Kirk Douglas is Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month of September. Though hardly a great film actor – or even a good one – Douglas has had one of the longest and most prestigious film careers anywhere in the world. That’s probably because enough audience members loved how Douglas ferociously attacked his characters – instead of merely bringing them to life. (See Kirk Douglas Movie Schedule further below.)
The 94-year-old actor (who’ll be turning 95 next December 9) starred or was featured in numerous major classics – and a number of minor ones – from the mid-’40s to the mid’-60s, nabbing three Best Actor Oscar nominations along the way. He has continued working since then, but for the most part his projects have been low-quality fare.
The list of Kirk Douglas’ movie classics, however, is quite long. It includes Jacques Tourneur’s film noir Out of the Past (1947); Mark Robson’s boxing melodrama Champion (1949), for which Douglas received his first Oscar nod; William Wyler’s crime drama Detective Story (1951); Billy Wilder’s mordant attack on the tabloid journalism, Ace in the Hole / The Big Carnival (1951); and Vincente Minnelli’s behind-the-scenes melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), which earned Douglas a second Oscar nod for his portrayal of a ruthless film producer.
Also, Richard Fleischer’s blockbuster 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954); Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), which earned Douglas his third Oscar nod for his very Kirk Douglas-ish Van Gogh; John Sturges’ Western Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as Doc Holliday; Stanley Kubrick’s anti-war drama Paths of Glory (1957) and Kubrick’s socially conscious Ancient Rome drama Spartacus (1960); David Miller’s modern Western Lonely Are the Brave (1962), and John Frankenheimer’s political thriller Seven Days in May (1964).
Earlier this evening, TCM showed Lewis Milestone’s melodrama-cum-film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), which marked Douglas’ ineffectual film debut as Barbara Stanwyck’s weakling husband. In fact, despite much screen time devoted to Van Heflin’s romantic and psychological woes, Milestone’s film belongs to its leading ladies: Stanwyck and Lizabeth Scott.
Much like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, as far as I’m concerned Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past belongs to its female lead: Jane Greer, at her best as a femme fatale who ruins Robert Mitchum’s life. Douglas is once again relegated to an ineffectual supporting role. Also at the beginning of her career, Rhonda Fleming steals the few scenes she’s in merely by being there – as a character named Meta Carson.
Byron Haskin’s I Walk Alone (1948) is a melodramatic but great-looking noir (cinematography by Leo Tover) notable as the first time Kirk Douglas and frequent screen partner Burt Lancaster appeared in the same film. Douglas and Lancaster’s histrionics notwithstanding, my eyes were glued on Lizabeth Scott.
In writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s curious dramatic comedy A Letter to Three Wives, the 1949 Academy Award winner for Best Direction and Best Screenplay, Douglas plays one of three husbands who may have run off with a naughty letter writer. The other two husbands are Paul Douglas and Jeffrey Lynn. The desperate wives are Linda Darnell, Jeanne Crain and Ann Sothern.
Screenwriter-turned-director Dudley Nichols’ movie adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1947) is a fascinating mess. This compulsively watchable melodrama could have been a real masterpiece had Nichols (or RKO) been more careful during the casting process. Despite their Oscar nominations, both Michael Redgrave and Rosalind Russell are laughably terrible as the two emotionally unbalanced leads, while matriarch Katina Paxinou manages to overact even more than she did in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Kirk Douglas, for his part, should have been cast in some other film noir or boxing melodrama, but definitely not in a movie version of an O’Neill play.
Schedule (ET) and synopses from the TCM website:
8:00 PM THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946). Years after a murder drove them apart heiress tries to win back her lost love. Dir.: Lewis Milestone. Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Judith Anderson. Black and white. 116 min.
10:00 PM OUT OF THE PAST (1947). A private eye becomes the dupe of a homicidal moll. Dir.: Jacques Tourneur. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming. Black and white. 97 min.
11:45 PM I WALK ALONE (1948). An ex-convict discovers the world of crime has changed drastically since he went up the river. Dir.: Byron Haskin. Cast: Burt Lancaster, Lizabeth Scott, Kirk Douglas, Wendell Corey. Black and white. 97 min.
1:30 AM A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (1949). A small-town seductress notifies her three best friends that she has run off with one of their husbands. Dir.: Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Cast: Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Paul Douglas, Jeffrey Lynn, Thelma Ritter. Black and white. 103 mins. Letterbox Format.
3:30 AM MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA (1947). Repressed passions and shameful secrets destroy a New England family. Dir.: Dudley Nichols. Cast: Rosalind Russell, Michael Redgrave, Raymond Massey, Katina Paxinou, Kirk Douglas. Black and white. 159 min.
6:15 AM ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1951). A U.S. Marshall tries to get a rustler to trial before a vengeful rancher can kill him. Dir.: Raoul Walsh. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Virginia Mayo, John Agar. Black and white. 88 min.
7:45 AM THE JUGGLER (1953). A Jewish refugee fights to overcome the psychological effects of his World War II experiences. Dir.: Edward Dmytryk. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Milly Vitale, Paul Stewart. Black and white. 86 min.
9:15 AM THE STORY OF THREE LOVES (1953). Passengers on an ocean liner recall their greatest loves. Dir.: Gottfried Reinhardt. Cast: James Mason, Moira Shearer, Agnes Moorehead, Leslie Caron, Farley Granger, Pier Angeli, Ethel Barrymore, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Kirk Douglas, Ricky Nelson, Richard Anderson. Color. 122 min.
11:30 AM ACT OF LOVE (1953). An American soldier romances a beautiful Parisian during the final days of World War II. Dir.: Anatole Litvak. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Dany Robin, Barbara Laage. Black and white. 106 min.
Turner Classic Movies website.