John Huston was the son of Walter Huston, an Academy Award-winning actor who was one of the most acclaimed actors of the American stage and screen. Huston grew up in a wealthy, privileged family. As a child and as an adult, the world of film and entertainment was important in his life, although he developed many other interests, including hunting and painting. Throughout most of his adult life filmmaking was the essentially his only religion, although Huston's adventurous lifestyle and other interests make it clear that filmmaking was not all-consuming for him.
John Huston did have some traditional religious background. In his autobiography he recalls that he attended church services in his younger year, and he again began attending church services (Episcopalian) on Sundays when he lived with his father's family in Connecticut. Huston does not appear to have anything more than a nominal or marginal identity as an Episcopalian, Christian or Protestant, however.
John Huston was passionate about telling stories, first as a writer and later as a film director, but his five failed marriages (something he expressed guilt about) and numerous affairs make it clear that traditional Christian ethics were not a central concern of his.
From: John Huston, An Open Book, Alfred A. Knopf: New York, NY (1980), page 30:
In my teens I began to spend more and more time with Dad [famed actor Walter Huston] and his family in New York. After the war Aunt Margaret had married a man named William Carrington. Carrington had amassed a fortune as a grain merchant, and he lavished every luxury on his wife. Besides a Park Avenue apartment they had an estate at Quaker Ridge, outside Greenwich, Connecticut, called Denby; another estate... in Santa Barbara, California; and a villa on the Italian side of Lake Maggiore.
In the summer of 1923 I went to Denby for the first time. Dad was there, and so was Aunt Nan... Life in Denby was different from anything I had ever known. We had tea on the lawn every weekday. On Sundays we would drive over to have tea with Mrs. and Mrs. Clarence Wooly or the Eugene Meyers, or they would come to us. We went to a little Episcopal church in Quaker Ridge on Sunday mornings. I hadn't been to church for years. The pastor wasa a young man interested in teenagers. He claimed to have been an intercollegiate middleweight boxing champion and offered to put the gloves on me. We never finished the first round. I did nothing but knock him down. He had a glass jaw, and I didn't know how to pull my punches.
John Huston, An Open Book, page 7:
John Gore [i.e., John Marcellus Gore, who was John Huston's grandfather] had been a drummer boy in the Confederate Army. He came up the Ohio River some years after the war and visited Marietta, Ohio, where he met Adelia Richardson [who would become John Huston's grandmother]. Adelia had two sisters, Ada and Metta. Ada was later to mrry a wealthy contractor... and Metta's husband-to-be was an Episcopalian minister with a parish in Hartwell, Ohio. Security played no part in Adelia's choice. She married the adventurer John Gore. Their daughter, Reah Gore, was my mother.
John Huston, An Open Book, page 9:
My father was born in 1884 in Toronto, Canada, of a Scottish mother... and an Irish father. The family can be traced back to the thirteenth century and a soldier of fortune whose arms and exploits aided the King of Scotland. His name was Hugh de Padvinaw, and he was rewarded for his services with what now constitutes the Huston Estate near Johnstone, Scotland--then known as "Hugh's Town."
Huston describes the making of his epic Old Testament film The Bible at length, pages 317-329. John Huston, An Open Book, page 329:
The Bible was the most extensive thing I have ever udnertaken. The Bible, is, of course, a misnomer. We actually filmed only half the book of Genesis, the picture ending with the story of Abraham. And even though In the Beginning was added to the title in smaller print, the picture was popularly called The Bible. This was fine with Dino. He had in mind to do the entire Bible from Genesis through Revelation. If he'd had his way, we might be up to about Ruth and Boaz by now.
Every interviewer during the filming--almost without exception--asked me if I believed in the Bible literally. I usually answered that Genesis represented a transition from Myth, when man, faced with creation and other deep mysteries, invented explanations for the inexplicable; to Legend, when he attributed to his forebears heroic qualities of leadership, valor and wisdom; to History, when, having emerged from Myth and Legend, accounts of real exploits and events of the past were handed down from father to son before the written word.
The next question would invariably be: did I believe in God? My reply was along these lines: in the beginning, the Lord God was in love with mankind and accordingly jealous. He was forever asking mankind to prove our affection for Him: for example, seeing if Abraham would cut his son's throat. But then, as eons passed, His ardor cooled and He assumed a new role--that of a beneficient deity. All a sinner had to do was confess and say he was sorry and God forgave him. The fact of the matter was that He had lost interest. That was the second step. Now it would appear that He'd forgotten about us entirely. He's taken up, maybe, with life elsewhere in the universe on another planet. It's as though we ceased to exist as far as He's concerned. Maybe we have.
