Sunday 7 February 2021

Lee Marvin talks- “He spoke very good English, except on the set.” – Part three of Tom Ryan’s 1980 3RRR interview with with the actor discussing Edward Dymytryk, the Blacklist, Michael Curtiz, John Wayne and John Ford

On the set of Eight Iron Men
Marvin 4th from Right.
Edward Dmytryk seated right

 You worked with Edward Dmytryk quite a lot?


LM: Yeah, Eddie did Eight Iron Men, with Stanley Kramer. And The Caine MutinyRaintree County


He’s under a lot of pressure in the ’50s in Hollywood because of the inquisition. What was the relationship between him and people on the set as a consequence of this?


I wouldn’t have known anything about that. I was away in the war. I didn’t know anything about Hollywood writers and communism or anything like that. I was one of the few actors in New York during the live TV days that wouldn’t sign that pledge. I said, ‘You wanna find out about me, just look it up.’ And I worked. Every actor was supposed to sign these things for CBS and the others saying that you weren’t and never had been a communist. Because, you know, the purge was on. But I said, ‘Forget that. I ain’t signin’ nothin’, pal.’


Was there a real hostility to that amongst the people working in the business?


In Hollywood, there was, yeah. But I wasn’t aware of it because the purge was over by the time I got there. I was still in New York when all that was going on.


People usually identify The Comancheros as your first really big role, the role that identifies the Lee Marvin to come: the comic heavy opposite John Wayne, something repeated on a number of occasions. Is that the way you see it?


Oh, I thought I’d done it earlier than that, but the thing was I had Michael Curtiz. There was the magic for you. The Hungarian strongman. It was his last film. He was very ill, but still you could see the old spark there. I just love the screamers and he was a screamer. Oh, boy. And so was Hathaway and so was Ford. All my dearest memories about some of the great old-time guys are to do with their screaming ability. 


Marvin, John Wayne, The Comancheros

You know, Raoul Walsh would never look at an actor when he was saying a line. He’d roll a cigarette and he’d turn to the script girl and say, ‘Did he get it all?’ She’d say, ‘Yeah,’ and he’d say, ‘Alright, print it.’ 


Anybody who uses the word ‘hack’ to describe them misses how dynamic they are.


Right. With The Comancheros, they had the kitchen sink in it, boilers, anything. But it did move and it did have a lot of butt-kickin’ and guys gettin’ scalped, and fist fights and ladies of ill-repute bein’ thrown through mirrors, all the old ‘Let’s live, boys.’ A lot of that action.


From what I hear, Curtiz hardly spoke a word of English.


He spoke very good English, except on the set. Smart man.


So how did he relate to the actors then?


Well, he’d call ’em all dumb and scream at ’em. He was just sensational. Go crazy, rip up the set. He didn’t like the way something was done so he’d go off on a tangent with some actor and the actor would be shakin’ for three days, but that’s what he wanted in the scene anyway. He’d do something different and sidetrack him. It’s like a code.


Michael Curtiz

I can’t imagine you and John Wayne shaking on a set with Michael Curtiz shouting at you.


Duke was Duke. And he could take over quite easily because he was a pretty famous guy… So Duke says, ‘Mike, what are we gonna do here?’ Mike would go, ‘Dunno,’ although he did. So Duke goes, ‘For God’s sake!’ So he took over, laid down the tracks and it took ’em over an hour and a half to light the scene the way Duke wanted it. And so they finally said, ‘Ready, Mr. Curtiz,’ and Mike was asleep looking at the script, you know, pretending to read it. He says, ‘Xybnretchipo owshchwetomna, OK, let’s get zis stuff outta ze way and get on vit it.’ And I said to myself, ‘That’s the way to do it. Let him direct when nobody’s rollin’ the camera, right?’ Then we’d go to work. Good stuff.


Have you ever wanted to direct yourself?




You didn’t direct any of the TV work that you did?


Oh, no, no, no.


Why’s that?


I live in front of the camera, not behind it. And I always thought that it was better havin’ a man who knew more about it than you goin’ in. I can’t wear two hats at once. I refer to myself as monosyllabic: one thought at a time. Gimme two thoughts and I start gettin’ confused. That’s why I give so much attention to that one thought. Also, I’m sure I’d lose my perspective if I was looking through the lens. I’ve never looked through a lens in my life.


Somebody who looked through the lens a lot was John Ford… Looking back at your films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, how do you feel about them?


Oh, I love ’em. I don’t know how they all turned out; the memories are all that I have. I don’t save film. I don’t have a library at home of the films that I made. Or any prints, or anything like that. Oh, I have a few stills, but mostly offstage, with the crew, or Jack, or something like that. I’m just human: I like to remember the good things. I’m sure there were some bad days, but I can’t remember them.


Lee Van Cleef, Marvin, Strother Martin
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Was Ford difficult to work with?


I thought he was as smooth as silk. I mean, I understood what he was saying. A lotta guys don’t. And therein lay the problem. If you didn’t get his message, you were in trouble.


His films seem to be inundated by the great strongmen of American films: you obviously, and also John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda.


Ward Bond, Harry Carey…


Was there something about Ford that attracted him to this kind of character?


American, yeah. He came from an Irish family just out of Boston, in Portland, Maine. His father was a publican. His brother went out first… he was the star, Frank Ford. Jack changed his name when he got to Hollywood. He started out as Sean Aloysius Feeney. 


John Ford

You can’t go far wrong with the name Ford in America.


Yeah, it’s kind of a classic. And, yeah, I’m wandering… Sorry.


So you found him an easy man to work with?


I understood him perfectly… Not perfectly, but as much as anybody did. But I never had to do the leads, like the Henry Fonda role in The Grapes of Wrath.


But you do in Donovan’s Reef. I mean, you share the lead with John Wayne.


Yeah, but I’m playing Gil Hooley. What does that tell ya?


I have an image of you in my head from it. A cut to a close-up of you sitting there with a toy train in front of you…


Yeah, yeah. That was an ad-libbed scene that he put in there. That was the honeymoon. Wasn’t that great? You know, I get married to…. um, um… Dorothy Lamour. And he didn’t let her finish the song in the film. He kept cutting to the Chinese applauding. It was brutal stuff. So we get married and the next thing I know I got a choo-choo train, and that’s it. That tells you the sex life of this marriage. Good backhand delivery stuff. I love it, I love it.


Marvin, John Wayne
Donovan's Reef

There’s something about his work where one always gets the sense that he’s undercutting the stature of his characters. Like Dorothy Lamour in that scene, but also you, the tough guy who’s reduced to playing with a toy train. Where’s the virility in that?


Sergeant Ryker is made in the same year, a weird film because it started as episodes of a TV series….


Did it?


Called Crisis.


Really? I didn’t know that.


That’s disappointing. I was hoping to get the inside story on that. Buzz Kulik made it, didn’t he?


Yeah. I just thought it was an anthology.

Sergeant Ryker
Editor’s note: This is the third instalment of a four part series devoted to a lengthy interview by Melbourne critic and scholar Tom Ryan with Lee Marvin. The interview was conducted on Melbourne Radio3RRR in 1980.  Part One can be accessed if you click here – Part two if you click here 

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