Sunday, June 1, 2014

Movie Review: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas (1957)

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, 1957.

A more animated publicity still from Gunfight. The expression on Kirk's face is great.
1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, was the second movie that Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas made together. The first was 1948’s I Walk Alone, a tough, gritty, film noir. I Walk Alone was an early film for both actors, as it was Douglas’s fourth movie, and Lancaster’s fifth. Neither was a major star. But by the time Gunfight was released in May, 1957, they were both at the peak of their stardom. 

Gunfight told the story of lawman Wyatt Earp and dentist/gunfighter Doc Holliday, two unlikely friends who joined forces at the O.K. Corral to face members of the Clanton gang in a deadly shootout. Of course, the film takes liberties with historical fact, but that’s to be expected. The point of the movie is not historical accuracy, but the relationship that develops between Earp and Holliday. Casting Lancaster and Douglas in the two lead roles ensured that the film would be a hit. Separately, Douglas and Lancaster had become two of the most successful actors to emerge after World War II, and together their scenes had a lot of chemistry. While their on-screen personas generally had some similarities, as they both tended towards extroverted, athletic, and showy roles, in Gunfight they play opposites. Lancaster as Earp is the by-the-book do-gooder, all stern business and seriousness. Lancaster was good at playing these kinds of parts, and he has an inner confidence as Earp that makes you understand why Holliday trusts him. Lancaster uses only about a tenth of his charisma to play Earp, and we don’t see much of his famous smile-which Lancaster called “the Grin.” Lancaster originally didn’t want to play the part of Wyatt Earp. But he still owed producer Hal Wallis two movies, and he did Gunfight on the condition that he could play the lead in Wallis’s production of The Rainmaker. Wallis had signed both Douglas and Lancaster when they were young actors. Douglas as Holliday gets the chance to sink his teeth into a great, flamboyant part-a drunken gambler who is dying of consumption and has an annoying prostitute girlfriend. Douglas is all flash and arrogance as Holliday, which suits the part perfectly. 

The script, written by Leon Uris, just before he hit it big as a novelist with Exodus, deliberately highlights the bromance between Earp and Holliday. Their relationship is much more well-defined than Earp’s romance with female gambler Laura Denbow, played by Rhonda Fleming. Despite playing the third wheel to Douglas and Lancaster, Fleming enjoyed working with Lancaster a great deal. She said, “He was like an old-world gentleman. He had a quality of class about him that I noticed immediately, because you don’t work with many men who have that quality.” (Against Type: The Biography of Burt Lancaster, by Gary Fishgall, p.149) Douglas had a somewhat more difficult relationship with his leading lady, Jo Van Fleet, who played Kate, Doc Holliday’s prostitute girlfriend. According to Douglas, Van Fleet liked to be charged up before a scene, so she would ask Douglas to slap her before filming started. Douglas was incredulous, but warily complied. (The Ragman’s Son, by Kirk Douglas, p.245) 

It was on the set of Gunfight that Douglas and Lancaster became good friends. Lancaster said, “We were really with each other night and day. We would sit up until one or two o’clock in the morning in this little hotel in Tucson, Arizona, talking about our lives, our hopes, and our dreams. And Hal Wallis would always ask, ‘What do you guys find to talk about?’ The theory that we used to have is that we spent so much time together because neither of us wanted to talk to Hal Wallis.” (Fishgall, p.148) Douglas tells much the same story in his autobiography, writing: “After the day’s shooting in Tucson, and dinner at the hotel, we would just sit around and talk. Almost every night, we talked for hours. Sometimes it would one-thirty or two in the morning before we said, ‘Hey, we’d better get to bed. We’ve got to get up and shoot tomorrow.’” (Douglas, p.245-6) 

Both Douglas and Lancaster knew that the relationship between the two of them was the key to the movie.  Douglas wrote: “The success of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral really depended on the love between the two men, which has been the most important theme in many movies-starring Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Robert Redford and Paul Newman.” (Douglas, p.246) Lancaster told Douglas, “We’re in love with each other and we don’t know how to express ourselves that way-we just kind of look at each other and grunt and don’t say very much, but you know we love each other.” (Fishgall, p.148) 

Lancaster described his working relationship with Douglas, saying, “We have a lot of controversy and conflict when we work, because he’s very much like me. He’s conceited-he’s opinionated. He tries to tell me how to act. I try to tell him how to act. And it goes this way. And strangely enough out of this kind of feuding and fighting and fussing has come a great respect and mutual love that we’ve gained.” (Fishgall, p.148) Director John Sturges had his hands full with his two stars, who were not shy about making their own suggestions on the set. Sturges, most famous for The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, seems to have gotten along well with both actors, as he worked with both of them again, later directing Douglas in 1959’s excellent Last Train From Gun Hill, and Lancaster in 1965’s The Hallelujah Trail.

But it wasn’t all fighting on the set, as Kirk Douglas related this story from the set: “There was a very tense dramatic moment in the film: Burt, alone and without a gun, is facing a saloon full of tough cowboys. I come in, pull my gun, snatch a gun from one of the cowboys, toss it to Burt, and the two of us subdue the entire room. We go out on the porch and Burt says to me, ‘Thanks, Doc.’ I was supposed to say, ‘Forget it.’ When I came to ‘Forget it,’ the ridiculousness of the scene-our great bravery, our machismo-made us howl. We did the scene over and over. It just made us laugh harder. Finally, we were laughing so hard, they had to stop shooting for the day and send us home like bad boys.” (Douglas, p.247) 

Seven Days in May is a better overall movie than Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but if you want to see the on-screen chemistry between these two great actors, Gunfight is the film to watch.

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