Posted by Susan Doll on April 14, 2014
One of my courses this semester includes a section on an auteur—that fancy French word for master director. I let my students choose which director to study from a list that included a variety of filmmakers from different eras. To my great surprise and delight, they selected John Huston over more recent and more famous directors.
I began the section on Huston with Key Largo, a crime drama released in 1948. The film stars Huston favorite Humphrey Bogart as WWII veteran Frank McCloud, who visits the Key Largo home of one of the men from his unit. The young man had been killed in combat, and McCloud feels compelled to call on the man’s father and widow, Nora. Nora is played by Lauren Bacall, and the father is portrayed by Lionel Barrymore, who, by this point in his career, was forced to play his roles in a wheelchair because of the crippling effects of arthritis and two hip fractures. Barrymore’s character owns the Hotel Largo, which has been taken over by gangster Johnny Rocco, played with great flair by Edward G. Robinson. While Rocco and his gang wait for an associate, a hurricane hits the Florida Keys and confines all of them inside the Hotel Largo.
As usual when I watch a film familiar to me from previous viewings, I was drawn to details that I had not noticed before, particularly the references based on real-life events. Frank tells the grieving father about the battle that took his son’s life, which occurred in San Pietro in the Italian campaign. During the war, Huston had directed the documentary The Battle of San Pietro for the U.S. Army, a frank account of the actual conflict. His cameramen had filmed alongside the soldiers as they fought their way toward San Pietro. (According to the new book, Five Came Back, at least some of the footage was staged. See comments section below.) Also, Huston dared to include close-ups of the dead soldiers’ faces as they were being placed into body bags, which disturbed the military brass. The Battle of San Pietro was shown to soldiers as part of their training, but its release to the general public was delayed, because of the frank portrayal of the soldiers’ plights. In an indirect way, Huston exposed the harsh conditions of the battle and its high cost anyway via the description given by Frank in Key Largo.
As the hurricane reaches a peak of fury, the gangsters reveal their fears and anxieties. Barrymore’s frail and disabled character, who cannot physically fight back against the mobsters, gets even by playing on their fears. He takes great delight in telling the story of a previous hurricane that destroyed part of the Florida Keys. Barrymore’s considerable vocal talents dramatize the story into a frightening experience for the gunsels, but the hurricane he was talking about was an actual event in Florida’s history. The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 was a category 5 storm that hit the Upper Keys on August 31. It blew through Matecumbe, Plantation, and Tavernier Keys with such ferocity that it permanently wiped out Matecumbe’s pineapple plantations and lime groves—a staple of their economy. The statistics for the hurricane are devastating: 200-250-mile winds; a 25-foot surge; 500 people killed. Most of the victims were WWI veterans building a highway through the Keys for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC had adopted a hurricane evacuation plan for the men in which a train from the mainland was to head for the Keys at the first hint of a severe storm. For reasons never divulged, the train did not leave Miami on time. It arrived in Matecumbe, where the workers were stationed, in the middle of the hurricane. The train had barely started back when it was derailed by the storm surge. Most of the workers were drowned, whipped to death by the wind, or crushed by debris. In 1932, these same vets had been part of the Bonus March on Washington D.C. in which 15,000 jobless veterans had traveled to D.C. to persuade Congress to pass a bill that would allow them a promised bonus early. Instead, President Herbert Hoover sent army troops to run the marchers’ out of their makeshift camp with bayonets and tear gas. American soldiers thrusting bayonets at American veterans did not make good front-page copy for the sitting president. Franklin Roosevelt gave many of the vets jobs through the CCC to make up for Hoover’s p.r. nightmare. After the hurricane, an outraged Ernest Hemingway, who was among the first to visit the devastation, wrote a scathing article, denouncing the government for failing these veterans—twice. Roosevelt demanded an investigation, but if anything was uncovered, it was never revealed, and no one was held accountable.
The character of Johnny Rocco was based on Lucky Luciano. In the film, Rocco had been deported because he was a powerful mobster. He grew wealthy during Prohibition when America let legalities slip in order to continue drinking alcohol, and he became powerful enough to influence politicians until reformers rallied to deport him. Rocco was trying to stage a comeback to the rackets. Luciano had been imprisoned in 1937 for heading a massive prostitution ring, among other charges, though he continued to have influence on his faction of the mob from prison. During WWII, he made a deal with the U.S. government to relay useful scuttlebutt regarding German or Italian movements that might come drifting through the New York docks. (The mob controlled the docks.) In exchange, his sentence was commuted, but Luciano was deported in 1946. While his dealings with the military were secret, his deportation was still fresh enough in everyone’s mind to connect Rocco to Luciano.
Key Largo was the last film on Huston’s contract with Warner Bros. The film was based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, which was purchased by Warner Bros. as a property for Bogart. The scenes based on actual events were added by Huston and Richard Brooks, his cowriter on the film. Huston did not like the play, and Brooks had to continually coax him into working on it during preproduction. The original play had starred Paul Muni as a disillusioned veteran of the Spanish Civil War who visits the Keys to see the family of a friend who had died in the war. There he tangles with a gambler and his associates who have taken over the hotel. Brooks updated the storyline to 1948 and borrowed from the Luciano legend to turn the gambler into a mobster, which appealed to Huston. Brooks wrote a great deal of the script, but Huston steered him by challenging him about character motivation, theme, and relevancy. He tweaked the script and added details that gave it distinction and color. In the scene in which Rocco whispers vulgarities into Nora’s ear, Brooks had rewritten the dialogue from the play without the obscenities because the Production Code would not have allowed them. Huston decided to cut the dialogue altogether; instead, he had Rocco whisper so that the audience could not hear anything. Nora’s reaction indicated just how disgusting his suggestions were.
Huston and Brooks stayed at the real Hotel Largo in Key Largo during the height of the summer while they were writing the script. It was the only hotel on that key at the time, and it was officially closed. The owner opened it for Brooks, Huston, and their wives. The weather was hot and humid, and the hotel had no air conditioning, which is why small Florida hotels were closed in the summer. One evening, Huston burst into Brooks’s room while he was taking a bath. Brooks was soaking in a tub with a fan blowing directly on him. When Huston saw this, he knew how he wanted to introduce Rocco to the audience. Originally, Rocco was supposed to descend the stairs, but Huston introduced him in a medium shot in a tub, smoking a huge cigar with the fan blowing. Then he tracked into a close-up of Rocco’s arrogant face—a great introduction to a character played by a bona fide movie star.
Feedback from my class about Key Largo, was positive; many noticed Huston and Brooks’s terrific dialogue and legendary Karl Freund’s subtle but effective camera movements. Bogart received a lot of comments from the students who were impressed with his acting and his star image. As my student Asia noted, he “communicates tons more emotion and conflict than is explicitly stated in the script.” One of the most satisfying parts of my job is to introduce young students to the unique joys of classic films; a special thanks to John Huston for making my job easier.
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