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Kirk Douglas and the Land of The Giants

by Bill Mesce

Remembering the Career of Kirk Douglas

This is not another piece commemorating Kirk Douglas on his passing last week at the age of 103.  Let’s face it: 103 is a good run. We should all get even close. We shouldn’t be mourning but saluting a race well run, especially considering he managed this after a helicopter crash in 1991 and a stroke in 1995.

So, not another honorific obit.  After all, what could I say that a lot of ink and digital digits hadn’t already said within 24 hours of his passing?

But I got to thinking…  Let me put it like this:  I’ll put money on the table that I’m the only person who contributes to this site who is old enough to have actually seen Mr. Douglas on-screen in his prime.

Jeez, Bill, you’re that old?

I’m afraid he is, confess my cartilage-free knees.

Life of Kirk Douglas

I’ll throw a few more dollars into the pot that few – if any – visitors to this site were ever around to plunk down money at the box office to see Douglas in The Vikings (1958) or Town Without Pity (1961) or The War Wagon (1967) or, hell, even Tough Guys (1986).  To be fair to you youngish ladies and gents, Douglas hadn’t appeared on-screen since the TV movie Empire State Building Murders (2008), and it’d been even longer since he’d done anything particularly notable.  Maybe the flyweight comedy Tough Guys thirty-four years ago, and even that only worked for you if you knew the history between Douglas and co-star Burt Lancaster (they’d appeared in six previous films together; Tough Guys director Jeff Kanew described them the way their respective fans viewed them — as “…like an old married couple”).

Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t one of those old fart rants about how movies were better in the old days, that “they” don’t know how to make good movies anymore, blah blah blah.  Hell, once you get past the 20-30 titles at the top of the annual box office and get the cape-and-tights and FX extravaganzas behind you, you see there’s as much brilliance in front of and behind the camera as there ever was…if not more so.  Parasite (2019) anyone?  1917 (2019)?  Ford v. Ferrari (2019)?

My point is that most of you – and I don’t mean this dismissively, trust me – see this as just another Big Name from Hollywood of Yore passing.  As fellow film geeks, you reflexively and respectfully bow your heads, say that’s a shame, maybe a few of the real classics aficionados will say something laudatory about Champion (1949) or Ace in the Hole (1951) which they saw at a revival house or caught on TCM; a compliment you’ll preface with the caveat, “For its day…”  Or maybe you caught Paths of Glory (1957) not because you were at a Douglas revival, but there was a Kubrick salute at some art-house, and that was enough for you to say last week, “Yeah, that Kirk Douglas, he was pretty good.”

It’s different for me.  It’s somehow more…personal.  Don’t misconstrue; I didn’t know the guy, I never met the guy, I doubt I was ever in the same state at the same time as the guy.  But in a way that’s pure Hollywood movie magic at its most magical, I grew up with him, him and a whole world of Big Names from Hollywood of Yore.  For me, the passing of Kirk Douglas marked the passing of the last of the giants.

Kirk Douglas

We have stars – brilliant, phenomenal actors, the best that have ever graced the big screen – but I’m hard put to say we have MOVIE STARS!.  Just because you’re the star of a movie you’re in, because your name’s above the title, doesn’t make you a MOVIE STAR!  Again, I’m not talking about talent.  It’s that the movies don’t create that kind of MOVIE STAR! iconicism anymore.  They can’t.  It was a product of a specific set of circumstances that haven’t existed in quite some time, and will likely never align again.  The late, great Mr. Douglas was a product of them.

Ok, bear with me.  We have to do a little time-traveling; to a time when movies were much more important than they are today.  There was a time when movies were the television of their day, and I don’t mean TV like we currently know it with a kajillion cable channels and streaming services and all those pipelines which have shattered what was once a fairly unified audience into a thousand tiny fragments.  I mean TV like back pre-cable when everybody watched the same three broadcast networks.

Up until the late 1940s, even into the early 1950s before TV ownership began to grow exponentially, the movies were America’s prime source of visual entertainment.  At their peak in the mid-1940s, even with over 15 million men and women off fighting WW II, movie houses were selling 80-odd million tickets each week (by comparison, doing some rough math based on the total domestic gross of the year divided by average ticket price, somewhere between 12-13 million tickets were sold in all of 2019 in a country with a population three times larger than the U.S. of the 1940s).