The truth is I don't profess any beliefs in an orthodox sense. It seems to me that the mystery of life is too great, too wide, too deep, to do more than wonder at. Anything further would be, as far as I'm concerned, an impertinence.
From: Axel Madsen, John Huston: A Biography, Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York (1978), pages 212-213:
Huston's irreverence [while filming and discussing his movie The Bible] led to questions about his own faith. On several occasions, he was disarmingly forthright. "Every day I'm being asked if I am a believer and I answer I have nothing in common with Cecil B. DeMille. Actually, I find it foolishly impudent to speculate on the existence of any kind of God. We know the world was created and that it continually creates itself. I don't think about those things, I'm only interested in what's under my nose. Also, I believe that whatever man erects, builds and creates has a religious meaning. A painter, when he paints, is religious. The only religion I can believe in is creativity. I'm interested in the Bible as a universal myth, as a prop for numerous legends. It's a collective creation of of humanity, destined to solve, provisionally and in the form of fables, a number of mysteries too disquieting to contemplate for a nonscientific era."
...John wanted the film [The Bible] to show the power and terror of the Bible as "universal myth," the wrath of Jehovah, the fascination with sin. The story of Noah and the Ark--the only sweet and hopeful story--should be left sweet and hopeful, and the biblical characters should not be modernized into comfortable and safe people. John wanted his audience to be on man's, not God's side, through these tribal tales and fantasies of the origins of life. The audience should come into the Ark with Noah and the animals and not perish outside in the Flood. Eve's crime should seem disproportionately little compared to the punishment the angry godhead imposes on her and her children forever after.
Madsen, page 215:
While [John Huston's film] The Bible was in postproduction in Rome, Ricki [John Huston's wife] gave birth to a daughter in London. Only Tony and Ricki's parents were there. John stayed in Rome and [his daughter] Angelica [i.e., Angelica Huston, John Huston's daughter] was in her convent school in Ireland. The infant girl was christened Allegra. Her mother was thirty-five; her father fifty-nine.
John Huston, An Open Book, page 251:
Moby Dick was the most difficult picture I ever made. I lost so many battles during it that I even began to suspect that my assistant director was plotting against me. Then I realized that it was only God. God had a perfectly good reason. Ahab saw the White Whale as a mask worn by the Deity, and he saw the Deity as a malignant force. It was God's pleasure to torment and torture man. Ahab didn't deny God, he simply looked on him as a murderer--a thought that is utterly blasphemous: "Is Ahab Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? . . . Where do murderers go? . . . Who's to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?"
The picture, like the book, is a blasphemy, so I suppose we can just lay it to God's defending Himself when He sent those awful winds and waves against us.
From: Madsen, pages 4-5:
Some years ago he [John Huston] was, after his friend Orson Welles, the most sought-after narrator. In The Bible, the voice of God was, appropriately, his.
..."And people often say to me that The Misfits is their favorite among my works. Well, it is to me too. But it got mixed reviews at the time and was not a success..."
At other times Moby Dick is his favorite... he will frown and say critics never recognized the idea of Moby Dick. "And that is that the whole thing is blasphemy. Melville hated God! I never saw Ahab as a ranting madman and Peck furnished a kind of nobility, a heroic statue..."
John Huston, An Open Book, page 185:
Leonardo da Vinci said that an artist should "paint as if in the presense of God.'" I think that's what a true actor does--subconsciously. He is playing to God . . . a surrogate God . . . a live audience . . . faceless, numberless, therefore infinite. He can play to this "God" and win instant approval--as he merits it. I suspect that's what actors really mean when they say they prefer the theater to filmmaking, where there is no applause, only the approval of the director.
John Huston, An Open Book, page 234:
Ireland is ninety-six percent Catholic. I wanted it known immediately that I had no orthodox religion, so I announced right off the bat that I was an atheist. And I had the feeling they were particularly nice to me. "He's a good fellow who's surely going to hell, so why not make things as pleasant as possible for him--temporarily?" They certainly did that.
In 1964 I beame an Irish citizen.
Madsen, page 257:
...[John Huston] said he thought he knew what was interesting about movies. When he had everybody's attention he said it was their magic. "What you try to become is a bringer of magic," he reflected. "For magic and truth are closely allied and movies are sheer magic. When they are misused of course it's a debasement of magic. But when they work, it's--well, it's glorious."
