the D.W. Griffith Career Achievement Award.
Ceplair, Larry and Steven Englund, The Inquisition in Hollywood: Politics in the Film Community, 1930-1960, Anchor Press/ Doubleday, 1980.
Grobel, Lawrence, The Hustons, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989.
Huston, John, An Open Book, Alfred A Knopf, 1980.
Los Angeles Times, February 13, 1985; June 4, 1987; August 29, 1987; August 29, 1987.
Newsweek, May 19, 1980.
New York Times, January 16, 1981; March 5, 1983; May 24, 1984; May 13, 1987; August 29, 1987; September 6, 1987.
Toronto Star, December 19, 1985.
"John Marcellus Huston," Internet Movie Data Base, http://us.imdb.com/Name?Huston%2C+John (October 21, 2001).