Kirk Douglas: Producer

Spartacus_-_1960_-_posterThis is the story of Kirk Douglas, filmmaker. Yes, he was a big movie star, and he used the stature to produce, star and occasionally direct his own films.

Douglas saw his frequent co-star, Burt Lancaster, develop and produce his own films. Producing and owning the copyright on his films was smart, and the tax liability was about half.

In the 1950’s, it becoming more common for major stars to form their own companies like Lancaster had. Directors and producers had been doing it for years. William Powell, John Wayne, Cary Grant and James Stewart used their star power to own pieces of their films.

They could own a piece of the production by simply having the bargaining power to demand it.  The next step would be to purchase the source material, line up the financing, hire the writer to develop the script and so on. Producing your own films was work, headaches and financial risk. That’s why many settled for just owning a share and leaving the work to others.

In 1955, Douglas formed Bryna Productions, named after his mother. His first production was The Indian Fighter, released the same year he started his production company.

Douglas operated his production company until 1986.  Most were credited to Bryna, some to a subsidiary,  Joel Productions, and some to Brynaprod S.A. or the Bryna Company.  On some films, Douglas co-produced with other principals like Lancaster, Tony Curtis and John Frankenheimer, or with another film company.

Here are the films that Douglas or his company participated in.

The Indian Fighter (1955) – Douglas plays a former Indian fighter who has left that part of his life behind. He’s leading a wagon train through Indian territory and trying to keep a handle on rising tensions between the Native Americans and white traders.

Spring Reunion (1957) – Starring Betty Hutton and Dana Andrews about a fifteen year class reunion, catching up on the lives of grads who went different directions in life.

Lizzie (1957)  Starring Eleanor Parker and Richard Boone, this story is about a woman who discovers she has three personalities.

The Careless Years (1957) – The first feature directed by Arthur Hiller, stars Dean Stockwell and Natalie Trundy as students from opposite sides of the tracks who quit school and flee to Mexico when their parent disapprove.

Paths of Glory (1957) – A thinking man’s war film.  Directed by Stanley Kubrick, this World War I film is considered a classic, and Douglas gives a strong performance.

Ride Out for Revenge (1957)  – Rory Calhoun, Gloria Grahame and Lloyd Bridges star in this Western about a Native American chief who asks the town for supplies to help his people. He is accidentally killed and naturally, that creates great conflict.  Rory Calhoun is the town Marshall trying to broker peace but he has a romance going with the chief’s daughter.

The Vikings (1958) Brynaprod S.A. – One of the biggest films of the year, big screen and mighty action.  Great vistas, Viking ships and rich Technicolor, served as the backdrop to the drama.  Douglas, Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine star.

Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) Douglas stars as a U.S. Marshall, on the the trail of his wife’s killer, which leads him to an old friend, who’s son is the killer. Directed by John Sturges.

The Devil’s Disciple (1959) Brynaprod S.A. – A Revolutionary War action film.  Stars Douglas and Burt Lancaster, and directed by Guy Hamilton.  A lot of creative firepower but not a great or memorable film.

Strangers When We Meet (1960) – Douglas stars with Kim Novak about two friends who have an affair, but realize they shouldn’t.  A sudsy melodrama.

Spartacus (1960) – Starring Douglas, Tony Curtis, Laurence Olivier and many fine actors.  Directed by Stanley Kubrick and written by Dalton Trumbo.  This film helped to finally break the Blacklist in Hollywood.  A massive undertaking for Douglas as producer.

The Last Sunset (1961) Brynaprod S.A. – Starring Douglas and Rock Hudson, a story of a sheriff and an outlaw joining forces on a cattle drive, at least until the cattle are delivered.  Written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Robert Aldrich.

Lonely Are the Brave (1962) Joel Productions – Douglas stars a cowboy who resists joining modern society, and ends up running from the law, after trying to help a friend.  There are comparisons to Stallone’s First Blood.  A very small film that has survived as a cult film.

The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) Joel Productions – An oddball film but is a light mystery-thriller.  Starring Douglas, George C. Scott and many A List actors in cameo appearances.  Directed by John Huston.  Great fun.

Seven Days in May (1964) Joel Productions – A taunt thriller about a planned coup to remove the President.  Directed by John Frankenheimer, this stars Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Frederic March.  Not a huge box office hit, but a riveting film.

