Obituary: Christian Nyby
Saturday 04 December 1993
IN THE WARTIME Warner Bros film Hollywood Canteen (1944) a US Army chaplain is conducting mail call on a South Pacific island. The first name he shouts is 'Chris Nyby]' The subject of that in-joke was the movie's editor. Hollywood Canteen was the second Warner Bros film edited by Christian Nyby, then 31 years old, whose first assignment for Warners had been the submarine drama Destination Tokyo (1943).
Born in Los Angeles, Nyby always wanted a career in films, and started as a studio carpenter at MGM. Ambitious to become a director, he gained valuable experience at Warners, editing Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger (1946), Raoul Walsh's Pursued (1947), Cheyenne (1947), Fighter Squadron (1948) and One Sunday Afternoon (1948), and Howard Hawks's To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). In 1948 Hawks produced and directed Red River for United Artists, and borrowed Nyby from Warners to edit it.
It has been said that any story can be turned into a western, and the screenwriter Borden Chase demonstrated this axiom with Red River, which he based on Mutiny on the Bounty. John Wayne and Montgomery Clift were the Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian figures, and the mutiny occurred on a cattle drive instead of a sea voyage. Red River was a sprawling but riveting epic, packed with spectacular black-and- white set pieces, and Nyby's masterly editing earned him an Academy Award nomination.
In 1948 the United States Supreme Court made its anti-trust ruling that the leading Hollywood studios had to give up their lucrative cinema chains. In a resultant economy drive, Warners dropped the options of many of their personnel, including Nyby's. As a freelance, Nyby spent 1950 editing three films - Tarzan and the Slave Girl, The Second Face and Southside 1-1000 - that were a far cry from the sweeping Red River. Such assignments made him more determined than ever to become a director, and he enlisted the help of Hawks, who gave him a film to direct.
Capitalising on the then current flying saucer scare, The Thing From Another World (1951) dealt with a group of military men, reporters and scientists trapped in a North Pole research station by a blood- drinking extra-terrestrial vegetable, which possesses an awesome intelligence. 'An intellectual carrot]' gasps 'Scotty', one of the reporters. 'The mind boggles.' Douglas Spencer, who played 'Scotty', also has the movie's famous final line: 'Watch the skies]'
The Thing was a moneymaker, but although Hawks repeatedly maintained 'I was on the set for all the important scenes, but Chris actually directed the picture', the word around Hollywood was that Nyby was the film's director in name only, and he was offered no important films to direct.
After editing Hawks's next film The Big Sky (1952), Nyby turned to television, directing Ann Sothern's sitcom Private Secretary, which ran for four years. He also directed episodes of The Twilight Zone, I Spy, Lassie, Perry Mason, The Rockford Files, The Six Million Dollar Man, Ironside, and Kojak. He did especially impressive work on such western series as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Wagon Train and Rawhide.
For 24 years television kept Nyby steadily employed. In that time he directed only four feature films: Hell on Devil's Island (1957), Young Fury (1965), Operation CIA (1965) and First to Fight (1967). The fact that these were less than prestigious movies strengthened the theory that The Thing was a Hawks film in everything but director's credit.
Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi write in their book The American Vein:
Those critics who exhume The Thing almost every year as an excuse to lay more palm leaves at the feet of Howard Hawks and dismiss Nyby as an accident of geography are the same faction who regard filmed television as nothing more than a forest of insignificant, unlabelled trees . . . Nyby spent over a decade directing Western series for television. They reveal an area of Nyby craftsmanship unknown outside television.
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