To feed that appetite, the studios pumped out an endless torrent of film entertainment:  A and B features, newsreels, shorts and cartoons. Theoretically, if you had the money, you could go to one theater and see an MGM double feature, the next night spend it with Warner Bros. films at another theater, the night after that hit a third movie house and get a Paramount package, and so on, and then start the circuit all over again the next week with all-new titles.

Ace In the Hole

A lot of the stuff you saw on movie screens wasn’t particularly memorable; not every oldie came out as Casablanca (1942).  More often than not, it was closer to Blondie Meets the Boss (1939) or Calling Philo Vance (1940).  With that kind of constant change-of-forgettable-bills, star names mattered, their names were what cut through the clutter, and as much as the Dream Factory mass-produced film entertainment, it also mass-produced movie stars.

The major studios actively hunted for potential star product.  They kept an eye on who was getting some buzz on the theater circuit, who showed some sparkle in a beauty contest or talent show.  Hell, the story is Lana Turner, one of the glamour ladies of Old Hollywood, was discovered sitting on a stool at Schwab’s Pharmacy on Sunset Boulevard (not true, but the true story is just as Hollywoody; it wasn’t Schwab’s, but the Top Hat Café).

If you got spotted and someone – a talent scout, an agent, a Hollywood columnist – thought you had a certain something, maybe even just a hint of a certain something, you were brought to Hollywood, signed up, and the movie machine went to work on you:  screen tests, make-up and costume tests, maybe elocution and movement lessons, maybe riding and fencing lessons, maybe some dental work.  And then the hype went into high gear: photo spreads and stories in the fan magazines touting you as The Next (fill in already famous star’s name here), personal appearances…  Jeez, it was possible to achieve a modest level of fame without ever having appeared in a film! If the public seemed to be responding, then you were tried out in a B flick or two, maybe supporting roles in one or two A’s.

And then it was up to you.  If you had that undefinable, unquantifiable, unteachable thing – I don’t know what you call it; charisma?  Magnetism? That catch-all “star quality”? – that caused you to click with the audience, that maes them like you, like seeing you up there on that big silvery canvas – then you became a star.  The studio started feeding you better roles in better pictures, some tailored just for you, all with an aim toward making you a brand, creating something that every time the public heard your name a bell went off in their collective head.  They didn’t know movie titles, they certainly didn’t know studio labels, but, by God, they knew you!

Out of the Past

But a few – a very few – had something still more magical to them, something that made them starrier than other stars, that made them in a land of big names…giants.  Their names came to mean more on a marquee than the title of their films; they were bigger than their roles, they were bigger than their movies. It wasn’t about talent (some were great actors, some not so much).  But they became one of those names that would echo down through the decades of the industry, long after they’d stopped making movies, long after they gone, holding a permanent place in the American cultural canon. You know the names:  Gable, Hepburn, Cagney, Davis, Bogart, Bacall, Flynn, Tracy, Stanwyck, Fonda, Crawford, Stewart, Grant, Monroe, Wayne…

Giants.  MOVIE STARS!

What made them who they were was that each of them was then and ever since been irreplaceable.  There’s never been another Gable, another Hepburn, and so on. It is that unique, unrepeatable quality that made them and has kept them MOVIE STARS!

One time while I was interviewing Sonny Grosso, who also recently passed, Sonny hit on the kind of whatever-it’s-called that made these men and women the Mt. Rushmore of their business.  “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid brought back the Western,” Sonny told me, “The only reason you don’t have them now is, who’s gonna be John Wayne?”

One by one, I’ve seen the giants I grew up with pass.  And now I have to say goodbye to another one. The last one.

Kirk Douglas Champion

Douglas’s rise was typical.  He’d been a stage actor in New York when producer Hal Wallis offered to bring him out to Hollywood.  By his own admission in his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas had never thought about making the jump to movies, had never considered himself movie material:  “Movies were the farthest thing from my mind…My image of a movie actor was someone tall and gorgeous, and I had never thought I fit the bill.”  But at the time – 1945 – Douglas wasn’t working, had a wife and kids to feed, and took Wallis up on his offer just because he needed the money.

He started with a supporting role, playing Barbara Stanwyck’s jellyfish husband in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), was sixth billed in the film adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1947), had another supporting part as the slimy hood who sends Robert Mitchum to spy on his girlfriend in the classic noir Out of the Past (1947), then came another gig for Wallis in the crime flick I Walk Alone (1947) playing Number 2 to another rising star, Burt Lancaster, in their first of seven teamings.

