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Kirk Douglas: (Way) Larger Than Life Performances

6 minutes read

Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas: Hollywood star of the 1950s and 1960s.

Kirk Douglas movies: Theatrical, larger than life performances

Ramon Novarro Beyond Paradise

Kirk Douglas, a three-time Best Actor Academy Award nominee and one of the top Hollywood stars of the 1950s, is Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” featured star on Aug. 30. Although an undeniably strong screen presence, no one could ever accuse Douglas of having been a subtle, believable actor. In fact, even if you were to place side by side all of the widescreen formats ever created, they couldn’t possibly be wide enough to contain his larger-than-life theatrical emoting.

Right now, TCM is showing Andrew V. McLaglen’s 1967 Western The Way West, a routine tale about settlers in the Old American Northwest that remains of interest solely due to its name cast. Besides Douglas, The Way West features Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Lola Albright, and 21-year-old Sally Field in her The Flying Nun days.

‘Paths of Glory’

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957), based on Humphrey Cobb’s novel about a French army colonel court-martialed for refusing to obey idiotic (and suicidal) orders from his superiors, is considered by many The Greatest War Movie Ever Made. I much prefer Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front, but Paths of Glory, despite several shockingly melodramatic moments – Kubrick melodramatic? – has much to recommend it, including superbly shot battle scenes that far surpass the visual impact of those found in Steven Spielberg’s revered Saving Private Ryan.

Indeed, Paths of Glory was deemed so effective that the French government had it (unofficially) banned from that country’s screens until 1975 – much like they would ban Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers a decade later. And that’s democracy for you. Now, Kirk Douglas is as convincing as a Frenchman as, for instance, Cary Grant in I Was a Male War Bride; even so, Douglas’ performance in this anti-war drama is one of the most restrained – or rather, less exuberant – of his career. And that goes to show that Stanley Kubrick was a solid actors’ director.

I should add that actress Susanne Christian a.k.a. Christiane Harlan, the only woman featured in Paths of Glory, would later marry director Kubrick. The Paths of Glory screenplay is credited to Kubrick, Jim Thompson, and Calder Willingham – author of the anti-macho, anti-military novel End as a Man and the screenwriter for Mike Nichols’ blockbuster The Graduate.

Kirk Douglas is Vincent Van Gogh

In Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), Kirk Douglas plays Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh to Anthony Quinn’s Paul Gauguin. Could any movie be that badly miscast? The answer, of course, is Yes. It’s a duel of Performing Hams: who will be able to chew on more scenery?

Considering that the heavily made up Douglas has much more screen time than Quinn, it wouldn’t be quite fair to compare the appetites of the two actors. But then again, Anthony Quinn was the one who took home the (Best Supporting Actor) Oscar that year: give them a showy performance, no matter how inadequate, and they’ll give you an Academy Award. Douglas was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to another master scenery chewer: Yul Brynner, for once perfectly cast in The King and I.

Ultimately, Lust for Life is a good-looking movie that fails because of its artificial Hollywood-ness. Of note, silent film star Madge Kennedy plays Anna Cornelia Van Gogh.

Also of note, Douglas would later say that MGM forced him to sign a “loyalty oath” – following the House Un-American Activities Committee’s anti-Red madness – before he got to play Van Gogh. “It was terrible,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2012. “It was vanity that made me do it. Oh boy, did I want to play that part. It was really insulting, but I did it. It’s what everyone had to do.”

More Kirk Douglas movies

Raoul Walsh’s Along the Great Divide (1951) is a somewhat slow-moving Western whose most impressive feature is Sid Hickox’s black-and-white cinematography. The same goes for Howard Hawks’ overlong, tedious Northwestern, The Big Sky (1952), shot by Russell Harlan.

Kirk Douglas turns 97 next December 9. For the record, Douglas’ two other Best Actor Oscar nominations were for Mark Robson’s Champion (1949) and Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952). He won an Honorary Oscar at the 1996 ceremony.

Note: TCM has only one more star left this summer and that’s another major ham, Rex Harrison.

Kirk Douglas movies: TCM schedule (PT) on August 30

3:00 AM OUT OF THE PAST (1947). Director: Jacques Tourneur. Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming. Black and white. 97 min.

5:00 AM YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN (1950). Director: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day. Black and white. 112 min.

7:00 AM THE BIG TREES (1952). Director: Felix Feist. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Eve Miller, Patrice Wymore. Color. 89 min.

8:30 AM TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN (1962). Director: Vincente Minnelli. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, Cyd Charisse, George Hamilton, Daliah Lavi, Claire Trevor, James Gregory, Rosanna Schiaffino, Joanna Roos, George Macready, Mino Doro, Stefan Schnabel, Vito Scotti, Tom Palmer, Erich von Stroheim Jr., Leslie Uggams. Color. 107 mins. Letterbox Format.

10:30 AM TOWN WITHOUT PITY (1961). Director: Gottfried Reinhardt. Cast: Kirk Douglas, E.G. Marshall, Christine Kaufmann. Black and white. 103 min.

12:30 PM THE HOOK (1963). Director: George Seaton. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Robert Walker Jr., Nick Adams. Black and white. 98 mins. Letterbox Format.

2:30 PM THE WAY WEST (1967). Director: Andrew V. McLaglen. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, Lola Albright, Sally Field. Black and white. 122 mins. Letterbox Format.

4:45 PM CARSON ON TCM: KIRK DOUGLAS (8/31/88). (2013). TCM presents a classic interview from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson and Kirk Douglas. Color. 10 min.

5:00 PM PATHS OF GLORY (1957). Director: Stanley Kubrick. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Joe Turkel, Christiane Kubrick a.k.a. Susanne Christian, Jerry Hausner, Peter Capell, Emile Meyer, Bert Freed, Kem Dibbs, Timothy Carey, Fred Bell, John Stein, Harold Benedict, James B. Harris. Black and white. 88 min.

6:45 PM ACT OF LOVE (1953). Director: Anatole Litvak. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Dany Robin, Barbara Laage. Black and white. 106 min.

8:45 PM LUST FOR LIFE (1956). Director: Vincente Minnelli. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, James Donald. Color. 122 mins. Letterbox Format.

11:00 PM THE BIG SKY (1952). Director: Howard Hawks. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Buddy Baer, Steven Geray, Henri Letondal, Hank Worden, Jim Davis, Don Beddoe, Iron Eyes Cody, Eugene Borden, Frank DeKova, John George, Jay Novello. Black and white. 138 min.

1:30 AM ALONG THE GREAT DIVIDE (1951). Director: Raoul Walsh. Cast: Kirk Douglas, Virginia Mayo, John Agar. Black and white. 88 min.

Kirk Douglas movie schedule via the TCM website.

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