Tuesday, November 16, 2010


On September 3, 1981, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas brought Bernard Sabath's The Boys of Autumn for a trial run to Marines Memorial Theatre, San Francisco. A "what-if" tale about the reunion of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn 50 years after their infamous adventures on the Mississippi, Lancaster played Henry Finnegan (Huck, of course) and Douglas his old friend Thomas Gray (Sawyer). Having retired from vaudeville, Tom Sawyer—who has been using the stage name of Thomas Gray—returns to his home in the South searching for his boyhood friend Huckleberry Finn. The play was directed by Tom Moore and ran for four weeks (some sources say six) and reunited Lancaster and Douglas for their seventh collaboration after previously starring together in six films: I Walk Alone (1948), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), The Devil's Disciple (1959), The List of Adrian Messenger (1963), Seven Days in May (1964), and the made-for-TV Victory at Entebbe (1976). They would work together one last time in Tough Guys (1986). The fate of their participation in The Boys of Autumn has been detailed by Tony Thomas in The Films of Kirk Douglas (1991:280): "They were offered a production on Broadway but both turned it down for reasons of health, neither feeling up to a long run. When The Boys of Autumn opened up in New York several years later, Tom and Huck were George C. Scott and John Cullum."

All the more reason in retrospect to be grateful for my opportunity in my mid-20s to catch their appropriately poignant Marines Memorial performance. The San Francisco Examiner opined that the play "abound[ed] in humor, some of it gentle and wry and some rambunctious." Honestly, I don't remember much about the play—it was fair to middling and somewhat cynical in its depiction of the duo's disillusionment with their elder years; a bit of a downer, really—but the play's failings didn't really matter somehow. What mattered was having a third or fourth row seat and being wholly starstruck, if not with the performances then with the performers themselves.

That's one thing I can say about both actors, neither seem capable of disappearing into their roles. Their roles, instead, drape off their statuesque star power, which seems appropriate to the era and its studio system, even as Lancaster—through his independence as a producer—contributed to the downfall of that system.

Now in a handsome sampling of nine films, the Pacific Film Archive offers a retrospective of the films of Burt Lancaster—
Grin, Smile, Smirk—running Friday, November 26 through Saturday, December 11, 2010. It's an apt title for the program, as curator Steve Seid states in his introduction: "Burt Lancaster is known for his grin, but it's a grin that contains multitudes. Though Lancaster may frequently ply that beaming kisser, something takes shape around his pearly whites, a smile or smirk, that's not a routine gesture. He's got a grin that can disarm or deceive, conceal or connive. Hang that ambiguous facade on an actor first trained as a professional acrobat and you have a mercurial mug atop a lithe athleticism. When first pinched for the pictures, Lancaster didn't have that signature smile. His mid-1940s debut roles in The Killers and Brute Force were too hang-tough even for a sneer, but in time his bravado emerged. By the early 1950s, that grin came flooding forth in the swashbuckler send-up, The Crimson Pirate, showing off his physical daring, a characteristic he would trump in Trapeze, that soaring tribute to the Big Top. Sweet Smell of Success and Elmer Gantry presented larger-than-life roles that his trademark visage could barely restrain. Here, Lancaster's smile is like a seawall holding back waves of sarcasm, duplicity, and an unexpected vulnerability. The 1960s saw roles of great command in which he subdued his more uninhibited gestures to acknowledge the disturbing depths of films like Birdman of Alcatraz, A Child is Waiting, and The Swimmer. With a career that spans four decades, this series barely plumbs Burt Lancaster's forceful and committed presence. But these terrific examples—taut existential noirs, acrobatic extravaganzas, judicious social dramas—should still leave you with something to grin about."

The Killers (dir. Robert Siodmak; 1946, 103 mins)—Two big-city toughs invade a small-town diner looking for "The Swede," in this blood-pulsing noir, based on a story by Hemingway and costarring Ava Gardner and Edmond O'Brien. Lancaster's first screen role.

Trapeze (dir. Carol Reed; 1956, 105 mins)—The first Hollywood film from the director of British classics The Third Man and Fallen Idol, this circus drama finds Lancaster (a former acrobat in real life) in a high-wire love triangle with Gina Lollabrigida and Tony Curtis.