Cast a Giant Shadow (1966) –  Large budget production of the story of Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus, who commanded units of the fledgling Israel Defense Forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.  Starred Douglas, John Wayne, Yul Brynner and many others.  A co-production of Douglas and John Wayne.  They tackled a big subject but the result was a box office dud.

Seconds (1966) Joel Productions – This film did not star Douglas, but Rock Hudson stepped in front of Frankenheimer’s direction.  This is a very good sci-fi film, very blunt and dark.  It did not business at the the box office but has since developed a cult following.

Grand Prix (1966) Joel Productions – There were competing films about auto racing being made.  Directed by Frankenheimer and starring James Garner and Eva Marie Saint, the film follows several drivers and their love lives across a few races.  While the plot is average, the racing action as presented by Frankenheimer is very thrilling.

The Brotherhood (1968) The Brotherhood Company – Douglas stars as the older brother in a mafia crime family.  When his younger brother arrives home, family tensions escalate.

Summertree (1971) – A small drama starring Michael Douglas and directed by Anthony Newley.  Douglas is a young man who drops out of college to find himself. He struggles with a relationship, not getting into a music program and ultimately going to Vietnam.

A Gunfight (1971) Joel Productions – A fine little film starring Douglas and Johnny Cash.  I always liked this film.  Small production but delivers an enjoyable experience.

Catch Me a Spy (1971) The Bryna Company – A very curious film of a spy, played by Douglas, who uses tourists to smuggle things out of Bucharest.  A light comedy that was written and directed by  Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

The Light at the Edge of the World (1971) – Douglas plays an isolationist who tends a lighthouse in the South Atlantic.  That isolation is interrupted by pirates who land on the island and take over, murdering everyone.  Douglas turns into a guerrilla to confront the pirates.

Scalawag (1973) Douglas directed this ambitious but messy film.  This was Douglas writing, directing, producing and starring.  A misfire.

Posse (1975) Douglas directed this story of a Marshall on the trail of bank robber, who ultimately kidnaps the Marshall and demands the posse rob a bank to pay the ransom.

The Final Countdown (1980) – A sci-fi film about time-travel. If you don’t expect much, this film has a few moments, but not very many of them.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) – Starring Jason Robards, from a screenplay by Ray Bradbury, and produced by the Walt Disney Company.  Douglas owned the rights but let Disney make the film.  The sum was less than the parts, a box office dud.

Amos (1985 TV Movie) – Douglas stars as a former baseball coach now in a nursing home. Elizabeth Montgomery plays the head nurse who Douglas suspects is murdering patients.

Tough Guys (1986) – The final pairing of Douglas and Lancaster.  The film has a charm but it works too hard for only a little payback.  Lancaster looks tired so Douglas compensates.

 

In his first decade of producing, Douglas had a string of mostly well-received and financially successful films.

Paths of Glory, Seven Days in May and Lonely Are the Brave are such films.

Spartacus was the high-water mark of his films, an epic production and box office success. Douglas, like Lancaster, was attracted to stories of men fighting upstream doing unpopular work, not for nobility but knowing it was right, even at great cost.

Late in his producing career, Douglas tried some small projects, obviously not to hit the homer, but to bring interesting stories to the screen.  Interesting that he waited until the 1970’s to direct his first films: Scalawag and Posse.  Neither were successful.

Douglas upped the game with several of his final films, The Final Countdown, Something Wicked This Way Comes (co-produced by Disney) and Tough Guys (co-starring for the last time with Lancaster).

Looking at Douglas’ list of productions, he didn’t do comedies.  A few of the films had a degree of lightness, but these were action films or dramas.  His main characters were dropped into some major conflicts early in the films, and there weren’t always happy resolutions.  He game himself a few heroic roles but these heroes usually paid a high price.  Douglas chose scripts similar to his colleague Lancaster.  By that I mean usually very flawed characters in over their heads.  Not often the recipe for a big hit, but done right, a very entertaining and praised film.

In 1962, Douglas bought the rights to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and had it converted to a play which ran on Broadway during 1963.  He held onto the rights for the next decade but could not find the financing to make it into a film.  His son Michael, was able to put together the financing through Fantasy Films and the film was released in 1975 starring Jack Nicholson.  Douglas had always hoped to play the lead character McMurphy but was 60 years old when it was filmed. At least he was able to marvel at the film’s cache of awards and grand box office success.

 


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