After Huston served in the army in World War II, he fell in love with the daughter of an Episcopalian bishop. John Huston, An Open Book, page 120:
It was in this state of mind that I fell in love with Marietta Fitzgerald... She was born a Peabody. Her grandfather was Endicott Peabody, the founder of Groton. Her father was an Episcopalian bishop. She was married to Desmond Fitzgerald, a former Wall Street attorney now a commissioned officer serving in the Far East. They had one child, Frances, then about five years old.
I learned in due time, not from Marietta but from others, that her marriage was unhappy and that she and Desmond were about to separate when he went into the Army. In any case, Marietta had no intention of falling in love herself; it was against every rule of conduct in her Puritan background. But the day came when she had to admit that the unthinkable had happened. I do not believe that she was swayed by the strength of my emotion. She was not one to be led into something against her will. There was something of the lioness in Marietta.
Although Marietta Fitzgerald divorced not long after John Huston started dating her, Huston did not marry her. Just before Marietta Fitzgerald was divorced, Huston met actress Evelyn Keyes, and he started spending time with her. From: John Huston, An Open Book, pages 127-128:
One night at Romanof's she leaned across the table and said, out of the blue, "John, why don't we get married?"
..."Hell, Evelyn, we hardly know each other."
"Do you know a better way for us to get to know each other?"
She had a point there.
I said, "All right. Why not? When?"
"Right now. Tonight. Let's go to Las Vegas."
...By four o'clock that morning Evelyn and I were standing in front of a justice of the peace in Las Vegas. We were married, with Paul Mantz and a taxi driver as witnesses... Only [later]... did the utter damned absurdity of what I had done flood over me. How could I have done such a thing to Marietta? ...I thought briefly about getting an annulment. But then I thought, "What the hell? Maybe the best thing is to try and make it work. What have I got to lose?"
...A few weeks later I heard that Marietta... [was] getting a divorce.
Although Huston was not an active churchgoer as an adult, he had indeed learned some things from attending church in his earlier years, as demonstrated in this anectode, about what he did when he ran out of money while gambling during off hours while filming Key Largo in Florida. From: John Huston, An Open Book, pages 30-32:
We were in the dining room the night before we were to leave, and the owner and his wife were entertaining guests at a nearby table. I overheard the owner say something about the Immaculate Conception, and I pointed at this like a bird dog.
"Do you know what the phrase 'Immaculate Conception' means?"
The owner turned to me. "Why, it means that Mary had Jesus without--you know--without being touched by a man."
"You don't know what you're talking about." I was being deliberately offensive. "The Immaculate Conceptoin has nothign to do with the birth of Christ."
The owner huffed and snorted and argued. When he ran down, I said, "I'll bet you five hundred dollars you're wrong."
He accepted, and we went in and called the Monsignor in Florida City. It was late at night, but the Monsignor came to thephone, listened to the argmuent and said, "The Immaculate Conception has nothign to do with the birth of Christ. It refers to the fact that Mary was born without Original Sin." Then he went on to tell us when the dogma was proclaimed.
The owner paid off the $500 bet, and with this stake I returned to the dice table and won back almost everything I had lost.
Huston recounts how as a teenager he met Jack Dempsy, the great Mormon (Latter-day Saint) boxer, in or slightly after 1923. From: John Huston, An Open Book, pages 30-32:
In my teens I... We went to New York now and again. I heard concerts at Carnegie Hall, and Billy Carrington and I went to theater matinees, but the high spot of that summer was the Dempsey-Firpo fight. Dad took me. The only other thing I have ever seen to compare with this fight in sheer dramatic impact was the celebrated mano a mano between Lorenzo Garza and Manolete, the greatest matador of my generation, in Mexico City some twenty-five years later.
Dad and I were not at ringside but in the first tier of elevated seats, with a very good view. Firpo was a massive figure in a brown bathrobe. He stood head and shoulders above everyone in the ring--a towering, immobile shape. Dempsey came into the ring wearing a white sweater, and he was moving all the time. There was an awesome difference in the sizes of the two men. Dempsey looked like a kid compared to Firpo.
The fighters were introduced. The opening bell rang. At the very first exchange Firpo went down, and the crowd rose as one and went wild. The little man sitting next to me couldn't see and climbed up onto a narrow guard railing. Firpo was up, then he was down again. I glanced toward my neighbor. He wasn't there anymore. He had fallen to the passageway below. I paid no further attention, and neither did anyone else. He was probably dead or dying, but nobody had any time for him. That gives you an idea of the pandemonium of the moment.