The breakthrough would come a few films later, in 1949, in what you could consider the first of truly quintessential Kirk Douglas roles:  Champion.

Not that Douglas couldn’t be fun in a movie, charming, glib, but there’s hardly a comedy – and not a good one – in his entire filmography.  Many, if not most, of the roles Douglas would become identified with were branded by the same intensity he showed in Champion.  There may not have been many actors in Douglas’ leading man lane who seemed to so avidly – even eagerly – latch onto characters who were unabashed shitheels (the step-on-everybody wannabe champion of Champion; the equally ambitious Young Man with a Horn [1950]; the showboating journalist looking for a ticket back to the big time in Ace in the Hole [1951]; the lusty pillaging Norseman of The Vikings [1958]), or heroes with a bit of the shitheel in them (the morally inflexible cop of Detective Story [1951] who couldn’t forgive his wife for a long-ago premarital indiscretion; the manipulative movie producer of The Bad and the Beautiful [1952]; self-destructive Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life [1956]; a Doc Holliday who couldn’t love the woman in his life as much as he loved Burt Lancaster’s Wyatt Earp in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral [1957]; the Army lawyer caught between his responsibility to defend three soldiers accused of rape, and his disgust for them in Town Without Pity [1961]; the part-hero, part-rapist naval hero of In Harm’s Way [1965]).

Even when Douglas did play a good guy, more often than not it was a good guy who was going to lose:  Colonel Dax trying to defend three of his soldiers unfairly tried for cowardice in Paths of Glory (1957); the rebellious Roman slave in one of his most iconic roles, Spartacus (1960); and one of his self-confessed favorites, the obsolete, doomed cowboy of Lonely Are the Brave (1962).

Douglas had a lot of colors, but he was never more Kirk Douglasy than when that intensity kicked in, when his lines would come out in that uniquely Douglas hoarse bellow that impressionists of the time had so much fun with.  Like the way he tells Janet Leigh in The Vikings, “If I can’t have your love, I’ll take your hate!”  Or the way he tears up poor Christine Kaufmann in Town Without Pity, trying to destroy her rape victim’s credibility to save three men he despises from the gallows by painting her as an exhibitionist, hoarse bellowing out naked in a way which turns the word into an ugly verbal cudgel — “Has Frank Borgmann ever seen you naked?… Who else has seen you naked?” — with which he pounds her into tears.

It was an intensity which I suspect, sadly, came to him naturally.  Read his The Ragman’s Son; an emotionally abusive, heavy-drinking father, poverty, anti-Semitism – that was his upbringing.  “(In) the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman (Douglas’s dad) was on the lowest rung of the ladder.  And I was the ragman’s son.” Douglas knew firsthand what it was to want, to desperately want, and to have that want come out in a mix of ravenous emotional hunger and searing rage; heroically as Spartacus, self-devouring in Champion.

spartacus kirk douglas

I said I grew up with Kirk Douglas.  What I mean is this: back in the pre-cable days, when all we had where I was growing up were six TV channels –

Ohmigod, Bill, how did you survive such primitive living conditions?

–and the channels were stuffed with movies.  It’s how the local indie channels filled their days; with oldies.  And in the 1960s, nearly every night of the week was movie night for one of the major networks; sometimes more than one network.  We grew up watching the not-so-old movies on the networks, the classics on the indies, and then toddled down to the neighborhood theater to see the new stuff.  Immersed in the past and present of Hollywood, we grew up with the giants, with the MOVIE STARS! of a certain era, even the ones who were gone by the time we were old enough to take ourselves to the movie house.  And because their careers were so long – begun before we were born, peaking as we sat in matinee seats gnawing on frozen Milky Way bars, still making movies even as we grew older and they grew old – we began to feel like they’d always be there.

And then they weren’t.

As I’ve gone from growing older to growing old, the stars in that starry, starry constellation of a certain Hollywood time have winked out one by one.  I’m not feeling a personal pang at Kirk Douglas’s passing because I was a fan (although I was), or because he was still making an impact in the movies (he wasn’t and hadn’t for a long, long time), but because he was the last vestige of a kind of experience – the person in the auditorium seat watching a MOVIE STAR! be a MOVIE STAR! – that’s gone.

He was the last of my giants.

  • Bill Mesce

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