Sunday, February 11, 2018

Walter Huston and the Huston filmmaking clan

The 2018 O Canada Blogathon is an event devoted to Canadian actors and films, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. For a list of participating bloggers, visit the links at either site.

I'm eager to talk about Walter Huston for this year's blogathon because I think he's one of the most underrated actors of the Hollywood Golden Age, not to mention the fact that he's the progenitor of a filmmaking family as prolific as the Barrymores.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was the first film of his I saw, although of course I had no idea who he was at the time, nor did I know the director was his son John. 

You don't need me to tell you what an outstanding movie it is. The elder Huston's character is part of Bogey's quest for gold, though he's not as obsessive about it as Bogey or Tim Holt. His role is more like the provocateur, the one who pokes fun at the others even as he leads them on their quixotic hunt, as eager for the prize as them. Like many of his roles, it's contradictory. He's lively, quick-witted, yet ruthless, in his way, and he almost steals the movie right out from under Bogey.

For a long time, I'd see him in other films and I could never make the connection  with him in Treasure: was that really the same guy? Huston would've been a successful actor in any era: his was a powerful presence on screen, energetic, daring, and above all, versatile.

The Toronto native was born in 1883 and first acted in stage, in 1902, after going to acting school. He moved into vaudeville and eventually Broadway, in 1924. Five years later he appeared in the Gary Cooper western The Virginian, and his career in film took off, alternating between lead and supporting roles in films like Rain, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Furies, The Devil and Daniel Webster, the macabre Kongo, and the exquisite Dodsworth.

Son John was born in 1906, to Walter and his first wife Rhea Gore. John initially pursued a career in writing; Walter appeared in two early films of his, A House Divided and Law and Order. John was given the chance to direct after hitting it big with films like Sergeant York and High Sierra. His debut was the noir classic The Maltese Falcon.

John originally imagined Walter in the Bogey role when he first read the book in 1935. World War 2 changed his and Warner Brothers' plans for the film, but after it was over, the studio wanted their top gun, Bogey, for the lead. Walter didn't want a supporting role at first, but John talked him into it. Walter even performed without his dentures. Both father and son would win Oscars.

During the war, Walter did voice-over work on a number of informational  propaganda shorts, while John made films for the Army Signal Corps, as told in the Mark Harris book Five Came Back. Ironically, the Canadian Walter portrayed Uncle Sam in December 7, a Pearl Harbor documentary. Father and son teamed up for Report from the Aleutians, a notable doc about a US military operation at sea against Japan. John directed and Walter narrated.

The Huston clan eventually produced more filmmaking offspring in Walter's grandchildren: screenwriter Allegra, actor-director Danny, actor-writer Tony, and of course, actress Anjelica, the third generation of Hustons to win an Oscar; plus great-grandson Jack, an actor.

Back in 1938, Walter appeared in a Broadway show called Knickerbocker Holiday, in which he sang a sentimental tune called "September Song." 

It went on to become an American standard (I remembered this as one of the songs I learned while taking lessons on the Hammond organ as a child). Many years later, Anjelica would perform it on television.

So yeah, Walter Huston. Up there with the greats, as far as I'm concerned.

Films by Walter Huston:
The Furies

Sarah Polley
John Candy
William Shatner


  1. You chose one of the finest of imports and a remarkable family to highlight for the blogathon. Well done.

    Huston played a fictional president in Gabriel Over the White House and the title character in the 1930 movie, Abraham Lincoln. It's like I always say, Canadians make the best Americans.

  2. Yeah, I saw that in his IMDB listing; that's pretty funny.

  3. Awesome choice, never tire of watching him, agree he is still underrated. (Also that is such a POINT about playing the President, a 'tradition' now carried on by Kiefer Sutherland lol) Great to have you along for this blogathon, thank you!

  4. I'm sorry it came in so late. Working on my novel has taken up a lot of time lately.

  5. Great post! I love Walter in Dodsworth. Now I wonder how it would have been if he was the lead in The Maltese Falcon - strange, but I think he'd be effective in the role.

  6. Apparently he had a bit part in FALCON that went uncredited. Next time I watch it, I'm gonna look for it.

    1. Pardon the two cents from someone who has seen The Maltese Falcon more times than she can count. If this was a Jeopardy! question, I'd be very quick on the buzzer and bet everthing. Huston plays Captain Jacobi of the Paloma, who is delivering the falcon to Brigid. He is shot by Wilmer and dies at Spade's office with the package.

    2. I'm pretty sure I read that, but I forgot about it. Thanks!

  7. I like what you said about Walter Huston being a timeless actor. Some actors from that era would not be a fit for today's films, but Huston could be just as successful now as he was then. And, darnit, he is SO underrated, and virtually unknown these days.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon, Rich. I am so pleased to see Walter Huston joining our party. ;)

  8. Just glad I was able to get in under the wire.


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