Firpo could hit. He wasn't the facade that Jess Willard had been. He knew how to fight, and he was throwing long, straight punches. Dempsey fought with a kind of desperation, as though for his life, weaving in and out with that crouch of his, throwing left and right hooks that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.
The rule that a fighter has to go to a neutral corner when his opponent has been knocked down was in effect, but it was ignored in this fight. Each time Firpo went to the canvas, Dempsey stood over him--waiting. As Firpo's hands and knees cleared the canvas and he attempted to rise, Dempsey would hit him again. Had Firpo been able to stand up for a moment and clear his head, it might well have been a different story. As I said, he could hit. Toward the end of the first round he connected and knocked Dempsey clear out of the ring. Everyone in the arena was on his feet yelling, and then I saw hands pushing Dempsey back through the ropes. Immediately Firpo charged. He got Dempsey into a corner, but in a blind desire to finish his man, he lost his head. He began throwing lefts and rights wildly. Had any one of those blows connected, that would have been the end of the fight. But here Dempsey showed himself to be a true champion. He could hardly hold his hands up, but he stood in that turner slipping and blocking punches as best he could, and weathered the storm until the end of the round. In the second round he came out and Put Firpo down for the count. Instantly fights broke out all over the Polo Grounds. There was a rush of mass emotion that defies description, and I still look back on the occasion with a sense of awe.
A year later, when Dad was playing The Easy Mark, he told me about hoodlums moving into the theatrical world. Now, in addition to dry cleaners, laundries and small businesses, they were asking payoffs from actors. A nightclub singer in Chicago had had his tongue slit. It was rumored that Al Jolson was paying protection money.
One night Dad came into his dressing room after the final curtain and stood with his back to the door, frowning.
"What's the matter, Dad?"
"It's trouble. There's a guy outside this door who thinks I need protection."
Full of myself, I jumped at the chance to let Dad see me in action. I said, "I'll take care of him." I pushed Dad aside, burst out the door and there stood Jack Dempsey, smiling at me. "Hello, John," Dempsey said, "your father's been telling me about you."
John Huston, An Open Book, page 36:
A rare combination was Sam--and is to this day. I've known Sam Jaffe for over fifty years now, and it is hard to describe him without making a panegyric of it. He is a devout vegetarian who doesn't smoke or drink, but never tries to win you over to his views... He went on, of course, to become one of the finest actors on the American stage, and he has worked with me on two films: The Asphalt Jungle and The Barbarian and the Geisha.
About the filming of The Man Who Would Be King, from: John Huston, An Open Book, pages 349-350:
I remember how in Katmandu, Nepal, the streets were teeming with people... shrines you dared not enter where women anoint Shiva's lingam with butter... Perhaps it is the concatenation of religions--unorthodox Buddhism mixed with Hinduism, mixed with darkest superstition--but in Nepal there are demons and other strange gods. The place is literally jumping with devils; you can feel it.
An anecdote from when Huston made the film Freud, about Sigmnund Freud. In making the film, Huston seemed to appreciate that Freudianism was a religion and he wanted to show that Sigmnund Freud had made many mistakes while formulating Freudianism. Some of the material he filmed showing Freud's mistakes was cut from the film for the sake of brevity, but Huston felt these cuts hurt the film, because it made the events portrayed less understandable. John Huston, An Open Book, pages 296-297:
When the Misfits was completed, I came back to Freud and had conversations with the heads of Universal about it. They agreed to do it if the problem of censorship could be overcome. They worried that the picture would be censored out of existence, and insisted that I clear the script with the Catholic Church in New York before they would proceed. The Catholic Church couldn't stop us from making the picture, but could damage its commercial prospects by forbidding the faithful to see it.
I met with two priests and one lay woman, and we discussed the script at length. Their opposition was on moral grounds: Freud's philosophy, they claimed, does not admit the existence of Good and Evil. Only a priest has the right to search into the soul of man. The very suggestion of sexuality in children was repugnant to them. I could not, of course, change Freud to suit such Catholic prejudice without completely destroying the picture--to say nothing of Freudianism--and the best I could hope for was a compromise. Our discussions were partly theological and scientific, but mostly pseudo-theological and pseudo-scientific. It wasn't easy, but I managed to come to enough of an understanding with them for Universal to proceed with the project. As soon as Universal gave me the green light, I returned to Ireland, where Wolfgang joined me. By this time it was plain that going on with Sartre made no sense, so at my suggestion Universal put Charlie Kaufman on salary to do a treatment. Charlie and I had worked together on the script of Let There Be Light, and he was familiar to some extent with the subject. I thought Charlie, Wolfgang and I would make a good team.
