More with Less: Gordon Douglas
Born today 107 years ago, Gordon Douglas (1909-1993) directed dozens of movies, including Our Gang comedy shorts, romances, whodunits, action/adventures, Westerns, musicals, docudramas and even made radiation-spawned 12-foot ants plausible in a sci-fi gem called Them! (1954). According to Michael Barson at Britannica.com, “Douglas was also self-aware enough to know that much of his work was mere Hollywood product. He once remarked, ‘Don’t try to watch all the films I’ve directed; it would turn you off movies forever.’” But he’s also undergone a bit of reassessment in recent years. “Variety and variability have always characterized him more than anything else,” film historian David Thomson wrote in his The New Biographical Dictionary of Film entry on Douglas, “but he is the director of several entertaining movies.” In a New York Times piece evaluating the Olive Films blu-rays of two 1951 Douglas efforts, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye with James Cagney and Only the Valiant with Gregory Peck, reviewer Dave Kehr reflected: “At his best, Douglas was fully the equal of ’50s genre stalwarts like Don Siegel (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and Phil Karlson (The Phenix City Story). If he has never received the same kind of critical attention, it’s because of his prodigious output, which requires the sympathetic observer to separate the good (Them!) from the bad (Harlow) and the just plain peculiar (the Liberace vehicle Sincerely Yours). As Douglas told Bertrand Tavernier, ‘I have a large family to feed, and it’s only occasionally that I find a story that interests me.’ In many ways, Douglas seems to have been the ideal company man, always willing to take on whatever assignment was handed to him and always able to bring a sobriety and conviction to even the most ill-conceived projects.” He’s noted as one of only two moviemakers (George Sidney being the other) that claim both Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra screen outings on their directing resumés. (Tossing into the ring Liberace in Sincerely Yours puts Douglas in a three-way musical-icon class of his own.) His Presley project Follow That Dream (1962) was lighthearted fare, professionally guided to simultaneously gild and ground its dynamic star. As Cinefamily.com blogger Bret expressed: “The King of Rock-and-Roll’s filmography can be a bit unwieldy to tackle – a little over 30 movies made in a little less than 15 years(!), of widely varying quality – but few are as honestly hilarious, low-key or offbeat than [this] early-’60s effort written by the fantastic Charles Lederer (who had a sizeable hand in crafting scripts for such classics as The Front Page, His Girl Friday, Ocean’s 11 and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). Amongst a handful of breezy musical numbers, the King is genuinely good in this kooky character study; far from his oft-wooden, ‘how did I get here, and where’s the nearest exit?’ style of filmic performance, Elvis here exudes the same kind of effortless charm and smoky sexuality that initially shot him to superstardom.” Five years later, Douglas went from the King to the Chairman, reteaming with Sinatra, the star of their earlier successes Young at Heart (1954) and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), for a trio of detective thrillers that took the genre out for a new spin, courtesy of novels by Marvin H. Albert and Roderick Thorp. In Thomson’s view, “That early skill at handling Sinatra suddenly bore fruit with the delicious Tony Rome (1967); Lady in Cement (1968) was not its equal but The Detective (1968) is a striking early picture of the policeman losing faith in his job. Douglas remained one of the few directors who could hold Sinatra’s interest.” Thanks to Sinatra’s innate cool and Douglas’ supportive direction and nimble use of a galaxy of co-stars that would include, between the two, Jill St. John, Raquel Welch, Gena Rowlands, Richard Conte, Dan Blocker, Sue Lyon and Simon Oakland, the Miami-set, sun-and-fun-drenched Tony Rome and Lady in Cement came at a propitious, if short-lived, moment. Twenty Four Frames blogger John Greco writes: “The private detective film made a comeback in the mid- to late-’60s thanks to the Paul Newman-starring 1966 film Harper. (There were shades of Bogart and a good storyline thanks to the source novel The Moving Target by Ross MacDonald). Other films soon followed (P.J., Marlowe) in its successful path, including Tony Rome released the following year. By 1967, Frank Sinatra’s film career was once again on a slide downward, unlike Newman’s who pretty much ruled the screen in the 1960s. The original Jersey Boy made three mediocre films in a row (Marriage on the Rocks, Assault on a Queen and The Naked Runner). They were films he walked through and he looked as bored as the films were themselves. With Tony Rome, Sinatra, the actor, found his way back with the kind of smartass, wiseguy loner the public always kind of felt the singer/actor was in real life.” In between the two Rome capers came the darker, more serious and perhaps more revealing The Detective, which charts a grisly homosexual murder investigation – and its shocking aftermath – in a menace-laden New York City. The Hollywood Interview’s Alex Simon points to the deeper achievement of Sinatra and Douglas here: “Released with a Suggested for Mature Audiences warning along with its MPAA seal, The Detective did solid business as one of the top grossing films of 1968 and created an expected firestorm of controversy. Taken today as the relic that it is, it remains (at least to me) a remarkable film on many levels. Even Gordon Douglas’ much-derided direction has some potent set-ups, such as when the characters speak directly into the camera. The relationship talk between Sinatra and [co-star Lee] Remick [as the Sinatra character’s estranged wife] feels not only realistic, but still contemporary. It’s one of Sinatra’s finest performances, weary and tough, but also tender and earnest. [NYPD detective] Joe Leland is a man out of his time who’s determined to stay relevant, even though the rest of the world has given up on his post-World War II era idealism and decayed into corruption. Much like the film itself, Joe has one foot in the past and one stubbornly planted in the present and future, on his terms.” On another occasion film critic and MoMA film curator Kehr observed that Douglas "did more with less than any other director" that he could think of. One might add that when birthday honoree Douglas was matched with uniquely appealing talents like Presley and Sinatra at pivotal moments in their careers, the degree of “more” would be amplified by a significant degree. Twilight Time’s hi-def Blu-rays of The Detective, Follow That Dream and the double-feature disc of Tony Rome/Lady in Cement are available for such assessment.