Brute Force (dir. Jules Dassin; 1947, 94 mins)—Famed blacklisted director Dassin (Night and the City) teamed with Lancaster for this hard-hitting noir about life inside prison walls. "Part antifascist tract, part existential allegory."—NY Times

The Crimson Pirate (dir. Robert Siodmak; 1952, 104 mins)—Lancaster and fellow real-life acrobat buddy Nick Cravat add a bounding physicality to this tongue-in-cheek tribute to the swashbucklers of old. "A slam-bang, action-filled Technicolor lampoon."—NY Times

Sweet Smell of Success (dir. Alexander Mackendrick; 1957, 96 mins)—Burt Lancaster plays a ruthless New York City gossip columnist and Tony Curtis is a groveling press agent in this "pungent exploration of ambition and evil in the New York newspaper world.... A chilling and powerful picture."—Village Voice

Elmer Gantry (dir. Richard Brooks; 1960, 146 mins)—Burt Lancaster is the prototypical American huckster Elmer Gantry, who realizes he can sell God just as well as vacuum cleaners in this searing satire on evangelical corruption, adapted from a Sinclair Lewis novel. Photography by legendary cinematographer John Alton.

Birdman of Alcatraz (dir. John Frankenheimer; 1962, 147 mins)—In jail for life, a double murderer transforms himself from caged man to bird expert in this thoughtful prison drama starring Burt Lancaster, Karl Malden, and Telly Savalas. From the director of The Manchurian Candidate.

A Child is Waiting (dir. John Cassavetes; 1963, 102 mins)—Cassavetes's second studio production is a hard-hitting drama about the social reforms needed to care for mentally disabled children, with Burt Lancaster as a headstrong psychologist, and Judy Garland as a concerned music instructor.

The Swimmer (dir. Frank Perry; 1968, 94 mins)—A tanned Burt Lancaster plays a middle-aged suburbanite slowly reaching the deep end, one highball at a time, in this riveting drama. "Has the shape of an open-ended hallucination ... a grim, disturbing and sometimes funny view of upper-middle-class American life."—Vincent Canby, NY Times

Burt Lancaster hardly requires introduction; but, for those wishing to amplify their experience of the PFA retrospective, here's John Frankenheimer's TCM profile on Burt Lancaster:

Several career profiles are likewise available online, among which I might recommend the following:
Geoffrey Macnab for The Independent; Richard Corliss for TIME; Jason Ankeny for AMC; Rick Marin for The New York Times; and Philip Kemp for Sight & Sound.

Should you prefer to crack open a book for an expanded understanding of Lancaster, there are no less than a dozen volumes available, including:

Ed Andreychuk. Burt Lancaster: A Filmography and Biography. McFarland & Company. 2000. 288pp.

Kate Buford. Burt Lancaster: An American Life. New York: Knopf. 2000. 968pp.

Minty Clinch. Burt Lancaster. London: Arthur Barker. 1984. 184pp.

Bruce Crowther. Burt Lancaster: A Life in Films. London: Robert Hale. 1991. 192pp.

Gary Fishgall. Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster. New York: Scribner's. 1995. 484pp.

David Fury. Cinema History of Burt Lancaster. Minneapolis, MN: Artists Press. 1989. 301pp.

Allan Hunter. Burt Lancaster: The Man and His Movies. Edinburgh, Scotland: Paul Harris. 1984. 160pp.

Robyn Karney. Burt Lancaster: A Singular Man. Trafalgar Square. 1996. 192pp.

Michael Munn. Burt Lancaster: The Terrible-Tempered Charmer. London: Robson Books. 1995. 278pp.

Tony Thomas. Burt Lancaster. New York: Pyramid Publications. 1975. 160pp.

Jerry Vermilye. Burt Lancaster: Hollywood's Magic People: A Pictorial Treasury of His Films. New York: Falcon Enterprises. 1971. 159pp.

Robert Windeler. Burt Lancaster. New York: St. Martin's Press. 1984.

For visuals, I recommend
Rancid Popcorn for its collection of German film posters for Lancaster's films, several of which I've used to illustrate this entry. Also there's a great collection of half sheets for Lancaster's films at Filmsondisc.com. Galleries of photos and videos can be found at Ace Photos and Fanpix.

Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
For information call: 510-642-1412

Cross-published on

1 comment:

Peter Nellhaus said...

I learned quite a bit from Kate Buford's biography. I'm sure that when seeing The Swimmer, some in the audience will be amazed to see what great shape Lancaster was in at age 50.