Unfortunately, I could see from the first pages Charlie turned in that he was intent on following the pattern of the biographical pictures Warners had done before the war (Zola, Pasteur, Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet). The protagonist is invariably a hero, and lovable to the point of banality. This was the very opposite of the sheet lightning and sulfur I had in mind.
An anecdote about John Huston's aunt and uncle, Margaret Carrington and Robert "Bobby" Edmond Jones, from: Madsen, pages 20-21:
...in October 1924, [Walter Huston's] new brother-in-law, Robert Edmond Jones, suggested him to Eugene O'Neill for Desire Under the Elms. Jones--Bobby to everybody--was a striking-looking New Englander whose long pale face and large gray eyes were set off by a beard and unruly shocks of reddish-brown hair. Born and brought up in New Hampshire, he was, as Brooks Atkinson would write, "of the Emersonian faith and a believer in the oversoul." Like O'Neill he was haunted by an unhappy rural childhood and the gothic images of his family background would help O'Neill's thinking when he wrote Mourning Becomes Electra.
Bobby was younger than Margaret, who continued to call herself Mrs. Carrington. Since he was a homosexual, she sent him to Vienna to see Sigmund Freud and later claimed the father of psychoanalysis had cured her husband. They were a strange couple--she with her millions, her speech coaching, Park Avenue townhouse, and, on the West Coast, a baronial home in Santa Barbara; he as a director and scenic designer who imparted an exaltation to every production he was associated with. Bobby and Mrs. Carrington were to remain devoted to each other to the end of their lives. When they were old and cancer-stricken, they would always get up to sit and watch dawn together.
As man and wife, their first theatrical triumph had come in 1920 [with actor John Barrymore in Richard III].
...John [Huston] was captivated by all this [his aunt and uncle's plays]. He attended every rehearsal, met O'Neill... [and eventually began acting in their plays -- his introduction to acting].
Madsen, page 160:
John [Huston] returned to Hollywood for the editing on New Year's Day 1957 and to see Bogey one last time. Bogart died January 13, three weeks after his fifty-sixth birthday. Betty asked John to say a few words at the funeral service at the Beverly Hills All Saints Episcopal Church.
When John Huston made The Barbarian and the Geisha, he used considerable license and changed the story. Madsen, pages 167-168:
The studio release said Townsend Harris was the first western diplomat to enter Japan and somebody asked the director who should play Harris. [John] Huston... "Only one man is right for him and that's John Wayne..."
...When Harris set up his first residence, he hired a young washing woman to maintain his quarters. On her second visit, he noticed that the girl had a skin infection and promptly fired her. From this brief encounter, however, a Japanese legend flowered about the love between a beautiful geisha and her "barbarian" from the West. In reality, Harris was a devout Christian who never touched alcohol and refused to work on Sundays. He did not like Japanese women--perhaps he didn't like women at all, since he died a bachelor at the age of seventy-three--and he never would have condoned such immoral conduct. Legend as more powerful than facts and the severe diplomat became a romantic folk hero at the dawn of Japan's fateful opening to the West.
The authentic Harris and the first resident barbarian of Japanese folklore were much too tame for John's taste--and Wayne's persona. The way Huston saw it--and his friend Charles Grayson began writing it in the screenplay--Harris would indeed become involved with a beautiful geisha but he would also be spied upon and attacked by a combative samurai, become the enemy of the governor of Shimoda and, to combat a cholera epidemic, burn down a village.
Madsen, page 195:
In Rome, Dino de Laurentiis announced that [John] Huston would be one of four directors directing his upcoming production of The Bible. The producer said the film would run eleven hours, then extended his plans and talked of two films, each running six hours, on a $90-million budget. "This will cancel out all other films ever done on the Bible, "the ebullient Roman enthused. "Orson Welles will direct the Abraham and Isaac sequence, Robert Bresson will direct the Creation, Federico Fellini will direct the Flood, Luchino Visconti will direct the scene of Josph and his Brethren and John Huston will have the responsibility of giving the entire project cohesion and continuity. Maria Callas will be Sarah, Mother of the Jews, and Sir Laurence Olivier will be God. Igor Stravinsky will write the music. It will be fantastic!"
Film director John Huston, although he certainly did not think of himself as an actor, agreed to play the part of a Catholic cardinal in Otto Preminger's film The Cardinal (1963). Much to his surprise, he received an Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for the role (Madsen, pages 198-199).
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