Obituary: Gordon Douglas
Wednesday 06 October 1993
AS a film director, Gordon Douglas was anything but a specialist. Name a genre and one of his movies is represented: gangster pictures, war pictures, comedies, biopics, musicals, westerns, swashbucklers, creepies, weepies - he made them all.
He started in movies when he was three; his next-door neighbour in New York was Maurice Costello, one of the first stage stars to appear in films. Impressed by little Gordon's personality, Costello used him in several of the movies he made at the local Vitagraph Studios. When he reached school age, his parents made him abandon acting, but after graduation he appeared in Glorifying the American Girl (1929), which Florenz Ziegfeld produced at the Astoria studio in New York.
Douglas came to Hollywood in the early 1930s, and was soon playing small parts at the Hal Roach studio in Laurel and Hardy shorts and features and the Boy Friends and Our Gang series. After working for Roach as casting director, prop man, gag man, screenwriter, assistant editor and assistant director, he finally became a director. One of his first assignments was the Our Gang comedy Bored of Education (1936), which won an Academy Award as the year's Best One-Reel Short Subject. 'I figured if at 27 I could get an Oscar,' Douglas said later, 'I had this town made.' Douglas directed 19 Our Gangs and four features for Roach, including Laurel and Hardy's Saps at Sea (1940) and The Devil with Hitler (1942), a bizarrely funny farce in which the Board of Directors of Hell tell Satan he's going to be replaced by the Fuhrer. The Devil sets out to trick Hitler into doing a good deed and thereby becoming ineligible for the job.
In 1942 Douglas moved to RKO, where he directed nearly a dozen 'B' pictures, including First Yank into Tokyo (1945), the daft story of an American soldier, his features changed by plastic surgery to appear Japanese, who is smuggled into Japan to effect the escape of an American scientist. Originally, the scientist was the inventor of a new gun, but after Hiroshima and Nagasaki Douglas shot new scenes, changing the gun to the atomic bomb. The first movie to deal, however trivially, with this subject, Yank was rushed into cinemas and cleaned up at the box office.
Douglas made more than two dozen films at Warner Bros, the worst of which were the 1955 Liberace vehicle Sincerely Yours (a remake of George Arliss's The Man Who Played God, 1932), and I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), the ads for which showed its star Frank Lovejoy under the caption: 'I had to sell out my own girl . . . so would you] . . . I learned every dirty trick in the book and had to use them - because I was a Communist - but - I Was a Communist for the FBI]' Unbelievably, this orgy of hysterical red-baiting and coarse acting received an Oscar nomination as the year's Best Documentary Feature.
Douglas's Warner Bros high points include Come Fill the Cup (1951), a drama about alcoholism with memorable performances by James Cagney, Gig Young and James Gleason, Them] (1955), a truly frightening sci-fi tale, and Young at Heart (1954), the Doris Day / Frank Sinatra remake of Four Daughters, the 1938 film that made John Garfield a star in the role of a suicidal musician. Although Sinatra now played that role, he refused to die. He also refused to sing one song less than Doris or go before the cameras until the cinematographer had been replaced. Douglas yielded to these ultimatums, and consequently, was used again on Sinatra's Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964), Tony Rome (1967), The Detective (1968) and Lady in Cement (1968).
Gordon Douglas also directed such stars as Bob Hope, Elvis Presley, Alan Ladd and Gregory Peck. His last movies were They Call Me MISTER Tibbs (1970), a sequel to Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967), Slaughter's Big Rip-Off (1973), a sequel to Jack Starrett's Slaughter (1972), and Viva Knievel] (1978). He never won a second Oscar, but his film career did span five busy decades.
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